Atascosa County (at-uhs-KO-suh) is south of San Antonio on Interstate Highway 37 in the Rio Grande Plain region of south central Texas. Jourdanton, the county seat, is located on state highways 16 and 97 in central Atascosa County thirty-three miles south of San Antonio and 100 miles northwest of Corpus Christi. The geographic center point of the county is 28°50' N, 98°30' W. The county covers 1,218 square miles of level to rolling land. Elevation ranges from 350 to 700 feet, and the soils are generally deep with loamy surface layers and clayey subsoils. Along the southern borders the light-colored soils have limestone near the surface. In some areas the soils are gray to black, cracking and clayey, and expand and shrink considerably. In the South Texas Plains vegetation area, the subtropical dry-land vegetation consists primarily of cactus, weeds, grasses, thorny shrubs and trees such as mesquite, and live oak and post oak. Many of the open grasslands have been seeded with buffalo grass. Between 41 and 50 percent of the county is considered prime farmland. Wildlife in Atascosa County includes white-tailed deer, javelina, turkey, fox squirrel, jackrabbits, foxes, ring-tailed cats, skunks, and opossum. The main predators are bobcats and coyotes. Ducks, cranes, and geese migrate across the county. Tanks are stocked with catfish, bass, and sunfish. Mineral resources include clay, uranium, sand and gravel, and oil and gas. Other minerals and products include caliche and clay, lignite coal, construction and industrial sand, sulfur, and uranium.
The climate is subtropical-subhumid; winters are mild and summers are hot. The average annual temperature is 70°F. Temperatures range in January from an average low of 40° F to an average high of 65° and in July from 74° to 97°. The average annual precipitation is twenty-seven inches, with an average relative humidity of 84 percent at six A.M. and 51 percent at six P.M. There is no significant snowfall. The growing season averages 282 days a year, with the last freeze in late February and the first freeze in early December. The sun shines an average 65 percent of the daylight hours.
Archeological evidence suggests that Indians of the Coahuiltecan language group occupied this region for several thousand years before the arrival of Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century. They survived by hunting and gathering until they were taught agriculture by the Spaniards, who also trained them in pottery, masonry, and carpentry skills. After the arrival of Europeans, most of these early residents succumbed to disease, intermarried, or were annihilated by Comanche and Apache invasions. Indians in Atascosa County after Anglo settlement began were primarily Lipan Apaches and Comanches, although by the late nineteenth century these, too, were virtually extinct.
Families from northern Mexico established ranches in the area by the middle of the eighteenth century. The name Atascosa, "boggy" in Spanish, was used to describe the area as early as 1788. The Lower Presidio Road, one of the branches of the Old San Antonio Road, passed through the area. After the Texas Revolution, most of the Mexican ranches were broken up, but the first Anglo settlers did not arrive until the late 1840s, when the state began to grant land there to veterans. The most important of these grants, and the one that marked the beginning of extensive colonization in the area, was that of four leagues on the Atascosa River (formerly known as Atascosa Creek) to José Antonio Navarro, originally deeded to him by the Mexican government in 1825 and acknowledged by the state of Texas in 1853.
The area was sparsely settled by the mid-1850s, and in 1856 the county was marked off from Bexar County. The first county seat, Navatasco, was established in 1857 on land donated by Navarro. Among the county's early settlers were Peter Tumlinson, who organized one of the first Ranger companies in the state in 1836, Indian fighter Thomas Rodriguez, George F. Hindes, Marshall Burney, and Eli Johnson. In 1858 Pleasanton, a newly founded community, became county seat, and a new courthouse was constructed. Settlers continued to trickle in, but the threat of Indian attack, poor roads, and the area's general isolation kept the population low.
On the eve of the Civil War subsistence farming and cattle ranching were the dominant occupations. The first census taken in Atascosa County in 1860 recorded a population of 1,578, including eighty-four black slaves. Tax rolls show that there thirty-three slaveholders, with most of them owning only one or two slaves. The number of improved acres was small, only 3,397, spread out among 102 farms.
Because of its isolation Atascosa County was little touched by the Civil War. Some Atascosa County residents fought for the Confederacy, most notably four of José Antonio Navarro's sons, but the way of life for most residents changed little during the war years. Due to the county residents' relatively small investment in slaves, the war and the depression that followed it had little effect on the economy. In marked contrast to most other counties of the state, which saw a dramatic decline in property values, the total taxable assets of Atascosa County actually rose, from $478,408 in 1860 to $497,940 in 1865.
