Austin County, in southeastern Texas thirty-five miles west of Houston, is bordered on the north by Washington County, on the east by Waller and Fort Bend counties, on the south by Wharton County, and on the West by Colorado and Fayette counties. Bellville, the county seat and second largest town, is fifty miles west-northwest of Houston. The county's center point is 29°55' north latitude, 96°18' west longitude. State Highway 36 is the major north-south thoroughfare, while State Highway 159, U.S. Highway 90, and Interstate 10 span the county east and west. The county is also served by two major railways: the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe.
Austin County covers 656 square miles on the boundary between the Post Oak Savannah and the Coastal Prairie regions of Texas. The terrain varies from rolling hills in the northern, western, and central sections to a nearly level coastal prairie in the south. Elevations range from 460 feet above sea level in the northwest to 120 feet in the southeast. Most of the area lies within the drainage basin of the Brazos River, which forms the eastern border of the county. The margins of the western and southern sections of the county are drained by the San Bernard River, which forms much of the county's western border. The northwestern portion of the county lies in a zone of blackland prairie surfaced by dark clays and grayish-brown sandy and clay loams. The heavily wooded central section of the county is covered by light-colored sandy loams and sands not suited to agriculture, while the southern prairies are surfaced by dark clay loams and lighter colored sandy loams. Stream bottoms consist of very fertile dark reddish brown alluvium. From southwest to northeast across the sandy soils of the county's midsection stretches a five-mile-wide band of oak-hickory forest. North of this timber belt, on the rolling blackland that covers almost half the county's surface, is a "mosaic" zone of interspersed forest and prairie. In the south the coastal prairie exhibits wide expanses of open grassland fringed by stands of oak and elm. Although the timber and grassland were almost equal in extent during the nineteenth century, the woodland has been reduced in the twentieth century by advancing urbanization; yet between one-fourth and one-third of the county remains heavily wooded. In addition to the predominant post oaks, the county's hardwood forests include such species as hickory, live oak, blackjack oak, elm, hackberry, black walnut, sycamore, and mesquite. A number of creeks, the largest of which include Mill, Piney, and Allens, flow southeastward athwart the timber belt to the Brazos; the bottoms of many of these streams are mantled by thick stands of water oak, pecan, and cottonwood. Mill Creek, with its picturesque, broad, wooded valley, was called palmetto by the Spanish, in commemoration of a species of dwarf palm that once grew on its lower course (seeTEXAS PALM). North of the timber belt the most abundant types of prairie grass include Indian grass, tall bunchgrass, and buffalo grass, while on the coastal prairie the dominant species are marsh and salt grasses, bluestems, and coarse grasses.
Between 11 and 20 percent of the land in the county is regarded as prime farmland. Substantial reserves of petroleum and natural gas are by far the most significant of the county's limited mineral resources. Although the bears, alligators, and buffalo that once roamed the area disappeared in the nineteenth century, the county still has many wild animal species, including white-tailed deer, coyote, skunk, raccoon, and opossum, and such wild birds as the mourning dove and bobwhite quail. In winter migratory ducks and geese feed on grain in the southern reaches of the county. Recreation areas include the 667-acre Stephen F. Austin State Historical Park at San Felipe, which attracts thousands of visitors annually. Temperatures range from an average high of 96° F in July to an average low of 41° in January. Rainfall averages forty-two inches annually. The growing season averages 283 days per year.
The scanty archeological evidence available suggests that human habitation n the area began as early as 7400 B.C. during the Paleo-Indian Period. The county lies in what appears to have been during late prehistory a zone of cultural transition between inland and coastal aboriginal peoples. During the early historic era the principal inhabitants were the Tonkawas, a nomadic, flint-working, hunting and gathering people, living in widely scattered bands, who traveled hundreds of miles in pursuit of buffalo and practiced little if any agriculture. Their numbers were greatly reduced by European diseases over the course of the eighteenth century. They were regarded as friendly by the White settlers who moved in during the early nineteenth century, but their petty thievery was a continual source of annoyance to the newcomers. Similarly, the Bedias and other distant groups migrated periodically through this area begging and stealing. To the south and west of what is now Austin County, on the coastal lowlands and littoral, dwelt the more bellicose Karankawas, much feared by the settlers. The Wacos, a southern Wichita people, also launched raids into the area down the Brazos River from their villages near the site of present Waco.
Early settlers were somewhat shielded from the depredations of fierce plains tribes such as the Comanches and Apaches by the settlements on the Colorado River to the west and the buffering presence of the Tonkawas to the north. As early as 1823 Stephen F. Austin began organizing a militia with which to defend the frontiers of his colony, and the Austin County area contributed many volunteers for the Indian campaigns. Punitive expeditions were mounted against the Tonkawas in 1823, the Karankawas in 1823 and 1824, and the Wacos in 1829. To at least one such campaign in the early 1820s Jared E. Groce, a wealthy planter, contributed thirty of his own armed and mounted slaves. The success of these operations seems to have sharply curtailed Indian depredations in the Austin County vicinity, and by 1836 they had virtually ceased; until after the Texas Revolution, however, inhabitants of more exposed settlements to the west continued to abandon their homes periodically and take refuge at San Felipe. The theft of a few horses from homesteads along Mill Creek in 1839 marked the last Indian raid within the bounds of present Austin County. The Indians drifted westward and northward, and by 1850 the federal census found none residing within the county.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the territory that is now Austin County was part of a vast arena of imperial competition between the Spanish and French. It is likely that the first European to set foot within the boundaries of the present county was René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who may have traversed the area in the spring of 1686 and crossed the San Bernard near present Orange Hill, while traveling northeastward from his base at Fort St. Louis, above Matagorda Bay, in a desperate attempt to reach the Mississippi River. Some authorities believe that La Salle again crossed the vicinity early in 1687 on his last fatal trek toward the Mississippi. The first Spaniard to reach the area seems to have been Alonzo De León, governor of Coahuila, who may have ventured through in the spring of 1689 while searching for traces of La Salle's expedition. De León returned to the vicinity in the spring of 1690 in the company of the Franciscan priest Damián Massanet on a mission to the Tejas Indians, traveling from Garcitas Creek on Lavaca Bay northeastward to the headwaters of the Neches River. His general route, which followed a crude Indian trace through southeastern Texas and is believed to have passed along the northern border of what is now Austin County, later became known as the La Bahía Road and served as a major thoroughfare between the presidios at Goliad and San Francisco de los Tejas, near the site of present Crockett. In 1718 Texas governor Martín de Alarcón, having founded the Villa de Béxar and San Antonio de Valero Mission, crossed the territory of the future county on an expedition from Matagorda Bay to the missions of East Texas. Pedro de Rivera y Villalón traversed the area on an inspection tour of the presidios of Texas in 1727. Forty years later the Marqués de Rubí also passed through the vicinity on an official inspection of the Spanish frontier. The Atascosito Road, a military road linking Refugio and Goliad with Atascosito, a fortified settlement on the lower Trinity River near the site of present Liberty, was constructed by Spanish authorities during the mid-eighteenth century; a section of the road extended through the southern reaches of the future Austin County.
