Abilene owes its genesis to the Texas and Pacific Railway, and a group of ranchers and land speculators. Before the coming of the railroad, the Abilene area had been inhabited by nomadic Native Americans and United States military personnel, and later by buffalo hunters and ranchers. By the 1870s, the Native Americans had been driven out, and cattlemen began to graze their herds in the area.
Taylor County was organized in 1878, and Buffalo Gap was designated the county seat. When the Texas and Pacific Railway began to push westward in 1880, several ranchers and businessmen; Claiborne W. Merchant, John Merchant, John N. Simpson, John T. Berry, and S L. Chalk, met with H. C. Whithers, the Texas and Pacific track and townsite locator, and arranged to have the railroad bypass Buffalo Gap. They agreed that the route would traverse the northern part of the county and consequently their own land, and that a new town would be established between Cedar and Big Elm creeks east of Catclaw Creek. C. W Merchant is said to have suggested the name Abilene, after the Kansas cattle town.