After the war, cattle ranching took center stage, and during the late 1860s the number of livestock increased sharply. In 1860 there were 29,020 cattle in the county; by 1870, during the peak period of the great cattle drives, the figure had risen to 92,047, and livestock, mostly cattle, accounted for 75 percent of the agricultural receipts.
The population also increased rapidly during the postbellum years, to 2,915 by 1870 and to 4,217 in 1880 and 6,459 in 1890. Many of the new settlers were recent immigrants, including a sizable number of English and Germans. After 1880 the number of immigrants from Mexico also grew steadily, and by the turn of the century Mexicans made up the largest number of foreign-born residents.
Many of the new residents arrived by railroad. In 1881 an extension of the Great Northern Railway was built through the extreme northern corner of Atascosa County, and the first railroad station in the county was located at Lytle. The influx of new settlers in turn brought a rapid increase in the number of farms and helped boost the agricultural economy. In 1870 there were 400 farms in the county with some 4,800 improved acres; by 1890 there were 886 farms and 50,534 improved acres. During the 1870s and 1880s corn was the principal cash crop, but during the late 1870s cotton was introduced, and by 1900 it had become the leading farm shipment. In 1890 Atascosa County farmers planted 10,553 acres in cotton; by 1910 that figure had increased to 32,125. Production of cotton also grew, from only 465 bales in 1880 to 4,799 in 1910.
The early years of the twentieth century brought other changes as well. In 1908 the Artesian Belt Railroad Company was incorporated and a year later began service between MacDona and Christine. And in 1912 the San Antonio, Uvalde and Gulf Railway was built through Atascosa County, fostering the growth of the towns of Leming, North Pleasanton, McCoy, Charlotte, and Hindes. In 1910 the residents of the county voted to make Jourdanton the county seat, and in 1912 a new mission-style courthouse was constructed, which is still in use.
Irrigation, first used effectively by Henry Mumme in Poteet in 1911, opened the way for such cash crops as strawberries, peas, and watermelons. But during the first three decades of the twentieth century cotton and cattle continued to be the county's leading products. Cotton production peaked in the mid-1920s, with over 81,000 acres under cultivation in 1924. Falling prices, droughts, and boll weevil infestations, however, combined to drive down cotton production in the 1930s. Although the amount of land planted in cotton continued to be quite high—as much as 20,000 acres in the late 1920s—both yields and profits dropped significantly, especially after 1932. In 1930 Atascosa County farmers produced only 6,176 bales, less than half of the 1926 figure (16,634).
Partly because of the rapidly growing population, land prices showed a marked increase between 1910 and 1929, and many new farmers found it impossible to buy land. The number of tenants and sharecroppers grew rapidly, particularly in the 1920s, and by 1930 more than half of the farmers—1,087 of 1,809—were working someone else's land. In contrast to many other areas of the state, the overwhelming majority of the tenants were white, but the problem nonetheless had serious results during the Great Depression of the 1930s. As a result of the poor yields and the reluctance of banks to extend credit to financially strapped farmers, many of those who made a living from the land, particularly tenants, found themselves in a precarious position. Numerous farmers were forced to give up their livelihoods and seek work elsewhere. Between 1930 and 1950 the number of tenants dropped from 1,087 to 532. Oil was discovered in 1917, and oil revenues helped some cash-strapped farmers and ranchers to survive the depression years, but the farming economy did not fully recover until after World War II.
During the 1950s cotton production continued to decline, and its place was taken by new crops such as sorghum and peanuts. Commercial strawberry raising also grew in importance after World War II, and by 1960 Atascosa County was the third-largest strawberry grower among Texas counties. Poteet strawberries were famous. In the early 1990s beef and dairy cattle, peanuts, hay, corn, grain sorghums, pecans, and strawberries were the leading crops. Approximately 40,000 acres was under irrigation.
After World War II the county population grew slightly, to 20,048 in 1950, but fell during the late 1950s and 1960s, and by 1970 the number of residents stood at 18,696. Subsequently, the population increased steadily; in 1990 it was 30,533. Much of the growth is attributable to the increase in the number of Mexican Americans. In 1980 Atascosa County was ranked fortieth among all United States counties in percentage of Hispanics, with 48 percent, and by 1990 that number had grown to 55 percent. Other leading ancestry groups included German (15 percent) and English (14 percent).
