Jeff Davis County, in the Trans-Pecos region of west Texas, is bordered by Culberson County to the northwest, Reeves and Pecos counties to the northeast, Brewster County to the southeast, and Presidio County to the southwest; the westernmost point of Jeff Davis County touches the Rio Grande. Fort Davis, the county seat and largest town, is 175 miles southeast of El Paso in southeastern Jeff Davis County. The county's center is about twenty miles northwest of Fort Davis at approximately 30°45' north latitude and 104°10' west longitude. Interstate Highway 10, U.S. Highway 80, and the Union Pacific Railroad cross the northern tip of Jeff Davis County, U.S. Highway 90 and anothe branch of the Union Pacific Railroad cross the western part of the county. State Highway 17 runs from north to south through eastern Jeff Davis County, and State Highway 118 runs from northwest to southeast across the central part of the county. Jeff Davis County comprises 2,258 square miles, varying from mountainous to nearly level, with elevations ranging from 3,800 to 8,378 feet above sea level; the latter, at the top of Mount Livermore, is the fifth highest elevation in the state. Jeff Davis County is in the Rio Grande basin. Soils in this predominantly mountainous county are generally thin and stony; in the valleys dark loams overlie clayey subsoils. Vegetation in the county includes scrub brush, cacti, grasses, live oak, piñon, and juniper, with Douglas fir, aspen, maple, ponderosa pine, and madrone at the higher elevations. Among the animals found (and hunted) in the county are mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn antelope, mountain lion, javelina, elk, coyote, bobcat, ringtailed cat, badger, fox, weasel, civet cat, raccoon, skunk, sandhill crane, jacksnipe, mourning dove, white-winged dove, and teal. Several animals considered rare or endangered in Texas are found in Jeff Davis County, including the silver-haired bat, shorthorn lizard, Steller's jay, Clark's nutcracker, and band-tailed pigeon. Mineral resources include barite, kaolin clay, lead, limestone, manganese, rhyolite, silver, fluorspar, and zeolite. The climate is subtropical-arid. The average minimum temperature in January is 32° F, and the average maximum temperature in July is 90°. The growing season averages 225 days a year, and the average annual precipitation is eighteen inches. Less than 1 percent of the land in the county is considered prime farmland.
Jeff Davis County is best known for the Davis Mountains, the highest mountain range located entirely within the state of Texas. Evidence of prehistoric peoples in these mountains includes a cache of some 1,200 Livermore arrow points, dating from around A.D. 1000. Prehistoric peoples camped at Phantom Lake Spring, in northeastern Jeff Davis County, and may have used the springs for irrigation. The earliest White man to set foot in what is now Jeff Davis County was Antonio de Espejo, who in 1583 trekked up Limpia Canyon and across the southwestern part of the county.
After European contact, however, the future county was left to the Mescalero Apaches for another 2½ centuries. In the middle of the nineteenth century, when American exploration and settlement began in earnest, the federal government sponsored efforts to make roads westward. In March 1849 lieutenants William H. C. Whiting and William F. Smith were sent out from San Antonio to look for a route. Upon reaching the Davis Mountains, the Whiting and Smith expedition was greeted by some 200 Apaches, who escorted them to a nearby village that the explorers called Painted Comanche Camp, perhaps mistaking their hosts for members of that tribe. More fortuitously, Whiting also named Wild Rose Pass, after the Demaree rose, which grows only in the Davis Mountains, and Limpia Creek, which was indeed a source of pure water, as its name (Spanish for "clean") implies. In June 1849 Lt. Col. Joseph E. Johnston, who later attained fame as a Confederate general, was sent to do more surveying of the Whiting-Smith route; he opened the first wagon road from San Antonio to El Paso through the Davis Mountains. Other military explorers were also in the area at this time, including Lt. Francis T. Bryan, Maj. Jefferson Van Horne, and S. G. French.
