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WEBB COUNTY

WEBB COUNTY. Webb County (Q-14) is in South Texas along the Mexican border. Laredo, the county's largest town and seat of government, is in the southwestern part of the county at the intersection of U.S. Highway 59 and Interstate Highway 35. The center of the county is at 27°45' north latitude and 99°20' west longitude. Webb County includes 3,363 square miles of generally flat to rolling terrain covered with grasses, mesquiteqv, thorny shrubs, and cacti. Elevation ranges from 400 to 700 feet, and soils are primarily clayey and loamy. The northern and eastern sections are drained by a number of creeks that flow north and eventually enter the Nueces River; the southern and western parts of the county are drained by the Rio Grande. Mineral resources include caliche, clay, uranium, oil, natural gas, and zeolite. Temperatures range from an average high of 100° F in July to an average low of 43° in January. Rainfall averages twenty inches per year, and the growing season lasts for 314 days.

Artifacts dating from the Paleo-Indian period demonstrate that humans have lived in the area around Webb County for perhaps 11,000 years. Evidence suggests that various Indian groups, including the Carrizo, Pacuache, Pastaloca, and Pitalac peoples, lived in the region during the Late Prehistoric period. By the early 1800s, however, these Coahuiltecan groups were being squeezed out by Comanches, Lipan Apaches, and other Indian groups and by the Spanish, who were moving up from the south. Early Spanish explorers traveled through the area on their journeys north of the Rio Grande. Alonso De León passed across what is now the northwestern corner of Webb County during the 1680s, and in 1747 Miguel de la Garza Falcón journeyed through the area as he explored the north bank of the Rio Grande. By the mid-eighteenth century a trail through the area was used by Spaniards traveling from Monterrey to San Antonio; in 1749 Jacinto De León, a Spanish army officer, established a ford, later known as the Paso de Jacinto, a mile north of the site of present-day Laredo. In 1755, under the direction and guidance of José de Escandón, a settlement was established near the Jacinto ford by Tomás Sánchez de la Barrera y Garza. The settlement, named Laredo, was actually little more than a ranch in its first years of existence, but it flourished under the leadership of Sánchez. In 1755 only three families moved to the area, but by 1757 Laredo had grown to eleven families and eighty-five people. By 1767, when a royal commission visited Laredo, 185 people lived there. The commission arranged for the survey of a formal townsite, inaugurated a government, and assigned land grants to families who had settled in the area. Sánchez and his relatives were awarded porciones encompassing 100,000 acres on both sides of the Rio Grande. The commission also extended the jurisdiction of the town north to the Nueces River so that it eventually included all of the area of present Webb County as well as parts of modern La Salle, Dimmit, and Zapata counties. The community continued to grow, and in 1789, 708 people, including 110 Carrizo Indians, lived in Laredo. By 1819 the population of Laredo was 1,418, and by 1828 it had reached 2,052.

The area's ranching potential was its primary attraction for the early Spanish settlers, and ranching operations dominated the economy from the first years of settlement. Food and other necessities imported from the south were bought with profits derived from cattle, sheep, and other livestock. By the early 1800s at least forty ranches had been established around Laredo, and by about 1815 livestock was also being raised near the Palafox Villa, a new settlement established halfway between Laredo and San Juan Bautista. During the 1820s sheep ranching became more important, and as wool became the area's principal source of wealth and its premier export product, the region experienced a period of expansion and relative prosperity. Between 1828 and 1831 one hacienda and twenty-three ranchos were established near Laredo, and 100 parcels of common pastureland (sitios de ganado) were assigned to various individuals. By the early 1830s a number of ranching operations had been set up as far as thirty miles outside the town. Though much of the rural land was owned by residents of Laredo, the rapid expansion of ranching activity encouraged newcomers to move into the area. Settlement in the outlying areas was hindered, however, by the continual threat of Indian raids. Comanches and Lipan Apaches moving in from the north drove many ranchers off their lands and dissuaded others from attempting to establish operations in the countryside. In 1772 the Spanish authorities had placed a permanent military garrison at Laredo, but neither these troops nor their successors sent by the Mexican republic after 1824 could ensure permanent protection for settlers. Indian attacks became a particular problem during and after the Mexican War of Independence; writing for help in 1837, a Laredo official estimated that since 1813 the area had known "only three years of peace." As early as 1819 thirty-seven of the forty-four ranches in the vicinity of Laredo had been abandoned for fear of Indian attack; and in 1828, in the midst of the sheep-ranching expansion, many ranch workers refused to leave Laredo to work on the ranches farthest from town. Indian raids also forced the abandonment of the Palafox settlement in the late 1820s. The area suffered most from Indian attacks during the 1830s, especially after 1835 when the Texas Revolution diverted the attention and resources of the Mexican government away from the growing Indian menace. Receiving no help from the Tamaulipas state government, the alcalde of Laredo petitioned Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Anna for help and suggested that, in the face of continuing Comanche attacks, the town might have to be abandoned. Preoccupied with their own problems, and content for the moment to remain within the Republic of Mexico, the people of Laredo and the surrounding area played only a small role in the Texas Revolution. Mexican commanders passing through the area en route to and from Texas battlefields requisitioned livestock from local citizens and sometimes stopped in Laredo, but the citizenry remained largely uninvolved in political issues.

Between 1836 and 1848 the area that is now Webb County was part of the disputed strip of land between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River claimed by both Mexico and Texas. Though Laredo was briefly designated capital of the short-lived Republic of the Rio Grande during a federalist rebellion led by Antonio Canales, residents remained primarily loyal to the Republic of Mexico. Consequently, the area was raided on several occasions by Texans seeking revenge, adventure, or booty. Erastus (Deaf) Smithqv led an 1837 expedition that stopped just short of an attack on Laredo, for example, and an expedition led by Alexander Somervell in 1842 captured and plundered the town. The area was brought more firmly into the orbit of the United States during the Mexican War of 1845–48. Laredo was captured in 1846 and held for the duration of the war. Meanwhile, even before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo assigned the Nueces Strip to Texas, legislators in Austin included it in the new jurisdiction of Nueces County in 1846; in January 1848 the Texas legislature established Webb County, which was named in honor of Judge James Webb. Despite the hopes of prominent Laredo citizens, who petitioned to remain part of Mexico, the area was formally incorporated into the United States in May 1848. Worried about their future after annexation, many residents moved to the Mexican side of the river and established Nuevo Laredo; others moved into the surrounding Texas countryside. Suspicions that land titles would not be respected under the new government were soon put to rest. The Bourland-Miller Commission, which inspected Spanish and Mexican land titles in South Texas, proved to be fair and impartial in its assessment of land records. Local landholders therefore found it easier to accommodate themselves to the new political situation. Federal soldiers stationed at Fort McIntosh patrolled the area for bandits and hostile Indians.

The state Secession Convention voted in 1861 to leave the Union; and though Webb County had sent no delegate to the convention, residents later overwhelmingly approved secession by a vote of 70–0. During the Civil War hundreds of local men joined the Confederate army, many of them enlisted by Santos Benavides, who organized a Confederate company and successfully employed his force against a threat to the area posed by Juan N. Cortina in May 1861. In 1863 Benavides raised and commanded a regiment of Confederate cavalry. Confederate units in Webb County protected cotton shipments en route to Mexico and engaged in actions against Indians and against Union troops and sympathizers. Two minor battles were fought on the outskirts of Laredo. The war helped to invigorate ranching in Webb County. Only 2,987 cattle had been reported in the county in 1859, and only 1,340 in 1860; but by 1866 there were almost 30,000 cattle and 43,000 sheep. The raising of livestock remained at the center of the economy until the early twentieth century. Forty ranches or farms were counted by the U.S. census in 1870 and forty-six in 1880. The economy began to change in the 1880s, however, with the arrival of the railroads. In 1881 both the Corpus Christi and Rio Grande (later the Texas Mexican) and the International-Great Northern railroads built lines to Laredo. The construction of the rail lines brought jobs for the work crews and also made it easier for ranchers to ship their livestock to market and to receive manufactured goods from the East and Midwest.