American settlement in the area began in the early 1820s with the founding of Stephen F. Austin's first colony. By November 1821, just ten months after the Spanish government's acceptance of Moses Austin's colonization application, four families had encamped on the west bank of the lower Brazos. The next month saw the arrival of several additional parties of colonists, and settlement proceeded rapidly. In the fall of 1823 Stephen F. Austin and the Baron de Bastrop chose a spot on the west bank of the Brazos at the Atascosito Crossing, now in southeastern Austin County, to be the site of the unofficial capital of the colony, San Felipe de Austin. The settlement quickly became the political, economic, and social center of the colony. By the end of 1824, thirty-seven of the Old Three Hundred colonists had received grants of land. These early settlers were attracted to the well-timbered, rich, alluvial bottomlands of the Brazos and other major streams; the especially prized tracts combined woodland with prairie. Most of the immigrants came from Southern states, and many brought slaves. By the late 1820s these more prosperous settlers had begun to establish cotton plantations, emulating the example of Jared Groce, who settled with some ninety slaves on the east bank of the Brazos above the site of San Felipe and in 1822 raised what was probably the first cotton crop in Texas. In 1834 more than one-third of the 1,000 inhabitants of the future county were African Americans.
Industry began here in the mid-1820s, when the Cummins family constructed a water-powered saw and grist mill near the mouth of Mill Creek, probably the first mill of its kind in Texas; not long thereafter the first cotton gins were established. Soon San Felipe, the first true urban community to develop within the Austin colony, ranked second in Texas only to San Antonio as a commercial center. By 1830 small herds of cattle were being driven from San Felipe to market at Nacogdoches. Cotton, however, the chief article of commerce, was carried overland by ox-wagon to the coastal entrepôts of Velasco, Indianola, Anahuac, and Harrisburg. Unreliable water levels and turbulence during the spring rains discouraged steamboat traffic on the Brazos as high as San Felipe, and the stream's meanders rendered the water route to the coast far longer than land routes. After 1830, however, steamboats gradually began to appear on the lower Brazos, and by 1836 as many as three steamboats were plying the water between landings in Austin County and the coast. During the 1840s a steamboat line on the Brazos provided regular service between Velasco and Washington.
The area played an important role in the events of the Texas Revolution. The conventions of 1832 and 1833 were held at San Felipe and, as the site of the Consultation of November 3, 1835, the town became the capital of the provisional government and retained the role until the Convention of 1836 met the following March at Washington-on-the-Brazos. After the fall of the Alamo, Gen. Sam Houston's army retreated through Austin County, pausing briefly at San Felipe before continuing northward up the Brazos to Groce's plantation. On March 30, 1836, the small garrison under Moseley Baker that remained at San Felipe to defend the crossing ordered the town evacuated and then burned to keep it from falling into the hands of the advancing Mexican army. Residents fled eastward during the incident known as the Runaway Scrape. After a brief skirmish with Baker's detachment at San Felipe in early April, Antonio López de Santa Anna marched his army southward for Harrisburg, but not before his troops had looted the eastern part of the county. In May 1836, as news of the Texans' victory at San Jacinto spread, residents began returning to what remained of their homes and possessions.
Although the state of Coahuila and Texas designated San Felipe the capital of its Department of the Brazos in 1834, the first machinery of democratic government in Austin's colony appeared in 1828 with the establishment of the ayuntamiento of San Felipe; the municipality over which it exercised authority extended from the Lavaca to the San Jacinto rivers and from the Old San Antonio Road to the coast. The jurisdiction was progressively narrowed by the formation from it of fifteen additional municipalities; by 1836 the Municipality of San Felipe had acquired boundaries approximating those of modern Austin County, with the addition of a large region in the south that was broken off to form Fort Bend County in 1837, and a wide strip of territory on the east bank of the Brazos, which remained in the county until the end of Reconstruction. The Constitution of the Republic of Texas (1836) made counties of the former Mexican municipalities, and by 1837 Austin County, named in honor of Stephen Austin, had been officially organized. Although the burning of San Felipe left the town unavailable to serve as the capital of the republic, the partially rebuilt town became the county seat of Austin County. After a referendum of December 1846, however, Bellville became the county seat; this new community was near the geographical center of the county. The transfer of administrative functions was completed in January 1848.
In 1831 J. Friedrich Ernst, a native of Lower Saxony, was granted a league of land on the banks of Mill Creek in what is now northwestern Austin County. Ernst described his new home in glowing terms in a letter to a friend in Germany, and his descriptions were reprinted in newspapers and travel journals in his homeland. Within a few years a steady stream of Germans began settling in Austin, Fayette, and Colorado counties. In 1838 Ernst surveyed a townsite on his property on which the community of Industry arose. Between 1838 and 1842 alone, several hundred Germans moved near the town; those not establishing permanent residence soon began rural communities throughout northern and western Austin County. In some instances, as at Industry, Cat Spring, and Rockhouse, the immigrants founded all-German towns; more commonly, however, they formed German enclaves within areas previously settled by Anglo-Americans and often became numerically and culturally dominant.
