Hudspeth County, in the Trans-Pecos region of far-western Texas, is bordered by New Mexico to the north, the Mexican state of Chihuahua to the south, El Paso County to the west, and Culberson and Jeff Davis counties to the east. Sierra Blanca, the county seat, is seventy miles southeast of El Paso in south central Hudspeth County. The county's center lies at approximately 31°32' north latitude and 105°28' west longitude, about twenty-four miles northwest of Sierra Blanca. Interstate Highway 10 and U.S. Highway 80 cross southern Hudspeth County from east to west, and U.S. highways 62 and 180 cross northern Hudspeth County from east to west. The Missouri Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads both enter southeastern Hudspeth County and meet at Sierra Blanca, from which point the latter line continues west to El Paso. The county covers 4,566 square miles of terrain in the Rio Grande basin that varies from mountainous to nearly level, with elevations ranging from 3,200 to 7,500 feet above sea level. Soils in the lower elevations are alkaline and loamy with clayey subsoils that overlie limestone in some areas; thin and stony soils predominate in the mountains, and along the Rio Grande clay and sandy loams predominate. Vegetation includes short, sparse grasses, creosote bush, scrub brush, mesquite, and cacti, with juniper, live oak, and piñon at the higher elevations. Among the minerals found in Hudspeth County are barite, beryllium, coal, copper, fluorspar, gold, gypsum, lead, limestone, mica, clay, salt, silver, talc, and zinc. The climate is subtropical, arid, warm, and dry, with an average minimum temperature of 29° in January and an average high temperature of 94° in July. The growing season averages 230 days a year, and the average annual precipitation is less than ten inches. Less than 1 percent of the land in Hudspeth County is considered prime farmland.
Petroglyphs, middens, and pottery from prehistoric peoples have been found at various springs in Hudspeth County. Artifacts found in the southern part suggest that Jornada Mogollón people (A.D. 900–1350) were practicing agriculture in the Rio Grande floodplain; the Salt Basin in northeastern Hudspeth County was occupied by hunter-gatherers during roughly the same period. The earliest accounts of Spanish exploration of the area that became Hudspeth County are from the Rodríguez-Sánchez expedition in 1581 and from Antonio de Espejo's expedition in the following year. The Rodríguez expedition encountered a group of friendly Indians who gave them presents, including macaw-feather bonnets, near the present site of Esperanza, and the Espejo expedition met some 200 Otomoaco Indians at a place the Spaniards called La Deseada ("Desired") in southeastern Hudspeth County.
A more ferocious group, the Mescalero Apaches, greeted later European travelers and explorers, who learned to avoid springs frequented by them. Among these was Indian Hot Springs, a sacred place to the Apaches, who used the medicinal water to heal wounds. Fray Nicolás López and Juan Dominguez de Mendoza passed the springs in 1683. Among the earliest Americans to cross the future county were John S. (Rip) Ford and Maj. Robert S. Neighbors in 1849 they stopped at a series of springs in southeastern Hudspeth County that Neighbors called Puerto de la Cola del Águila, Spanish for "Haven of the Eagle Tail." The springs, known as Eagle Spring, were a stop for stagecoaches and wagon trains from 1854 to 1882. Other important watering places for nineteenth-century travelers were Cottonwood Springs in northeastern Hudspeth County, where Capt. Francisco Amangual reportedly camped en route from San Elizario to San Antonio in 1808; Washburn and Persimmon Springs, in the Cornudas Mountains on the Texas-New Mexico line; Cove Spring, in the Sierra Tinaja Pinta in northern Hudspeth County; and Crow Springs, in northeastern Hudspeth County. (All ran dry in the 1950s, due to the lowering of the water table by agricultural practices.)
The California Gold Rush of 1849 intensified demands for trails to the west, and both the Butterfield Overland Mail and the San Antonio-El Paso Mail crossed the area in the 1850s. Fort Quitman was established in 1858 to provide protection for travelers on the latter route, which passed through southern Hudspeth County; the site of the fort, however, was already known to Forty-Niners as the first shade for hundreds of miles. Still, the area that is now Hudspeth County remained primarily a place that people passed through on the way to someplace else, or a place to be exploited.
Men from San Elizario and the other villages along the Rio Grande near El Paso had become dependent on the salt trade for their livelihoods. After the Civil War they broke a road from Fort Quitman to the Salt Basin in northeastern Hudspeth County. But Anglo politicians tried to capitalize on this trade by asserting ownership of the salt lakes and levying fees on the traders. The result was the Salt War of San Elizario, which heightened tensions between Mexicans and Americans in the 1870s. Two of the central figures in the controversy were Charles H. Howard and Louis Cardis, bitter political rivals in El Paso. Cardis, a stage-line subcontractor, owned the stage station at Fort Quitman. In June 1877 Howard almost killed Cardis there, but Cardis hid under a table and, Howard reported, he could not bring himself to shoot such a coward. (No such considerations kept him from pulling the trigger a few months later in El Paso.)
