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Peyote, Lophophora williamsii, growing in Starr County, Texas.

Peyote, Lophophora williamsii, growing in Starr County, Texas.

By Keva Hoffmann Boardman –

“Peyote!” in muffled but gleeful voice shouted the Comanche medicine man. Two other Indians sprang from the sedan which had been parked on the shoulder of the road. Carefully the two crawled through the barbed-wire fence and hurried to where their fellow aborigine was standing. Constable Bill Jones, who happened to be behind a cluster of huisache bushes, noticed that the three men quickly filled a sack with a certain specie of cactus.”

So begins a story written by former county clerk and city historian Oscar Haas for the San Antonio Express-News in 1965. There is no reference to time and place but I didn’t care; I was hooked and read through to the end.

Constable Jones watched as the medicine men gathered sticks made a small fire of leaves and sticks near the ground where the peyote cactus had been harvested. Each man placed a hand-woven rug on the ground, threw some peyote on the fire and inhaled the smoke. After a while, they rose, turned around three times and hurried off to their car.

The constable went over to the fire and stirred it. He looked up and saw an old Indian chief motioning to him to follow, and so he did, all the way to a cave by a creek. Constable Jones had known of the cave since childhood and let the old chief lead him down a side passage to a deep chasm. On the opposite side of the chasm was a pile of jewels in heavy gold mountings. Guessing that the treasure was from an old Mexican temple and had been hidden during a war, he looked over at the old chief in time to see the chasm’s edge give way and the old man plummet into its depths.

The following day, Constable Jones returned to the cave with a load of wood planks, long enough to bridge the chasm. Where was that side passage? Day after day he looked for it. Friends and neighbors told him that he had had a peyote- induced vision, but the constable refused to believe that what he had seen had not been real. Poor Constable Jones continued to visit the cave, searching, yearning for the treasure.

The medicine men in the story had come from the reservation in Oklahoma to acquire peyote. Native Americans still travel to buy peyote (Lophophora williamsii) from the “peyote gardens” on the Mustang Plains in south Texas — Starr, Jim Hogg, Webb and Zapata counties. The cactus is utilized by over a quarter of a million Native Americans as ceremonial sacrament in the Native American Church.

Peyote has been used by native tribes in its growing areas in Central America for thousands of years. Current thinking is that the Carrizo Indians of South Texas brought the peyote ceremony to the US and taught it to the Lipan Apaches who in turn shared it with Plains tribes like the Comanche in the 19th century. The increased use of the cactus by more tribes led to the birth of the peyoteros around 1900. These men and women find colonies of the cactus in the brush country and carefully cut the “buttons” or tops off — – preserving the underground root so that it can grow again. The buttons are then carefully dried before they are sold. Before 1900, this cottage industry went on relatively unnoticed as the peyoteros quietly supplied the Native Americans with the cactus.

In 1909, William H. Johnson was appointed chief special officer of the United States Indian Affairs Bureau, His job was to reduce the alcohol problem on the reservations. While investigating in Laredo, Johnson learned of the peyote trade that was centered in the small town of Los Ojuelos (Mirando City). He was not happy, and confiscated 200,000 peyote buttons and burned them. (I can only imagine how that affected the local area…). He continued his crusade eventually making the cultivation, harvesting and shipping of peyote illegal and subject to stiff fines. Reports from the reservations on the disastrous effects of the loss of peyote, both physically and spiritually, on the people led the government to scale back their crack down and allow shipments by special permit to only “wet” counties. The Native American Church was formalized, and recognized in part, so peyote could continue to be used legally as sacrament in certain ceremonies.

During Prohibition, the peyote was looked into as a possible “whiskiless drunk” alternative according to several newspaper accounts. Later in the 60s and 70s, hippies from all over traipsed into the South Texas peyote gardens to try out the cactus. Through the years, Native Americans from many tribes have adopted the traditions of the Native American Church and have continued to go to South Texas for peyote.

Texas is the only state where selling peyote is legal — it is also the only state where the cactus grows. Peyoteros must register with the Drug Enforcement Administration in order to legally sell peyote to members of the Native American Church. They also have to register with the Texas Department of Public Safety. The handful of registered peyoteros keep records on how much is harvested from the wild, who purchases the peyote and how much is sold. They have to renew their license annually.

The peyoteros see themselves a little like pharmacists dispensing a medicinal product to the right person. To buy peyote, church members must prove their ancestry; they have to have their Certificate of Indian Blood, because that shows who they are, who their parents are and their blood quarter. It is necessary to be at least one-fourth American Indian to purchase or possess peyote in the state of Texas.

It is not legal to grow peyote; it must be harvested from naturally occurring patches on private land that is often leased by the peyoteros. Ecologists have noted a drastic decline in the cactus and in new growth due to the use of “root plowing” by ranchers who need grassland for cattle and for the creation of lucrative hunting leases which limit the time peyoteros can search. The increase in the Native American tribes who utilize peyote has upped the demand which makes harvesting smaller buttons necessary and doesn’t allow the cactus to recover. Hopefully, the end result will not be the eradication of the cactus and a change in the habitats of South Texas.

There you have it — one more strange collection of facts to impress your friends with.

Sources: Cactus and Succulent Journal, Vol. 6 (1995); www.texasstandard.org ; www.texasobserver.org ; Haas collection, Sophienburg Museum & Archives; San Antonio Express and The Houston Post, April 28, 1909, May 7 and 9, 1909, May 14, 1913.