Most of the early German immigrants were from provinces of northwestern and north central Germany; among them, however, were increasing numbers of Austrians, Swiss, Wends, and Prussians. Most soon acquired land and began cultivating cotton and corn like their Anglo-American neighbors, although many followed the example of prosperous early settlers Johann Friedrich Ernst and Robert J. Kleberg and raised tobacco. The crop was either fashioned into cigars locally to be marketed in San Felipe and Houston—the activity that inspired the name Industry—or, during the 1840s, was sold to the German cigar factory at Columbus in Colorado County. In the 1850s a cigar factory was established at New Ulm in Austin County. By the mid-1840s Austin County's growing reputation as a haven for German settlers began attracting immigrants brought to Texas by the Adelsverein. The failure of revolution in Germany in 1848 triggered a new wave of immigration to Austin County in the late 1840s and 1850s consisting largely of political dissidents, many well educated.
The newcomers were quick to establish not only educational and religious institutions but a wide array of voluntary associations devoted to such pursuits as literature, singing, marksmanship, agriculture, and gymnastics, as well as mutual aid. A striking indication of the Germans' emphasis upon education was the campaign launched in 1844 to establish a university on the German model at Cat Spring. Among the community's cultural achievements was the founding of an influential German-language newspaper, Das Wochenblatt, originally published at Bellville by W. A. Trenckmann in 1891; the paper was later moved to Austin. Not until the Civil War did German migration into the county subside. By 1850 the county population included 750 German-born residents, 33 percent of the White population; American-born farmers outnumbered their German-born counterparts by the same two-to-one ratio. By 1860, however, German-born farmers outnumbered the American-born.
Bolstered by the area's generous natural endowments and high rates of immigration from both Germany and the southern United States, Austin County quickly recovered from the destruction of the Texas Revolution. In 1836 the county's population stood at an estimated 1,500. During the ensuing quarter-century of agricultural prosperity the population grew rapidly. The upper South—particularly the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina—remained the most important source of settlers in the county until after the Civil War. By 1847 the county's population had risen to 2,687; it climbed to 3,841 by 1850 and to 10,139 by 1860.
The steady stream of southerners arriving with slave property pushed the county's slave population steadily upward. From 447 in 1840 it climbed to 1,093 in 1845 and to 1,274 in 1847; at that time slaves constituted more than 47 percent of the total population. Slaves numbered 1,549 by 1850 and 3,914 (39 percent of the population) by 1860. During the 1840s more than thirty Austin County residents were planters, that is, owners of twenty or more slaves or other considerable property; by 1860, 46 residents held twenty or more slaves. With 324 slaveholders in 1860, Austin County was one of only seventeen counties in the state in which the average number of slaves per owner was greater than ten. In 1860 twelve Austin County residents ranked among the wealthiest individuals in the state, i.e., as holders of at least $100,000 in property. Six residents held more than 100 slaves.
Amid the rising tide of servile labor the smallest and undoubtedly most incongruous of the county's minorities was its free Black inhabitants. The census found seven free Blacks in the county in 1847 and six in 1850. These may have been members of the Allen family, longtime residents of the area, two of whom, George and Sam Allen, had helped evacuate and burn San Felipe in 1836. By 1860, however, no free Blacks remained in the county.
From 1824 to 1837 San Felipe was the only town in Austin County. By the early 1850s, however, Industry, Travis, Cat Spring, Sempronius, Millheim, and New Ulm had appeared. Many communities were simply open clusters of farmsteads with a post office and general store in the center of the settlement. Despite a modest increase in steamboat traffic on the Brazos, the chief mode of commercial transportation continued to be the ox wagon, as a brisk trade developed between Austin County and the burgeoning town of Houston. Finally, in the late 1850s, the first railroad arrived in the area, as the Houston and Texas Central extended its main line northward through Hockley to reach the new town of Hempstead, in the eastern district of the county east of the Brazos, in June 1858. Cotton transported to the rail line by wagon from western Austin County crossed the Brazos at a number of ferries between San Felipe and the mouth of Caney Creek.
Austin County agriculture grew remarkably in antebellum Texas. The county's 381 acres of improved land in 1850 expanded to 58,869 acres by 1860, and the number of farms multiplied from 230 to 790. Cotton and corn continued to be the most significant crops. In 1850 cotton production was 3,205 bales. By 1860 it had grown almost 500 percent, to an astonishing 19,020 bales. Corn production was 149,230 bushels in 1850 and 400,800 bushels in 1860. Irish potatoes increased from 3,530 bushels in 1850 to 9,809 in 1860. In the same period oat cultivation rose from 1,469 bushels to 2,418. Only sweet potatoes and tobacco fell off, the former from 37,322 bushels in 1850 to 32,273 in 1860, and the latter from 9,663 pounds to 5,175 in the same interval. Stock raising retained its early status as a pillar of the local economy throughout the antebellum period, as herds multiplied rapidly on the open range of the lush coastal prairies south of Bernard Creek. In 1850, 20,791 cattle were raised in the county; just ten years later the figure had increased 242 percent to 71,271. Sheep production registered a 250 percent increase, from 2,104 animals in 1850 to 7,407 in 1860. The number of horses raised in the county more than doubled, from 2,386 in 1850 to 5,497 in 1860. In the same period hog production rose from 12,871 animals to 21,177.
The average German farm was barely half the size of that of the average slaveless Anglo-American in the late antebellum period. Most German immigrants arrived in Texas too late to receive free land, the distribution of which ceased in the early 1840s. Furthermore, most had been compelled to expend so much of their money on the way that they had relatively little to buy land and livestock. In 1856 Germans near Cat Spring formed one of the earliest agricultural societies in Texas, the Cat Spring Landwirthschaftlicher Verein, which continues to the present. Germans also owned few slaves. Yet, except in the case of a relatively small group of Forty-Eighter intellectuals, this circumstance was due far less to philosophical opposition to slavery—as many Anglo-Americans suspected—than to the fact that most German immigrants lacked the money to buy slaves. The few Germans who did own slaves were generally those who had immigrated during the 1830s and 1840s and had thus accumulated the requisite wealth. By 1860 only about a dozen of Austin County's German residents were listed as slaveholders in the federal census reports; most owned fewer than five slaves, while the largest German slaveholder, Charles Fordtran, owned twenty-one. Many German farmers raised tobacco, the local production of which they soon dominated, in the belief that the crop required the sort of intensive care that slaves could not provide. German yeomen, moreover, utilized far more hired labor than did their neighbors, drawn from new immigrants, who continued to arrive. German farmhands, who usually preferred to work for Germans, could be hired more cheaply than slaves.
