The mystery of the Marfa Lights is surrounded by folklore. The earliest known account of the Marfa Lights dates back to a night in March of 1883 when a sixteen year old cowboy named Robert Reed Ellison (1867 – 1946) witnessed some lights across the prairie that seemed to shimmer in the distance. The stories about Ellison usually include that he and another person were driving a herd of cattle over Paisano Pass (about halfway between the current towns of Marfa and Alpine) to his father’s place when the lights near the base of the Chinati Mountains caught their eyes. The next morning, they investigated but found no remnants of fires, nor any other things that would explain what they had seen.
The lights were not fixed, they seemed to float up and down and waver back and forth. No one can say why there had been no previous mention of the phenomenon, but in the many years since, the lights have been witnessed periodically by many people, still behaving similarly to the way Ellison described them. Their colors may be red, yellow, white, pink or blue and there is no question that they exist.
The phenomenon is not unique to Texas. Lights similar to the Marfa Lights appear at various places all over the world. The Texas lights can be observed an average of about once a month in an area known as Mitchell Flats, east of Marfa on Highway 90.
The terrain in the area is quite varied and includes mountains, flats, mesas, geological faults, rifts and escarpments. Over the years, there have also been a number of creeks and springs. There were nearby trails in use long before Anglo settlement began to take hold. Roughly between the mid 1850s to around 1870, old Fort Davis was built and developed about twenty-five miles to the north of the current town of Marfa. The surrounding area is also now crisscrossed by numerous ranch roads, railroad tracks and highways.
There are various legends and theories including the presence (or former presence) of aliens, unidentified flying objects, escaped electrical charges from beneath the surface of the earth, phosphorescent minerals, radioactive rabbit fur, a “superior mirage,” the headlights of automobiles from another highway, a cold air mirage of actual lights from other real sources, remnants of campfires of ancient inhabitants and numerous other theories. Sometimes unexplained phenomena such as this may alarm people and cause anxiety. Some people find the Marfa Lights to be otherworldly and sinister, while others find them to be somewhat whimsical and playful.
Some tales and accounts sound more like stories that might be told late at night while sitting around a fire. One old and romantic legend was related by journalist Ed Syers in his column “Off Beaten Trails” that was published in the May 7, 1967 issue of the Lubbock Avalanche Journal. In the late 1800s, a Mexican maiden named Delores was betrothed to a sheepherder from the area around Fort Davis. The land was sparsely populated and was still dangerous at the time due to the tribes which then took shelter in the area canyons. The two lovers made arrangements to signal each other with campfires each night until they could be married. All went as planned until one night when no fire came from the camp of the prospective groom who was later found scalped and murdered by unnamed assailants. Upon learning his fate, Delores is said to have aged instantly and immediately lost her sanity. Thereafter she would light her signal fire each night until one night when she was found dead by her signal fire.
In that same column by Syers is mentioned a comment from a reader who alluded to another Marfa Light legend, that of an Apache leader named Alsate. In this tale, the mummified body or the ghost of Alsate emerges from a mountain burial cave to light beacons to bring his people home to the area. Alsate (or Arzate) was said to be the son of a Mexican captive and a Mescalero Apache woman. Alsate became a notable Apache warrior in the Big Bend area. In some accounts, he dies in his beloved mountains and his ghost is seen in the Big Bend. Alsate was captured at one time by Mexican authorities and sent prison in Mexico City. In another account of his demise, Alsate escaped in late 1879 and resumed his raids until he was captured a final time and executed.
The United States Army at least unofficially tried to investigate the lights during World War II and there have been attempts at scientific studies, but no universally accepted theories have come from them. The city of Marfa has capitalized on the lights by hosting a Marfa Lights Festival for over thirty years now. This year’s festival will be held in the fall and is expected to include a parade, performances by musical groups, food vendors, all sponsored by local businesses. Over twenty years ago, Texas Department of Transportation constructed a highway pull out stop about nine miles to the east of Marfa for curious visitors to try to observe the phenomena. Land for the Marfa Lights Viewing Center was donated by a local rancher Clayton Williams and his wife Modesta. The grandfather of the rancher was named Oscar Waldo Williams (1853 – 1946), who wrote about the lights in his memoirs.
The late Lonn Taylor wrote about the lights in his entertaining book, “Marfa For The Perplexed.” In it he tells of overhearing a conversation about them in a local hotel. A tourist asks one of the staff about where they might observe the lights and a cowboy tells them, “We don’t turn them on until after dark.”
© 2023, all rights reserved.