Culberson County is located in the Trans-Pecos region of West Texas. It is bordered by New Mexico to the north and by Hudspeth, Reeves, and Jeff Davis counties in Texas. Van Horn, the county seat, is approximately 120 miles east of El Paso in the southwestern part of the county. The county's center lies about thirty-six miles northeast of Van Horn at approximately 32°27' north latitude and 104°29' west longitude. Interstate Highway 10 and U.S. Highway 80 cross southern Culberson County from east to west; U.S. Highway 90 enters the county from the south and terminates at Van Horn; and U.S. highways 62 and 180 cross the county's northwestern corner. Two lines belonging to the Union Pacific Railroad cross the county's southwestern corner.
Culberson County comprises 3,815 square miles of terrain that varies from mountainous to nearly level, with elevations ranging from 8,751 feet on Guadalupe Peak, the highest spot in the state, to 3,000 feet. The county is in the Rio Grande basin. Soils in Culberson County are primarily shallow and stony, with some clay and sandy loams and sand. Vegetation consists of scrub brush, grasses, cacti, creosote bush, post oak, chaparral, oak, juniper, mesquite, yucca, and agave, with Douglas fir, aspen, Arizona cypress, maple, and madrone trees in the Guadalupe Mountains. The Guadalupes are also the home of several endangered or locally rare plant species, including bigtooth maple, ponderosa pine, chinquapin oak, Rocky Mountain juniper, Texas madrone, and Mexican buckeye, and of the only elk in Texas. Dolomite, gypsum, limestone, salt, silver, copper, lead, zinc, barite, and molybdenum are among the minerals found in Culberson County. The climate is mild and dry, with an average minimum temperature of 30° F in January and an average maximum of 94° in July. The growing season averages 224 days a year, and the average annual precipitation is ten inches. Less than 1 percent of the land in Culberson County is considered prime farmland.
Today Culberson County is best known as the site of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which includes Guadalupe Peak and is a major tourist attraction. The Guadalupes and the county's other mountains, such as the Delaware, Beach, Wylie, Sierra Diablo, Van Horn, Apache, and Baylor ranges, made the area ideal for Indians seeking protection from their enemies and a remote home base from which to launch attacks. The earliest sign of human occupation in the area, found in the Guadalupes, is a 12,000-year-old Folsom point. Later, hunter-gatherers probably inhabited the mountains only during the summer; they also left artifacts, as well as pictographs. The most famous indigenous inhabitants of the mountains, the Apaches, arrived about 600 years ago. They harvested agave, yucca, and sotol when meat was unavailable, and their agave-roasting pits are still visible in the Guadalupes.
The area that was to become Culberson County was largely untouched by Spanish exploration, due to its forbidding topography. In 1583, however, Antonio de Espejo became the first European to see the Mescalero Apaches, on the prairie just east of the Guadalupe Mountains. Beginning about 1630 the Mescaleros were raiding the more populous Plains Navajos and Pueblos from the Guadalupes; fifty years later they had added El Paso del Norte to their list of targets. By the beginning of the eighteenth century Comanches from the Llano Estacado had ended the Apache domination of western Texas, and the Mescaleros, based in the Guadalupes, restricted their raids to a smaller geographical area. Their ferocity, however, was unaffected, and the Mescaleros became one of the most feared of all Indian groups in Texas. Their presence, combined with the area's isolation, ensured that the area would not become popular with White settlers.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, emigrants were seeking new routes to connect central and eastern Texas with El Paso and California. The 1849 gold rush increased the demand for such roads, and exploration by the Whites occurred with breathtaking speed. In May 1849 John S. (Rip) Ford and Maj. Robert S. Neighbors, returning to Waco from El Paso, skirted the Guadalupe Mountains and described Guadalupe Canyon. In July 1849 an expedition led by Lt. Francis Theodore Bryan camped at Guadalupe Pass while retracing the Ford-Neighbors route to confirm its suitability for a wagon road to the west. In September 1849 Capt. Randolph Barnes Marcy came in sight of the Guadalupes while returning from Santa Fe to Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Also in 1849, the Van Horn Wells were supposedly discovered by Maj. Jefferson Van Horne, en route to El Paso. The wells became known as one of the few dependable water sources in the vast emptiness of West Texas; ten years later the army considered them sufficiently important to establish a cavalry outpost there under Lt. James Judson Van Horn (no relation to Jefferson). Lieutenant Van Horn commanded the station until 1861, when he was taken prisoner by Confederate troops who seized the wells. The town of Van Horn, founded some twenty years later, was named for him.
The signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo also increased knowledge of the area. John Russell Bartlett, appointed a boundary commissioner by President Zachary Taylor, traveled through the area on his way to El Paso to negotiate the United States-Mexico border. Bartlett reached what would become Culberson County in early November 1850. He found the Guadalupes "a dark, gloomy-looking range, with bold and forbidding sides." Bartlett suggested that the proposed transcontinental railroad be built along a route south of the Guadalupes, where "the country is quite open and apparently level."
Thanks in part to Bartlett's favorable report, a surveying party under Capt. John Pope passed through the area in 1853, seeking a potential railroad route; Pope returned the following year to search in vain for an artesian water supply. A prospector named Thomas Owen or Owens reportedly discovered the Hazel Mine in 1856, but the Mescaleros and the Civil War forced him to abandon the area for twenty-five years.
Despite the efforts of Bartlett and Pope, the next phase of exploration involved stagecoaches rather than steel rails. In March 1857 John Butterfield received a contract to carry mail twice a week from St. Louis and Memphis to San Francisco; three months later John Birch received a contract to carry mail semimonthly from San Antonio to San Diego, California. The Butterfield Overland Mail route entered what would become Culberson County from the east, crossed the Rustler Hills, more or less followed the Delaware River west, and then went up and over Guadalupe Pass. The first westbound Butterfield coach arrived at the Pinery, a station in the Guadalupes, in late September 1858. Within a year, however, the Butterfield route was shifted to the south to take advantage of the protection afforded by forts Davis and Stockton. Birch's San Antonio-El Paso Mail route, nicknamed the Jackass Mail, began operation in July 1857. By 1860 it had been shortened to connect San Antonio and El Paso, and was discontinued in 1861 because of the outbreak of the Civil War.
After the war the demand for a transcontinental railroad mounted. Before such a project could become a reality, however, the government decided it needed to wipe out the Apaches, who, led by their great chief Victorio, a Warm Springs Apache, and augmented by Mescaleros from the Fort Stanton Reservation, carried out a brilliant raiding campaign in the late 1860s and throughout the 1870s. Various military expeditions were sent in pursuit of the Apaches, but most stopped short of actually following them into the mountains. In December 1869, however, Troop F of the Third Cavalry under Lt. Howard B. Cushing left Fort Stanton, New Mexico, and entered the Guadalupes in pursuit of the Indians. Cushing's men found two Apache camps and destroyed the Indians' winter stores of food and clothing.
In May 1870 another detachment of troops left Fort Quitman under Maj. Albert Morrow. At Pine Springs in the Guadalupes, Morrow's men rendezvoused with reinforcements from Fort Davis, pressed up McKittrick Canyon in search of the Indians, and got lost. They did manage to discover and destroy one ranchería of seventy-five lodges, which the Apaches had abandoned.
By this time a ranching boom had begun in the Trans-Pecos, and the demand for rangeland for longhorn cattle sealed the fate of the Apaches. Thanks to Victorio's tactical brilliance, they managed to elude the military for another ten years, but the federal cavalry and the Texas Rangers had the advantage. Victorio himself was finally killed in Mexico in 1880, and in January 1881 a company of rangers under George W. Baylor ambushed the last surviving band of Apache raiders in Bass Canyon in the Sierra Diablo Mountains; it was the last big Indian fight in Texas.
In 1881 the long-awaited railroad link to the West finally became a reality, although not without its share of controversy. Under Jay Gould, who had bought the line a year before, the Texas and Pacific Railway was building westward from Fort Worth to El Paso. Meanwhile Collis P. Huntington's rival Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway was building eastward from El Paso in order to complete its own link to central and eastern Texas. For a time no one was sure which road would prevail, but in November 1881 Gould and Huntington reached an agreement by which the Texas and Pacific would stop at Sierra Blanca, in Hudspeth County, and the two lines would share the track from Sierra Blanca to El Paso.