In 1850 Henry Skillman was awarded a contract for the San Antonio-El Paso Mail. He placed stage stands at three locations now in Jeff Davis County: Barrilla Springs, Barrel Springs, and El Muerto Spring. Big Foot (William A. A.) Wallace was among the men who escorted Skillman's first coach through the mountains, as was Diedrick Dutchover, a Belgian immigrant who had fought in the Mexican War. The Lower or Military Road, the principle east-west road through the Davis Mountains, opened by Joseph E. Johnston in 1849, passed through the area; it was a primary route of the Forty-Niners and later travelers to California. Two thousand emigrant wagons used the road in 1858. It was the main route for freighters from Indianola to Chihuahua via San Antonio, and from 1850 to 1854 saw a steady stream of cattle drives bound for California from Central Texas ranches. At least ten herds of longhorn cattle (most numbering a thousand head each) passed through Limpia Canyon in the summer of 1854.
On May 19, 1854, John James, a San Antonio land speculator, filed on a section of land that included the site of Painted Comanche Camp. James, who had no doubt heard that the government wanted to establish a military post in the area, then leased his land to the United States at $300 a year for twenty years. On October 3, 1854, Lt. Col. Washington Seawell and troops of the Eighth United States Infantry arrived at Limpia Creek from Fort Ringgold, in Starr County. Four days later they reached Painted Comanche Camp, where they set about building a military post at a site selected by Gen. Persifor F. Smith. On October 23 the order establishing Fort Davis, named for Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, was issued. Thus began the first phase in the development of the town of Fort Davis, a phase that ended with the outbreak of the Civil War. The fort quickly became the focal point for an influx of civilians, whose rough settlement to the south, first known as Chihuahua, attracted the usual variety of merchants, gamblers, saloonkeepers, prostitutes, and adventurers. Dutchover established a small sheep ranch near the fort. Another early settler was Manuel Músquiz, reportedly a political refugee from Mexico, who established a ranch in what came to be known as Musquiz Canyon, southeast of the fort.
After the outbreak of the Civil War, John R. Baylor and the Second Texas Confederate Cavalry took over Fort Davis without firing a shot, as the army troops stationed there meekly obeyed the orders of Brig. Gen. David E. Twiggs to abandon the post. The Mescalero Apaches were unimpressed; they took advantage of the disruption caused by the conflict to step up their attacks on the Whites who had invaded their territory. The Confederates tried to win the favor of Mescalero chief Nicolás, whom Colonel McCarty convinced to go to El Paso to meet with Colonel Baylor; but on the way back, at Barrel Springs, Nicolás grabbed McCarty's gun, jumped from the wagon, and fled down a nearby canyon. Two troopers who gave chase were killed, and McCarty fled to the relative safety of Fort Davis. A few days later the Mescaleros under Chief Nicolás attacked Fort Davis, killed three people, and drove off all the stock. The Confederates could not let such audacity go unpunished, and so fourteen men under Lt. Ruben E. Mayes set out from Fort Davis to track down Nicolás. They followed the Indians through Musquiz Canyon to Mitre Peak, then on past Cathedral Peak below Alpine to the vicinity of the Rio Grande. On August 9 Mayes finally caught up with Nicolás, with disastrous results; the Mescaleros lured the pursuing soldiers into a narrow canyon, then loosed an ambush in which every member of Mayes's detachment was killed except one Mexican scout, who returned to report the disaster. The bodies of the unfortunate soldiers were never found, and the exact location of the slaughter is still unknown. Shortly after this embarrassing episode the Confederates abandoned Fort Davis altogether, leaving Dutchover, who had maintained strict wartime neutrality, in charge. Nicolás attacked immediately, but Dutchover and four or five companions escaped and made their way on foot to Presidio, some eighty miles to the southwest.
After the Confederate defeat at the battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico, Confederate troops quit far West Texas in the summer of 1862, stopping at the abandoned fort on their way east. Four troops of the Ninth United States Cavalry reoccupied the fort on July 1, 1867, and subsequently Fort Davis became "the most important town in the Trans-Pecos country," attracting a new generation of settlers in the late 1860s and 1870s. Among them were Whitaker Keesey, a baker who became the leading merchant in Fort Davis; his brother O. M. Keesey, who became the first county judge; and ordnance sergeant Charles Mulhern, a native of Ireland who eventually became a leading local landowner. Meanwhile, under their chiefs Espejo and Victorio, the Apaches had launched a new series of attacks against White settlers and travelers throughout the area. During the 1870s Fort Davis was the center of Col. Benjamin H. Grierson's operations against the Apaches, and by 1880 the army had virtually eliminated the Indian threat.
