Jim Wells County is on U.S. Highway 281 west of Corpus Christi in the Rio Grande Plain region of South Texas. It is bordered by Live Oak and San Patricio counties on the north, Nueces and Kleberg counties on the east, Brooks County on the south, and Duval County on the west. Alice, the county seat and largest town, is located near the center of the county at 27°39' north latitude and 98°05' west longitude. Other communities include Orange Grove, Ben Bolt, Sandia, and Premont. The county covers 845 square miles. The terrain is flat, with elevations ranging from 200 to 400 feet. Soils are generally light to dark, with loamy surfaces over reddish, clayey subsoils and limestone forty inches below the surface. Gray to black, cracking, clayey soils are also found in some areas. The county's vegetation is typical of the South Texas Plains region, with grasslands, mesquite, post oak, live oak, and cacti predominating. Between 41 and 50 percent of the county is considered prime farmland. Natural resources include caliche, industrial sand, oil, and gas. The climate is subtropical-humid. Heavy rains from weakening tropical storms are common from June through October. Temperatures range from 44° F to 68° in January and 74° to 96° in July. The average annual temperature is 72°. Rainfall averages twenty-eight inches a year. Snow almost never occurs. The growing season lasts for 304 days of the year, with the last freeze in mid-February and the first freeze in early December.
The area that is now Jim Wells County has been the site of human habitation for perhaps 11,000 years. Among the oldest artifacts found in the region are stone implements and human remains dating from the Paleo-Indian period (9200 to 6000 B.C.). During the Archaic period (6000 B.C. to A.D. 1000) the local Indian population seems to have increased, and small bands of hunter-gatherers apparently spent time in the area. During this period the inhabitants subsisted mostly on game, wild fruits, seeds, and roots. Tools were carved from wood and stone by these early peoples, who also wove baskets and made rabbit-skin clothing. The hunting and gathering life persisted into the Late Prehistoric period (A.D. 1000 to the arrival of the Spanish), though during this time the Indians in the area, who included the Chaguanes and Payuguans, learned to make pottery and hunted with bows and arrows. These early groups, who belonged to the Coahuiltecan linguistic group, were driven out by the Lipan Apaches by 1775.
Occasional Spanish expeditions crossed the area during the early eighteenth century, but the region remained uninhabited by Europeans until around 1754, when Tomás Sánchez, a captain from Laredo, established a settlement at Peñitas Creek. The settlement fell within the Casa Blanca land grant issued in 1798 to Juan José de la Garza Montemayor. Garza received full title to the grant on April 2, 1807, and he and his heirs occupied the land until the early 1850s. Only one other land grant was made in the future Jim Wells County during the Spanish colonial era, the Santa Gertrudis grant, which was issued to José Lorenzo, José Domingo, and José Julián de la Garza on January 25, 1808. In Mexican Texas seventeen land grants were made in the area, most of them to sheep and cattle ranchers from the Rio Grande valley. The population grew rapidly during the early 1830s, but subsequently, hostile Indians and the political turmoil that followed the Texas Revolution persuaded many families to abandoned their ranches and return to Mexico. After Texas independence the area was part of the disputed territory between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, but with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 it became part of the state of Texas. Originally the site of the future Jim Wells County fell under the jurisdiction of San Patricio County, but a short time later it was incorporated into newly formed Nueces County.
Anglo settlement in the region was slow at first but increased after the Civil War. Collins, the first sizable American settlement, was established in 1878. The town, located about three miles east of the site of present-day Alice, became a stop on the Corpus Christi, San Diego and Rio Grande Narrow Gauge Railroad, when tracks were laid through the area the following year. By 1885 Collins had a post office and five stores. But a few years later, when the Texas and New Orleans bypassed the town, the buildings were loaded onto train cars and moved to the junction of the new road with the Texas-Mexican Railway, three miles to the west. The new town, originally known as Bandana, was renamed Alice and soon became the busiest shipping point for cattle in South Texas.
Because of the long distance residents had to travel in order to conduct business at the county seat in Corpus Christi, they petitioned for the formation of a separate county. The request was approved by the legislature in early 1911, and the county's first commissioners' court meeting was held on March 18, 1911. The new county was formally organized in 1912, and named for James B. Wells, Jr., who played an important role in the economic development of the lower Rio Grande valley. When the county was established, its population of 887 was chiefly resident in Alice, which was made county seat. Jim Wells County was divided into school districts in 1914. By 1920 the population was estimated at 6,587.
