Anderson County is located in East Texas between the Trinity and the Neches rivers. Palestine, the county's largest town and its county seat, is 108 miles southeast of Dallas and 153 miles north of Houston. U.S. highways 287, 79, and 84 provide the major transportation routes through the county. The county's center lies at 95°36' west longitude and 31°47' north latitude. Anderson County has a total area of 1,077 square miles or 689,280 acres. The county is partly in the Texas Claypan area and partly in the East Texas Timberlands of the Southern Coastal Plains. Almost half of the soil is Fuquay-Kirvin-Darco, deep, sandy, and loamy. The terrain is nearly level to moderately steep in the uplands. The 66,000 acres in the western Claypan area are used mainly for pasture. The Timberlands are used mostly for pasture and woodland. Many varieties of timber grow abundantly, including red oak, post oak, white oak, pecan, walnut, hickory, elm, ash, and pine (see LUMBER INDUSTRY). The soil also supports a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
The terrain is hilly and slopes to the Trinity and Neches rivers, with an elevation of between 198 and 624 feet above sea level. The entire eastern area of the county is bordered by the Neches and is drained by Hurricane Creek, Lone Creek, and Brushy Creek. The western area is bordered by the Trinity River and is drained by Massey Lake, Mansion Creek, and Keechie Creek. Mineral resources include oil and gas and iron ore. Temperatures range from an average minimum of 37° F in January to an average maximum of 94° in July. Rainfall averages about 40.5 inches annually, and the growing season averages 264 days.
The territory that became Anderson County was home to the Comanche, Waco, Tawakonis, Kickapoo, and Kichai Indians. These and others, originally on the southern flanks of the Wichita peoples, were in the vanguard of the southern migration. By 1772 they had settled on the Brazos at Waco and on the Trinity upstream from the site of present Palestine.
In 1826 empresario David G. Burnet received a grant from the Mexican government for colonization of the area that is now Anderson County. In 1833 members of the Pilgrim Predestinarian Regular Baptist Church settled at the site of Parker's Fort in Limestone County, and others settled near the site of present Elkhart, where they established "Old Pilgrim," reputedly the oldest Protestant church in Texas. On June 10, 1835, Willison Ewing and Joseph Jordan bought a tract of land, which is now the John H. Reagan homesite, about two miles southeast of the present city of Palestine, and erected Fort Sam Houston as protection from the American Indians. In 1836 a settlement known as Fort Houston grew at this site. During the incursion of Antonio López de Santa Anna in the spring of 1836 most of the settlements west of the Trinity were destroyed. Settlers fled to Fort Houston, but many of them returned to Parker's Fort after Santa Anna's defeat. On May 19, 1836, Parker's Fort was attacked by American Indians, and most of the families there were killed. Those who survived made their way to Fort Houston. Some residents of Anderson County are related to Cynthia Ann Parker, who was captured in this raid. In October 1838, while Gen. Thomas J. Rusk marched with two hundred men on his way to Fort Houston in pursuit of Mexicans and American Indians, he learned that hostile American Indians were at a site called Kickapoo, near Frankston, in what is now northeastern Anderson County. His successful raid ended the engagements with the American Indians in eastern Texas for that year.
After the removal of the American Indians in the 1840s, settlement proceeded rapidly until the area had sufficient inhabitants to form a new county. In response to a petition presented by settlers at and around Fort Houston, the First Legislature of the state of Texas formed Anderson County from Houston County on March 24, 1846. A suggestion was made that the new county be called Burnet in honor of David G. Burnet. The county was named Anderson, however, after Kenneth Lewis Anderson, a prominent member of Congress and the last vice president of the Republic of Texas. Fort Houston was two miles from the center of the county, so a committee, composed of Dan Lumpkin, William Turner Sadler, and John Parker was appointed to lay out the site for and name a new county seat. They chose a 100-acre tract in the center of the county. The Parkers had come from Palestine, Crawford County, Illinois, and upon their suggestion, the new county seat was named Palestine.
On July 30, 1846, the first session of the Anderson County court was called. Road building was of foremost importance, and a road from Palestine to the Neches River was ordered. Other roads from Palestine to Fort Houston, Parker's Bluff, Cannon's Ferry, and Kingsboro in Henderson County followed. Authorization for construction of a courtroom and jail with an underground dungeon was given. In August 1846 a county tax was levied, and Thomas Hanks was appointed county treasurer. In October election precincts were arranged. District court was held on November 9, 1846, with Judge William B. Ochiltree, of the sixth judicial district of Texas, presiding. The first cases were civil cases involving title to land and slaves.
In 1851 the Palestine Masonic Institute was established, with both male and female departments. In 1856 it became Franklin College. When the male department failed, the Palestine Female College was formed and stayed in operation until 1881, when a vote was taken to establish public schools. A school established in 1852 at Mound Prairie was one of the most famous in antebellum Texas.
Most of the settlers in the county came from the southern states and from Missouri. In 1850 the county population was 2,884, of which 600 were slaves, but by 1860 the population had increased to 10,398, of which 3,668 were slaves. During the same time, cotton production had grown from 784 bales to 7,517 bales. Anderson County showed steady growth in population and agricultural production during the antebellum period.
