Ector County is in West Texas on the lower shelf of the Great Plains and on the northern border of the Edwards Plateau, bounded on the north by Andrews County, on the west by Winkler County, on the east by Midland County, and on the south by Crane and Ward counties. The county's midpoint is 30°53' north latitude and 102°33' west longitude, about thirty miles southwest of Midland. The county was named for Mathew D. Ector, a Confederate general and Texas jurist. It covers 907 square miles of level to rolling land with elevations that vary from 2,500 to 3,300 feet above sea level. The annual rainfall is 13.77 inches. The average minimum temperature in January is 30° F; the average maximum in July is 96°. The county has a growing season of 217 days, though less than 1 per cent of the land is considered prime farmland. Ector County's geology is significant since the county is a major producer of petroleum products. Oil in the Permian Basin was formed in comparatively shallow reservoirs bound by Permian Age limestone. Above the oil a large gas cap formed, which in modern times provides the energy for producing the oil underneath, making the Permian Basin nearly ideal for oil and gas production. Over 35,897,000 barrels of oil were taken from Ector County lands in 1990; between 1926, when oil was first discovered in the county, and 1990 the county produced 2,726,524,140 barrels of petroleum, making it the second most productive oil county in Texas.
Impressive evidence of prehistoric Indian culture in the area that is now Ector County exists in the Blue Mountain pictographs, which depict various prehistoric hunting scenes. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the area was within the range of Comanche hunters, but was not particularly attractive to them because of the region's limited water resources.
Ector County was marked off in 1887 from land previously assigned to Tom Green County, and was attached to Midland, Crane, and Upton counties for judicial purposes. As early as 1881 promoters of the Texas and Pacific Railway encouraged immigration by offering to haul farm machinery and household goods for prospective settlers at no charge; they ignored the limited rainfall and predicted a splendid agricultural potential for the area. Pointing to the county's supposed resemblance to the steppes of Russia, a railroad official named the first settlement in the county Odessa; in 1882 the town became one of nine stopping places on the railroad's route through West Texas. In 1886 the Odessa Land and Townsite Company was formed in Zanesville, Ohio, to sell farmland in Ector County; the company's exaggerated promises and bi-monthly excursion trains failed to attract enough buyers, however, and by 1889 the company was bankrupt. In fact the region was most suitable for ranching, and for many years Ector County was known mainly for its fine Hereford cattle. Much of the land in the county was owned by the University of Texas.
But, as pioneer J. J. Amburgery later pointed out, the area did present one decided advantage to prospective farmers: "Land was pretty cheap out there. I bought seven sections of school land for $1 an acre." During the late 1880s and in the 1890s settlers began to trickle in. In 1890 the census enumerated 224 residents, and in 1891 Ector County was formally organized, with Odessa, the largest town, designated as the county seat. In the early 1890s Methodists established a small school, Odessa College, but it burned down in 1892. By 1900, there were twenty-five farms and ranches in the county, and the population had grown to 381.
Between 1900 and 1930, despite periodic droughts, farmers continued to move into the county in small numbers. A few farmers experimented with cotton production during this period. In 1908 about 800 bales of cotton were ginned in the county. In 1910 cotton was planted on 222 acres in the county; in 1920, when only about 80 acres in the entire county was devoted to cereal crops, cotton culture occupied 363 acres; in 1930 cotton was produced on 1,326 acres of the 2,580 acres of cropland harvested. Local farmers also planted hundreds of fruit trees; by 1910, for example, 588 peach trees were growing in the county.
Local cattle ranchers continued to be noted for their registered Herefords during this period. Almost 24,000 cattle were counted in Ector County in 1910, and in 1914 Joe Graham and Charles Price shipped 15,000 yearlings from their ranch alone. In 1929, almost 16,000 cattle were counted in the area. Periodic droughts hindered the best efforts to establish farming in the county, however, and the number of farms subsequently fluctuated. In 1910 the United States Agricultural Census found 84 farms and ranches in Ector County, but only 55 in 1920; there were 107 in 1925, but only 69 in 1929. The county's population similarly fluctuated, rising to 1,178 in 1910, for example, before dropping to 760 in 1920. Farming virtually died in Ector County during the Great Depression of the 1930s; in 1940 the 52 farms and ranches in the county harvested only 583 acres of land.
The great oil strike made in 1926 on W. E. Connell's ranch, however, marked the beginning of a tremendous boom that fundamentally changed the character of the county's economy and society. After the Penn field was opened in 1929 and the Cowden field in 1930, Odessa became the shipping and oilfield supply center for the county's burgeoning petroleum boom. County lands produced almost 12,330,000 barrels of oil in 1938, and by the mid-1940s Ector County had over 2,000 producing wells, to rank as one of the leading oil-producing counties in the state. Almost 62,249,000 barrels of oil came from county lands in 1948; more than 57,132,000 barrels in 1956; almost 58,959,000 in 1960; almost 59,228,000 in 1978; and about 45,958,000 in 1982. In the mid-1960s the nation's largest petrochemical complex was established near Odessa.
The continuing oil and petrochemical boom induced thousands to move to the area in search of work and opportunity, and the population of the county rose almost continuously from the late 1920s into the 1990s. In 1930 3,958 people lived in Ector County; the population increased to 15,051 in 1940, 42,102 in 1950, 90,995 in 1960, 91,805 in 1970, and 115,374 in 1980. In 1992 the county's population was estimated at 118,934.
In politics Ector County has moved towards the Republican party, which locally won every presidential election from 1952 through 1988. In that same period the county went Republican in eleven of fourteen senatorial elections, and in six of fourteen gubernatorial races.
By 1982 the average annual income from agriculture in Ector County was $4.5 million, from beef cattle, poultry, pecans, and hay. According to the agricultural census the 214 farms and ranches in the county that year produced an income of $4.5 million; 1,752 farm acres were under irrigation. Although scanty rainfall and lack of irrigation continue to hinder agriculture in the area, Ector County reported 11,616 cattle in 1982, and 26,331 pounds of pecans were produced in the county that year (see PECAN INDUSTRY). Manufacturers earned $233 million, largely from petrochemical products. Oil income was almost $1.5 billion, from sales of 46 million barrels. By 1987 Ector County, with a total production of 2,572,304,080 barrels of crude since 1926, ranked second in the state behind Gregg County.
Ector County offers several cultural amenities to its inhabitants, including a replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theater where a seasonal festival is held, the Odessa College Museum, and the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. Residents and tourists in the county can also view the second largest crater in the United States, formed in some distant time when a meteor fell eight miles southwest of Odessa (see METEOR CRATER AT ODESSA).
Communities in the county include Goldsmith (population, 280), Gardendale (1,670), and West Odessa (24,288). Odessa, with a population of 113,534 in Ector County (the city is partly in Midland County), is the county's largest city and seat of government. As of 2014, the total population of the county was 153,904. Major highways in Ector County include U.S. Highway 385 (north-south), U.S. Highway 80/Interstate 20 and State Highway 302 (west-east); the Missouri Pacific Railway also runs through the county from northeast to southwest. Commercial airline service is available at the Midland-Odessa airport.