Wells, James Babbage, Jr. (1850–1923)

By: Evan Anders

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: March 5, 2019

James B. (Judge) Wells, longtime Democratic boss of South Texas, son of Lydia Hastings (Hull) and James B. Wells, was born on St. Joseph Island, north of Aransas Pass, on July 12, 1850. Both of his parents were born in the South but came from New England seafaring families. Reared in an isolated environment both on the island and at a later home on nearby Lamar Peninsula, the younger Wells received most of his education and religious training from his mother, who exhibited a blend of southern refinement, frontier self-reliance, and New England puritanism. According to a later friend and legal partner, Wells was "strictly his mother's son." After managing the family ranch for a few years, he attended the University of Virginia law school in 1874 and received his degree one year later. Over the next two years he completed his legal education at a law firm in Galveston, launched his own practice at Rockport, and moved to Corpus Christi. Finally, in 1878, he formed a law partnership with Stephen Powers and settled at Brownsville, where he lived for the rest of his life. Powers was an established lawyer who specialized in unraveling difficult and often contested Spanish and Mexican land grant claims along the border. As one of the cofounders of the Democratic Blue Club of Cameron County, he also excelled at political organization and regularly mobilized a constituency consisting of a small elite of prominent ranchers and businessmen and a great mass of impoverished Mexican-American laborers. Wells quickly won Powers's confidence and married his mentor's niece, Pauline Kleiber, on November 4, 1880 (see WELLS, PAULINE J. K.). A series of marriages already bound the Powerses and several other leading Democratic families together, and Wells now joined the inner circle. The young lawyer was even converted to his bride's Catholic religion. James and Pauline had a daughter, Zoë, in 1882; three sons, James, Joseph, and Robert, followed in 1884, 1886, and 1898. With the death of his oldest son in a shooting accident in 1899, Wells fell into a state of deep depression and allowed his legal and political affairs to languish for several months. His son Joseph later became a close political confidant. Throughout his career, Wells relied on his wife for advice and support, and she eventually gained statewide political recognition of her own by organizing a series of campaigns against woman suffrage from 1915 through 1919.

By the time of Powers's death in 1882, Wells had emerged as his chief lieutenant and heir apparent. With the support of the powerful ranchers of South Texas, Wells consolidated his control over the Cameron County Blue Club and eventually extended his influence over the Democratic organizations of Hidalgo, Starr, and Duval counties. In each of these counties he oversaw the rise of bosses who ran their own local machines but who acknowledged Wells's leadership on regional, state, and national questions. The Brownsville attorney was the central figure in South Texas politics from the mid-1880s through the first decade of the twentieth century and continued to exercise power as the Cameron County Democratic chairman until 1920. Throughout his long career, however, he held public office for only two brief periods. In the early 1880s he served as city attorney for Brownsville, and in 1897 he accepted a gubernatorial appointment to complete the term of a state district judge who was forced to resign.

Although corruption and violence often tarnished the image of Democratic rule in South Texas, the key to Wells's political success was the satisfaction of constituent needs. For the influential ranchers of the valley, Wells defended sometimes suspect land claims, arranged low property tax valuations, and lobbied for the deployment of Texas Rangers and federal troops to provide protection against cattle rustling and border raids. He relied on the ranchers to mobilize their Hispanic workers and tenants for elections, but his ties with the Mexican-American majority were not just secondhand. He welcomed the participation of prominent Mexican ranchers and businessmen in his political organization and local government, and he provided modest, informal welfare support for some of his loyal but impoverished constituents-in the tradition of the Mexican patrón and big city boss. In this he epitomized the contemporary style of Caucasian relations with Hispanic Texans. Ranchers and border-town businessmen also benefited from Wells's efforts to promote the extension of railroad construction to the lower Rio Grande valley. The resulting boom in irrigation and vegetable and fruit farming not only transformed the regional economy and attracted thousands of new settlers but ultimately proved to be Wells's political and economic undoing. Exhibiting both a progressive commitment to honest, efficient government and an aversion to Hispanic participation in politics, the new settlers eventually turned against Democratic boss rule, and Wells's machine collapsed in 1920. Wells also lost thousands of dollars in ill-conceived land speculation and development schemes and fell heavily into debt.

Wells's influence was not limited to local and regional politics. At the state level, he participated in a coalition of conservative Democrats, headed by Edward Mandell House, that dominated Texas politics between the fall of the Populist revolt in the mid-1890s and the renewal of reform under the leadership of Governor Thomas Mitchell Campbell in 1907. From 1900 through 1904 Wells served as the chairman of the state Democratic party, and in 1901 he even conducted an unannounced campaign for the governorship until he realized that the House faction favored another candidate. Although the conservative wing of the party revived after the end of Campbell's administration in 1911, Wells never reclaimed his past level of statewide influence. The Cameron County boss indirectly influenced national politics as well by shepherding the early congressional career of John Nance Garner, whose original district included the valley. Despite his political astuteness and record of accomplishment, Wells could not survive the changing demographic structure in the region, the rising tide of racial hatred between Caucasians and Hispanics following the Mexican border raids of 1915 and 1916, and his loss of favor at the state level. He died in Brownsville on December 21, 1923, three years after the collapse of his Cameron County machine. Jim Wells County is named in his honor. See also BOSS RULE.

Evan Anders, Boss Rule in South Texas: The Progressive Era (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982). Joe Robert Baulch, James B. Wells: South Texas Economic and Political Leader (Ph.D. dissertation, Texas Tech University, 1974). Harbert Davenport, Reminiscences of Judge James B. Wells, interview by William A. Owens, July 12, 1952, Oral History of the Texas Oil Industry Collection, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. James B. Wells Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Lawyers
  • Land Law and Real Estate Law
Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Evan Anders, “Wells, James Babbage, Jr.,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 25, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/wells-james-babbage-jr.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

March 5, 2019