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JASPER COUNTY

JASPER COUNTY. Jasper County (J-23) is located in Southeast Texas, bordered on the north by San Augustine and Sabine counties, on the east by Newton County, on the south by Orange County, and on the west by Hardin and Tyler counties. The county seat, Jasper, is 115 miles northeast of Houston and twenty-three miles west of the Sabine River and Louisiana. The center of the county lies at approximately 94°00' west longitude and 31°41' north latitude. The county was named for William Jasper, a hero of the American Revolution who was killed attempting to plant the American colors at the storming of Savannah in 1779. Jasper County comprises 907 square miles of East Texas timberlands, with elevations ranging from 25 to 400 feet above sea level. The terrain along the northern border and southern third of the county is undulating to rolling, with loamy or sandy surface layers and reddish mottled clay or loamy subsoils. The rest of the county is generally flat, with the grayish, cracking-clay soils of the Trinity River floodplain and the reddish loamy soils of the Red River floodplain. Water is plentiful in the county; the average annual rainfall is fifty-two inches. Principal water sources include Sam Rayburn Reservoir, Lake B. A. Steinhagen,qqv the Neches River (which forms the county's western boundary), and the Angelina River. Temperatures range from an average high of 93° F in July to an average low of 37° in January; the average growing season lasts 229 days. Resources include abundant timber, oil, and natural gas. The timber is mixed pine and hardwood. Almost 23,061,000 cubic feet of pinewood and hardwood was produced in the county in 1982; crude oil production that year was 590,576 barrels.

Early inhabitants of the area that is now Jasper County were prehistoric hunters who camped near streams and rivers and moved about frequently in search of game. By the sixteenth century, when Spanish travelers first entered the region, Atakapa Indians lived in the southern sections of what later became Jasper County, and Indians of the Caddo confederacy dominated the northern sections. The area was also a home and hunting ground of the Ais Indians, who lived between the Sabine and Neches rivers. An early settler, William McFarland, noted in his diary in 1844 that the Ais Indians were an older group incorporated in the Caddo confederacy. Another tribe, the Biloxi Indians, established three villages east of the Neches River in Jasper County before 1846. They were never large in number and were considered peaceful.

The first white man in the area was probably Spanish, but Frenchmen and Englishmen also traveled through the region. Early records and maps indicate that the Moscoso expedition may have crossed Jasper County on the return trip to the Mississippi River in 1542. In 1754 several French trappers under the leadership of Joseph Blancpain were arrested by Spanish authorities wanted to fend off French occupation of East Texas. English explorers entered Sabine Lake and traveled up the Neches by boat in 1774. They remained along the banks of the Neches long enough to sow a crop.

One of the earliest white settlers was John R. Bevilqv, who moved to Texas before 1829 and received a first-class land grant on the Angelina River near the site of present Jasper. Bevil's settlement became known as Bevilportqv and was an important river-navigation point from 1830 until 1860. In 1829 Lorenzo de Zavala obtained a Mexican empresarial grant covering most of what is now Jasper County. During the Texas Revolution volunteers from Bevilport joined other Texans in confrontations with Mexican troops at Anahuac, Bexar, and Nacogdoches.

Jasper County was established when the Convention of 1836 converted old municipalities into counties, but it was not until 1837 that an act was passed defining the county boundaries. The town of Jasper was named county seat by the county commissioners in 1836 and grew around a log courthouse and jail built on the main square. In 1846 the original Jasper County was split into two parts; the eastern portion became Newton County. In 1847 Andrew Smyth built a sawmill near Bevilport, using the swift current of Indian Creek for power. After a fire destroyed the Jasper County Courthouse and all county records in 1849, a new two-story structure was quickly constructed.

River transportation facilitated trade and helped to encourage growth in the area, though riverboats came to Bevilport only when the water of the Angelina River was high enough to permit navigation. By 1850 there were 123 farms in Jasper County. County farmers harvested more than 16,500 bushels of corn that year, along with 3,750 pounds of tobacco, 3,565 bushels of rice, and other crops such as sweet potatoes and wheat. According to the United States census, 1,767 people were living in the county that year; 30 percent of them were slaves. The county's lumber industry got its start in 1852, when a steam sawmill was built at Ford's Bluff (later named Evadale).

By 1860, just before the Civil War, the county had grown to include 250 farms encompassing more than 275,000 acres, including 19,000 acres classified as "improved." Most of the county's farms and plantations were smaller than 100 acres. Only three holdings were larger than 500 acres, and none was larger than 1,000 acres. The census reported 2,426 whites and 1,611 slaves (39 percent of the total population) in the county that year. There were no free blacks. According to the census there were 170 slaveholders in the county, but only three of them owned more than fifty slaves, and most owned fewer than five. The county harvest that year amounted to 112,400 bushels of corn, 14,500 pounds of tobacco, and 3,792 bales of cotton. Almost 5,400 cattle and 1,549 sheep were also reported in the county.