Secession brought turbulence. In early 1859 mounting fear of slave insurrections inspired the formation of the county's first patrol system. As early as February 1860 a mass meeting at Bellville advocated secession if the "aggressions of the North upon the South" continued. Six months later the tension had increased; another public meeting at Bellville called upon the county's ministers to cease preaching to Blacks in public places. Unionist sentiment, however, was also in evidence during the crisis. "Frequent, enthusiastic, and well-attended" Unionist meetings in which Germans were prominent were reportedly held in Austin, Washington, Fayette, Lavaca, and Colorado counties throughout 1860. When Austin County elected representatives to the Secession Convention in late 1860, one of the delegates refused to attend the gathering on ground that although a majority of those casting ballots favored a convention, they did not constitute a majority of the county's eligible voters. However, in the referendum of February 23, 1861, Austin County approved secession 825 to 212. Several heavily German precincts had voted decisively against the secession ordinance.
With the coming of the war hundreds of Austin County residents, including many prewar Unionists, enlisted in Confederate or state military units. State formations to which companies organized in the county were attached included the Second, Eighth, Twenty-first, Twenty-fourth, and Twenty-fifth Texas Cavalry regiments, the First and Twentieth Texas Infantry, and Waul's Legion. However, much of the rush to enroll in state and county militia companies, so-called "home-guard" units, had less to do with motives of patriotism than with the desire to avoid combat. Many German residents had immigrated to the United States to avoid military service in Austria, Prussia, or other European states; many Germans were reluctant to risk their lives in defense of the "peculiar institution" of slavery. The Confederate government's adoption of conscription in early 1862 deepened the difficulty of the many county residents, both foreign-born and native, who were desperately trying to remain neutral in the conflict. Besides rushing to enlist in home-guard units, many draft-age males gained exemption from conscription as wagoners or teamsters. But as the war dragged on and exemptions became more difficult to obtain, men subject to the draft resorted to increasingly drastic measures. Some county residents fled the state for Mexico. Others, who could not abandon their families entirely, hid in the woods. Some of these returned to their homes at night to plow their fields by moonlight. Some county residents serving with Confederate units deserted upon returning to their homes on furlough. The names of forty such men, most of them German, were published in the Bellville Countryman in December 1862. By late 1862 county enrolling officers were claiming that 150 Germans subject to conscription had refused to present themselves for induction. Confederate officials were thoroughly aroused by the situation developing in the county. It was reported that forcible opposition to conscription was being organized in the German settlements of Austin and surrounding counties. Gatherings of from 500 to 600 individuals, conducted in German to foil possible Anglophone spies, were said to have been held at Shelby, Millheim, and Industry in December 1862 and early January 1863. Unionist militias complete with cavalry formations had reportedly begun drilling. One Unionist group published a petition to the governor detailing the grievances of the draft resisters. The petitioners claimed that they could not abandon their suffering families just as spring planting was set to begin, inasmuch as the county had made no provision for the relief of the needy; local merchants, moreover, refused to accept the very currency with which Confederate troops were paid.
The crisis came to a head on January 8, 1863, when martial law was declared in Austin, Colorado, and Fayette counties. Several companies of the First Regiment of Gen. H. H. Sibley's Arizona Brigade were rushed from New Mexico to suppress the uprising. A detachment of twenty-five soldiers under Lt. R. H. Stone was sent to Bellville to arrest the ringleaders of the Austin County resistance. The detainees were turned over to local authorities; most of those arrested were German, but some of the principal conspirators were not. By January 21 the rebellion had been officially quelled and all who had been conscripted were coming forward for enrollment. However, the arrests left bitterness. The homes of several German farmers had been ransacked, prisoners had been beaten, and their families had been abused. This deepened the contempt of the Germans for the Confederate enrollment officers. Nor did the events of January end the search for subversives in Austin County. In October 1863 Dr. Richard R. Peebles, a founder of Hempstead and respected local physician, and four coconspirators were arrested on charges of treason for having circulated a pamphlet that urged an end to the war. After brief stints in the jails of San Antonio and Austin Peebles and the other prisoners were exiled to Mexico.
Scores of German county residents loyally served in the Confederate Army. Hempstead, because of its strategic location on the Houston and Texas Central Railway, became an important assembly point for troops from throughout Central Texas. A Confederate military hospital was constructed at Hempstead, and three Confederate military posts were established in the vicinity; one of these, Camp Groce, was one of only three prisoner of war camps in Texas. At least five smaller military camps were scattered through the county west of the Brazos River. When the Union navy tightened its blockade of the Texas coast, local planters shipped cotton to Matamoros in long caravans of ox wagons to be exchanged for salt, flour, cloth, and other commodities. Even so, expanded domestic manufacturing had to be relied upon to fill most needs. Several county businesses produced munitions: a gunsmith shop in Bellville reconditioned rifles and muskets for the Confederate Army; foundries in Bellville and Hempstead produced canteens, skillets, and camp kettles under contract with the state of Texas; the Hempstead Manufacturing Company made woolen blankets, cotton cloth, spinning jennies, looms, and spinning wheels. Nobody starved in Austin County during the war, but suffering was widespread, especially among families with soldiers in the field.
Unfortunately, the end of the fighting in the spring of 1865 did not bring the expected end to strife; Reconstruction in Austin County, as in much of the rest of Texas, was violent and chaotic. The war years had brought another expansion of the county's Black population, as planter refugees from the lower South flocked into the area seeking protection for their slave property. Between 1860 and 1864, according to county tax rolls (which probably understate the matter), slave population increased by 47 percent to 4,702. Though some Blacks entering the county returned after the war to the communities from which they had recently been uprooted, many others remained. The war had scarcely ended before the federal government moved to garrison Austin County. From August 26 to October 30, 1865, Hempstead was occupied by elements of the Second Wisconsin Cavalry and several other units under the command of Maj. Gen. George A. Custer. After Custer went to Austin, Hempstead was garrisoned for a time by a small detachment of the Thirty-sixth Colored Infantry. Two White companies of the Seventeenth United States Infantry were posted in Hempstead from 1867 to 1870. The garrison was controlled by the subassistant commissioner of the thirteenth subdistrict of the Freedmen's Bureau, which embraced all of Austin County and had headquarters at Hempstead. Charged with protecting the lives, property, and civil rights of all citizens, including freedmen, the troops helped ensure equal access to polling places and the court system, but their numbers were too few and their resources too limited to permit them to enforce the laws everywhere within the county.
