El Paso County

By: Conrey Bryson

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: September 11, 2019

El Paso County is the westernmost county of Texas. Its center point is 106°10' west longitude and 31°40' north latitude. Bounded on the southwest by the Rio Grande and Mexico, on the north and west by the state of New Mexico, and on the east by Hudspeth County, Texas, El Paso County is approximately 650 miles west of Dallas and 575 miles northwest of San Antonio. El Paso County and neighboring Hudspeth County are the only Texas counties on Mountain Time. The county comprises 1,057 square miles of desert and irrigated land that rises from an elevation of 3,500 feet at the Rio Grande to 7,000 feet at the summits of the Franklin Mountains. The Rio Grande valley in this area has been irrigated since prehistoric times and produces bountiful harvests of cotton, pecans, and alfalfa, and lesser amounts of numerous vegetables and fruits. Agriculture depends entirely upon irrigation from the river; the average annual rainfall is only 7.77 inches. Desert flora and fauna abound away from the river, while fertile fields and gardens flourish under irrigation. Although summer temperatures usually rise above 100° F for brief periods and have reached a peak of 112, El Paso is not one of the nation's hot spots. A pleasant altitude and low humidity make most summer days agreeable. The average maximum temperature in July is 94° F. The average growing season lasts 248 days. Winters are pleasant, with occasional light snows, although such extremes as fourteen inches of snow and 8° below zero are on record. Some 240 square miles of the county is occupied by the city of El Paso (population, 669,882), the largest United States city on the Mexican border, the fourth largest in Texas, and nineteenth in the United States. Although a major industrial area, El Paso County has few natural resources other than abundant sunshine and bounteous agriculture. There is no oil production, although there are two oil refineries. There is little if any mineral production, although the county has long been a trade center for Southwest mining and contains a major smelter and a major copper refinery. The county is the only county in the United States to have mined, milled, and smelted tin. The source, deposits of cassiterite in the Franklin Mountains, was found insufficient for profitable operation.

The Spanish name El Paso del Norte denotes a historically important geographical point, the channel cut by the Rio Grande through the mountains to form a natural passageway for travelers to the north or south, east or west. The name El Paso appears in print as early as 1610, in the narrative of Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, poet-historian of the Oñate expedition of 1598. This large colonizing expedition claimed for the king of Spain all the vast territory of the upper Rio Grande. The way up the river had already been charted by the Rodríguez-Sánchez expedition by 1582. The Oñate expedition, however, had sought a shortcut through the Chihuahuan Desert. Pérez de Villagrá wrote that without water, and almost without hope, the expedition continued on, seeking "el paso por las montañas." At the pass in 1598, on the banks of the river, Oñate and his followers staged a three-day celebration. One of his captains wrote and produced a drama for the occasion, perhaps the first drama presented on what is now American soil. Fish, ducks, and geese from the river supplied food for a great feast, to which Indians living in the area were invited guests, and gratitude was formally rendered to God for the safe arrival of the expedition. Should this be considered the first American Thanksgiving? The pass continued to serve as a way station for travelers between Spanish Mexico and its far-flung dominions to the north. In 1680 an Indian uprising drove the Spaniards out of New Mexico. Many of them found refuge in the El Paso valley, bringing with them members of two Indian tribes, the Tiguas and the Piros. For these were founded the missions of Corpus Christi de la Isleta in Ysleta and Nuestra Señora del Socorro in Socorro.

