James Larkin White

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James Larkin White
James Larkin White.jpg
Jim White
Born(1882-07-11)July 11, 1882
DiedApril 26, 1946(1946-04-26) (aged 63)
Occupation Cave promoter/explorer

James Larkin White (July 11, 1882 April 26, 1946), better known as Jim White, was a cowboy, guano miner, cave explorer, and park ranger for the National Park Service. He is best remembered as the discoverer, early promoter and explorer of what is known today as Carlsbad Caverns in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico.

Cowboy animal herder

A cowboy is an animal herder who tends cattle on ranches in North America, traditionally on horseback, and often performs a multitude of other ranch-related tasks. The historic American cowboy of the late 19th century arose from the vaquero traditions of northern Mexico and became a figure of special significance and legend. A subtype, called a wrangler, specifically tends the horses used to work cattle. In addition to ranch work, some cowboys work for or participate in rodeos. Cowgirls, first defined as such in the late 19th century, had a less-well documented historical role, but in the modern world work at identical tasks and have obtained considerable respect for their achievements. Cattle handlers in many other parts of the world, particularly South America and Australia, perform work similar to the cowboy.

Guano excrement of seabirds and bats

Guano is the accumulated excrement of seabirds and bats. As a manure, guano is a highly effective fertilizer due to its exceptionally high content of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium: nutrients essential for plant growth. Guano was also, to a lesser extent, sought for the production of gunpowder and other explosive materials. The 19th-century guano trade played a pivotal role in the development of modern input-intensive farming, but its demand began to decline after the discovery of the Haber-Bosch process of nitrogen fixing led to the production of synthetic fertilizers. The demand for guano spurred the human colonization of remote bird islands in many parts of the world. During the 20th century, guano-producing birds became an important target of conservation programs and influenced the development of environmental consciousness. Today, guano is increasingly sought after by organic farmers.

Cave Natural underground space large enough for a human to enter

A cave or cavern is a natural void in the ground, specifically a space large enough for a human to enter. Caves often form by the weathering of rock and often extend deep underground. The word cave can also refer to much smaller openings such as sea caves, rock shelters, and grottos, though strictly speaking a cave is exogene, meaning it is deeper than its opening is wide, and a rock shelter is endogene.



I want to be a cowboy.

Jim White, One Man's Dream

Jim White was born on July 11, 1882, on a ranch in Mason County, Texas. [1] He started working in the cattle business at a very early age and preferred it to the school his father forced him to attend. [2] He preferred "bustin' broncos to books and blackboards". [1] One day, when Jim had had enough of school, he begged his father to let him do something else. "I want to be a cowboy", he said. [2] So, when he was 10 years old, his father agreed to take him to the southeastern corner of the New Mexico Territory. [2] He left him at the ranch of John and Dan Lucas (XXX Ranch [1] ). [2] His father bought land at Lonetree, just west of the developing town of Eddy (Carlsbad today), and moved the rest of the family there three years later. [2] Jim occasionally stayed at his family's small horse farm, but mostly lived and worked at the Lucas ranch. [2]

Mason County, Texas County in the United States

Mason County is a county located on the Edwards Plateau in the U.S. state of Texas. At the 2010 census, its population was 4,012. Its county seat is Mason. The county is named for Fort Mason, which was located in the county.

New Mexico Territory territory of the United States of America, 1850-1912

The Territory of New Mexico was an organized incorporated territory of the United States that existed from September 9, 1850, until January 6, 1912, when the remaining extent of the territory was admitted to the Union as the State of New Mexico, making it the longest-lived organized incorporated territory of the United States, lasting approximately 62 years.


... any hole in the ground which could house such a gigantic army of bats must be a whale of a big cave.

Jim White, Jim White's Own Story

An inscription reading "J White 1898" [3] was discovered deep within Carlsbad Caverns in the 1980s. [3] It provides witness to the presence of a 15- or 16-year-old Jim White.