Capt. George Lancaster, head of the local Freedmen's Bureau office in 1867, declared that racial animosities in the area were so intense that only a spark was needed to set off an explosion. Violent confrontations between federal soldiers and local residents were common throughout the Union occupation. The numerous reports in the bureau records of violent crimes committed against Blacks by Whites portray a campaign of intimidation conducted against the freedmen; with Republicans and Democrats struggling for control of the county's Black vote, most if not all of these crimes were politically motivated. The appearance of the Republican-sponsored Union League in the county in early 1867 outraged White Democrats, who responded by forming a Klan-like organization. The violence was most intense in the eastern district of the county, where the Black population was concentrated; there the whipping, shooting, and even lynching of Blacks became almost routine; few culprits were ever brought to justice. But Blacks were not the only targets of White wrath. In March 1867 two soldiers were shot to death for what subassistant commissioner Lancaster termed the "crime" of wearing the federal uniform, "in the eyes of these White desperadoes a sufficient cause for murder." In the spring of 1869 a White Republican newspaper editor from Houston, visiting Hempstead to address a Black audience, was accosted by a mob and run out of town. Interracial altercations characterized as riots broke out on at least two occasions in the eastern district near Hempstead in 1868. Yet with federal troops on hand to safeguard freedmen's rights, a number of Blacks in Austin County were elected to positions in local government during Reconstruction. In the gubernatorial election of 1869 Black voters helped provide victory in the county for Radical Republican Edmund J. Davis. By 1873, however, as previously disfranchised Confederate sympathizers recovered their political rights, the Democrats had regained control of the county's electoral machinery; thoroughly intimidated, few Blacks risked casting a ballot. The smashing Democratic victory that resulted signaled the end of Reconstruction and the permanent eclipse of Republican power in the county.
Amid all the turmoil, the county's Black residents set about constructing new lives for themselves. By 1870 Austin County's population had climbed almost 40 percent above its level of a decade before, to 15,087. Black population had increased about 68 percent, to 6,574, and now amounted to some 44 percent of the county's population. As Blacks began to construct their own free institutions, the first Black churches in the county appeared; by 1869 the Freedmen's Bureau had established one of the first Black schools in the county's history, in a period when schools of any sort were rare. Plantations in the bottoms of the Brazos and other streams were broken into small farms operated by Black sharecroppers. Once the initial restlessness had ended, the diligence of free Black labor surprised many White observers. However, some of the county's White residents—including A. Thomas Oliver, who had owned more than 100 slaves—decided not to wait for results from the economic and political experimentation and exiled themselves from the United States in the first years after the war. Oliver and many other of these emigrants settled in Brazil, where they established colonies and raised cotton with slave labor.
Regardless of the freedmen's diligence, as a landless class they soon proved vulnerable to exploitation by White landlords, who often withheld wages from Black laborers. However, not all Whites were unsympathetic to the Blacks' plight. Austin County resident Adalbert Regenbrecht recalled that during Reconstruction he became "probably the first justice of the peace in Texas in whose court a freedman recovered wages for his labor from his former master." Perceiving the exploitation of Blacks under the developing crop-lien system, and fearful that immigrants from their homeland would also become trapped in this sort of peonage, German residents of the county wrote to prominent newspapers in Germany in 1866 to warn prospective immigrants not to sign labor or tenant contracts with former slaveowners before arriving in Texas. Driven by such fears, German rates of land ownership in Austin County were not only far higher than those of Blacks but higher than those of Anglos as well.
Reconstruction politics was largely responsible for a crucial alteration of the county boundaries. As early as 1853 the residents of the eastern part of the county had begun petitioning the legislature for a separate county east of the Brazos, citing the expense and inconvenience of crossing the river to transact routine business in Bellville. When the petition was revived in 1873, the beleaguered Davis administration, fighting for its existence, decided to grant the request by carving a new county out of eastern Austin and southern Grimes counties. The Republicans expected to dominate the new county, with its large Black population, and hoped that by grafting onto it a large section of northwestern Harris County, where hundreds of Democratic voters lived, they could pull Harris County into the Republican column. Waller County, established on May 19, 1873, removed from Austin County not only a fertile agricultural district but also the thriving commercial center of Hempstead, with its cotton mill, iron foundry, and rail facilities. The effects of the loss were mitigated, however, by a postbellum revival of both foreign and domestic immigration. Nevertheless, in 1880 Austin County's population of 14,429 was almost 5 percent below the 1870 figure. Black population, in particular, declined some 67 percent between 1870 and 1880, to 3,939, or 27 percent of the overall population. Renewal of domestic immigration, primarily from Gulf South states—especially Alabama—offset some of the losses. Even more significant was the revival of foreign immigration. Germans continued to settle in Austin County until the end of the nineteenth century, albeit in smaller numbers than during the antebellum period. By the 1980s fully 49 percent of the population was of German ancestry. However, the principal source of postbellum immigration was Czechoslovakia. The first Czechs had settled as early as 1847 in the vicinity of Cat Spring, where they formed what became the first Czech community in Texas. Throughout the 1850s Czechs continued to arrive in small numbers, taking up farming among the German population on the blackland prairie soils of northern and western Austin County and spilling into adjoining counties. After the Civil War the pace of Czech immigration increased; in the decade after 1870 alone more than 800 Czechs settled in Austin County, and smaller numbers continued to move into the area until after the turn of the century. The Czechs, who usually resided in German localities, only slowly established cultural institutions of their own; yet eventually they created a distinctive Czech-Texan identity. By the end of the nineteenth century at least ten communities in the county had appreciable numbers of Czech residents, and Sealy, Wallis, and Bellville had large Czech populations. Austin County had 1,205 foreign-born residents in 1860; by 1870 that figure had increased 150 percent to 3,010, or 20 percent of the population; the number grew by another 25 percent in the following decade, to 3,752—26 percent of the population. Subsequently the proportion of foreign-born residents declined steadily, to 16 percent by 1900, 13 percent by 1910, and 4 percent by 1940. The Black population grew between 1880 and 1890 by 32 percent and then increased another 19 percent the following decade, to crest at 30 percent in 1900. Railroad construction in the county in the late nineteenth century provided employment for hundreds of Black workers, many of whom took up residence in segregated sections of such rail towns as Sealy, Wallis, and Bellville. After the turn of the century, however, the county's Black population began to decline, both absolutely and as a proportion of the population, a trend that continued into the late twentieth century. Disastrous farming conditions after the 1890s drove many farmers, including Blacks, off the land in the early years of the twentieth century, just as railroad employment in the county was also disappearing. In the ten years after 1900 the county's Black population fell by 23 percent. After remaining virtually unchanged in the succeeding decade, it decreased again by 14 percent during the lean years from 1920 to 1940. From 1940 to 1950 it fell almost 46 percent, to 3,016—or 21 percent of the population—as farm tenancy began to disappear and defense-related industrial jobs opened to Blacks in urban areas of Texas and the North and West. Over the next thirty years the decline continued at a rate of more than 5 percent a decade; by 1980 the county's Black population stood at 2,580, less than 15 percent of the whole. A bare 1 percent increase in absolute numbers between 1980 and 1990 failed to check the relative slide, so that by 1990 Blacks constituted just 13 percent of the county population.