In the 1860 presidential election a substantial majority of Jasper County voters chose John Breckinridge, a Southern Democrat, over Constitutional Unionist John Bell. Meetings to discuss secession were held throughout the county, and in early 1861 the county's voters chose secession by a margin of 318 to 25. A Jasper County resident, Dr. William Neyland, was appointed brigadier general of the Second Brigade of Texas State Troops and placed in charge of recruiting for the Confederacy in Jefferson, Orange, Newton, Tyler, Liberty, Hardin, Polk, Chambers, and Jasper counties. One of the first companies to be organized in Jasper County was Company C of the Twenty-fifth Texas Dismounted Cavalry. In 1862 Company E of the Lone Star Rifles was mustered into service in Jasper. The Confederate government in Texas collapsed in the summer of 1865, and Union troops arrived in Jasper County the following year.

The county's economy and population grew slowly between 1860 and 1880, then contracted slightly between 1880 and 1890. In 1870 the census counted 4,218 people living in the area, including 1,759 blacks. By that year the county had 411 farms, but only 21,600 improved acres; all but two holdings were smaller than 500 acres. Cotton remained an important crop during this period, though acreage declined during the 1880s, from 4,500 acres in 1880 to 3,800 in 1890. Meanwhile, cattle were increasingly important for the local economy; almost 6,800 cattle were reported in Jasper in 1880 and almost 9,400 in 1890. The number of farms in the county increased to 606 by 1880 but decreased slightly during the 1880s to stand at 603 in 1890. The population mirrored the county's fluctuating economy during these years. In 1880 5,779 people lived in Jasper County, but in 1890, only 5,592.

Between 1890 and 1910 the county grew steadily, despite the decline of cotton farming. There were 849 farms in Jasper County by 1900 and 864 by 1910. Though the number of acres cultivated in the county remained around 20,000 throughout this period, the farm economy diversified. In 1900 county farmers produced 27,000 chickens, for example, and 10,000 sheep were reported in 1910. The number of cattle in the county increased to more than 14,000 by 1910. Meanwhile, cotton was planted on only 1,571 acres. During the 1880s and into the twentieth century the timber industry steadily grew into an integral part of the local economy. In 1882 the Texas Tram and Lumber Company moved its logging camp to Magnolia Springs and floated logs down Wright Creek into the Neches River. In 1894, Kirbyville began to grow when the company moved a logging camp there. At about the same time, railroads built into the county and linked it directly with outside markets. In 1895 the Gulf, Beaumont and Kansas City Railway completed its track from Kirbyville to Roganville, in Newton County. Shortly after 1900 the line reached Jasper, greatly increasing shipping capability for the growing timber industry, which was previously dependent on river transportation. The county's agricultural economy grew steadily but slowly during this period, while the rise of the timber industry helped to increase the population of the county to 7,138 by 1900 and 14,000 by 1910.

The economy continued to fluctuate between 1910 and 1929, partly because of a brief revival of cotton production in the area. About 2,250 acres was planted in cotton in Jasper County in 1920, and more than 9,203 in 1929, when 878 farms were reported. Meanwhile, the number of manufacturing workers, most of whom worked in the lumber mills, rose from 1,229 in 1919 to 1,748 by 1929. The population of the county increased to 15,569 by 1920 and to 17,408 by 1930.

The effects of the Great Depression in Jasper County are illustrated in the 1940 census. Unemployment was high, with 1,054 jobless workers out of a total workforce of 5,875. The number of industrial establishments, primarily related to the timber industry, declined from twenty-two in 1929 to fifteen in 1940. Federal projects helped to stabilize the economy somewhat. During the late 1930s, for example, the Jasper-Newton Electrical Cooperative was formed, with headquarters in Kirbyville, to bring electricity to rural areas, and Jasper became the headquarters for the Lower Neches Valley Authority. The number of farms in the county increased from 878 in 1930 to 1,201 in 1940.

The county ceased to be a cotton producer during the 1940s, as farmers increasingly turned to truck farming and raising poultry. The logging industry revived during that time, and highway construction also helped to invigorate the economy; by 1945 U.S. highways 96 and 190 were both paved. The population of the county grew to 20,049 by 1950 and to 22,100 by 1960.

Oil was first discovered in Jasper County in 1928, but production was minimal until the 1950s; subsequently, petroleum helped to stabilize the economy and provided the area with welcome additional revenue, though not great wealth. Production was 4,560 barrels in 1948, more than 202,600 in 1956, almost 770,300 in 1960, 486,400 in 1965, about 220,480 in 1974, and almost 591,000 in 1982. In 1990 the county produced 835,816 barrels of crude, and by January 1991 almost 20,856,590 barrels had been produced in the county since discovery in 1928.

In national politics the county supported Democratic presidential candidates in virtually every election between 1848 and 1992. In only four instances did Jasper County voters supported Republicans: William McKinley in 1900, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972, and Ronald Reagan in 1984. The construction of Sam Rayburn Reservoir in the mid-1960s near Jasper brought the county a new industry, as water again proved to be a valuable resource. The Angelina River feeds the reservoir, which attracts boaters, fishermen, and tourists. The population of the county increased to 24,692 in 1970, 30,781 in 1980, and 31,102 in 1990. Jasper (1990 population, 6,959) is the county's largest town and seat of government. Other communities include Buna (2,127), Kirbyville (1,871), and Browndell.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

James M. McReynolds, A History of Jasper County, Texas, Prior to 1874 (M.A. thesis, Lamar State College of Technology, 1968).

Glenn Justice

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Glenn Justice, "JASPER COUNTY," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hcj03), accessed September 21, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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