Aransas County (P-18) is on the Gulf Coast northeast of Corpus Christi. The county, divided into three parts by Copano, St. Charles, and Aransas bays, is bounded on the north and northwest by Refugio County, on the south by San Patricio and Nueces counties, and on the east by the Gulf of Mexico. The county seat and largest city is Rockport. Several highways cross the county, including State highways 35 and 361, and Farm roads 136, 881, 1781, 2040, 2165, 2725, and 3036. The county is also served by the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
Aransas County has an area of 276 square miles. The altitude ranges from sea level to fifty feet. The level land, part of the Coastal Prairie, is generally poorly drained. Dark, saline, loamy soils cover much of the inland terrain. Along the coastal areas are sandy beaches. In the northwest are loamy, acidic soils, with cracking, clayey subsoils. The Gulf marshes support cordgrasses, sedges, rushes, seashore saltgrass, march millet, and maiden cane. Further inland the native flora includes the tall grasses of the Gulf prairie and some hardwoods such as elms and oaks, which are found particularly along streambeds. Much of the northern portion of the county is in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Between 11 and 20 percent of the land in the county is considered prime farmland.
The subtropical-humid climate features mild winters and warm summers. Temperatures range in January from an average low of 46° F to an average high of 63°, and in July from 76° to 91°. The average annual rainfall is 36 inches; the average relative humidity is 95 percent at 6 A.M. and 76 percent at 6 P.M. The growing season averages 305 days a year, with the last freeze in early February and the first freeze in mid-December.
The Aransas County area has been the site of human habitation for several thousand years. Archeological artifacts recovered in the region suggest that the earliest human inhabitants arrived around 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. Subsequent inhabitants belonged to a culture known as Aransas. Aransas campsites, some dating back approximately 4,000 years, have been found from Copano Bay in Aransas County to Baffin Bay north of Kenedy County. The Aransas Indians, a nomadic, hunter-gatherer people, appear to have left the Gulf Coast around A.D. 1200 to 1300. The region apparently afterward remained uninhabited for 100 years until the ancestors of the Karankawas moved there around A.D. 1400. During historic times, the Coastal Bend area was occupied by several groups of Indians, including the Karankawas and Coahuiltecans. These nomadic hunter-gatherers never formed a large alliance or organization. After the arrival of the Europeans most fled, succumbed to disease, or were absorbed by other Indian groups in Mexico; by the mid-1800s virtually all trace of them had disappeared.
The earliest European to see the area of the future county may have been Alonzo Álvarez de Pineda, who sailed along the Texas coast in the early summer of 1519 and may have explored Aransas Bay during his journey. Nine years later Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his crew were shipwrecked on the Texas coast. Although their exact route is unknown, historians believe that he or members of his party may have crossed the area. The Spanish, however, largely ignored the region until the French under René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, established a colony in Texas in 1685. Spanish authorities dispatched an expedition to the area in 1689 under Alonso De León, but no permanent settlement was founded in the area. In 1766 Diego Ortiz Parrilla conducted an exploration of the Gulf Coast and gave the names Santo Domingo to Copano Bay and Culebra Island to what is now St. Joseph Island.
By the late colonial period, the Spanish had established a small fort on Live Oak Point that they named Aránzazu, reportedly after a palace in Spain. Several attempts were made to establish settlements in the lower Nueces River valley to the south, but because of the threat of Indian attacks and the distance from other Spanish enclaves the plans came to nothing.
Across Copano Bay in what is now Refugio County, Governor Bernardo de Gálvez established a port of entry and customhouse in the 1780s, which became known as El Cópano. During the late Spanish and Mexican periods, the port, which served Goliad, Refugio, and San Antonio de Béxar, was considered the best in what was called western Texas, and hundreds of colonists landed there. Most of the colonists, however, moved inland, and only few settled in the coastal region.
