Culberson County
March 2009

Vern & Suzanne Neal, Don Kyle, Frank & Joanie Wyatt, Steve & Kathy Wilkening

CULBERSON COUNTY. Culberson County is located in the Trans-Pecos region of West Texas. It is bordered by New Mexico to the north and by Hudspeth, Reeves, and Jeff Davis counties in Texas. Van Horn, the county seat, is approximately 120 miles east of El Paso in the southwestern part of the county.

The Missouri Pacific Railroad crosses southern Culberson County, paralleling Interstate 10; the Southern Pacific crosses the county's southwestern corner; and a spur of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe enters northeastern Culberson County from New Mexico and ends at Rustler Springs.

Culberson County comprises 3,815 square miles of terrain that varies from mountainous to nearly level, with elevations ranging from 8,751 feet on Guadalupe Peak, the highest spot in the state, to 3,000 feet. The county is in the Rio Grande basin.

Today Culberson County is best known as the site of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, qv which includes Guadalupe Peak and is a major tourist attraction. The Guadalupes and the county's other mountains, such as the Delaware, Beach, Wylie, Sierra Diablo, Van Horn, Apache, and Baylor ranges, made the area ideal for Indians seeking protection from their enemies and a remote home base from which to launch attacks. The earliest sign of human occupation in the area, found in the Guadalupes, is a 12,000-year-old Folsom point. Later, hunter-gatherers probably inhabited the mountains only during the summer; they also left artifacts, as well as pictographs. The most famous indigenous inhabitants of the mountains, the Apaches, arrived about 600 years ago. They harvested agave, yucca, and sotol when meat was unavailable, and their agave-roasting pits are still visible in the Guadalupes.

The area that was to become Culberson County was largely untouched by Spanish exploration, due to its forbidding topography. In 1583, however, Antonio de Espejo became the first European to see the Mescalero Apaches, on the prairie just east of the Guadalupe Mountains. Beginning about 1630 the Mescaleros were raiding the more populous Plains Navajos and Pueblos from the Guadalupes; fifty years later they had added El Paso del Norte to their list of targets. By the beginning of the eighteenth century Comanches from the Llano Estacado had ended the Apache domination of western Texas, and the Mescaleros, based in the Guadalupes, restricted their raids to a smaller geographical area. Their ferocity, however, was unaffected, and the Mescaleros became one of the most feared of all Indian groups in Texas. Their presence, combined with the area's isolation, ensured that the area would not become popular with white settlers.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, emigrants were seeking new routes to connect central and eastern Texas with El Paso and California. The 1849 gold rush increased the demand for such roads, and exploration by the whites occurred with breathtaking speed. In May 1849 John S. (Rip) Ford and Maj. Robert S. Neighbors, returning to Waco from El Paso, skirted the Guadalupe Mountains and described Guadalupe Canyon. In July 1849 an expedition led by Lt. Francis Theodore Bryan camped at Guadalupe Pass while retracing the Ford-Neighbors route to confirm its suitability for a wagon road to the west. In September 1849 Capt. Randolph Barnes Marcy came in sight of the Guadalupes while returning from Santa Fe to Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Also in 1849, the Van Horn Wells were supposedly discovered by Maj. Jefferson Van Horne, en route to El Paso. The wells became known as one of the few dependable water sources in the vast emptiness of West Texas; ten years later the army considered them sufficiently important to establish a cavalry outpost there under Lt. James Judson Van Horn (no relation to Jefferson). Lieutenant Van Horn commanded the station until 1861, when he was taken prisoner by Confederate troops who seized the wells. The town of Van Horn, founded some twenty years later, was named for him.

In 1881 the long-awaited railroad link to the West finally became a reality, although not without its share of controversy. Under Jay Gould, who had bought the line a year before, the Texas and Pacific Railway was building westward from Fort Worth to El Paso. Meanwhile Collis P. Huntington's rival Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway was building eastward from El Paso in order to complete its own link to central and eastern Texas. For a time no one was sure which road would prevail, but in November 1881 Gould and Huntington reached an agreement by which the Texas and Pacific would stop at Sierra Blanca, in Hudspeth County, and the two lines would share the track from Sierra Blanca to El Paso.

Extraction of minerals has long been important in Culberson County, although rumors of fabulously wealthy gold mines in the Guadalupes seem to be mere wishful thinking. Other minerals have been less elusive. Between the late nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century the Hazel Mine yielded about a million pounds of copper and more than two million ounces of silver. In the 1940s acidic sulfur earth was produced at Rustler Springs for use as a fertilizer and soil conditioner, and the Apache Mountains were the site of the largest barite deposit in Texas, which was mined from open pits during the 1960s. A mica quarry operated in the early 1980s in the Van Horn Mountains to mine mica schist for oilfield use, but the sustained production of sheet mica had not been achieved. Culberson County was also producing copper, bedded gypsum from surface mines, brucitic marble, molybdenum, crushed rhyolite, silver, Frasch sulfur, and talc in the 1980s.

Shortage of water has always been a principal obstacle to agriculture in Culberson County. In the late 1930s, when local stockmen began using spreader dams and other techniques to conserve more of the precious rainwater, the county agricultural agent described Culberson County as "a strictly ranching area." In September 1948, however, a well was brought in at Lobo, one mile from the headquarters of William Cameron's ranch, and the Cameron Company began selling plots of land to farmers. Other wells were put down and fitted with more efficient pumps, but they proved prohibitively expensive to operate; by the late 1960s virtually all had been abandoned.

As early as 1899, when the first Old Settler's Reunion was celebrated in Van Horn, the residents of Culberson County realized the potential benefits of attracting outside visitors; as one writer put it, Culberson County "is the kind of raw-mountain, raw-grasslands country that breeds mystics and imaginative, lyrical chambers of commerce." The Old Settler's Reunion became an annual event and remained so until 1958, when Frontier Day took its place. By the early 1980s Frontier Day had in turn been replaced by the Big Country Celebration, held in Van Horn in June. With the completion of U.S. Highway 62 in 1926, the increasing viability of automobile travel, and the relative proximity of Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, the Big Bend in Presidio County, and the Guadalupe Mountains in northern Culberson County, tourism became increasingly important in the local economy.

County employment statistics bear out the increasing importance of tourism and the declining importance of agriculture. In the 1930, 1940, 1950, and 1960 censuses more people were employed in agriculture than in any other field. In 1970 agriculture had slid all the way to third, behind the mining and service industries. Ten years later, 23 percent of the labor force was employed in agriculture and mining, 23 percent in wholesale and retail trade, and 12 percent in other counties. In 1982, 828 Culberson County residents were employed in the service and related industries, while only seventy-three were employed in agriculture. By 1982, when Culberson County ranked 237th among Texas counties in agricultural cash receipts, tourists spent $17,432,000 there. In 1990 the county population was 3,407; Van Horn was the largest community.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Don Kurtz and William D. Goran, Trails of the Guadalupes: A Hiker's Guide to the Trails of Guadalupe Mountains National Park (Champaign, Illinois: Environmental Associates, 1978). Alan Tennant, The Guadalupe Mountains of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980). Rosa Lee Wylie, History of Van Horn and Culberson County (Hereford, Texas: Pioneer, 1973).

Martin Donell Kohout