During the early years of the twentieth century cattle raising remained the primary industry in the county. But after 1910 large-scale farming began, and by 1920 cotton, sorghum, peanuts, corn, cowpeas, and flaxseed were being grown in sizable quantities. The introduction of diversified farming changed the county from the last frontier of South Texas to a center of production. Sorghum and cotton production have long been the mainstays of the county's agricultural economy. Already by 1920, the county had 2,242 acres planted in sorghum and 13,844 acres planted in cotton. Sorghum production gradually increased during the 1920s and 1930s, and by 1940 occupied 29,014 acres that yielded an estimated 35,385 bushels. Cotton production, too, grew during the early years of the county's existence, and by the late 1920s amounted to more than 20,000 bales annually; it fell during the Great Depression, but rebounded after World War II and remained one of the area's leading agricultural pursuits. In the early 1990s about 85 percent of the county was farms and ranches, with 30 percent of the farmland under cultivation and 10 percent irrigated. Besides cotton and sorghum, other major crops included hay, corn, and wheat. The county was also among the leaders in the state for watermelons, and grapefruit and oranges were grown in significant quantities. Ranching continued to be a major emphasis; livestock, primarily cattle, and livestock products still accounted for more than half of all agricultural receipts.
Oil was discovered in the county in 1931, and oil and natural gas production became and remained leading nonfarm industries, despite the falling prices of the 1980s. Annual oil production in the early 1990s was nearly 800,000 barrels; between 1933 and January 1, 1991, 457,243,288 barrels were produced, making the county one of the all-time leaders in oil production among Texas counties.
Like most South Texas counties, Jim Wells County has always been firmly in the Democratic fold. From the time of its formation through 2004 Democrats won every presidential election except for those of 1956 and 1972. Local county politics were long dominated by a political machine. The first political boss in the area was Archer Parr, who was based in what became Duval County. After his retirement his son George B. Parr, the "Duke of Duval," took over as political boss. He made neighboring Duval County his base, but his influence, like his father's, extended into Jim Wells County. Parr's control of the county political scene was never better in evidence than during the infamous 1948 Democratic senatorial primary, which pitted Lyndon Baines Johnson against Governor Coke Stevenson. Johnson, who was behind by a small margin after the initial vote count, reportedly contacted Parr, who in turn arranged for the ballot box from Precinct 13 in Alice to be "corrected." The box added 203 votes for Johnson, who by a thin margin of only eighty-seven votes defeated Stevenson for the nomination. The Parr machine maintained its control by rewarding its supporters and punishing its detractors. One of the most infamous incidents involving county politics was the 1952 murder of twenty-two-year-old Jacob "Buddy" Floyd, Jr. Buddy was the son of Jacob Floyd, Sr., one of the Parr regime's most outspoken critics. Apparently, some of Parr's supporters decided to quiet Floyd by having him killed; however, the hired assassins mistakenly murdered his son instead. The murder was investigated, and one man was apprehended and tried; however, according to Floyd and his supporters, the real culprits were never indicted for their crime. During the early 1960s a group of county women organized to clean up the county's politics, and, in a move deeply unpopular with local officials, requested that the state attorney general investigate voting fraud in the county. Several other investigations followed, but the power of the Parr machine did not finally decline until George Parr committed suicide in 1975.
Education levels have traditionally been quite low in Jim Wells County. As late as 1960 only 13.09 percent of county's adults had completed high school. Subsequently, the situation improved somewhat, but the county still lagged well below the statewide average. In the early 1990s the county had five school districts comprising twelve elementary, six middle, and four high schools. Although sparsely settled for much of its history, Jim Wells County grew steadily in population after 1930, from 13,456 that year to 34,548 in 1960, 36,498 in 1980, and 37,679 in 1990, when more than half (21,099) of its inhabitants lived in Alice. In 1990 Mexican Americans made up 72 percent of the population; the county was therefore near the top among all United States counties in Hispanic population.
The U.S. census counted 41,353 people living in Jim Wells County in 2014. About 79.3 percent were Hispanic and 19.2 percent were Anglo. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 75 percent had completed high school, and 11 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century oil and gas production, agriculture and nature tourism were important elements of the local economy. More than 195,900 barrels of oil, and 8,904,693 thousand cubic feet of gas well gas, were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 462,560,723 barrels of petroleum had been taken from county lands since 1931. In 2002 the county had 912 farms and ranches covering 497,880 acres, 53 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 40 percent to crops, and 5 percent to woodlands. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $47,334,000; livestock sales accounted for $34,054,000 of the total. Cattle, dairy products, goats, grain sorghum, wheat, corn, cotton, and vegetables were the chief agricultural products.
Alice (population, 19,682) is the county’s largest town and its seat of government. Other communities include Premont (2,710), Rancho Alegre (1,747), Orange Grove (1,366), Sandia (382), and Pernitas Point (274, partly in Live Oak County). Numerous boating and fishing facilities and year-round hunting opportunities attract visitors to the county. Alice hosts the annual Fiesta Bandana celebration and is home to a South Texas museum and the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame.