The Angelina River is formed by the junction of Barnhardt and Shawnee creeks three miles northwest of Laneville in southwest central Rusk County (at 32°01' N, 94°50' W). The river flows southeast for 110 miles, forming the boundaries between Cherokee and Nacogdoches, Angelina and Nacogdoches, and Angelina and San Augustine counties. It empties into the Neches River twelve miles north of Jasper in northwestern Jasper County (at 31°54' N, 94°12' W). Sam Rayburn Reservoir is on the southern part of the stream. The river traverses flat to rolling terrain surfaced by sandy and clay loams that support water-tolerant hardwoods, conifers, and grasses.
The stream was named for a Hasinai Indian girl whom Spanish missionaries called Angelina. It was well known to Spanish and French explorers and to missionaries in East Texas. Spanish land grants along the stream date back to the later eighteenth century, and there was considerable settlement in the area during the Mexican period. The river was navigable from Ayish Bayou nearly to Nacogdoches in the 1840s and furnished a significant means of transportation to settlers. The earliest attempts at commercial navigation of the Angelina began in 1844 when Moses and Robert Patton, using a barge-like craft known as the Thomas J. Rusk, transported 192 bales of cotton from Pattonia Landing (located on the Angelina twelve miles southeast of Nacogdoches) by way of the Neches to Sabine Pass. The Patton brothers continued to operate their barge service for three years, hauling cotton and other produce downriver and returning with provisions and merchandise from Galveston and New Orleans. In 1847 they purchased a steamship, the Angelina, capable of hauling 350 to 400 bales of cotton and making the round trip to Sabine Pass in fifteen to twenty days. Several other steamboats plied the Angelina during the heyday of river traffic around the time of the Civil War. The largest of these was the 115-foot Laura, built in Evansville, Indiana, powered by a forty-horsepower engine; the Laura was capable of carrying 525 bales of cotton or 1,700 barrels of other goods. River traffic on the Angelina began to die in the 1880s with the arrival of the railroads. By 1900 the stream was no longer navigable. Farming and clear-cutting by the growing lumber industry in the river's watershed caused the river to silt up, and numerous sandbars formed along its course.