While riding his horse through the Chihuahuan Desert looking for stray cattle [2] with a fence mending crew [4] for the Lucas brothers, Jim saw a plume of bats rising from the desert hills. [2] It appeared to be a volcano, or a whirlwind but did not behave quite like either. [5] He tied his horse to a nearby tree and worked his way through the brush to the edge of a large opening in the ground. [2] Jim described the moment by saying, "I found myself gazing into the biggest and blackest hole I had ever seen, out of which the bats seemed literally to boil". [5]

Chihuahuan Desert desert

The Chihuahuan Desert is a desert and ecoregion designation covering parts of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. It occupies much of West Texas, parts of the middle and lower Rio Grande Valley and the lower Pecos Valley in New Mexico, and a portion of southeastern Arizona, as well as the central and northern portions of the Mexican Plateau. It is bordered on the west by the extensive Sierra Madre Occidental range, along with northwestern lowlands of the Sierra Madre Oriental range. On the Mexican side, it covers a large portion of the state of Chihuahua, along with portions of Coahuila, north-eastern Durango, the extreme northern part of Zacatecas, and small western portions of Nuevo León. With an area of about 362,000 km2 (139,769 sq mi), it is the third largest desert of the Western Hemisphere and the second largest in North America, after the Great Basin Desert.

Bat Order of flying mammals

Bats are mammals of the order Chiroptera; with their forelimbs adapted as wings, they are the only mammals naturally capable of true and sustained flight. Bats are more manoeuvrable than birds, flying with their very long spread-out digits covered with a thin membrane or patagium. The smallest bat, and arguably the smallest extant mammal, is Kitti's hog-nosed bat, which is 29–34 mm (1.14–1.34 in) in length, 15 cm (5.91 in) across the wings and 2–2.6 g (0.07–0.09 oz) in mass. The largest bats are the flying foxes and the giant golden-crowned flying fox, Acerodon jubatus, which can weigh 1.6 kg (4 lb) and have a wingspan of 1.7 m.

Volcano A rupture in the crust of a planetary-mass object that allows hot lava, volcanic ash, and gases to escape from a magma chamber below the surface

A volcano is a rupture in the crust of a planetary-mass object, such as Earth, that allows hot lava, volcanic ash, and gases to escape from a magma chamber below the surface.

First exploration

Standing at the entrance of the tunnel I could see ahead of me a darkness so absolutely black it seemed a solid.

Jim White, Jim White's Own Story

A few days later, [note 1] he returned to the cave with some rope, fence wire and a hatchet. [5] He cut wood from some nearby shrubs and assembled a makeshift ladder. [5] He lowered the ladder into the opening and using a homemade kerosene lantern, descended approximately 50 feet (15 m) to the first serviceable ledge. [4] He climbed down an additional 20 feet (6.1 m) to a floor. [5] Using the "sickly glow" [5] of his lantern, he made his way into the cave. He felt as if he "... was wandering into the very core of the Guadalupe Mountains." [5]

Hatchet single-handed striking tool with a sharp blade on one side used to cut and split wood, and a hammer head on the other side

A hatchet is a single-handed striking tool with a sharp blade on one side used to cut and split wood, and a hammer head on the other side. Hatchets may also be used for hewing when making flattened surfaces on logs; when the hatchet head is optimized for this purpose it is called a broadaxe.

Ladder A vertical or steeply inclined set of rungs or steps

A ladder is a vertical or inclined set of rungs or steps. There are two types: rigid ladders that are self-supporting or that may be leaned against a vertical surface such as a wall, and rollable ladders, such as those made of rope or aluminium, that may be hung from the top. The vertical members of a rigid ladder are called stringers or rails (US) or stiles (UK). Rigid ladders are usually portable, but some types are permanently fixed to a structure, building, or equipment. They are commonly made of metal, wood, or fiberglass, but they have been known to be made of tough plastic.

Kerosene, also known as paraffin, lamp oil, and coal oil, is a combustible hydrocarbon liquid which is derived from petroleum. It is widely used as a fuel in industry as well as households. Its name derives from Greek: κηρός (keros) meaning wax, and was registered as a trademark by Canadian geologist and inventor Abraham Gesner in 1854 before evolving into a genericized trademark. It is sometimes spelled kerosine in scientific and industrial usage. The term kerosene is common in much of Argentina, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, and the United States, while the term paraffin is used in Chile, eastern Africa, South Africa, Norway, and in the United Kingdom. The term lamp oil, or the equivalent in the local languages, is common in the majority of Asia. Liquid paraffin is a more viscous and highly refined product which is used as a laxative. Paraffin wax is a waxy solid extracted from petroleum.