Austin County's economy recovered slowly from the havoc of the Civil War. By 1870 county farms had fallen to scarcely 45 percent of their 1860 value. No county resident in 1870 owned property worth so much as $100,000. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the revival of cotton farming and stock raising had restored much former prosperity. The number of cattle fell by almost 16,700 between 1860 and 1870, and similar declines were registered in each of the two succeeding decades; by 1890 the county's production had fallen to 33,847 animals, or 47 percent of the 1860 figure. In part the decline was attributable to the loss of the territory east of the Brazos. However, with improvements in breeding and production techniques, each animal became more valuable than ever before. From 1890 to 1900 cattle production rebounded more than 20 percent, to 40,771, and in the latter year the value of the county's livestock herds finally surpassed that of 1860. Although the number of cattle grew only modestly over the next four decades, to 44,477 in 1940, their dollar value increased dramatically. Swine raising, similarly, never regained its antebellum levels in terms of numbers of animals, but remained significant nonetheless. From 1860 to 1890 the county's swine herds declined by more than 30 percent, to 14,492 animals. Over the next ten years, however, the swine count increased almost 29 percent, to a postbellum peak of 18,642. In the four decades after 1900, however, production fell almost 45 percent, to 10,270 in 1940. Sheep ranching actually exceeded antebellum levels as early as 1870, when 7,554 animals were counted. However, the county's flocks declined by more than 60 percent between 1870 and 1880, to a rather insignificant 2,930, and remained almost unchanged until the mid-twentieth century. The county's impressive poultry production and dairy products industry, although mainly devoted to home consumption until after the Civil War, gained substantial commercial importance after the late nineteenth century, when poultry, eggs, and butter began to be shipped by rail to markets in neighboring counties.
As in the antebellum period, cotton culture remained the most important economic activity in the county. Inasmuch as virtually every farmer raised the valuable staple, the postbellum increase in farms and cultivated acreage inevitably meant increased cotton production. The number of farms in the county increased by an average of almost 570 each decade in the forty years after 1860, to a postbellum peak of 3,064 in 1900. In the same time, acres of improved farmland rose 126 percent, to 133,077. Although cotton production fell by 37 percent between 1860 and 1870 (to 11,976 bales), the chaos of the immediate postwar years was soon overcome and output began to climb. In the thirty years after 1870 cotton production expanded 117 percent, to stand at a historic crest of 26,087 bales in 1900; acres planted in cotton peaked the same year at 53,925. With the move to diversify agriculture in the early twentieth century, cotton production declined again in the four decades after 1900, yet it was still a respectable 14,260 bales in 1940. Cotton acreage remained almost unchanged until 1930, but declined sharply thereafter.
Tobacco continued to be an important crop among the county's German farmers until after 1880, when, with the coming of the railroad, tobacco growers became convinced that cotton offered higher profits. The 3,682 pounds of sotweed raised in 1870 had dwindled to only 596 pounds by 1890; small quantities continued to be produced well into the next century, but local cigar manufacturing ended in the late nineteenth century.
Corn culture in postbellum Austin County recovered quickly from the effects of the war; production exceeded peak antebellum levels as early as 1870, when more than 445,000 bushels was raised. By the end of the next decade almost 27,000 acres of farmland was planted in corn. Both output and acreage expanded steadily for the next sixty years, until in 1940 a record 805,600 bushels was produced on a record 40,500 acres. Local farmers, especially Germans, experimented with small grains throughout the nineteenth century. Problems of climate and disease, however, hampered rye and wheat crops in Austin County during the nineteenth century. With the advent of the railroad and expansion of cotton culture, most efforts at producing small grains were abandoned until the mid-twentieth century, although oats continued to be raised on a significant scale at times.
Gardening and the cultivation of orchard fruits for home consumption have been important in the county almost from the beginning. However, the commercial production of fruits and vegetables began only with the improvement of rail facilities in the late nineteenth century. Thereafter, truck gardening, especially for the Houston market, grew rapidly. In 1903 the Bellville Truck Growing Association was formed, and other commodity associations, such as the Cat Spring Pickling Cucumber Association, were soon organized. Watermelons were grown commercially as early as 1903; by 1924, 1,450 train cars of melons were shipped from the county annually, and production continued to expand afterward. Dairying, limited to home consumption throughout the early history of the county, became significant commercially with the advent of improved transportation facilities; by the early twentieth century several creameries were in operation. Viticulture has been little practiced in the county; in the 1880s some members of the Cat Spring Agricultural Society reportedly raised Herbemont grapes, and almost 5,000 pounds of grapes were grown in 1900. Wine making has not been significant commercially; in 1870, for example, only 770 gallons of wine was manufactured, while 5,205 was produced in 1900.