The people of El Paso had little involvement with the stirring events of 1836–45, the period of the Republic of Texas. An old and valued part of the Republic of Mexico, the El Paso area went its own way. Then came the Mexican War, and the resulting Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which made all of the area north of the Rio Grande a part of the United States. Suddenly the historic gateway at the pass became important to Texas, and the state almost immediately attempted to assert its right to the area. On March 15, 1848, the Texas legislature proclaimed Santa Fe County, which included the area of present-day El Paso County as well as other parts of west Texas and much of the present-day state of New Mexico. After heated protests by the citizens of the city of Santa Fe, Texas governor Peter H. Bell threatened to establish Texas authority over the area by force. Early in 1849 public meetings were held in Austin "to determine whether a practicable route could be had between Austin and El Paso," and two rugged frontiersmen, John Salmon (Rip) Ford and Col. Robert S. Neighbors, were sent to the area to attempt to organize the territory. Ford and Neighbors almost failed to make it to El Paso-the explorers became lost many times and nearly starved-and were unable to obtain their political goal. That same year a military force under Maj. Jefferson Van Horne set out from San Antonio to establish a military post at El Paso. The company of 257 soldiers headed westward on June 1, with 275 wagons, 2,500 head of livestock, and a number of emigrants. It took 100 days for the group to reach El Paso, where they established the new post in the heart of the city. The post, later renamed Fort Bliss, has become one of the nation's major air-defense centers and is a strong influence in the El Paso County area.

In January 1850 the Texas legislature subdivided Santa Fe County into four smaller counties, one of which was named El Paso County; and in February 1850 Robert Neighbors arrived again in El Paso in another attempt to organize the area. This time his efforts were successful, and San Elizario, the ancient Spanish presidio town, was chosen to be the county seat. With its population of 1,200 San Elizario was at the time the county's largest town and possibly the largest settlement between San Antonio and the West Coast. Parts of the original county were subsequently stripped away from Texas as part of the Compromise of 1850, passed by the United States Congress in November of that year. In its resulting form the county also included the present Hudspeth and Culberson counties; Culberson was separated in 1912 and Hudspeth in 1917. By 1860 El Paso county had a population of 4,456 and a fairly extensive agricultural base; more than 12,300 acres in the county was planted in corn, and almost 17,000 acres was planted in wheat; the agricultural census for that year also found 7,253 sheep, 2,953 milk cows, and 2,049 other cattle in the county. Slavery was an almost insignificant factor in El Paso County's agricultural economy, however, since there were only fifteen slaves in the area at that time.

Nevertheless, in February 1861 county citizens voted almost unanimously to support secession. Though the county was occupied by both Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War, it saw little actual combat. Fort Bliss was surrendered peacefully to the Confederates soon after secession; later that year an expedition under Confederate general Henry H. Sibley marched from Fort Bliss, intent upon claiming all of New Mexico and Arizona for the Confederacy. The expedition failed, and when the Confederates returned to the pass they found that the California Column, commanded by Brig. Gen. James H. Carleton, was beginning to arrive to reclaim the area for the Union. It remained in Union hands for the remainder of the war. Despite its relative isolation during the Civil War, the county was economically disrupted during the conflict and for several years afterward. As late as 1870 the United States Agricultural Census found only one farm in the county, and crop production that year was insignificant. Gone, too, were the thousands of sheep that had ranged in the area before the war, and the census counted only two milk cows in the county. By 1880, however, the economy was recovering. The agricultural census for that year counted 279 farms and ranches encompassing almost 20,000 acres of land in the county; wheat was planted on more than 2,500 acres, and local farmers were also growing corn, barley, oats, and rye. Livestock were slowly being replenished; the census reported 613 sheep, 397 milk cows, and 844 cattle in the county, further evidence of economic revival.

Though the Republican party dominated county politics until 1886, the county was convulsed during this period by political conflicts, such as the Salt War of San Elizario of 1877. Although on the surface this was a struggle over rights to salt from the salt beds 100 miles to the east, it was primarily a conflict between political factions. It came to a bitter climax of riot and murder in the streets of San Elizario. One result of the conflict was that Fort Bliss, temporarily not in use, was quickly regarrisoned, to be a part of El Paso County life from that time forward. Postwar county politics also featured a protracted county-seat war. In 1866 the county's government was moved from San Elizario to Ysleta, one of the oldest settlements in the county. Then, in 1868, San Elizario again became county seat; it retained the role until 1873, when another election made Ysleta county seat. In 1883, after yet another hotly contested election, El Paso became the county seat.

