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NEWTON COUNTY

NEWTON COUNTY. Newton County (L-22) is in southeastern Texas on the Louisiana border. Newton, the geographic center and largest town of the county, is seventy miles northeast of Beaumont at 30°51' north latitude and 93°45' west longitude. Newton County comprises 950 square miles of the lower regions of the East Texas timber belt. Common trees include longleaf and shortleaf pines, oak, magnolia, hickory, and cypress. The rolling terrain, dominated by loamy topsoils, ranges from 30 to 300 feet above sea level. The Sabine River forms the county's eastern boundary. Major tributaries in the county include, from north to south, Little Cow Creek, Quicksand Creek, Big Cow Creek, and Big Cypress Creek. Oil and gas dominate the county's mineral resources. Temperatures range from an average high in July of 93° F to an average January low of 40° F. Rainfall averages just over fifty-four inches annually, the highest for any county in the state. The growing season extends for 228 days per year. Indians were the earliest human inhabitants of Newton County. Artifacts attributed to members of the Caddo confederacies have been located in present-day Newton County. The Atakapans, whose name means "man-eaters" in Choctaw, occupied the coastal regions around the Sabine River and may also have ventured into Newton County. The Coushattas, who migrated to lower East Texas during the early 1800s, also came through the county. In fact, one of the earliest trails through the area was known as the Coushatta Trace. The lands which eventually comprised Newton County were included in Lorenzo de Zavala's 1829 grant from the Mexican government. At least twenty-one settlers received title to land now in the county in 1834 and 1835. Most of the area of present-day Newton County was part of the Municipality of Liberty from 1831 to 1834 and the Municipality of Bevil, which later became Jasper County, from 1834 to 1846. The area north of the Little Cow Creek, which includes one-fifth of the present county, was within the Municipality of San Augustine in 1834–35 and the Municipality of Sabine from 1835 to 1837, before becoming part of Jasper County in 1837. The state legislature marked off Newton County on April 22, 1846, from the eastern half of Jasper County and named it in honor of John Newton, a veteran of the American Revolution. The county's boundaries have remained unchanged since that time save for a small cession along the western border to Jasper in 1852.

The issue of the location of the courthouse dominated Newton County's early history. Electors originally voted to place the seat at the center of the county, and the first commissioners' court meetings convened near Quicksand Creek as a result. However, citizens of Burkeville successfully petitioned the Texas legislature to make their town the county seat in 1848. Voters narrowly approved the new location the following year. In 1853 a dispute concerning land titles, followed by yet another election, resulted in the move of offices to Newton, a newly established community at the geographic center of the county. Burkeville citizens refused to give up the struggle, and an 1855 plebiscite favored Burkeville by a small majority. County officials refused to leave Newton, however, convincing the legislature to recognize that city as the proper seat of government, where it has since remained. By 1860 settlers in Newton County had established a mixed agricultural economy based on corn, potatoes, cattle, hogs, sheep, and horses. Cotton production had jumped from 152 bales in 1850 to 2,091 bales in 1860. Although there were few large planters, the number of slaves was also growing and in 1860 reached 1,103, 34 percent of the county's population. From a very early date Baptist and Methodists dominated the county's religious life.

Newton County citizens overwhelmingly favored the conservative southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge in the 1860 presidential election. Not surprisingly, they supported secession by an even greater margin. Although some 400 men from Newton County served during the Civil War, the commissioners' court made strenuous efforts to help the remaining citizens avoid much of the war's immediate economic destruction. The political and social turmoil that affected much of the state during Reconstruction had little impact on Newton County. County voters supported Republican Edmund J. Davis in his successful bid for the governor's office in 1869 but returned to their traditional Democratic affiliations in the congressional race of 1871. Electors continued to favor Democrats for the next century, until American party candidate George Wallace received a plurality in the 1968 presidential contest. In 1972 the county voted Republican, but from 1976 through 1992, Newton County voters supported Democratic presidential candidates.