Total wages paid to employees of nonfarming enterprises increased to approximately $200 million in the 1980s. The percentage of the labor force employed in retailing, wholesaling, and manufacturing was 25; 16 percent were in professional or related service, 21 percent in agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and mining, and 12 percent self-employed. The remainder worked outside the county. Among the leading occupations were general construction and agribusiness. As of 1980 Atascosa County had forty-five churches with a total estimated membership of over 18,000. The largest denominations were Catholic, Southern Baptist, and United Methodist.
Oil and gas extraction continued to be a leading industry. Humble Pipe Line Company established operations in Atascosa County in 1927, but the oil industry did not begin in earnest until the opening of Imogene and West Imogene fields in the 1940s, as well as those at Charlotte and Jourdanton. Diverse Humble operations in the Jourdanton area in the 1950s included gasoline, propane, butane, natural gasoline, and natural gas, all of which continued to be productive in the mid-1990s. In 1990 Atascosa County wells produced 1,236,387 barrels of oil. Almost 765,000 barrels of oil and 6,001,500 feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 149,778,538 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1917.
The mining of lignite coal, first begun in 1888, also became a major industry as the price of fuel oil and natural gas rose. The first lignite in Atascosa County was burned as fuel in 1981 after a ten-year period of research and development by the Brazos Electric Power Cooperative of Waco and the South Texas Electric Cooperative of Victoria. Another main mineral resource of Atascosa County is silica, used in building and glass-making. Local sand has also been processed for playground use, as blasting and frac sand for the oil industry, and as building material.
The voters of Atascosa County favored the Democratic candidate in virtually every presidential election from 1892 through 1948; the only exception occurred in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover took the county. After 1952, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower carried the county over Democrat Adlai Stevenson, the area began to trend more Republican. Though Democrats won majorities in the county in 1960, 1964, and 1968, Republicans took the county in 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988. Republican George H. W. Bush won only a plurality of the county's voters in 1992, at least partly because independent candidate Ross Perot ran strongly in the area, and Democrat Bill Clinton won a plurality in 1996. George W. Bush carried the county by large margins in 2000 and 2004. Democrats continued to dominate local and state elections in the county into the 1980s and early 1990s; in the 1982 primary 98 percent of the county's residents voted Democratic, and only 2 percent Republican, with 4,923 votes cast. In the late 1990s, however, Republican candidates for state and local offices became much more competitive in county elections.
The earliest schools were organized around the time of the Civil War. By 1914 there were thirty-seven schools in the county, including three schools for black students. By the 1940s the school districts had begun to consolidate. The total number of persons over the age of twenty-five who had completed four years of high school rose from 1,300 in 1950 to 2,083 in 1960. In addition, 395 in 1950 and 473 in 1960 had some college education and 415 in 1950 and 358 in 1960 had received undergraduate degrees. In 1982, 384 students graduated from high school in Atascosa County's five consolidated school districts, and 34 percent of these indicated their intention to go on to college. The total number of adults with four years of high school had increased dramatically to over 12,000, almost half the total number of residents, and the number of college graduates over twenty-five was 2,322, or almost 9 percent.
In 2014 the census counted 47,774 people living in Atascosa County. Some 62.6 percent were Hispanic. Over 65 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and more than 10 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agriculture, government services, and some light manufacturing were key elements of the area's economy. In 2002 the county had 1,539 farms and ranches covering 669,890 acres, 52 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 33 percent to crops, and 12 percent to woodlands. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $51,808,000, with livestock sales accounting for $34,534,000 of that total. Beef cattle, strawberries, peanuts, corn, milo, wheat, and wine were the chief agricultural products. Jourdanton (population, 4,135) is the seat of government, and Pleasanton (9,524) is the county's largest town. Other communities include Poteet (3,414), Lytle (2,762), Charlotte (1,803), Christine (412), Leming (1,011), McCoy (30), and Peggy (22). Numerous hunters are attracted to the county, particularly during the fall and winter deer seasons. Other leading attractions include the Poteet Strawberry Festival, Jourdanton Days Celebration, and the Cowboy Homecoming and Rodeo in Pleasanton.