The decision to make El Paso the seat of government reflected, in part, that city's growing importance as an international transportation hub during a period of rapid economic development in the county. In 1881 four railroads (the Santa Fe, the Texas and Pacific, the Southern Pacific, and the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio) built their way into the county; the next year the tracks of the Mexican Central also reached the city. The arrival of the railroads helped El Paso County, already a crossroads of transportation, burgeon into a major metropolitan area. Its population of 3,845 in 1880 grew to 15,678 in 1890, to 24,886 in 1900, and to 101,877 in 1920. By opening the area to immigration and outside markets, the railroads also helped to stimulate farming and ranching in the county. After a brief downturn in the 1880s, a difficult decade for farmers throughout Texas and the Southwest, the agricultural sector of El Paso's economy grew steadily during the 1890s and the first years of the twentieth century. The number of farms in the area increased from 196 in 1890 to 318 in 1900, then to 669 in 1910. Cattle ranching became more important than ever for the county's economy during this period, as the number of cattle in the county increased from 1,631 in 1890 to almost 95,000 in 1910. Meanwhile, farmers grew increasingly large crops of sorghum and other feed grains; by 1910, for example, almost 10,000 acres of land in the county was planted in sorghum. Local farmers also planted tens of thousands of fruit trees during this period, including 9,970 pear trees. Poultry also began to be a significant part of the farming economy during this time; by 1910 birds raised for eggs or meat numbered more than 14,200 in El Paso County. The agricultural sector suffered a brief downturn in the that decade, but in the 1920s a cotton boom led to a significant increase in the number of farms in the county. Little if any cotton had been planted in the county in 1900, and only 1,548 acres was devoted to the crop as late as 1920. By 1929, however, cotton was raised on more than 46,300 acres win the county. Poultry production similarly increased during the 1920s; in 1929, for example, county farms fed more than 57,300 chickens, and more than 377,000 dozen eggs were sold by farmers. Fruit production also accelerated, and by 1929 there were over 122,000 fruit trees in cultivation in the county. Meanwhile, the number of farms in El Paso County rose quickly to 1,035 by 1925 and to 1,263 by 1929.

The county's economy and its society diversified in other directions during this period, too. In 1880, the year before the arrival of the railroads, only 4 manufacturing establishments, employing 423 workers, were operating in El Paso County. By 1890 there were 73 manufacturers in the county; by 1900, there were 143; and by 1930, there were 160, which together employed 6,224 workers. The completion of Elephant Butte Dam on the Rio Grande in New Mexico in 1916 contributed to both farming and manufacturing, and brought electricity to thousands of residents. The enlargement of Fort Bliss during the World War I also helped the area to prosper. The population of El Paso County grew from 15,678 in 1890 to 24,886 in 1900, 52,599 in 1910, and 131,957 in 1930. Manufacturers, farmers, and workers all suffered through the Great Depression of the 1930s. Cotton production dropped more than 30 percent from 1929 to 1940, for example, and the number of farms in El Paso County decreased from 1,263 to 1,075. Meanwhile, the number of factories in the county declined from 160 in 1930 to 132 in 1940, throwing thousands of workers out of their jobs; in 1940 only 3,081 people worked for manufacturers in the county. The county's population as a whole also declined slightly during the depression, to 131,067. World War II, and especially the considerable enlargement of Fort Bliss during the war, helped the area to recover and begin a new cycle of growth. After the 1940s the number of manufacturing establishments grew. In 1947, for example, there were 148 manufacturers in the county employing 6,167 workers; by 1963 the county had 251 manufacturing establishments employing 14, 916 workers; and by 1982 there were 471 manufacturers in the county employing about 38,300 workers. Meanwhile, the county population increased to 194,968 by 1950, to 314,070 by 1969, to 359,291 in 1970, to 479,899 in 1980, and to an estimated 591,610 in 1992.