After reaching a chamber, he noted two tunnels leading off in opposite directions, one downward and to the right and one, more level, to the left. [5] He decided to go left first and discovered the Bat Cave. [5] He explored it for a while then proceeded down the other tunnel. [5]

I followed on until I found myself in a wilderness of mighty stalagmites. It was the first cave I was ever in, and the first stalagmites I had ever seen, but instinctively I knew, for some intuitive reason, that there was no other scene in the world which could be justly compared with my surroundings. [5]

By the time he reached the first formations, he had "... crept cat-like across a dozen dangerous ledges and past many tremendous openings ...". [5] He saw more stalagmites, "... each seemingly larger and more beautifully formed than the ones I'd passed". [5] He encountered chandeliers, stalactites, soda straws, flowstone, pools of water, rimstone dams and other formations. [5] He dropped rocks into pits to determine their depth. [5] He rolled one boulder into a pit and it fell for a couple of seconds and then "... kept rolling and rolling until its sound became an echo". [5]

Then the light from his homemade kerosene lantern went out. [5] The darkness seemed to smother him. [5] Jim described the incident by saying, "It seemed as though a million tons of black wool descended upon me." [5]

After refilling his lantern from a spare canteen of oil, he made his way back to the surface. [5]

The kid

... it would be impossible to even exaggerate our experiences during those three days.

Jim White, Jim White's Own Story

Jim returned to the cave with a 15-year-old Mexican boy. [4] His real name is unknown—he was known only as Muchacho, The Kid, or Pothead. [4]

Five days after Jim's first trip into the cave, he and Pothead made an exploration. [5] Carrying food, water, fuel and homemade torches, they began an exploration which lasted three days. [4] They took a large ball of string to use to ensure their exit. [6]

They explored approximately the same areas of the cave that the modern tourist trails cover [5] including the Big Room, and the King's Palace and Queen's Chamber. [6]

Jim White's Own Story

The original record of the early events surrounding Jim White and Carlsbad Caverns comes from a booklet, self-published in 1932, titled Jim White's Own Story. The booklet was ghost written by Frank Ernest Nicholson in exchange for payment of a boarding bill. [4] Nicholson was a journalist and led the ill-fated Nicholson Expedition to Carlsbad Caverns in 1929 sponsored by The New York Times. [4]

Jim White had a permit with the National Park Service to sell the booklet from the Underground Lunchroom. [6] Dennis Chavez, a U.S. Senator helped obtain the permit by putting pressure on the park. [6] At first, the agreement was oral but later, it became more formal. [6] Sales of the booklet ceased two months after Jim White's death. [6]

The guano bucket

Jim White standing next to a guano bucket atop the guano shaft at Carlsbad Caverns. The bucket was used to carry the first tourists into the caverns. He is holding one of his homemade kerosene lanterns. Jim White Guano Bucket.jpg
Jim White standing next to a guano bucket atop the guano shaft at Carlsbad Caverns. The bucket was used to carry the first tourists into the caverns. He is holding one of his homemade kerosene lanterns.

One of the early guano companies dug a shaft making a more direct route to the guano deposits in the Bat Cave. [2] It was serviced by a large iron bucket operated by a gasoline winch. [2] This system was used to haul bags of guano out of the cave for use as fertilizer in places like the California fruit orchards. [2] The guano was sold for 90 dollars a ton (2,000 pounds (910 kg)). [2] Jim White used the guano bucket to transport hundreds of tourists into and out of the cave. [2]

The original guano bucket was used as the stand in the Underground Lunchroom from which Jim White sold his booklets. [6] Jim White Jr. later gave it to a man named Charlie Dugger and it was stored in his garage. [6]


