Perhaps the most apt symbol for the Davis Mountains could be the Cholla cactus, Opuntia Cactacea to the purist or cane cactus to the informal. A survivor, the Cholla has an interesting form and puts on a spectacular show every Spring, it is deceptively delicate looking from a distance but hard as nails up close. These are all characteristics of the Davis Mountains, a place of stunning beauty but a hard land filled with wildlife and people that have adapted to these unexpected highlands located in the heart of the Trans-Pecos of Texas. The geology, geography, and history of the region set it apart from the other surrounding regions of Texas. The following, brief article will give an overview of these subjects and hopefully give the reader a balanced picture of the Davis Mountains and that which makes them so unique.

Thirty five million years ago the subduction of the Farallon plate caused the Davis Mountains to erupt with 10,000 times the force of Mt. Saint Helens. This volcanism was centered in the Paisano Caldera, between Marfa and Alpine, and the Buckhorn Caldera, to the northwest of Ft. Davis. Both of these calderas were enormous ranging from eight up to ten miles in diameter. The period of intense volcanic activity covered a span of almost 10 million years and took the form of massive eruptions that built up shield volcanoes composed of rhyolite lava flows and ash-flow tuffs of similar composition. The weathered formations show a peculiar feature, more common in basaltic lava flows, called columnar jointing that has created the palisades characterizing such landmarks as the backdrop to Ft. Davis, Sleeping Lion Mountain, and the walls of Limpia Canyon. The highlands around Mount Livermore represent intrusive igneous masses that have been exposed by the erosion of overlying burden of softer rock and alluvium.¹

The Davis Mountains are the largest mountain chain contained entirely within Texas. Elevations range from 3,500 to 8,000 ft, topping out at 8,378 ft. on the summit of Mount Livermore. The Davis' form a major rain shadow that wrings an extra 8 to 10 inches of water out of the desert skies than that which falls on the surrounding region, giving the mountains up to 18 inches per year. This allows a temperate vegetation not found in the surrounding lowlands, including Piñon pine, Emory oak, Alligator Juniper, live oak and the unusual and rare Madrone tree found only in the higher elevations. A wide variety of cacti and grasses can be found as well. The fauna of the mountains is quite varied; Mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn antelope, and javelina are quite common. Other rare or endangered species like the silver-haired bat, shorthorn lizard, and band-tailed pigeon can also be found.² As a sky island, surrounded by the Chihuahuan Desert, the Davis Mountains display an unusual environment to be found no where else in Texas or the world.

Of the first inhabitants of the Davis Mountains, little physical evidence remains. These remains do include some spectacular rock paintings and pictographs located in Madera Canyon as well as a cache of some 1,200 arrowheads found on the summit of Mount Livermore dated to around 1,000 AD. Overall, human occupation of the Davis Mountains goes back approximately 9,000 years. Of the Tribes that inhabited this region the dominant was the Mescalero Apaches, who controlled the mountains for some two and a half centuries. The first Federal penetration of this region occurred in 1849 with an Army survey looking for a route westward through the mountains. As a result of that survey, on October 23rd, 1854 the Army established Fort Davis on land leased for 20 years from John James a San Antonio land speculator. The Fort was named after Jefferson Davis, who was then the Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, the county was later named to honor Jefferson Davis' historical role as President of the Confederate States of America. The fort quickly became the focal point of settlement in the region, abandoned soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, the fort would not be reoccupied until July, 1st 1867 by the Ninth United States Cavalry. In the interim, the Mescalero Apaches attempted to reverse encroachments on their lands and raided settlements in the region. With its reoccupation by Federal forces, Fort Davis quickly became the major settlement point in the Trans-Pecos region. Apache chiefs Espejo and Victorio continued resisting this settlement but Apache resistance was virtually wiped out by 1880.

Organized into Presidio County in 1871, Fort Davis became the county seat, later losing out to Marfa in a disputed election. As a result of that election, Jeff Davis County was organized on the 15th of March, 1887. This period saw a new influx of settlement with the establishment of a number of cattle ranches. The Davis Mountains and Jeff Davis County, never heavily populated, counted 1,394 residents in 1890, and only 1,946 one hundred years later. The Davis Mountains have always been cattle country, Jeff Davis County boasted some 61,025 head of cattle in 1890 declining over the years to approximately 37,000 in the 1970's, sheep herding has been important as well.³ With ranching in decline and little or no other economic activity, tourism has become a mainstay of the Davis Mountains economy, farming and minerals having never been of any major consequence. Such attractions as the McDonald Observatory, Davis Mountains State Park, Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, Prude Ranch, and the natural beauty of the mountains has helped to make the Davis Mountains a major tourist destination.

Today, scarcely a hundred years after the first Anglo-American settlement of the mountains, the region is facing a new set of problems. The Nature Conservancy and other groups are working hard to prevent the over development of this fragile environment, a development that could destroy the historical foundations of the region and mar the very qualities that make the Davis Mountains so attractive. Hopefully a sustainable compromise can be reached and this region will continue to occupy that special place it has carved out for itself in Texas.
Cholla cactus
McDonald Observatory
Late frost in the Davis Mountains Resort
The Drug Store in Fort Davis
Jeff Davis County Courthouse
Eastern view from Paradise Ridge
Claret Cup cactus
¹Mark Bridges, Volcanics and the Davis Mountains.

²"DAVIS MOUNTAINS." The Handbook of Texas Online.
[Accessed Thu Sep 28 18:31:31 US/Central 2000 ].

³"JEFF DAVIS COUNTY." The Handbook of Texas Online.
[Accessed Thu Sep 28 18:33:43 US/Central 2000 ].

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