As had been the case before the Civil War, agriculture remained important from 1880 to 1930. The number of farms in Newton County nearly doubled during the fifty-year period. Corn, cotton, cattle, and hogs served as staples in the county's agricultural economy. Sheep ranching enjoyed a brief span of popularity, although the number of these animals raised in the county declined rapidly after 1900. The population grew steadily during these years, from 4,359 in 1880 to 12,395 in 1930. Blacks made up over one-third of the almost entirely rural population of Newton County. The post-Reconstruction period saw a tremendous expansion of the lumber industry. The census of 1880 estimated total industrial production, largely stemming from water-powered sawmills, to be just over $25,000. Early lumbermen used animal teams or creeks to pull or float their cut timber to the Sabine River, where it was then floated downstream to Orange. Capitalizing on the region's huge expanses of virgin forests, large timber interests became involved in Newton County during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Included among these lumber giants were A. J. Peavy, Henry Lutcher, and John Henry Kirby.qqv By 1929 industrial production was over $4,000,000 annually, with 1,383 of the county's 1,461 industrial workers employed by lumber-related concerns. Nearly two-thirds of the total work force was now involved in non-agricultural occupations. The growth of the lumber industry from 1880 to 1930 also revolutionized transportation. Early settlers depended upon poorly maintained county roads and sporadic riverboat service along the Sabine. Promoters had gained charters to establish railroads in the county as early as 1852. Yet the first completed line of lasting importance to Newton County, a section of the Texarkana and Fort Smith to Ruliff, was not realized until 1897. Lumbermen, seeking to link their forest holdings with their mills, oversaw the rapid expansion of the rail system during the early twentieth century. Particularly important were the Orange and Northwestern, the Sabine and Neches Valley, and the Gulf and Northern.

The Great Depression and gradual depletion of available stands of timber had a severe impact upon Newton County. As late as 1940, public emergency work programs employed 468 persons (10.7 percent of the total work force); another 302 (6.6 percent of the total work force) were still seeking work. Mill closings at Deweyville, Call, and Wiergate also hurt the county's economy. Industrial production fell 37 percent from 1930 to 1940. These factors were undoubtedly important in the 21 percent decline in population from 1940 to 1950 and a further 9.6 percent drop from 1950 to 1960. As a result of the economic woes, increasing numbers of persons began to seek work outside Newton County. Industrial plants at Beaumont and Orange attracted particularly large numbers. Fortunately, these commuters were able to use the county's improving system of roadways. U.S. Highway 190, which provides the main east-west thoroughfare, was paved by the mid-1940s. State Highway 87, the major north-south route, was completely paved by 1955. The number of registered motor vehicles nearly doubled between 1935 and 1962, again reflecting the greater mobility of Newton County residents after the World War II.

Other changes also contributed to the transformation of life in Newton County. While a few towns (including Newton and Deweyville) had electric service before 1925, electricity became available for the county's rural residents during the late 1930s. As part of the New Deal's Rural Electrification Administration, the Deep East Texas Electric Cooperative provided electric power to the northern part of the county. The Jasper-Newton Electric Cooperative served the county's southern residents. Moderate deposits of oil were also found in Newton County. In 1938 the South Call Oilfield began producing and was followed by several more fields discovered after 1945. Newton County's once declining population has undergone changes in numbers, racial composition, and educational levels. After a 1960 figure of 10,372, in 1980 13,227 persons lived in Newton County, a 27.5 percent increase but still less than the high of 13,700 in 1940. Most of the population in 1980 remained rural; Newton (1,620), Deweyville (850), and Burkeville (515) are the largest towns. The composition of the population has also changed. In 1940 blacks made up over 40 percent of the county's population; by 1980 the figure had fallen to just over 24 percent. In 1940 slightly more than one-tenth of county residents over twenty-five years of age had four years of high school education. By 1980 over 45 percent had achieved this level, and 4 percent had also completed at least four years of college. Newton County continued to grow slowly in the 1980s. In 1990 the county population was 13,569. The Toledo Bend Reservoir, along the northern boundary, provided new recreational facilities and attracted tourists to Newton County. Oil and gas deposits also figured in the local economy. Opportunities in wholesale and retail trade, along with service-related fields, increased in the 1970s and 1980s as well. The decline in agriculture from 1930 to 1960 seems to have been halted. The number of farms, which fell from a high of 1,565 in 1940 to a low of 192 in 1959, increased to 323 in 1982. While cotton-growing has virtually disappeared in Newton County, farmers have produced increasing amounts of hay, and cattle raising continues to play an important role in the county's economy. More importantly, proper forest management and reforestation programs have in recent years rejuvenated the county's available timber resources, and in 1990 forestry was the main agricultural activity in the county.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Newton County Historical Commission, Glimpses of Newton County History (Burnet, Texas: Nortex, 1982). Josephine Cochrum Peavy, A History of Newton County (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1942).

Robert Wooster

Citation

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

Robert Wooster, "NEWTON COUNTY," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hcn03), accessed October 25, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.