Jim White married Fannie Hill on January 1, 1912. [2] She was eighteen and a longtime friend from the town of Lonetree. [4] Their first house was provided by the guano company. [2] It was a "... two room shack, set practically on top of the small bat cave, which was several hundred yards from the main cavern entrance." [2] Jim and Fannie had a son named James Larkin White, Jr. on March 23, 1919. [2] Jim moved his family into a four-room house provided by the guano company when Jim Jr. was about two years old. [2] It was a few hundred feet farther from the cave entrance. [2] They did not have running water at the house; instead, Jim would take a burro to Oak Springs and let it loose to find its way home with two cans of water on its back. [6] Fannie would empty the water into a barrel when the burro returned. [6] They did not get electricity until 1929 or 1930 and it was only on during the day. [6]


Headstone of Jim and Fannie White from Carlsbad Municipal Cemetery, Carlsbad, New Mexico, October 12, 2008. Jim and Fannie White Headstone.jpg
Headstone of Jim and Fannie White from Carlsbad Municipal Cemetery, Carlsbad, New Mexico, October 12, 2008.

He discovered the Caverns in the good old American way of adventuring.

Senator Dennis Chavez of New Mexico, One Man's Dream

Jim White died on April 26, 1946 in a hospital in Carlsbad, New Mexico at the age of 63. [7] He suffered from Bright's disease [2] and died of coronary thrombosis. [7] He told a reporter for the Carlsbad Current-Argus, two days before his death, that he felt well but was not ready to ride a horse to California, again. [7] He is buried alongside his wife, Fannie, at Carlsbad Municipal Cemetery in Carlsbad. The epitaph on his tombstone reads "The Discoverer of Carlsbad Caverns". [7]

After his death, a movement was started to have a statue of Jim White erected at the cavern entrance. [4] Instead, a bronze plaque was placed in the lobby at the park visitor center which reads:

Beginning in 1901, Jim White made the first known
extensive explorations of the Carlsbad Caverns.
He was chiefly responsible for bringing the attention
of the public, scientific groups and the federal
government to the importance and significance
of the caverns. [4]

In 2011, a large, bronze statue of Jim White descending a wire ladder was unveiled at the National Cave and Karst Research Institute (NCKRI) building in Carlsbad, New Mexico.



  1. Cave History Update; April 27, 2005 paraphrases Jim White Jr. in saying that his father "... probably took about a month getting ready to go into the cave the first time".
  2. Cavern's Chronology says that Jim White moved with his family to the New Mexico Territory in 1892. One Man's Dream says that his father took him to the territory and left him in 1892 and the family came to join him three years later.
  3. Jim White's Own Story and One Man's Dream say the date of first entry into the cave was 1901; but, Jim admits that he is not certain. Caverns Chronology puts the date at 1898 based on an inscription found in the cave in the 1980s which reads "1898 J. White".

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  1. 1 2 3 4 Ruth Reyes; Kyndle Tooke; Audra Graziano; Casandra Jimenez. "Jim White Explored Carlsbad Caverns for Years". Borderlands. El Paso Community College . Retrieved October 11, 2010.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 Caiar, Ruth; Jim White Jr. (1957). One Man's Dream, the story of Jim White Discoverer and Explorer of the Carlsbad Caverns. Pageant Press, Inc.
  3. 1 2 Neal R. Bullington. "Cave History Update; CHU #9February 25, 2004" (PDF). Cave History Update. National Park Service . Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Nymeyer, Robert; Halliday, William R. (1991). Houk, Rose, ed. Carlsbad Cavern The Early Years: A Photographic History of the Cave and Its People. Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains Association. ISBN   0-0916907-0-6.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 White, Jim (1932). Frank Ernest Nicholson, ed. Jim White's Own Story, the Discovery and History of Carlsbad Caverns. Jim White and Charley Lee White.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Bob Hoff. "Cave History Update; April 27, 2005" (PDF). Cave History Update. National Park Service . Retrieved February 25, 2009.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 Melzer, Richard, Ph.D. (2007). "No. 129". Buried Treasures: Famous and Unusual Gravesites in New Mexico History. Sunstone Press. p. 145. ISBN   0-86534-531-7.
  8. 1 2 3 4 "Carlsbad New Mexico, History" . Retrieved July 24, 2008.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 "Carlsbad Caverns, Caverns' Chronology" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved July 23, 2008.

Further reading