James H. Durst, state legislator and rancher, was born probably in 1819 at Nacogdoches, Texas. He was the son of Joseph and Delilah (Dill) Durst. Sources differ regarding the year of his birth. His father was a farmer and rancher, and the family was listed in the 1835 census for Nacogdoches. From 1838 to 1839 Durst was captain of a company of Texas Rangers and was involved in actions against the Cherokees. In 1840 he worked as a commissioner investigating fraudulent land claims in Nacogdoches County. Apparently, both of his parents died around 1843. On May 13, 1843, Durst married Elizabeth R. Culp. Durst and his wife were recorded in the 1850 census of Cherokee County, along with their two-year-old son Mortemord (or Mortimer). After the death of his wife by the early 1850s, Durst moved from East Texas to Rio Grande City in Starr County, where he operated a large general merchandise store. Durst purchased fourteen leagues of the La Barreta land grant (in present-day Kenedy County) from the descendants of José Francisco Ballí in late 1852. This represented one of the earliest large land purchases in the Nueces Strip.
Durst was elected to the Senate of the Fifth Texas Legislature and represented Nueces, San Patricio, Starr, Webb, Refugio, and Kinney counties. He served from November 8, 1853, to November 5, 1855. He married Mary Josephine Atwood on January 11, 1854, in Austin at the home of Maj. James H. Raymond. They had a son, James William, and a daughter, Mary Helena “Mollie,” who later married Texas Ranger John B. Armstrong. When his term ended, Durst became deputy collector of customs for the Brazos Santiago District at Port Isabel. Durst died of “enlargement of the heart” at his ranch in South Texas on April 24, 1858.
After his death, Durst’s young widow left the vast ranch and took her two children to live in Austin. In the wake of probating Durst’s estate, allegations of illegal land sales and attorney malpractice surfaced—Durst’s widow received no money and two lawyers held all the land. In the 1880s the Durst and Armstrong families (by this time John B. Armstrong was Mary Durst’s son-in-law) set out to prove fraud on the part of the land sales and eventually succeeded in legally securing title to all of James Durst’s holdings. This vast acreage eventually became the famed Armstrong Ranch of South Texas.