Another bloody episode involving Hudspeth County more directly was the long and often frustrating campaign by the United States Army and the Texas Rangers to control the Apaches. Under chief Victorio, a Warm Springs Apache who joined forces with the Mescaleros, the Apaches eluded their pursuers throughout the 1870s. Victorio himself was finally killed in Mexico in 1880, but not before his warriors had impressed all observers with their tactical brilliance. Perhaps the most notable encounter between the Apaches and their pursuers occurred in Hudspeth County on October 28, 1880, just two weeks after Victorio's death, when the Apaches killed seven "Buffalo Soldiers," members of the famous black Tenth United States Cavalry. A historical marker has been placed at their graves, near Indian Hot Springs, and their story was the subject of a 1970 movie starring O. J. Simpson.
After the Southern Pacific and Texas and Pacific railroads met a few miles south of Sierra Blanca Mountain in 1881, thereby completing the nation's second transcontinental railroad, a number of towns grew up along the tracks. The most important of these were Sierra Blanca and Allamoore. Meanwhile, along the Rio Grande, several agricultural communities grew up, including Esperanza, McNary, and Acala. In the early twentieth century Indian Hot Springs was a notable resort that numbered John D. Rockefeller, Sr., among its guests. Homesteaders moved to the area, especially north of Sierra Blanca, in the early 1900s, but had to fight dust, the lack of water, and a scarlet fever epidemic. Between 1912 and 1929 many Mexican families fled north across the Rio Grande to escape the prolonged internal struggle associated with the Mexican Revolution. During this period Lt. George Patton was among the United States soldiers summoned to protect American settlers in the area from the depredations of Francisco (Pancho) Villa.
A new county was officially organized from eastern El Paso County in February 1917. It was first to have been called Darlington County, then Turney County, before it was finally named for state senator Claude Benton Hudspeth of El Paso. Sierra Blanca was made the county seat, and the county courthouse there is the only one in Texas made entirely of adobe. In 1920 the new county had only 962 inhabitants, but ten years later the population had climbed to 3,728, due primarily to increased farming. During the 1920s the number of farms in Hudspeth County increased from thirty-five to 194; whereas in 1920 the county had only 160 improved acres, by 1930 some 15,700 acres of cropland was harvested. This was, however, the last population boom in Hudspeth County, as the population fell to 3,149 in 1940, rose to 4,298 in 1950, and then fell again, to 3,343 in 1960 and 2,392 in 1970, before rising slightly to 2,728 in 1980. Farming and ranching have been the primary sources of employment in Hudspeth County, although the number of people working in agriculture has, with one exception, declined steadily in every decadal census since 1930: 789 in 1930, 630 in 1940, 960 in 1950, 411 in 1960, 268 in 1970, and 139 in 1980. Ranching has been the principal activity in Hudspeth County; the national agricultural census showed between 20,000 and 26,000 cattle on local ranches every year except in 1959, when the total was 15,915. The number of sheep grew from 304 in 1920 to 3,456 in 1930, and to 31,338 ten years later, but declined in subsequent years, to 25,005 in 1950, 19,403 in 1959, and about 4,000 in 1982.
Farming in Hudspeth County has always been a struggle. Underground water was discovered in the late 1940s in the northeastern part of the county, setting off a minor agricultural boom in the Dell City area, but by the mid-1950s intensive pumping had significantly lowered the water table. Total gross income in the agricultural towns of Acala, Esperanza, McNary, and Fort Hancock, in southwestern Hudspeth County, fell from $5,701,810 in 1950 to $1,947,067 in 1954, due to the lack of salt-free water. During that period United Farms, just outside McNary, cut its workforce from 100 employees to three. In the early 1980s Hudspeth County ranked second in the state in production of American pima cotton and ninth in the production of hay and cantaloupes; other principal crops included sorghum, tomatoes, watermelons, peaches, and pecans.
Hudspeth County has generally been richer in minerals than in prime cropland and fresh water. In the early 1940s zinc was briefly produced in the Eagle Mountains, and from 1942 to 1950 the same area produced some 15,000 short tons of fluorspar. Coal has been found near Eagle Spring, and zinc, silver, molybdenum and tungsten have been found in the Quitman Mountains. Copper, feldspar, talc, mica, and richterite, a white, long-fibered amphibole asbestos, have been found near Allamoore, in southeastern Hudspeth County. Beryllium has been found near Sierra Blanca.
In 1990 Hudspeth County's population of only 2,915 made it one of the least populous counties in Texas. As of 2014, the population was 3,211. Because of its large area and small population, the county has been recommended repeatedly as a possible dumping ground for nuclear and other hazardous wastes. Local opposition, however, has been fierce, and state officials have opposed such plans. In 2014, 19.7 percent of the population was Anglo, 1.6 percent African American, and 77.9 percent Hispanic. Education levels are generally low, and those obtaining college degrees often leave the area. Historically the county has voted staunchly Democratic, but Republicans won the county in the 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1992 presidential contests. Although Sierra Blanca, with 567 residents in 2014, is the county seat, Dell City, with a population of 337, has assumed almost equal importance in local affairs. The largest city in the county is Fort Hancock, with 1,713 residents in 2014. The county's only weekly newspaper is published in Dell City, and the annual Hudspeth County Fair is held there every September.