Jim Wells’ word was law in the valley


Twenty-eight year old James Babbage Wells Jr. arrived at the southern tip of Texas on July 22, 1878 with a burning desire to make the most of a fresh start.

The son of a proud but far from prosperous hero of the Lone Star Revolution had been in Brownsville only a few days, when he was surprised by an unexpected offer of employment. Judge Stephen Powers, the man who called the shots in South Texas, needed to replace a junior partner killed in a duel and wanted to know if the newcomer would consider joining his prestigious law firm.

There had been nothing to keep Wells in Rockport. His practice was in the doldrums and his bank account in dire need of a cash transfusion after he drained it to save his father from financial ruin. Judge Powers did not have to ask twice.

In no time at all, Jim Wells’ courtroom expertise impressed not only his new employer but the clique that counted in the Rio Grande Valley—the big ranchers. In an historic defense of ancient land grants, he won 20 of 21 litigations. By deftly pulling the fat out of the fire for several influential families, the young lawyer performed a priceless service none would ever forget.

Taking Wells under his wise old wing, Judge Powers showed him the ropes in the unique realm between the Nueces and the Rio Grande. Then as today, with a population overwhelmingly Mexican, the Valley was a world unto itself and in many ways a part of Texas in name only.

The fast learner soaked up every bit of information his tutor generously shared, and his choice of brides—the judge’s niece—did nothing to hurt his chances. When Powers passed on in 1882, his 32-year-old protégé was ready to fill his shoes.

The traditional roles of patron and peon defined daily life in South Texas during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The relationship between predominantly Anglo landowners and Mexican laborers resulted in bloc-voting as dependable as the sunrise which laid the foundation for a permanent political machine.

The election code of that era was tailor-made for packing polls. All that a Mexican migrant had to do in order to vote was to declare his intention to seek U.S. citizenship. This legal loophole not only opened up elections to blatantly unqualified voters but also encouraged the importation of aliens from the other side of the border for the sole purpose of casting bought and paid for ballots.

A practice called “corralling” guaranteed heavy turnouts for the South Texas machines. The faithful were assembled on election eve for an allnight barbecue and herded en masse the next morning to the polling places. To simplify the process for those not fluent in English, the ballots were color coded—blue for the Wells slate and red for the opposition ticket.

With a gift for give-and-take consensus, no one played the game better than Wells. After consolidating control of his home county of Cameron, he engineered the evolution of identical lockstep organizations in adjacent jurisdictions. Archie Parr in Duval County and Manuel Guerra in Starr each ruled his own roost but followed Wells’ lead on state and national issues.

Every once and awhile, the ballot-box charade in Cameron County provoked legislative cries for a cleanup, but all attempts at reform were nipped in the bud or simply ignored. In defense of Wells against the charge that he was a cold-hearted tyrant, a supporter cited his concern for constituents “whose notes he has endorsed and paid, whose babies he has played with, whose tangles he has untangled and whose troubles he has made his own for more than 30 years.”

Wells could be compassionate one moment and ruthlessly hard as nails the next. Failing to entice a defiant sheriff back into the fold, he said, “I have done all in my power to conciliate, and I shall devote all I can to crush. I am too old a frontiersman to even think of wounding a snake. Kill it or leave it alone.”

This particular “snake” turned up dead, the victim of an apparent assassination. The crime was never solved, and for years the rumor persisted that Wells was responsible for the murder of the lawman.

Accused of indiscriminate violence against Valley Mexicans, the Texas Rangers came under such severe scrutiny that the very survival of the legendary corps was at stake. Although he acknowledged the Rangers’ complicity in a few homicides, Wells did not waver in his staunch support.

“I want to add that there were a lot more that should have been killed,” he said.

Ninety-six years after his death, the name of Jim Wells still stirs up a hornet’s nest of polarized opinions. To critics, he remains a symbol of pure evil, while admirers remember him as a Mussolini who made the trains run on time. The truth likely lies somewhere in between.