Boosted by the postwar revival of immigration, by the end of the nineteenth century Austin County had overcome the loss of its populous eastern district. After falling almost 5 percent between 1870 and 1880, the county's population grew by an average of almost 22 percent a decade over the next twenty years to reach a peak of 20,676 in 1900. Many of the county's postbellum immigrants, like most of its Black population, became tenant farmers, as the rapid spread of cotton cultivation produced a rapid expansion of the crop-lien system and agricultural tenancy. As early as 1880 almost 47 percent of the county's farmers were tenants. That proportion remained virtually unchanged until the mid-twentieth century, when the Great Depression and changes in federal farm policy reduced cotton cultivation and tenancy rates began to decline.
The postbellum economic revival was stimulated by improvements in the county's transportation system. The county received its first rail service in the late 1870s when the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway extended its Galveston-Brenham main line through Wallis, Sealy, and Bellville. During the 1880s the GC&SF constructed a branch line from Sealy to Eagle Lake through southwestern Austin County, and by the early years of that decade the Texas Western Narrow Gauge Railway operated a line between Sealy and Houston. In the mid-1890s the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad built its Houston-La Grange spur through Sealy and New Ulm. In 1901 the Cane Belt Railroad constructed a line between Sealy and Eagle Lake, while almost simultaneously the Texas and New Orleans Railroad extended its Houston-Eagle Lake spur through Wallis. The railroads made thriving communities of Sealy, Bellville, Wallis, New Ulm, and Cat Spring, and relegated to insignificance towns deprived of their service, such as San Felipe. With the development of the automobile in the early twentieth century, trucks increasingly assumed the business of transporting produce to market, yet the county's roads remained primitive until after World War I. Although as early as 1912 some communities had issued bonds for road improvement, during the 1920s a Good Roads movement began in earnest and construction began on a network of paved farm roads, a project that continued through World War II. State Highway 36 was extended through the county in 1936 and U.S. Highway 90 was built in 1937. With the completion of Interstate 10 in 1965 the county was equipped with an imminently functional road system.
Transportation improvements stimulated industry as well as agriculture. Industrial activity in the early history of the county had been confined to the processing of agricultural and forest products. Gristmills, sawmills, and cotton gins abounded in the county during the antebellum period. By the 1850s the German settlers of New Ulm had established a brewery and a cigar factory, and at least two cigar factories continued in operation in the county in the 1880s. The county's first iron foundries and cottonseed oil mills were also built before the Civil War. By 1860, during the era of small-scale craft production, Austin County led the state in construction of carriages, carts, and wagons; but this ranking slipped after the war, as craft methods were swamped by the competition of market-oriented production. In the late nineteenth century, however, broom and mattress factories were built at Sealy, where the new rail lines provided access to a national market. Bottling works, pickling plants, canneries, and cider distilleries were also established in the county around the turn of the century. The Santa Fe Railroad constructed a roundhouse and machine shop in Sealy, which remained a division headquarters until 1900, when the facilities were moved to Bellville. In 1870, 105 manufacturing establishments in Austin County employed 217 workers; by 1900, 133 establishments had 272 employees. Yet this modest level of industrial development did not alter the overwhelmingly agricultural character of the county's economy. As agriculture slumped in the early twentieth century, so did the county's industries that relied upon it. By 1940 only six manufacturing plants and thirty-eight industrial workers remained in the county.
As Black population declined during the era of the First World War, the county's chronic shortages of agricultural labor became acute. To alleviate the condition, increasing numbers of Mexican migrant workers were brought into the county. Many eventually took up residence, so that Mexicans became the largest foreign immigrant group to settle in Austin County during the twentieth century. In 1900 there were 46 Mexican-born residents; by 1920 the figure had increased to 145, and it rose another 60 percent over the next decade, to 242. Although Mexican immigration was sharply curtailed in the early 1940s, the county's Hispanic population has continued to grow and by 1992 constituted 10.5 percent of the total population.
A reconfiguration of the county's agriculture began in the thirties as cotton acreage began to decline under the combined impact of continuing low commodity prices, diminishing soil fertility, the increasing relative inefficiency of small farms, and New Deal acreage-reduction programs. Acres devoted to cotton cultivation in 1930 (52,793) fell by more than 40 percent by 1940. The decline continued over the next half century, so that by 1982 cotton was grown on only 1,633 acres in Austin County. Although the yield remained as high as 10,957 bales in 1960, by 1987 that figure had been reduced to only 1,408. Likewise, the production of corn, an important feature of the county's economy throughout its history, contracted after the Second World War, with yields falling from 805,599 bushels in 1940 to 220,498 in 1987 and acres planted in corn plummeting over the same period from 40,462 to 3,024. King Cotton's demise drove hundreds of tenant farmers off the land. In 1930 more than 47 percent of county farmers were tenants, but two decades later the figure was 26 percent; by 1980 fewer than 7 percent of the county's farmers were tenants. Meanwhile, the cultivation of hay, rice, peanuts, and truck crops—principally pecans, peaches, and watermelons—was expanded. A boom in stock raising stimulated a boom in the cultivation of such feed grains as sorghum; after 1930 sorghum culture increased enormously, to reach 279,163 bushels in 1987.
Irrigation, which began on an experimental basis in the county after the turn of the century, became more extensive after World War II; in 1982, 10 percent of the county's cropland was irrigated, with much of the acreage devoted to rice culture. Most of the former cotton land, however, was converted to livestock production, which after World War II became the county's chief industry. Between 1930 and 1987 harvested cropland was reduced 54 percent from 104,199 acres to 47,928. By 1982 more than 60 percent of the county's cropland was devoted to pasturage. The number of cattle raised in the county more than doubled in the three decades after 1940, then declined slightly in the seventies and early eighties to stand at 84,599 in 1987. Dairying, a lucrative pursuit since the late nineteenth century, declined after World War II, and by 1987 only five dairy farms were in operation. Between 1940 and 1982 swine production fell by 80 percent; yet a respectable 2,724 hogs were fed in 1987. Sheep raising continued at modest levels after the Civil War, although a decline reduced production in 1987 to 403 animals. Beginning in the late nineteenth century poultry products were a significant source of agricultural revenue in the county; more than 101,000 chickens were raised in 1987. By 1982 fully 83 percent of Austin County's agricultural revenues came from livestock and livestock products. In that year the county ranked 100th in the state in agricultural income.
