Presidio County is in the Trans-Pecos region of southwest Texas and is named for the ancient border settlement of Presidio del Norte. Presidio County is triangular in shape and is bounded on the east by Brewster County, on the north by Jeff Davis County, and on the south and west for 135 miles by the Rio Grande and Mexico. Marfa, the county seat, is 190 miles southeast of El Paso and 150 miles southwest of Odessa. The center of the county lies at 30°30' north latitude and 104°15' west longitude. Presidio County comprises 3,857 square miles of contrasting topography, geology, and vegetation. In the north and west clay and sandy loams cover the rolling plains known as the Marfa Plateau and the Highland Country, providing good ranges of grama grasses for the widely acclaimed Highland Herefords. In the central, far western, and southeastern areas of the county some of the highest mountain ranges in Texas are found. These peaks are formed of volcanic rock and covered with loose surface rubble. They support desert shrubs and cacti and dominate a landscape of rugged canyons and numerous springs. The spring-fed Capote Falls, with a drop of 175 feet the highest in Texas, is located in western Presidio County. In the southern and western parts of the county the volcanic cliffs of the Candelaria Rimrock (also called the Sierra Vieja) rise perpendicular and run parallel to the river, separating the highland prairies from the desert floor hundreds of feet below them. The gravel pediment, which allows only the growth of desert shrubs and cacti, extends from the Rimrock to the flood plain of the river. Along the river irrigation allows the farming of vegetables, grains, and cottons. There are no permanent streams in the county, although many dry arroyos become raging torrents during heavy rainfalls. Major ones are Alamito Creek, Cibolo Creek, Capote Creek, and Pinto Canyon. San Esteban Dam was built across Alamito Creek and on the site of a historic spring-fed tinaja in 1911 as an irrigation and land promotion project. The prairies, mountains, desert, and river give Presidio County an unusual beauty. Altitudes in the county vary from 2,518 to 7,728 feet above sea level. Temperatures, moderated by the mountains, vary from 33° F in January to 100° F in July. Average rainfall is only twelve inches per year, but it comes mainly in June, July, and August. The growing season extends for 238 days. Natural resources under production in 1982 were perlite, crushed rhyolite, sand, and gravel. Silver mining contributed greatly to the economy of the county from the 1880s to the 1940s. Presidio County has no oil or gas production.
The area around the present town of Presidio on the Rio Grande, known as La Junta de los Ríos, is believed to be the oldest continuously cultivated farmland in Texas. About 1500 B.C. corn farmers of the Cochise culture settled there to use the abundant water, fertile farmland, and bountiful game. Since La Junta was located on an ancient and heavily traveled north-south trade route, its settlers absorbed the cultures of passersby. By A.D. 900 the Cochise culture was replaced by the Mogollón, which later merged with the Anasazi culture. Before the Spaniards appeared in La Junta the natives formed two main tribes, the Julimes and the Jumanos. The first Spaniards probably reached La Junta in December 1535 when Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca crossed on his trek across Texas. They found the Indians living in pueblos and raising large crops of corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, and melons. Both the Julimes and Jumanos later succumbed to Spanish influence. The Julimes vanished in an attempt to remain aloof from the Spaniards. The Jumanos lost their identity and self-sufficiency by becoming good subjects of the Spanish crown. After Cabeza de Vaca's visit a number of Spanish expeditions came to present Presidio County, the first in 1581. The entrada of Juan Domínguez de Mendoza and Father Nicolás López in 1683–84 established seven missions at seven pueblos along the river in the La Junta area. In 1683 Father López celebrated the first Christmas Mass ever observed in Texas at La Junta. Although Spaniards explored the area of present Presidio County, they established no settlements there because they could not control the Apache and Comanche Indians. Indian depredations continued under the Mexican government, but the first White settlement in the area of present Presidio County was established on Cibolo Creek three miles north of the site of Presidio in January 1832 by the family of Lt. Col. José Ygnacio Ronquillo, his soldiers, and laborers. Located on the Ronquillo Land Grant and called El Cíbolo, the settlement was abandoned in November 1832 when the soldiers were called away to fight Indians.