The area of Aransas County lay within the border leagues closed to colonization, but the general government of Mexico, on June 11, 1828, gave an empresario grant embracing the region to James Power and James Hewetson, who were to bring in Irish and Mexican settlers. A few Irish arrived between 1829 and 1833, among them Thomas O'Connor, Edward St. John, Edward McDonough, Peter Teal, and the Fagan and Lambert families, but the region was only sparsely settled on the eve of the Texas Revolution.
After Texas independence, the area became part of the newly formed Refugio County. Around 1832 James Power founded Aransas City on Live Oak Point near the site of the Aránzazu fort. A customhouse, a post office, and several stores were established at the settlement, which by April 1840 served as the de facto seat of government for Refugio County. Until the establishment of Corpus Christi, Aransas City was the westernmost port in Texas; its estimated population was several hundred. The town was raided by Comanche and Karankawa Indians on several occasions, and at least three times by Mexican bandits, in 1838, 1839, and 1841.
At about the same time three local figures, Capt. James W. Byrne, George R. Hull, and George Armstrong, were developing another townsite, Lamar, across the pass on Lookout Point. After Mirabeau B. Lamar became president of Texas, he ordered the customhouse moved to the new town. In 1840 Refugio became the county seat, and as a result Aransas City began to decline; by 1846 it had ceased to exist. After the revolution cattlemen and sailors founded another community, Aransas, on the southern end of St. Joseph's Island, which was a prosperous port in antebellum Texas.
Despite these developments along the coast, however, the interior of the county was still largely undeveloped. During the 1830s Power and Hewetson had purchased an additional twenty-two leagues of land, which, along with their original grant from the Mexican government, made them the largest landowners east of the Nueces. But in 1839 their title was challenged by Joseph F. Smith and several others, including Stuart Perry, Cyrus W. Egery, James W. Byrne, G. R. Hull, George Armstrong, and Joseph E. Plummer, who claimed that the Mexican grants in the county were void. The case dragged through the courts until 1845, when Smith and his fellow plaintiffs succeeded in having the original grants overturned. Litigation continued to the late 1850s, but in the end Power and Hewetson lost all of their titles, and Smith became the major landholder in the area.
During the Mexican War the Live Oak Peninsula was the site of Zachary Taylor's main encampment before he moved his army south. A short time later James W. Byrne and his associates founded the settlement of St. Joseph on the western end of St. Joseph's Island. The community proved to be short-lived, however. Byrne became associated with Pryor Lea in a plan to develop a railroad from Lamar to Goliad. In 1847 the railroad was incorporated by the legislature, and Byrne induced a number of settlers to move to Lamar, which he hoped to turn into an important port city. The Aransas Railroad Company, as Lea and Byrne called their project, changed its name to Central Transit Company a few years later. The company graded a roadbed across Live Oak Peninsula in 1858, but the threat of the Civil War terminated their plans.
In the meantime, Joseph F. Smith had begun to develop another port town, St. Mary's of Aransas, on Copano Bay, two miles up the bay from Black Point. The settlement soon became the largest lumber and building-materials center in western Texas. Regular wagon trains hauled goods inland to Refugio, Goliad, Beeville, and San Antonio, and on the eve of the Civil War St. Mary's was an important shipping point for hides, tallow, cattle, and cotton. By 1860 Lamar had two stores and a post office, but St. Mary's had become the more important port.
During the Civil War the area that was to become Aransas County was the site of several engagements between Union and Confederate forces. In February 1862 marines from the USS Afton went ashore on St. Joseph's Island and destroyed Aransas. By the summer, civilians had deserted the islands. Vessels of the United States Navy under J. W. Kittredge blockaded the coast, using St. Joseph's Island as a depot to store captured cotton. On May 3, 1863, Capt. Edwin E. Hobby's Confederate company attacked the Union garrison there and killed twenty, but in November 1863 federal troops under T. C. G. Robinson succeeded in regaining control of the island. St. Mary's, which had been a prime focus for blockade runners, was attacked, and its wharves and warehouses were destroyed. Many of the town's leading citizens moved elsewhere, including Joseph F. Smith, who moved to Tuxpan, Vera Cruz, where he purchased a plantation and lived until his death.
