J. Evetts Haley, historian, rancher, and political activist, was born in Belton, Texas, on July 5, 1901, to John Alva and Julia (Evetts) Haley. The family moved in 1906 to Midland, where John Haley established a hardware business and later a hotel. He also purchased a small ranch near town and a larger one east of the Pecos in Loving and Winkler counties. As a boy, Evetts worked on area ranches and competed at local rodeos. In the fall of 1920 he entered Midland College, where he excelled in both academics and athletics, winning a letter in football. When that college closed the following year, Haley transferred to West Texas Normal College at Canyon. There he became senior class president and served as business manager and columnist for the school newspaper, the Prairie, and as editor-in-chief of the annual, Le Mirage. Upon graduating in 1925, he was appointed field secretary of the Panhandle Plains Historical Society and began interviewing pioneers and gathering artifacts and archival material, including the voluminous and important XIT Ranch papers. In the fall of 1925, Haley entered graduate school at the University of Texas, where he studied under Eugene C. Barker. After completing a thesis on Texas cattle trails, he received a master's degree in history in 1926 and resumed his duties with the Panhandle Plains Historical Society.
In 1927 officials of the former Capitol Freehold Land and Investment Company commissioned the twenty-six-year-old scholar to write a history of the XIT Ranch. Haley's critically acclaimed The XIT Ranch of Texas and the Early Days of the Llano Estacado, which appeared two years later, established the author as a premier interpreter of the western range cattle industry. The book, however, was also the subject of libel suits totaling $2.2 million. The first of these actions was tried in state district court in Lubbock in 1931. Although acquitted of the charges, Haley and his co-defendants subsequently agreed to withdraw the book from the market and paid the plaintiffs $17,500 to settle all pending claims. By this time Haley was hard at work on the biography of legendary Texas rancher Charles Goodnight, whom he had first met in 1925. In the fall of 1929 the University of Texas hired Haley to establish an archival field program. During the Great Depression, he headed the Texas Historical Records Survey. He published major articles in such diverse journals and magazines as the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Southwest Review, Ranch Romances, Nature, and the Panhandle-Plains Historical Review. He wrote thirteen articles for the Cattleman alone between 1925 and 1949 and, from 1947 to 1964, a series of more than three dozen historical sketches for the Shamrock, a publication of the Shamrock Oil and Gas Corporation. In 1936 Houghton Mifflin published Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman, a masterwork that further enhanced Haley's reputation as an writer and scholar. That same year, he also coordinated the UT history department exhibits commemorating the Texas Centennial.
During the early 1930s Haley became an increasingly vocal opponent of the New Deal policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration. After being elected chairman of the Jeffersonian Democrats of Texas, a conservative anti-Roosevelt faction of the Democratic party, Haley directed that organization's political activities during the 1936 presidential campaign. In September the University of Texas, citing budgetary constraints and a shortage of grant funds, did not renew his contract. Haley contended that he was fired for political reasons. Bitter and exhausted, he returned to the Panhandle to recuperate. Early the following year he accepted a commission to write the biography of Texas banker-cattleman George W. Littlefield under a grant from the Littlefield Fund for Southern History at the University of Texas, and to undertake the biography of frontier lawman Jefferson Davis Milton for Houghton Mifflin. In 1937 he also became manager of the Zeebar Cattle Company in Arizona, owned by Texan L. L. Dent, and purchased a small ranch of his own, the JH, in Hutchinson County. He later managed the Atarque and Clochintoh Ranches in New Mexico for Dent and W. A. Wrather. In 1939 J. M. West hired Haley to manage an extensive ranching enterprise that stretched from Clear Lake, near Houston, to the Chupadero on the lower Rio Grande, to the Figure 2 in West Texas. He served in this capacity until West's death in 1942, at which time Haley again returned to the Panhandle. In 1943 the University of Oklahoma Press released Haley's George W. Littlefield, Texan. The next year the Texas State Historical Association published Charles Schreiner, General Merchandise, a short biography of a Kerrville businessman. This book marked the first of many distinguished collaborations between the author and El Paso book designer and printer J. Carl Hertzog, Sr.
In the early 1940s Haley became embroiled in a controversy between University of Texas president Homer P. Rainey and the UT Board of Regents over the issues of academic freedom and university governance. Haley sided with the regents and produced a series of essays, published in the San Antonio Express and subsequently issued in a pamphlet entitled The University of Texas and the Issue. In 1948, Haley completed his fourth major biography, Jeff Milton, A Good Man with a Gun. An important regional study, Fort Concho and the Texas Frontier, won Haley a literary award from the Sons of the Republic of Texas four years later. During the early 1950s, Haley served as president of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Society and became the first director of the Institute of Americanism at Texas Technological College. He resigned the latter position in 1955 but accepted Governor R. Allan Shivers's appointment to the Texas Tech Board of Regents. During his tenure Haley was instrumental in establishing a history archive known as the Southwest Collection. He also continued to expand his ranching operations by purchasing range near Sallisaw, Oklahoma, in 1952.
Haley ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1956 on a platform that endorsed segregation and states' rights and opposed labor unions and federal price controls on natural gas. The following year he and other conservative Texans formed the political action group Texans for America. Haley was elected state chairman. During this same period the federal government charged him and his son with violating the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1936 by exceeding their wheat acreage allotment on their Oklahoma ranch. The Supreme Court eventually heard the case and overturned a lower court ruling favoring the Haleys. Never far from the political arena, Haley was both lionized and vilified for his best-selling polemic, A Texan Looks at Lyndon, issued during the 1964 presidential election campaign. He continued to support conservative candidates and causes. In 1976 he completed his last major book, a family chronicle entitled Rough Times-Tough Fiber: A Fragmentary Family Chronicle. Haley's library and personal papers became the cornerstone of the Nita Stewart Haley Memorial Library, opened that year in Midland. Haley received many honors, including investiture in the Knights of the Order of San Jacinto by the Sons of the Republic of Texas in 1978, an Award of Merit from the American Association of State and Local History in 1981, induction into the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center (Oklahoma City) in 1990, and similar recognition by the Heritage Hall of Fame at the State Fair of Texas in 1994.
He married Mary Vernita Stewart, a college drama teacher, on August 27, 1928, in Alpine. The couple had one son, born in 1931. After his wife died in 1958, Haley remained unmarried until 1970, when he married Rosalind Kress Frame in Savannah, Georgia. He died in Midland on October 9, 1995, and was buried in Moffat Cemetery, Bell County, Texas.