Amid Indian danger, the Chihuahua Trail opened in 1839 as a trade route from Chihuahua City, Mexico, across the future Presidio County to the Red River and on to Missouri. With the annexation of Texas to the Union in 1846, Americans recognized the economic potential of the frontier along the Rio Grande. By 1848 Ben Leaton built Fort Leaton on the river as his home, trading post, and private bastion. Milton Faver was the first American to move away from the safety of the river, becoming the first large-scale rancher in the area of present Presidio County. He built two private forts-Fort Cibolo and Fort Cienega-to protect his family, workers, and livestock from Indian raids. Several other Americans irrigated crops and grazed herds on the Rio Grande in the 1850s and 1860s. Although the United States census of 1850 reported no population for Presidio County, a sufficient number lived there to establish the county from Bexar Land District on January 3, 1850. Fort Leaton was the as the county seat. In 1854 the army built Fort Davis in northern Presidio County to protect travelers and settlers. By 1860 Indian attacks declined, and the census of that year recorded 574 Whites, two free Blacks, and four slaves. As in most frontier areas men outnumbered women 436 to 144. With the outbreak of the Civil War Fort Davis closed, and Indian attacks resumed. The fort was reopened in 1867, and the population of the county increased threefold by 1870, when 1,636 people were listed as residents, 494 of them were women and 772 were Mexican emigrants. The Black population increased to 489 when buffalo soldiers were stationed at Fort Davis. Presidio County was organized in 1875 as the largest county in the United States, with 12,000 square miles. Fort Davis was named the county seat.
The 1880s brought Presidio County a larger population and improvements in the economy and in transportation. The census of 1880 reported 2,873 inhabitants, a total increase of 1,237 and 823 more Mexican immigrants than in 1870. John W. Spencer, a local rancher and trader, found a silver deposit in the Chinati Mountains in 1880 that resulted in the opening of Presidio Mine and the beginning of the company town of Shafter. From 1883 until 1942 the mine produced over 32.6 million ounces of silver, employed from 300 to 400 workers, and paid the largest tax assessments in the county (see SHAFTER MINING DISTRICT). Also in 1880 the twenty-eight small grain farms of the county were valued at just over $47,000, but its nearly $54,000 worth of livestock proved more important to its economy. The railroad reached Presidio County in 1882 when the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway laid tracks through its northeastern corner. With the railroad to move livestock and the Indian threat over, a new generation of cattlemen came into the county and started large ranches in 1884 and 1885. W. F. Mitchell built the first barbed wire fence in the county at Antelope Springs in 1888. The widespread use of barbed wire resulted in the refinement of cattle breeds, improvement of ranges, and innovative use of water supplies. Windmills, water wells, and earthen tanks were introduced on Presidio County ranches in the late 1880s.