The connection with the outside world also had far-reaching effects on the culture of the county, for it brought an infusion of American culture to what had been essentially a Mexican ranching community. After 1881 the number of Anglo-Americans began to increase, and by 1900 they represented one-fourth of the population of 21,851. The coming of the railroads also brought about the establishment of numerous new towns, including Nye, Sanchez, Webb, Callaghan, Cactus, Pescadito, Reiser, Aguilares, Oilton, Mirando City, and Bruni, which grew up along their routes, replacing many of the earlier ranching communities. With the railroads in place, the county's large deposits of cannel coal began to be exploited. Around 1882 Charles R. Wright purchased 1,000 acres surrounding the earlier community of San José, renamed it Dolores, and a short time later organized the Cannel Coal Company. Numerous mines were started, and a thriving mining industry grew up, giving rise to the communities of Carbon, Islitas, and Joyce. In the middle 1880s the Rio Grande and Eagle Pass Railway was built to ship the coal out of the county. The 1880s also saw the rise of two political factions- the Botas and Guaraches. Leaders of the Botas ("Boots," a symbol of wealth and class) included Raymond Martin and county judge José María Rodríguez, while Santos Benavides was a major figure in the Citizen's Party or Guaraches ("Sandals," symbolizing the lower class). In the 1890s the rival factions united to form the Independent Club, which dominated county politics until the 1970s.

The number of ranching operations in the county increased between 1880 and 1890, as the railroad spurs opened the area to more intensive development and Indian and bandit raids were curtailed. By 1890, 283 ranches and farms had been established, covering 791,000 acres. Large ranches increasingly became the norm. Of the forty ranches and farms established before 1870, only one was larger than 1,000 acres, but by 1890 fifty-seven were at least 1,000 acres, and some were considerably larger. A good deal of the county's growth during this period can be attributed to sheep ranching. In 1865, 34,000 sheep were reported in the county. By 1870 there were 72,000 sheep and 10,047 cattle; and by 1880 almost 182,000 sheep were counted, but only 3,300 cattle. Sheep ranching peaked in 1887, when the total reached 199,000, then declined for a number of reasons, including a sharp drop in wool prices, a severe drought, and the depletion of grasslands. The number of sheep dropped to 110,000 by 1900 and to 10,143 by 1910. As sheep ranching declined, cattle herds increased. County ranchers owned 23,000 cattle in 1890 and 38,000 in 1900.

On March 12, 1899, the Texas legislature abolished Encinal County and added its territory to Webb County, which became the largest Texas county east of the Pecos River. By 1900 large numbers of Anglo immigrants began to move into the county, turning former rangeland into farmland. The introduction of water pumps powered by wind, gas, and electricity for the first time allowed for large-scale irrigation along the Rio Grande. In 1898 Thomas Nye began to irrigate his fields for vegetables, especially Bermuda onions, which thrived in the warm climate. Numerous other farmers began irrigating their fields, and within a few years Webb County became known as the "Bermuda Capital of the World." At the peak of the onion boom around 1910 some 1,700 cars of onions were being shipped per year. The number of farms in the county grew to 408 by 1900, and the population reached 22,503 by 1910 and 29,152 by 1920. Cotton also began to be grown around the turn of the century. At this time the discovery of oil helped spur the economy. Gas was found by L. A. and Edward J. Reiser in 1908, and in 1921 Oliver W. Killam brought in the first producing oil well, prompting a boom. During the 1920s and early 1930s modern hotels were built in Laredo to meet the demands for accommodations, and several new towns, including Oilton, Villegas, Mirando City, Miles Bennett, and Moglia, grew up to service the nearby oil and gas fields. The population was 42,128 in 1930. Farming continued to play an important part in the economy, but with the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s agriculture went into a steep decline. Competition from the lower Rio Grande valley and a decline in prices dealt a serious blow to the onion and cotton growers, as did increasing diesel fuel prices, which made irrigation more expensive. Some landowners were able to make up for the shortfall with oil money, but many farmers were forced to give up their lands. The number of farms in the county, which reached an all-time high of 522 in 1930, fell to 327 by 1950. Coal mining also declined during the 1930s, falling victim to competition from other Western mines and from increasing transport costs. In 1939 the Cannel Coal Company, the area's largest producer, ceased operations. As a result, most of the coal towns declined or were abandoned. A few families stayed to try their hands in farming, but most moved to Laredo or out of the county. In 1940 the population stood at 45,916.