Despite the destruction and economic disruption caused by the war, the future Aransas County area quickly recovered. Aransas, which had been destroyed during the war, became a ghost town, and Lamar, which had burned during the war, declined, but several new towns were founded, including Fulton in 1866 and Rockport in 1867. During the years of the great cattle boom, the new port towns became important shipping and processing points. The first packery in the county was built by W. S. Hall in Fulton just after the war, and over the course of the next eight years the plant slaughtered 400,000 cattle. In nearby Rockport, J. M. Mathis and Dan Doughty built large wharf pens and persuaded the Morgan Lines to ship the cattle to New Orleans. Numerous other packeries sprang up, most of them located in the Rockport-Fulton area, including the Carruthers and Fulton Company, Lyman Meat Packing and Canning Company, American Meat Company, American Beef Packery, Boston Packing Company, Texas Beef Packery, and Marion Packing Company.
During the early years of the cattle boom, most of the animals were slaughtered for their hides and tallow; the lack of adequate refrigeration or preservation technology dictated that much of the meat was fed raw to pigs or thrown into the bay. Near one of the packeries was a dump for meat and carcasses that covered nearly five acres. The smell of rotting meat reportedly pervaded the area for years. In 1871 Daniel L. Holden installed the first ice machine in a packing house, thus revolutionizing the industry by enabling the packery to process most of the meat instead of disposing of it. The meat-packing industry in the area began to decline after a decade, in large part due to the rising price of cattle and competition from beef-packing plants in Chicago and Kansas City. But as late as 1880 a single factory in the Rockport-Fulton area handled 93 percent of the $500,000 worth of beef slaughtered by Texas factories in 1880.
In March 1871, because the great cattle boom had established it as the most important town in the area, Rockport became county seat of Refugio County. On September 18 of the same year, the legislature voted to divide the county and designated much of the coastal area as a new county named Aransas. Rockport was made the county seat, and on March 26, 1872, the county commissioners' court met for the first time in a rented frame house.
In 1888 the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad (later the Texas and New Orleans) reached Rockport, thus ensuring the town's continued importance as a shipping center. The rise of Rockport, however, marked the beginning of the decline for St. Mary's. Successive storms in 1886 and 1887 destroyed the town's wharves, and by the early 1890s St. Mary's had dwindled to a small village.
Despite the growth of Rockport and Fulton, the county's population remained small; in 1880 it was 996. In 1888, however, all of the unsold land in the Smith and Wood subdivision was acquired by the Aransas Pass Land Company, which instituted a comprehensive plan to develop Rockport and the surrounding region. Lured by the promise of a bright future, numerous immigrants from the Old South and Europe were drawn to the county, and by 1890 the population had grown to 1,824.
A new county courthouse, designed by J. Riely Gordon, was built in 1889. By 1900 the county had seven post offices and six public schools. Between 1890 and 1900 the number of farms grew from six to forty-seven, and tourism for the first time began to play a significant role in the area's economy.
Local leaders, however, recognized that the county's continued prosperity was dependent on developing Rockport into a deepwater harbor. Several attempts had been made by the end of the nineteenth century to open a deep channel, but the lack of adequate jetties, dredging equipment, and finances had doomed the efforts. Another large construction project was undertaken after the turn of the century under the direction of a Philadelphia engineering firm, but it proved to be a fiasco that made matters worse. Vessels that had previously navigated the channel without difficulty could pass only during high tide. Several other plans failed in execution. Finally, in the 1920s, Aransas Pass became a deepwater port, but by that time the Port of Corpus Christi had been opened to oceangoing vessels, and the Aransas County ports declined in importance.