The first sighting of the phenomenal Marfa Lights was recorded in 1883 when Robert Reed Ellison came through Paisano Pass and saw the mysterious lights. On any clear night they are still visible between Marfa and Paisano Pass. The lights at times appear colored as they twinkle in the distance. They move about, split apart, melt together, disappear, and reappear. The source of the lights and the reason for their movements have not been explained. The boundaries and seat of Presidio County were changed in the 1880s. Marfa was established in 1883, and the county seat was moved there from Fort Davis in 1885. Two years later Fort Davis became the seat of Jeff Davis County, which was established from Presidio County lands. That same year Brewster, Buchel, and Foley counties were also carved from Presidio, reducing the county to its present size as the fourth largest in the state. These changes were reflected in the census of 1890, when the population of Presidio County dropped to 1,698. Only twenty-six Blacks remained in the county after the buffalo soldiers of Fort Davis were lost to Jeff Davis County. The census of the reduced county also showed only 912 Mexican immigrants. By 1890 the number of Presidio County farms grew to forty and were valued at $103,000. Farms produced hay, vegetables, and peaches, as well as grains. Although the number of farms, the acreage under cultivation, and the volume of production continued to increase steadily through the 1910 census, the real change in Presidio County agriculture came after 1914 when farmers began growing cotton. With the completion that year of Elephant Butte Dam on the Rio Grande a large and reliable irrigation source was available for the new crop. In 1919 four bales of cotton were grown on twelve acres of land, but in 1929 production climbed to over 3,800 bales on 6,587 acres. By 1939 Presidio County had 1,024 cotton farms that produced nearly 7,000 bales on more than 18,500 acres of land. That same year the now famous Presidio County cantaloupes were grown on twenty acres of land. Like farming, Presidio County ranching changed drastically with the new century. Milton Faver and other early ranchers raised both cattle and sheep from the 1850s through the 1880s, an unusual operation for that day. The 1880 census reported a far larger number of sheep than cattle in Presidio County, 9,030 sheep to 2,496 cattle. The 1890 census counted 3,160 cattle, but gave no number for sheep. By the 1900 census cattle dominated the range with over 41,500, while the number of sheep had declined to 236. Cattle increased to nearly 49,000 by 1910, and sheep neared extinction with 109. By 1920 cattle declined to just over 37,500, and sheep increased to 5,312. The trend continued in 1930 with cattle at over 33,500 and sheep above 16,000. The 1940 census indicated a more even distribution of the livestock and substantial gains for both cattle, at nearly 63,000, and sheep at less than 41,000. The value of Presidio County livestock continued to increase from $2.6 million at the end of the 1950s to $15.3 million in 1982.
As long as the small population of Presidio County lived in scattered isolation, church attendance was impracticable. But with the clustering of the population around Fort Davis, Marfa, and Shafter in the 1880s, the need for churches was evident. Although Catholic missions were established in southern Presidio County in the seventeenth century, no priest was permanently assigned to the county until 1875, when Dan Murphy donated land for a church and school in Fort Davis. Father Joseph Hoban came to the church at Fort Davis, but he also said Mass at the Faver ranch, in John Davis's chapel at Alamito, and at Presidio. While the early settlers at Fort Davis and around Presidio were Catholic, the new settlers around Marfa in the 1880s were mostly Protestant. A Protestant church building was erected in Marfa in 1886. Although the building was used by missionaries of various denominations and by a union Sunday School, it was called a Methodist church because the Methodists paid part of the construction costs. In 1888 William B. Bloys, founder of Bloys Camp Meeting at Skillman's Grove, organized a Presbyterian church in Fort Davis. In 1895 St. Mary's Catholic Church was built in Marfa, and St. Paul's Episcopal Church was organized there in 1896. The First Christian Church was founded in Marfa in 1897, and the Baptists organized a church in 1902. Bloys also organized a church in Shafter in 1903 that joined with the Marfa Presbyterian Church at its founding in 1910. In 1982 Presidio County had sixteen churches with 4,047 members. Like churches, schools were needed by the 1880s. Since neither the Spanish nor the Mexicans had permanent settlements in the area of present Presidio County, no schools were organized under their governments. The early American settlers in the southern edge of the county sent their children to Austin and San Antonio for schooling. The first schools in the county were established at Fort Davis. The army operated a school for soldier's children with a noncommissioned officer as the teacher after 1867. Father Hoban's school opened there in 1875, and the first public school of the county was organized at Fort Davis in 1883. Between 1885 and 1902 public schools were built at Marfa, Polvo, Presidio, Shafter, Ruidosa, and Candelaria. By 1930 the county had five districts-Marfa, Shafter, Presidio, Porvenir, and Ochoa. In 1982 the county maintained two school districts with four elementary, one middle, and two high schools and a daily average attendance of 1,163. In 1983, 85 percent of the students were Hispanic and 15 percent were White. The population of Presidio County continued to increase with the census of 1900 to 3,673. Included in that number were 1,463 Mexican immigrants, fifty-three Blacks, and twenty-eight natives of the British Isles who lived at the Presidio Mine. By 1910 the population reached 5,218, and the 1920 census reported the largest population ever recorded for the county, a total of 12,202 with 4,524 Mexican natives. The growth of Presidio County's population in the 1910s reflected the impact of the Mexican Revolution on border life. Refugees migrated to the county from Chihuahua as the fighting moved into northern Mexico. The United States Army established several posts in the county to watch for border incursions. Marfa became the headquarters for the Big Bend Military District, and in 1917 the Army established Camp Marfa, later called Fort D. A. Russell, at Marfa to protect the border. Cavalry posts were established at Shafter, Candelaria, Redford, Presidio, Indio, Ruidosa, and Camp Holland. Raids by Mexican bandits and paramilitary forces invited fierce and sometimes excessive retaliation by the United States military and by the Texas Rangers. Incidents like the Brite Ranch Raid, the Neville Ranch Raid, and the Porvenir Massacre spread insecurity and racial hatred throughout the county and the border region.
