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Home: Regional: U.S. States: Texas: Jim Wells County

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Re: Enquiry from New Zealand
Posted by: Joe David Date: August 24, 2001 at 13:42:36
In Reply to: Enquiry from New Zealand by Brenda MacCulloch of 69

A most excellent reference source is the Handbook of Texas online at
From that source:

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.,qv who played an important role in the economic development of the lower Rio Grande valley.

ELLS, JAMES BABBAGE, JR. (1850-1923). James B. Judge) Wells, longtime Democratic boss of South Texas, son of Lydia Hastings (Hull) and James B. Wells,qv 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 Powersqv 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 Rangersqv 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.qv The resulting boom in irrigationqv 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,qv 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
Campbellqv in 1907. From 1900 through 1904 Wells served as the
chairman of the state Democratic party,qv 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,qv 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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 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, Barker Texas History Center, University of
Texas at Austin. James B. Wells Papers, Barker Texas History
Center, University of Texas at Austin.

Evan Anders


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