The prosperity that accompanied the return of the troops led to the organization of Presidio County, which had been formed out of El Paso County in 1850. Two previous attempts to organize it had failed. Finally, on May 12, 1871, the county was organized, with Fort Davis as the county seat. In 1882, however, when the Southern Pacific built through the area, it bypassed Fort Davis. The residents of Marfa thought that their town, which was on the railroad, should be the county seat. A new election was held on July 14, 1885, and although the results were disputed, Marfa won. The residents of Fort Davis immediately called for a new county, and on March 15, 1887, an act of the state legislature established Jeff Davis County. "Thank God," said one legislator, "that at last we have a Texas county named in honor of the president of the Confederacy." Fort Davis was again a county seat, but the rivalry with Marfa continued as a dispute about the county line. The boundary quarrel, eventually decided in the courts, was not settled until January 1905, when Jesse W. Merrill and S. A. Thompson surveyed a new county line.
The 1880s brought a number of cattle ranchers to Jeff Davis County, many fleeing a Texas fever epidemic in other parts of the state. The towns of Valentine and Chispa, in western Jeff Davis County, were founded along the Southern Pacific, and became supply centers for the ranchers who began to fill in the wide-open spaces in that part of the county. Among them were John Z. Means, D. T. Finley, Henry Mayfield, Jim Tally, George Medley, and Cook Moore. Meanwhile, settlers in and around Fort Davis included Nick Mersfelder, David and Jesse W. Merrill, Pat Dolan, the McCutcheons, Robert S. Sproul, Tiburcio Granado, José Salsido, Felipe Domínguez, and Henry Harrison Powe. Powe, a one-armed Confederate veteran, figured in two of the most notable incidents of this period. His nephew and adopted son, Horace Oliver Powe, disappeared one winter night before a dance at Fort Davis. Horace's body, riddled with eleven bulletholes, was found three weeks later, sitting against a boulder in what came to be called Dead Man's Canyon. The identity of his murderer was never established, although a neighboring cattleman named Brown disappeared around the same time. A few years later, in January 1891, several local ranchers held a roundup near Leoncita Springs, about thirty miles east of Fort Davis in northern Brewster county. The firm of Dubois and Wentworth sent a man named Fine Gilliland to make sure that none of the ranchers appropriated any of the company's cattle. On January 28 a brindle bull yearling, unbranded, was found without its mother. Powe believed that the bull belonged to a cow with his HHP brand, but Gilliland disagreed and a gunfight ensued. Gilliland killed Powe and fled on horseback, but was himself killed a few days later in a shootout with two Texas Rangers. Meanwhile, the cowboys branded "MURDER" on one side of the yearling and "JAN 28 91" on the other.
Despite the influx of cattlemen in the 1880s, Jeff Davis County has always been sparsely populated. It had 1,394 residents in 1890, 1,150 in 1900, 1,678 in 1910, 1,445 in 1920, 1,800 in 1930, 2,375 in 1940, 2,090 in 1950, 1,582 in 1960, 1,527 in 1970, 1,647 in 1980, and 1,946 in 1990. Fort Davis is by far the largest town in the county; indeed, in the 1980s it and Valentine were the only two towns in the county. The railroad crew founded Valentine, in southwestern Jeff Davis County, in December 1881. Valentine became a division point on the Southern Pacific, but never grew much beyond 500 inhabitants. The only other two towns in Jeff Davis County were Chispa and Madera Springs. Chispa, in northwestern Jeff Davis County, also owed its founding to the Southern Pacific, but by the 1970s was nothing more than a railroad siding. Madera Springs was founded in the 1920s as a resort, but the water source that gave the place its name dried up, and by 1970 Madera Springs was known as the smallest town in Texas, with a population of two.
