Val Verde County is in southwestern Texas on the Mexican border. Although a part of the county extends west of the Pecos River, more than two-thirds of it is in the Edwards Plateau. Del Rio, the county seat, is 154 miles west of San Antonio. The center of the county is at 29°58' north latitude and 101°09' west longitude. Val Verde County comprises 3,150 square miles of sharply dissected massive limestone, which underlies flat terrain. The county is actually a plateau cut by many arroyos and canyons, giving deep relief to the topography. Soils are dark, calcareous stony clays and clay loams. Fresh water is supplied from an aquifer in the various limestone formations, which receive their recharge from counties to the north. In early times numerous springs flowed in the area, but heavy well pumping has decreased their yields. Numerous creeks, which remain dry most of the year, provide drainage during floods and empty into the Pecos and Devils rivers. The Pecos flows into the Rio Grande in southwestern Val Verde County, and the Devils flows into Amistad Reservoir, on the dammed Rio Grande above Del Rio. Vegetation in the western and central sections of the county consists of desert shrub savanna. The extreme eastern part contains juniper, oak, and mesquite savanna. Altitudes vary from 2,248 to 2,925 feet above sea level. Temperature averages vary from 35° F in January to 97° in July. Average rainfall is seventeen inches per year. The growing season extends for 300 days.
The first people to live in the area of Val Verde County settled into the rock shelters and caves of the Lower Pecos Canyon District near the site of Comstock as early as 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. They left behind caches of seeds, implements, bits of clothing, burial sites, and cave art. Spaniards probably first passed through the area of future Val Verde County in 1535, when Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca is thought to have crossed the Devils River. By that time Lipan Apaches, Coahuiltecans, Jumanos, and Tamaulipans lived there. Later, Comanches drifted into the area. In August 1590 Gaspar Castaño de Sosa brought the first European-descent people through the isolated canyonland of the county. Castaño led a mining expedition from Monclova, Mexico, to the northern New Mexico pueblo of Santo Domingo. The party of 170 men, women, and children traveled slowly and laboriously into Devils Draw with two brass cannon for protection and a train of two-wheeled carts for provisions. Although no Spanish mission or settlement was built in the area of Val Verde County, Juan Larios opened a mission school at a location between Del Rio and Eagle Pass in 1673 to teach agriculture to the natives. However, the school lasted only a short time. In 1675 Franciscan priests celebrated a Mass at San Felipe Springs as they traveled through northern Mexico. On January 1, 1736, Lt. Miguel de la Garza Falcón commanded a unit of 100 soldiers who traveled along the Devils River in pursuit of Apaches. The Marqués de Rubí came to the site of Del Rio as he made an inspection tour of Texas in 1767. A settlement was begun on San Felipe Creek in 1834 by James Grant and John Charles Beales, but Indian attacks and drought brought its end.
In February 1849 the Whiting and Smith expedition passed through the area. A temporary base called Camp Blake was situated on the Military Road soon after the Mexican War, and several other military bases were set up in southeastern Val Verde County in the 1850s to protect settlers and travelers against Indian attack. Camp Hudson was founded on San Pedro Creek on June 7, 1857. Camp San Felipe was established as an outpost of Fort Clark also in 1857. During the Civil War military camps and forts were abandoned, leaving the frontier open to frequent Indian attacks. Fort Clark was reclaimed by the army in 1866, and by 1868 other troops returned to the area. From 1869 through 1882 the Black Seminole Scouts, a paramilitary unit of fifty men under John Lapham Bullis, defended the Texas border west of Fort Clark against Indian attack. The community of San Felipe was settled on San Felipe Creek in 1868. The community was sometimes called San Felipe Del Rio (for its proximity to the Rio Grande) to distinguish it from the San Felipe of Austin's colony, and the post office, named Del Rio, was opened in 1872. In 1874 the first school was built at Del Rio. Fifteen students were enrolled, and Judge Kratz taught the school through the 1870s. By the spring of 1884 a church was built in Del Rio by the Episcopal diocese. Shortly after its completion the building was blown away by a tornado, leaving the town again without a church. In the 1980s Val Verde County supported twenty-five churches. The largest denominations were Catholic, Southern Baptist, and United Methodist. In 1883 the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway was completed into the area, and new settlers came with the easy transportation. Several communities were formed in Val Verde County in the 1880s. They were Langtry in 1884, Juno and Devils River in 1886, Comstock in 1888, and Norris in 1889. Among the newcomers was Frank Qualia from Milan, Italy. In 1883 Qualia established Val Verde Winery, where his grandson continued to make wine in the 1990s. Large sheep and cattle ranchers had come into the area by the 1880s. D. Hart Investments, a company which established headquarters in the Pandale community in western Val Verde County, was one of these. Hart controlled a large block of land and the watering places on both the Rio Grande and the Pecos River. He reportedly held 80,000 sheep, 500 horses, and a number of cattle there. Val Verde County was organized from Crockett, Kinney, and Pecos counties in 1885. Its name, which is Spanish for "green valley," came from a Civil War battle. Del Rio became the county seat. Also in the 1885 election Roy Bean of Langtry was elected justice of the peace. Judge Bean became known as the Law West of the Pecos, and he measured out justice from his Jersey Lily Saloon. In presidential elections Val Verde County supported Democratic candidates from 1888 until 1948, except in 1924 and 1928. Thereafter county voters were less predictable, favoring Democrats in 1960, 1964, 1968, 1976, and 1992.
Around 1900 several new communities received post offices. Those places were Flato in 1891, Sotol in 1894, Moorhead in 1898, and Pumpville in 1899. The last post offices established in the county included Shumla in 1906, Pandale in 1909, and Vinegarone in 1926. The population of the new county at the 1890 census was 2,874, including 108 Blacks and 1,103 foreign-born. The agricultural census of the county in 1890 counted forty-seven farms and ranches, all owner-operated. Since the effects of overgrazing had impacted the range, sheep outnumbered cattle. Farming consisted of grain, fruit, and vegetable crops. By 1900 the county had 5,263 inhabitants, and the number of ranches and farms rose to 152 that covered 1.8 million acres, mostly operated by managers. Value of livestock soared to well over $1 million, with 122,565 sheep as the most numerous. Over 42,000 cattle and 15,000 goats were also raised. Farming was restricted to small fruit and vegetable crops. The exception was 191,000 pounds of grapes, which produced 5,372 gallons of wine. The population continued to grow steadily, and by 1910 the foreign-born residents, mostly from Mexico, were reported at 3,106 out of the total of 8,613. Agriculture by 1910 experienced an increase in the number of farms and farm values, a reduction in the number of farm acres, and the return of owners to farm operations. Herding continued as the focus of Val Verde agriculture, with 122,000 goats, 107,000 sheep, and over 21,000 cattle. By 1920 the county population reached 12,759, and the number of farms and ranches grew to 285. During the 1920s two dams were built on the lower Devils River to store water for power generation and for recreation. They were Devils Lake, also called Lake Hamilton, and Lake Walk. Both were inundated by Amistad Reservoir when its earthfill and concrete dam was completed on the Rio Grande twelve miles northwest of Del Rio in November 1969. Amistad Dam and Reservoir are owned by the United States and Mexico. The project is operated by the International Boundary and Water Commission. The lake, which covers 89,000 acres and has a capacity of 5,658,600 acre-feet of water, was built for flood control, conservation, irrigation, power, and recreation. However, much of the 6,000 to 10,000-year-old cave art in the area was covered by the lake. Population growth slowed in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, reaching 15,453 in 1940 and 16,635 by 1950. By 1940 the number of farms reached an all-time high of 309, and sheep and goats totaled more than 643,000. On July 2, 1942, Laughlin Field opened eight miles east of Del Rio to train World War II pilots. Although it closed in 1945, it was rebuilt as Laughlin Air Force Base during the Cold War and was home for a secret U-2 unit. In the 1980s it was devoted to the training of air force pilots. During the 1950s livestock production dominated agriculture, with sheep at over 600,000 outnumbering all others. The number of individual ranches and farms continued to grow, and the acreage of each increased, but by 1959 the number had dipped to 165, and only 4,000 acres of crop land were harvested of corn and oats. Livestock values rose to over $4.6 million. The county's population grew dramatically during the 1950s, increasing almost 50 percent to reach 24,461 in 1960. Growth slowed in the 1960s, with the population reaching 27,471 in 1970, then another growth spurt in the 1970s reached 35,910 in 1980, when the population was 63 percent Hispanic. Educational levels increased dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century. While only 7 percent of the county's population had completed high school in 1950, that figure rose to over 50 percent by 1970 and over 60 percent by 1980. In the 1980s the county reported 678 miles of public roads, a railroad passenger service, and air transportation available through Del Rio International Airport. In 1982 twenty manufacturers employed 800 workers for $8.4 million in wages to produce $20.8 million in products. In 1987 only 4 percent of the labor force worked in manufacturing, while 30 percent were employed in wholesale and retail trade and 19 percent in professional services. In 1982 the value of livestock rose to $16.8 million, and the number of ranches and farms jumped to 253. Livestock, mostly Angora goats and sheep, made up 99 percent of the county's agriculture.As of 2014, 48,974 people lived in the county. About 17.2 percent were Anglo, 1.8 percent African American, and 80.2 percent Hispanic. Del Rio, with a population of 34,651, had almost three-quarters of the county residents. Val Verde County in the early 1990s continued with a ranching economy of Angora goats and sheep, supplemented by tourism, trade with Mexico, and a military base.
Whitehead Memorial Museum et al., La Hacienda (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976). Diana Sotelo Zertuche, The Spirit of Val Verde (Del Rio, Texas, 1985).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Julia Cauble Smith,
“Val Verde County,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed January 22, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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