Big Spring, the county seat of Howard County, is at the intersection of Interstate Highway 20, U.S. highways 80 and 87, State Highway 350, Farm Road 700, and the Missouri Pacific line in southwest central Howard County. The city is in a rocky gorge between two high foothills of the Caprock escarpment in West Texas. It derives its name from the nearby "big spring" in Sulphur Draw, which was a watering place for coyotes, wolves, and herds of buffalo, antelope, and mustangs; the spring was a source of conflict between Comanche and Shawnee Indians and a campsite used by early expeditions across West Texas. Signal Mountain, ten miles southeast of Big Spring, was a landmark used by early cattlemen. In 1849 Capt. Randolph B. Marcy's expedition reached Big Spring on the return trip from Santa Fe and marked it as a campsite on the Overland Trail to California. The spring was also a campsite on the Santa Fe Trail from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to El Paso. Early ranchers, among them Adolph Miller and C. C. Slaughter, reached the area in the late 1870s, and after the ranchers came four-section plots with squatters' dugouts. In the late 1870s the community of Big Spring began near the spring as a settlement of hide huts and saloons for buffalo hunters. In 1880 the Texas and Pacific built through the area, following the line of Sulphur Draw several miles north of the spring. The community moved to the tracks, and Big Spring became the site of railroad shops and a station. When Howard County was organized in 1882 Big Spring became the county seat. That same year a post office started operating in the community, and its first general store opened. By 1884 Big Spring had an estimated population of 1,200, six saloons, four general stores, and a weekly newspaper (the Pantagraph). Several private schools were operating in the community by 1890, and the town had a public school by 1898.
By 1900 Big Spring had a population of 1,255. The Big Spring Herald was founded as a weekly in 1904 and became a daily in 1928. In 1905 an opera house opened, and in 1907 the city incorporated with an aldermanic form of city government. Big Spring installed a waterworks in 1913. In 1914 the city had a hotel, three banks, and Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Christian, and Methodist churches. In 1920 Big Spring was a small city of 4,273 that served as a shipping point for livestock, cotton and small grains. Oil was discovered in the vicinity in 1926, and the city experienced a boom over the next ten years. In 1927, in response to rapid growth, Big Spring switched to a council-manager form of city government. The population of Big Spring had grown to 13,375 by 1930. By 1936 there were 810 wells in production in the surrounding oilfields. The Big Spring State Hospital for the mentally ill was opened in 1939. The city's growth was halted briefly in the late 1930s, and its population fell to 12,604 in 1940 but then revived again during World War II. Big Spring Army Air Corps Bombardier School was opened on land southwest of the city in 1942 and during the war graduated more than 5,000 bombardiers. After the school was closed as a military installation in 1945, its airfield served as the municipal airport for a number of years. Howard County Junior College opened in 1946. In 1950 the city reported 650 businesses and 17,258 inhabitants.
Big Spring again grew dramatically during the 1950s, when its population increased by 80 percent—to 31,230. It flourished through its petrochemical industries and as a banking and distribution center for the county. Part of this growth was also due to a renewed military presence: the airfield was reactivated as a military base in 1951, and in 1952 it was renamed Webb Air Force Base. Over the next several decades the city's population began a slow decline, falling to 28,735 by 1970, 24,804 by 1980, and 23,093 by 1990. In 2000, however, the population increased to 25,233. Webb Air Force Base was deactivated in 1977, and its site became part of Big Spring Industrial Park. The community remained an important agribusiness and petrochemical center and was the site of a number of local events, including the annual county fair and the Big Spring Cowboy Reunion and Rodeo.