Most of the voters in El Paso County supported the Democratic candidates in virtually every presidential election from 1852 through 1948; the only exception occurred in 1880, when Republican James Garfield carried the county. The Republicans became more competitive in the area after 1952, however, when Dwight D. Eisenhower won most of the county’s votes. Though the Democratic candidates carried the area in 1960, 1964, 1976, and in every election from 1988 through 2004, Republicans took the county’s presidential vote in 1956, 1972, 1980, and 1984.

Modern El Paso County is fronted, just across the Rio Grande, with another metropolitan area, Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, the largest Mexican city on the border (estimated population in 1985: 750,000). The two populations shared the experiences of Civil War in the United States and of the Mexican Revolution. The blending of two cultures is everywhere present on both sides of the border. More than 60 percent of the residents of El Paso County have Spanish surnames. In private life and in the public schools, there are constant efforts to make the population bilingual. Problems, of course, are many. Mexico, beset in the 1980s by inflation and unemployment, saw its citizens moving, legally and illegally, toward an anticipated better life in the United States. Thousands of aliens crossing the river without authorization were captured monthly and sent back to their own country, but a larger number succeeded in entering Texas. On the positive side, border commerce gives rich benefits to both countries. A relatively recent development is the "twin plants" concept, in which United States industries have twin operations in Mexico, where the labor-intensive part of the work is carried on (see MAQUILADORAS). A large supply of skilled and unskilled labor provides El Paso with a varied industrial base. The city is one of the nation's principal centers for the manufacture of outdoor clothing and boots. Smelting, copper and oil refining, railroad operations, and a large and varied retail trade join with government and military activities to provide an ever-changing variety of employment.

The U.S. census counted 883,487 people living in El Paso County in 2014. About 81.1 percent were Hispanic, 13.5 percent were Anglo, and 4 percent were African American. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 66 percent had completed high school, and 17 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century government and military installations (including Fort Bliss), wholesale and retail distribution, higher education, food processing, and various manufacturing concerns were important elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 600 farms and ranches, and farmers and ranchers in the area earned $67,884,000; livestock sales accounted for $38,854,000 of the total. Dairy products, cattle, cotton, pecans, onions, forage, and peppers were the chief agricultural products.

The city of El Paso (population, 669,882) is the county’s seat of government, by far its largest population center, and the home of the University of Texas at El Paso. Other communities include Fabens (8,387), Tornillo (1,572), Clint (961), San Elizario (14,230), Socorro (32,468), Horizon City (19,266), Canutillo (6,714), Anthony (5,262), and Sparks (4,874).

Educationally and culturally, El Paso County does much to substantiate its claim as "a land of better living." It is the site of the University of Texas at El Paso and El Paso Community College. Public museums include the El Paso Museum of Art, Wilderness Park Museum, and the El Paso Museum of History. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department operates Hueco Tanks State Historical Park, a historic landmark with relics of the historic and prehistoric past. The National Park Service operates the Chamizal National Memorial, an international cultural center. A professional symphony orchestra, a ballet company, and several theater companies provide a variety of entertainment. The annual musical and historical drama Viva El Paso is presented each summer in the McKelligon Canyon Amphitheater. A wide variety of sports is highlighted by Minor League baseball, Western Athletic Conference competition, and the annual Sun Bowl, one of the nation's oldest midwinter football games, with its attendant Sun Carnival attractions.

Conrey Bryson, The Land Where We Live: El Paso del Norte (El Paso: Aniversario del Paso '73, 1973). Eugene O. Porter, San Elizario (Austin: Jenkins, 1973). C. L. Sonnichsen, Pass of the North: Four Centuries on the Rio Grande (2 vols., El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1968, 1980). W. H. Timmons, El Paso: A Borderlands History (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1990).


  • Counties
  • Southwest Texas

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

Conrey Bryson, “El Paso County,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 26, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/el-paso-county.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

September 11, 2019