As Presidio County entered the 1930s the people faced a drought and a population decline. The county was not greatly affected by the Great Depression until the summer of 1932. Although low silver prices closed Presidio Mine at Shafter with a loss of 300 jobs in 1930, the two banks in Marfa remained stable. The county reported eight manufacturing establishments with twenty-seven employees, a payroll of nearly $22,000, and products valued at slightly under $200,000. Throughout 1930 and 1931 Marfa continued construction of a new hotel, a clinic, and several shops. In 1930 the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway of Texas reached Presidio and built a bridge across the Rio Grande there to provide rail connections into Mexico. By the summer of 1932 the drought, unemployment, and closing of Fort Russell left the economy of the county depressed. Economic recovery began by 1936, as new businesses opened, postal receipts increased 32 percent over 1930, and Fort Russell and Presidio Mine reopened. By 1940 the population of the county rose slightly to 10,925, and five manufacturing businesses employed nineteen workers with a payroll of $12,000, producing products worth more than $160,000. During World War II Presidio County enjoyed economic prosperity as the home for two military installations-Fort Russell and Marfa Army Air Field. After the war Presidio County's population went into a thirty-year decline, falling to 7,354 in 1950, 5,460 in 1960 and 4,842 in 1970. In 1980 the county witnessed an increase in population to 5,188. The educational level of the population has increased steadily from 1950, when only 10.7 percent had completed high school, to 1980, when almost 30 percent had. In 1982 Presidio County had an estimated population of 5,500 and, with 77 percent of that number listed as Hispanic in origin, ranked seventeenth highest among all United States counties with Hispanic populations. Most of the residents lived in rural areas. In the 1982 primary the voters of Presidio County went 100 percent for the Democratic party. Presidio County has historically supported Democrats over Republicans. The people voted for a Republican president only five times between 1872 and 1992-Grant in 1872, McKinley in 1900, Roosevelt in 1904, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, and Nixon in 1972.
The economy of the county in 1982 was based primarily on agriculture with 83 percent of the land in farms and ranches. Sixty-eight percent of agricultural receipts were from cattle, sheep, wool, angora goats, and mohair. Primary crops under cultivation were wheat, hay, and sorghum. Vegetables grown were onions, cantaloupes, honeydews, and watermelons. The number of retail businesses in the county in 1984 was 117, with a sales receipts increase of 17 percent over the previous period. In 1983 the county had two commercial banks. As of 2014, Presidio County remained sparsely populated with 6,976 inhabitants; about 14.9 percent were Anglo, 1.4 percent African American, and 82 percent Hispanic. The main communities included Marfa (population, 1,976) and Presidio (4,462). The county economy was still devoted to large-scale ranching and vegetable farming. Over the years droughts and overgrazing damaged the range land. Parts of the prairies supported only one animal per 48 hectares. Powerful pumps, drawing water for irrigation and livestock use, lowered the groundwater levels and depleted many springs. However, in contrast to the more populous areas of the state, Presidio County offered clean air, rugged scenery, and historic sites. Among the attractions that contributed to the county's growing tourist industry were the Marfa Lights, hunting leases, and the nearby Big Bend National Park.