During World War II Webb County served as an important training center for United States military forces. Fort McIntosh was the local National Guard base, and Laredo Army Air Field, with its Central School for Flexible Gunnery, trained thousands of soldiers for the European and Pacific theaters. After the war ranching and the oil and gas industry increasingly took center stage in the county's economy. Many of the remaining farmers gave up agriculture, and by 1970 farming played only a very minor role in the economy. The county population was 56,141 in 1950 and 72,859 in 1970. In 1980 Webb County was the seventh-largest beef-producing county in the state; principal breeds included Santa Gertrudis, Hereford, Brahmanqv, and Charolais cattle. In 1982 over 90 percent of the county's land was devoted to ranching.

In the early 1980s leading industries in Webb County included tourism, oil and gas extraction, general and heavy construction, meat packing, soft-drink bottling and canning, trucking, and the manufacture of clothing and leather shoes. In 1982 Webb County ranked ninety-eighth in the state in the highest agricultural receipts, with 83 percent coming from livestock and livestock products, especially cattle. Principal crops included sorghum and hay. Oil and gas continued to account for an important part of the county's income. Crude oil production in 1982 totaled 871,615 barrels; 106,351,146,000 cubic feet of gas-well gas, 602,983,000 cubic feet of casinghead gas, and 763,206 barrels of condensate were also produced. In 1989 Webb County was first in the state in production of natural gas, with 24,979,392,000 cubic feet. In 1990, 2,583,994 barrels of oil were produced in the county, and total production between 1936 and 1990 was over 127 million barrels.

In the early 1980s Webb County had four school districts with twenty-seven elementary, seven middle, and six high schools. Laredo was the site of Texas A&M International University and Laredo Junior College. From the time of Texas's admission to the Union until the 1950s, Webb County was staunchly in the Democratic camp. Despite occasional challenges from Republicans and independents, Democratic presidential candidates have prevailed in every election since the county was established, and the Democratic party has dominated in state and local elections. The county population was 99,258 in 1980 and 133,239 in 1990. Laredo, with 122,899 residents, accounted for more than 90 percent of the population. Persons of Hispanic descent formed the largest ancestry group with 93.9 percent. Other towns in the county included El Cenizo (1,399), Bruni (698), Mirando City (559), and Oilton (458). In recent years uranium mining has emerged as a significant industry, and at least one coal mine was operating in the late 1980s. International trade and tourism, however, appeared to constitute the most important future sectors of the economy, with Laredo serving as a major gateway to Mexico.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

J. W. Falvella, A Souvenir Album of Laredo, the Gateway to Mexico (Laredo, Texas, 1917). Stan Green, The Rise and Fall of Rio Grande Settlements: A History of Webb County (Laredo, Texas: Border Studies, 1991). Thomas Hester, Digging into South Texas Prehistory: A Guide for Amateur Archaeologists (San Antonio: Corona Press, 1980). Gilberto Miguel Hinojosa, A Borderlands Town in Transition: Laredo, 1755–1870 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1983). Hermilinda Murillo, A History of Webb County (M.A. thesis, Southwest Texas State Teachers College, 1941). Jerry Don Thompson, Sabers on the Rio Grande (Austin: Presidial, 1974). Webb County Historical Commission, Su vida y su espíritu: Webb County Family Histories (Laredo, Texas, 1982). J. B. Wilkinson, Laredo and the Rio Grande Frontier (Austin: Jenkins, 1975).

John Leffler and Christopher Long

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

John Leffler and Christopher Long, "WEBB COUNTY," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hcw05), accessed December 20, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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