With the completion of the Texas and Pacific, White settlement of the area began in earnest. Among the pioneer settlers in what would become Culberson County were Ed Hamm, George Bristow, railroad agent Jack Veats, and the families of R. P. (Perry) Bean, A. A. (Gus) Cox, Sebastian (Ben) De Anda, J. H. Beach, and Robert K. Wylie. Local mountain ranges were eventually named after the last two. The towns of Van Horn, Plateau, and Kent grew up along the railroad, and ranchers pushed up into the Guadalupes themselves. The influx of ranchers continued for the next three decades, and Van Horn grew into a prosperous cattle-shipping center. In 1911 a new county, named after David B. Culberson, was separated from El Paso County. When Culberson County was organized in 1912, Van Horn was chosen as county seat. In 1920 the population of the county was only 912, of whom 910 were White. Perhaps reflecting the prevalence of ranching and the lack of urban centers, males outnumbered females 539 to 373. Ten years later the population had climbed to 1,228, 638 of whom were classified as White and 583 as Mexican. In subsequent years the population continued to increase: to 1,653 in 1940, 1,825 in 1950, 2,794 in 1960, and 3,429 in 1970. Between 1970 and 1980 the population declined slightly, to 3,315, but in 1982 had risen to 3,616. The 1982 population was mostly of Hispanic (63 percent), English (16 percent), or Irish (12 percent) descent.
Extraction of minerals has long been important in Culberson County, although rumors of fabulously wealthy gold mines in the Guadalupes seem to be mere wishful thinking. Around 1875 an old prospector named Ben Sublett strode into a saloon and casually tossed a buckskin pouch full of gold nuggets onto the bar, hinting broadly that he had discovered them in the Guadalupes. All efforts to get him to reveal the exact location of his find were unsuccessful; he took his secret to the grave in 1892, leaving his son to search in vain for the mine. Gen. Lew Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur and governor of New Mexico from 1878 to 1881, said he found references in the Spanish archives in Santa Fe to rich gold deposits in the Guadalupes, but the exact location had been lost. The Apache chief Geronimo also claimed that the Spanish had mined the area, and that the Guadalupes contained the richest mines in North America. More recent opinion holds such claims unlikely.
Other minerals have been less elusive. Between the late nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century the Hazel Mine yielded about a million pounds of copper and more than two million ounces of silver. In the 1940s acidic sulfur earth was produced at Rustler Springs for use as a fertilizer and soil conditioner, and the Apache Mountains were the site of the largest barite deposit in Texas, which was mined from open pits during the 1960s. A mica quarry operated in the early 1980s in the Van Horn Mountains to mine mica schist for oilfield use, but the sustained production of sheet mica had not been achieved. Culberson County was also producing copper, bedded gypsum from surface mines, brucitic marble, molybdenum, crushed rhyolite, silver, Frasch sulfur, and talc in the 1980s.
Oil was discovered in the county in 1953, but annual production was only 320 barrels in 1956. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, production soared, reaching 184,208 barrels in 1958, 725,953 barrels in 1960, and 1,289,000 barrels in 1963. Production declined in subsequent years, to 873,868 barrels in 1968, 653,830 barrels in 1976, and 284,525 barrels in 1980, before rebounding to 1,102,644 in 1982. Two years later it had fallen again, to 642,932 barrels, and in 1990 Culberson County produced 409,238 barrels.
Ranching has traditionally been more important than farming in the local economy, although the cattle population in Culberson County decreased between 1920 and the early 1980s. The number of cattle dropped from 48,974 in 1920 to 40,563 in 1930, 27,144 in 1940, 18,883 in 1950, and 8,805 in 1960, then rose to 22,745 in 1969 and roughly 29,000 in 1982. The number of farms increased from forty-seven in 1920 to fifty-two in 1930 and peaked at eighty-one in 1940; in subsequent decades the number of farms remained relatively stable, with seventy in 1950, seventy-six in 1959, eighty in 1969, and seventy in 1982.