In 1919 the area was hit by a powerful hurricane (see HURRICANES), and much of Rockport and the surrounding area was destroyed. The combination of the storm and the loss of shipping to Corpus Christi dealt a serious blow to the county's economy, and for much of the next four decades it showed only modest growth. The population, which reached 2,106 in 1910, declined slightly by 1920 to 2,064, and only topped the 3,000 mark in 1940 (3,469).
During the first half of the twentieth century two new industries emerged, fishing and shipbuilding. By the early 1890s commercial fishing was flourishing in the Rockport area, and over the course of the next several decades it continued to expand, eventually outstripping agriculture in net receipts. The shrimping industry also began to develop in the 1930s, and by 1950 it produced fifty-one million pounds of shrimp.
The area's small shipbuilding industry, which had begun to develop at the end of the nineteenth century, took off during World War I and continued to prosper during the 1920s and 1930s. During World War II the United States Navy took over the Rockport Yacht and Supply Company to repair and maintain vessels in the 100-foot class, and another shipyard, owned by Rob Roy Rice, built wooden submarine chasers.
Oil was discovered in the county in 1936, and thirteen wells were in production in 1946, but it was not until the 1950s that oil was produced in large quantities. In 1990 498,703 barrels was produced; total production between 1936 and 1990 was over 77,000,000 barrels. Much of the drilling has been done offshore, and the county benefited greatly from the settlement in 1953 of the Tidelands controversy, which gave it an additional 208 square miles of submerged land area.
The first school in the county was Lamar Academy, founded around 1850. The first school in Rockport opened in 1881, and in 1884 the first public school opened there. Between 1893 and 1949 seven common school districts operated in the county, but in June 1946 they were consolidated in the Aransas County Independent School District. In the early 1980s Aransas County had three elementary, one middle, and one high school. Private schools enrolled fifty-three elementary students. Fifty-seven percent of the 139 high school graduates planned to attend college. In 1983, 62 percent of the graduates were white, 31 percent Hispanic, 3 percent black, and 5 percent Asian.
From the time of annexation until the 1950s, Aransas County was staunchly in the Democratic camp. Republican presidential candidate Herbert Hoover received a narrow majority of the county's votes in the 1928 election, but Democrats prevailed in every other election until Dwight Eisenhower's first campaign in 1952. From 1952 through 1992, Republicans won the majority of the elections; the Democrat victors were John F. Kennedy in 1960, Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and Jimmy Carter in 1976.
The total number of businesses in the county in the early 1990s was about 450. Leading industries included agribusiness, tourism, oil and gas extraction, and fish packing. Gross sales in 1990 totaled $193,138,955. In 1990, approximately 33 percent of the land in the county was in farms and ranches, and 14 percent of the farmland was under cultivation. Aransas County ranked 253d in the state in agricultural receipts, with 69 percent coming from crops. Principal crops included sorghum, fruits, and nuts; the primary livestock products were from cattle.
The county population was 3,469 in 1940, 4,240 in 1950, 7,006 in 1960, and 8,902 in 1970. Subsequently the county grew more rapidly: in 1980 the number of inhabitants was 14,260, and in 1990 it reached 17,892. As of 2014, the population was 24,972. In 2014, 68.7 percent of the population was white, 1.8 percent African American, 2.2 percent Asian, and 26.1 percent Hispanic. The largest cities were Rockport (population, 9,785), Aransas Pass (742, part of which is in Nueces and San Patricio counties), and Fulton (1,501).
The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which runs the length of Aransas Bay, handles a large volume of shipping through the area and is an important element in the economy. In the late twentieth century tourist trade was also a major source of income. Local attractions include Goose Island State Park, Copano Bay State Fishing Pier, the Rockport Beach, and the Texas Maritime Museum. Special celebrations include Seafair in October, Fiesta en la Plaza in September, and the Fourth of July Fireworks and Art Festival; Oyster Fest occurs in March and the Children's Christmas Tree in November.