The absence of a railroad link and the army's abandonment of the military post in 1891 deprived Fort Davis of two potential sources of prosperity. Ranching and tourism have been the main industries in the county since its founding. In 1890 Jeff Davis County had 61,025 cattle, the fifteenth-highest number in the state. That total climbed to 74,961 in 1910, but the next several decades saw a general decline in cattle, to 48,681 in 1940 and 28,136 in 1959. In 1982, however, cattle numbered 37,097. Sheep and goats have also been an important part of the local economy. The number of sheep in the county fell from 25,300 in 1890 to only twelve ten years later, but in subsequent years the total climbed again, to 707 in 1910, 10,147 in 1930, 65,811 in 1940, and 109,220 in 1950. Sheep numbered 42,492 in 1959 and 15,344 in 1969; by the time of the 1982 agricultural census sheep raising was considered statistically insignificant in the county. The number of goats, on the other hand, rose steadily until the early 1970s, growing from 829 in 1900 to 4,667 in 1910, 9,014 in 1930, 11,803 in 1940, 22,422 in 1950, 28,898 in 1959, and 54,039 in 1969. Subsequently, the number of goats fell until they too were no longer raised in significant numbers in the county. Farming has never been a major factor in the local economy, although Jeff Davis County did rank tenth in the state in the production of barley in the 1980s. Other crops that have been grown in the county include pears, grapes, cotton, plums, prunes, apples, sorghum, peaches, and pecans, although not in significant quantities.
The population of Jeff Davis County has always included a significant number of Mexican Americans; in 1890 more than a fifth of the population had been born in Mexico, and in 1930, 58 percent of the population of 1,800 was classified as "Mexican." In that year 30.7 percent of Jeff Davis County residents over the age of ten were illiterate, the fourth-highest percentage in the state. In 1960, 33 percent of the county's 794 residents over the age of twenty-five had completed at least four years of high school, and by 1980 that total had risen to 55 percent. In the 1980s the county ranked forty-fourth among United States counties in percentage of residents of Hispanic origin, with nearly 47 percent. The next largest ancestry groups were English (22 percent), Germans (14 percent), and Irish (14 percent).
Most voters in Jeff Davis County supported the Republican presidential candidates in every election from 1883 (the first year the area participated in a national election) through 1900, but political loyalties shifted during the early twentieth century. After 1904, when Democrat Alton Parker carried the county, the Democratic candidates took the area in almost every election through 1948; the only exception occurred in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover won most of the county’s votes. Republican presidential candidates became more competitive there after 1956, when Dwight D. Eisenhower carried the area. Though Democrats won there in 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1976, the Republican candidates carried the county in 1956, 1972, and in every presidential election from 1980 through 2004.
The U.S. census counted 2,204 people living in Jeff Davis County in 2014. About 62.2 percent were Anglo, 34.5 percent were Hispanic, and 1.6 percent African American. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 75 percent had completed high school, and 35 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century tourism, ranching, and nursery plants were important elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 79 ranches covering 1,488,732 acres, 96 percent of which were devoted to pasture. That year ranchers and farmers in the area earned $6,365,000; livestock sales accounted for $6,219,000 of the total. Beef cattle, nursery plants, apples, and grapes were the chief agricultural products.
Fort Davis (population, 1,168) is the county’s seat of government and Valentine (124) is its only other town. In the early 1990s and into the early twenty-first century tourism was more important than ever before to the Jeff Davis County economy. Points of interest in the Fort Davis area include the Davis Mountains State Park, Fort Davis National Historic Site, and the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute arboretum. A seventy-four-mile scenic highway loop takes motorists through the Davis Mountains, in which are Mount Livermore and the University of Texas McDonald Observatory on Mount Locke. The best-known annual event in Jeff Davis County is the Bloys Camp Meeting, originated in 1890 by William Benjamin Bloys and held in Skillman Grove, about sixteen miles southwest of Fort Davis.