Shortage of water has always been a principal obstacle to agriculture in Culberson County. In the late 1930s, when local stockmen began using spreader dams and other techniques to conserve more of the precious rainwater, the county agricultural agent described Culberson County as "a strictly ranching area." In September 1948, however, a well was brought in at Lobo, one mile from the headquarters of William Cameron's ranch, and the Cameron Company began selling plots of land to farmers. Other wells were put down and fitted with more efficient pumps, but they proved prohibitively expensive to operate; by the late 1960s virtually all had been abandoned.
The story of the local cotton industry follows the pattern of farming in general in the county. Culberson County had been the only county in Texas never to produce a bale of cotton, but in 1949 Darwin Brewster grew the first on a 500-acre farm near Lobo. The bale was ginned at Tornillo, in El Paso County, and proudly displayed at the main intersection in downtown Van Horn; Brewster himself was honored by the chamber of commerce. In 1950, 1,295 acres planted with cotton in the county produced 1,114 bales. The county's first cotton gin was built the next year and ginned about 6,000 bales that fall; two more gins were built in subsequent years. In 1959 cotton farmers planted 6,215 acres and produced 11,130 bales. But Culberson County's cotton boom was short-lived, thanks largely to the water shortage. Ten years later cotton was planted on only 3,585 acres that produced 3,415 bales, and by 1982 cotton land had fallen to 1,656 acres that produced only 1,324 bales.
Most voters of Culberson County supported the Democratic candidates in almost every presidential election between 1916 (the first year the area participated in national elections) through 1964; the only exceptions occurred in 1952 and 1956, when Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower carried the county. Republican presidential candidates became more competitive in the area after 1968, when Hubert Humphrey won only a plurality there, and in 1972, when Republican Richard M. Nixon took more than sixty percent of the county’s votes. Democrat Jimmy Carter edged Gerald Ford in 1976, but Republican Ronald Reagan carried the county in 1984 and 1988. Though the Democratic candidates won majorities in Culberson County in 1992, 1996, and 2000, Republican George W. Bush took most of the area’s votes in 2004. Democratic officials continued to maintain control of most county offices into the early twenty-first century. In the 1982 primary 94 percent voted Democratic and 6 percent Republican, with a total of 630 votes cast; in the 2004 election, 640 voters participated in the Democratic primary and only 7 in the Republican.
As early as 1899, when the first Old Settler's Reunion was celebrated in Van Horn, the residents of Culberson County realized the potential benefits of attracting outside visitors; as one writer put it, Culberson County "is the kind of raw-mountain, raw-grasslands country that breeds mystics and imaginative, lyrical chambers of commerce." The Old Settler's Reunion became an annual event and remained so until 1958, when Frontier Day took its place. By the early 1980s Frontier Day had in turn been replaced by the Big Country Celebration, held in Van Horn in June. With the completion of U.S. Highway 62 in 1926, the increasing viability of automobile travel, and the relative proximity of Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, the Big Bend in Presidio County, and the Guadalupe Mountains in northern Culberson County, tourism became increasingly important in the local economy.
County employment statistics bear out the increasing importance of tourism and the declining importance of agriculture. In the 1930, 1940, 1950, and 1960 censuses more people were employed in agriculture than in any other field. In 1970 agriculture had slid all the way to third, behind the mining and service industries. Ten years later, 23 percent of the labor force was employed in agriculture and mining, 23 percent in wholesale and retail trade, and 12 percent in other counties. In 1982, 828 Culberson County residents were employed in the service and related industries, while only seventy-three were employed in agriculture. By 1982, when Culberson County ranked 237th among Texas counties in agricultural cash receipts, tourists spent $17,432,000 there. In 1990 the county population was 3,407.
The U.S. census counted 2,266 people living in Culberson County in 2014. About 73.4 percent were Hispanic, 22.5 percent were Anglo, and 1.1 percent African-American. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 56 percent had completed high school, and 14 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century tourism, talc mining and processing, and agribusinesses were important elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 74 farms and ranches covering 1,694,512 acres. That year ranchers and farmers in the area earned $7,471,000; livestock sales accounted for $3,984,000 of the total. Beef cattle, cotton, vegetable, melons and pecans were the chief agricultural products.
Van Horn (2,040) remains the county’s seat of government and largest town; other communities include Kent (30), Nickel Creek, Lobo, and Pine Springs. The county’s attractions include a Frontier Days held in June and a classic car museum.