When the Civil War broke out, Anderson County almost unanimously supported secession and sent her ablest men to fight. Judge John H. Reagan served in the cabinet of the Confederate government as postmaster general. Even after the defeat of the South, Anderson County resisted federal rule. During Reconstruction, one loyalist called District Judge Reuben A. Reeves, a resident of Palestine, "the greatest curse of the latter part of the nineteenth-century so far as this District is concerned" because of his refusal to allow Blacks to participate as jurors in the judicial process. When the Democratic party gained control statewide, the voters of Anderson County favored the Democratic candidate in virtually every presidential election through 1948; the only exceptions occurred in 1924 and 1928, when Republicans Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover took the county. After 1952, when Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower won a majority of the county's votes, the area's sympathies began to shift, and Republican candidates carried the county in every virtually every presidential election from 1952 through 2004. The only exceptions occurred in 1964, 1968, and 1976, when Democrats Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Jimmy Carter, respectively, took the county.
By 1870 the population of Anderson County had declined to 9,229, 52 percent White and 48 percent Black. In 1875, under the leadership of Judge Reagan, the citizens of Palestine and the county joined in voting a bond issue of $150,000 to be given as a bonus to the International-Great Northern Railroad for locating its machine and repair shops and general offices in Palestine. The company employed over 300 men. As a direct result, by 1880, Palestine doubled in size to more than 4,000 people, and the county population nearly doubled in size to 17,395. The county was traversed north to south by the railroad, which branched at Palestine, one set of tracks running to Houston and Galveston and the other to Laredo. The I-GN, currently the Missouri Pacific, still serves Palestine. Palestine is also a hub for the Texas State Railroad. The county population grew steadily upward to 37,092 in 1940, and the White majority increased to 68 percent. Between 1940 and 1970, however, the county declined in population by 25 percent, from 31,875 to 27,162. The White majority increased to 75 percent of the total. Between 1970 and 1980 the population increased to 38,381; Whites numbered 29,399, or 77 percent.
Between 1880 and 1940 Anderson County was predominantly agricultural. Corn, cotton, sweet potatoes, hay, and, by the 1920s, peanuts were the most important crops. The timber industry gained importance in the 1930s. Between 1940 and 1982 the number of farms dropped by 70 percent, from 4,422 to 1,356. Crops that remained important in the 1980s included peanuts, sweet potatoes, hay, and fruits and nuts.
In 1881 traces of oil were found. The first rotary rig was shipped to the county in 1902. Good showings of oil caused more local citizens to drill, but no commercial wells were made at that time. In 1916 the Texas Company proved the existence of the Keechi Salt Dome, and in 1926 the Boggy Creek Dome was discovered. In January 1928 the first successful oil producer in Anderson County, known as the Humble-Lizzie Smith No. 1, was brought in. The discovery brought prosperity, and this may account for the county's voting Republican in the 1924 and 1928 elections. The oil discoveries also meant that the Great Depression had a less severe impact than elsewhere.
Manufacture of diverse products, including glass containers, garments, automotive parts, metal and wood products, aluminum, and furniture played an important role in the economy of the county. Manufacturing-related and retail employment rose from 2,006 in 1965 to 3,663 in 1980, accounting for over 55 percent of total employment. Oil and natural gas discoveries, valuable timber regions, rich ranchlands for grazing cattle, iron ore deposits, and the conversion to peanut production kept the price of farm and ranch land steadily increasing. Three units of the Texas Department of Corrections (see PRISON SYSTEM) were located at Tennessee Colony in the northwestern part of the county. Education levels advanced. In 1950 only 24 percent of those aged twenty-five or older had at least a high school education. By 1980, however, 51 percent met this standard. In the early 1980s cattle were grazed on 200,000 acres of open land and about 127,000 acres of forest land; commercial timber grew on 200,000 acres; cultivated land comprised 86,000 acres, of which 23,000 was in row crops and the rest was either fallow or in close grown crops or hay. Urban development covered 28,000 acres. Anderson County then ranked twenty-second in production of commercial timber among the forty-three counties in the East Texas pine-hardwood region known as the Piney Woods.
Anderson County experienced growth in oil and gas production during the 1970s and 1980s, and they continued to be significant components of the local economy into the 1990s. Almost 931,300 barrels of oil, and 8,203,929 cubic feet of gas-well gas, were produced in the county in 2000; by the end of that year 295,904,540 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1929. Other sectors, including transportation, retail and wholesale trade, finance, and the service industries, also grew. Meanwhile the area's population steadily increased, rising from 27,789 in 1970 to 38,381 in 1980 and 48,024 in 1990.
The census counted 57,627 people living in Anderson County in 2014. About 60.2 percent were Anglo, 21.5 percent Black, and 16.9 percent Hispanic. More than 64 percent of residents over twenty-five had a high school education, and more than 11 percent had a college degree. In the early twenty-first century agriculture continued to be a significant component of the area's economy, but manufacturing and distribution businesses and tourism also contributed. In 2002 the county had 1,735 farms and ranches covering 365,182 acres, 37 percent of which were devoted to crops, 35 percent to pasture, and 24 percent to woodlands. In that year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $23,063,000; livestock sales accounted for $16,457,000 of the total. Cattle, hay, truck vegetables, melons, pecans, and peaches were the chief agricultural products. Palestine (population, 18,922) is the county's largest town and seat of government; other communities include Cayuga (137), Elkhart (1,382), Frankston (1,196), Montalba (110), Neches (175) and Tennessee Colony (300). The county attracts numerous visitors, who go there to enjoy the beautiful Dogwood Trails in the spring, balloon launchings at the United States government's Scientific Balloon Base, picturesque train rides to Rusk on the Texas State Railroad, the Engeling Wildlife Management Area, the 900 acre Palestine Community Forest, and other historic sites and museums. Educational opportunities increased with the opening in 1980 of Trinity Valley Community College in neighboring Henderson County.