Residents of Austin County participated enthusiastically in this century's two world wars and contributed their sons unreservedly to both. During World War I, an Austin County Council of Defense was organized, on November 23, 1917. The council vigorously promoted conservation and directed the rationing of flour, sugar, and other commodities. The county exceeded its subscription quota in the four Liberty Loan and Victory Loan bond sales. An Austin County chapter of the American Red Cross with branches in ten communities and a membership of more than 2,800 was formed on November 13, 1917, and worked to provide medical and social services to military personnel and their families and relief to poor people. Black residents of the county were enrolled in segregated Red Cross chapters in a number of towns, including Bellville and Bleiblerville. As hostility toward Germany mounted, the county's large German population fell under suspicion of disloyalty. The use of the German language was prohibited in public schools and non-English-speaking citizens of all ethnic backgrounds were pressured to use English exclusively in schools, churches, social organizations, and other venues. More than 860 county residents, including 275 Blacks, served in the armed forces; thirty-one servicemen died during the war. Hundreds of Austin County's German-American residents, eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States, served in 311 branches of the military. There was virtually no resistance to conscription in the county and only two cases of desertion. The county's response to the call during World War II was at least as enthusiastic. But on the home front, Austin County was less directly affected by this conflict than were many other areas of the state. Undoubtedly the most profound impact of the Second World War upon the county was economic. Even as defense-related jobs in the nearby metropolis of Houston siphoned population from the county, the growth of that city created new markets for Austin County agricultural products and thus laid the foundation for postwar prosperity. Industry was also stimulated by proximity to Houston. The number of factories in the county increased from six in 1940 to thirty-one in 1982, and the number of employees in manufacturing rose from thirty-eight to 1,400. Much of the development occurred after 1970 as a result of the migration of heavy industry out of Houston into neighboring towns. By 1980 the Austin County industries with the largest employment, other than agribusiness, were general and heavy construction and steel.
Petroleum was discovered in Austin County in 1915, but the first significant production began only in 1927 with the opening of the Raccoon Bend oilfield northeast of Bellville. Soon other finds were made near Bellville, New Ulm, and Orange Hill. From the end of World War II until 1980 the county's annual production of crude oil seldom fell below a million barrels and occasionally approached three million. Although output finally declined during the eighties, by 1990 more than half a million barrels of oil and several million cubic feet of natural gas were still being produced in the county annually. Almost 318,767 barrels of oil and 14,600,084 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 114,769,634 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1915. In 1980, 15 percent of the county's workers were employed in manufacturing, 13 percent in agriculture, 23 percent in trade, and 14 percent in the professions; 15 percent were self-employed, and 33 percent were employed in other counties. The last figure reflected the county's accelerating suburbanization after the 1970s, as increasing numbers of white collar workers moved in from Houston.
Under the impact of agricultural depression in the first years of the twentieth century, the county's population fell more than 14 percent between 1900 and 1910, to 17,699. Although it managed to grow almost 7 percent during the brief agricultural revival in the decade of the First World War, the population declined over the next forty years to 13,777 in 1960. After remaining virtually unchanged in the succeeding decade it climbed 28 percent between 1970 and 1980, before rising another 12 percent in the next decade, to stand at 19,832 in 1990. By the early years of the twentieth century Sealy had surpassed Bellville to become the county's largest town, a position it maintained throughout the rest of the century.
Politically, Austin County has demonstrated a certain independence. Although the Democratic party was dominant from the end of Reconstruction to the late twentieth century, the Republicans managed occasional surprises during that period. In the presidential election of 1880 Republican James Garfield triumphed in the county over former Union general Winfield Scott Hancock, an accomplishment repeated by Republicans James S. Blaine in 1884 and William McKinley in 1896. Although familiar third-party movements such as those of the Greenbackers and Populists made little headway in Austin County—the latter was especially tainted by suspicions of nativism—in 1920 German-American voters threw the county decisively to the little-known American party of James E. Ferguson. After 1952, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower took the county, the area began to trend Republican. With the sole exception of the election of 1964, Austin County voted Republican in presidential elections from 1948 through 2004. Until the late twentieth century, however, the overwhelming majority of voters remained registered Democrats, and few non-Democrats won state or local elections in the county. Exceptions to this generalization include victories by Republican senatorial candidate John Tower in 1966, 1972, and 1978, and Republican gubernatorial candidate William Clements in 1978 and 1986. By the mid-1990s Republican candidates for state and local offices had become much more competitive in county elections.
In 2014 the census counted 29,144 people living in Austin County. About 63.8 percent were Anglo, 25.5 percent were Hispanic, and 9.6 percent were African American. Almost 75 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and more than 17 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agribusiness, tourism, and some manufacturing were key elements of the area's economy, and many residents commuted to work in Houston. In 2002 the county had 2,086 farms and ranches covering 367,497 acres, 51 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 37 percent to crops. In that year Austin County farmers and ranchers earned $24,040,000, with livestock sales accounting for $18,366,000 of that total. Beef, hay, cotton, corn, grain sorghum, and pecans were the chief agricultural products. Bellville (population, 4,232) is the seat of government, and Sealy (6,326) is the county's largest town. Other communities include Wallis (1,290), San Felipe (788), New Ulm (974), Industry (315), Kenny (957), Frydek (900), Cat Spring (200), and Bleiblerville (125).
Julia Lange Dinkins, The Early History of Austin County (M.A. thesis, Southwest Texas State University, 1940). Noel Grisham, Crossroads at San Felipe (Burnet, Texas: Eakin Press, 1980). Corrie Pattison Haskew, Historical Records of Austin and Waller Counties (Houston: Premier Printing and Letter Service, 1969). Terry G. Jordan, German Seed in Texas Soil: Immigrant Farmers in Nineteenth-Century Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966). Ruby Grote Ratliff, A History of Austin County, Texas, in the World War (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1931).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Charles Christopher Jackson,
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed September 23, 2021,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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