Bastrop County, located on State highways 71, 95, 21, and 304, on the upper Gulf coastal plains just below the Balcones Escarpment, encompasses 895 square miles of southeast central Texas. Its seat of government, Bastrop, is situated in the center of the county at approximately 30°04' north latitude and 97°22'west longitude, a location about thirty miles southeast of downtown Austin. The terrain throughout most of the county is characterized by rolling uplands and broken hills with surface layers of primarily sandy, loamy soils, and woods where post oaks predominate but where cedar, hickory, elm, and walnut also occur. In the northwestern corner of the county and along the central southeastern border, the topography changes to blackland prairie with waxy clay soil and tall grass cover. The Colorado River bisects the county from northwest to southeast; along this waterway and its tributaries can be found rich alluvial silts and clays. Near the river, the Lost Pine Forest extends through an east central section of the county. Elevations range from 400 to 600 feet above sea level. The county's climate has been described as subtropical humid, with a low average January temperature of 40° F, a high average July temperature of 96° F, and an average annual rainfall of 36.82 inches; the growing season is 270 days long. Mineral resources include clay, oil, gas, lignite, sand, gravel, and surface and underground water.
The McCormick site near McDade has produced archeological evidence of human life in the area during the Neo-American period, a thousand years ago. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Tonkawa Indians inhabited the area, and Comanche Indians came to hunt along the river each autumn. With an early road between Nacogdoches and San Antonio running through the region, in 1804 Spanish governor Manuel Antonio Cordero y Bustamante established a fort at the Colorado River crossing where the town of Bastrop now stands. The Baron de Bastrop planned a German community at the site, but it was not until after Stephen F. Austin obtained a grant for a "Little Colony" from the Mexican government in 1827 that settlement began. Pioneers met with intense Indian resistance, but by 1830 the town of Bastrop, named for the baron, had been founded and settlers from Austin's lower colonies were clearing farms over the southern portion of the county.
In 1831 Austin received a second land grant; the two grants, Mina Municipality, took in almost all of what is now Bastrop County. The district was presumably named in honor of Spanish general Francisco Xavier Mina. In 1834 the vast municipality, comprising all or part of sixteen present-day counties, was established by the government of Coahuila and Texas, and the town of Bastrop also took the name Mina. When Texas became a republic, Mina Municipality assumed its place as one of twenty-three original counties. In 1837 the Congress of the Republic of Texas changed the county name to Bastrop in honor of the baron and allowed the town to revert to the name as well. Congress also began whittling away at the boundaries of the huge county; in 1840, when Travis County was formed, Bastrop County shrank almost to its present dimensions.
The year 1837 had seen the arrival of slaves and cotton cultivation in the county. Though Bastrop County was never a leader in cotton production, this crop was favored over others for the next fifty years. In 1838 another significant industry began when the Bastrop Steam Mill Company started operation. It initiated Lost Pines lumbering activity that reached a peak in the early 1840s, as Bastrop mills supplied lumber to Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and other settlements. Lumber production continued for decades until available timber declined, but agriculture remained the predominant means of making a living. In 1850 the county had a population of 2,180, including 919 slaves. The county produced about 1,500 bales of cotton that year and harvested, in addition, 148,360 bushels of Indian corn and 18,552 bushels of sweet potatoes.
In 1853 a county courthouse was constructed in Bastrop to replace the rented building that had been serving the purpose. The next year twenty-three common-school districts were reported in the county. Settlement was spreading through the southern two-thirds of the county, with many immigrants arriving from the southern United States. In addition, hundreds of German emigrants were joining the Americans or establishing their own communities, such as Grassyville.
Between 1850 and 1860 the population of Bastrop County more than tripled, reaching 7,006, with 2,248 slaves making up almost a third of the total and foreign-born residents totaling 700. The county had 596 farms in 1860, and livestock raising was growing; the number of cattle increased from about 12,000 in 1850 to over 40,000 in 1860. Six churches were reported in an 1860 survey: two Methodist, two Lutheran, one Christian, and one Baptist.
Despite the fact that the county possessed a large slave population and a growing cotton economy, Bastrop County residents voted 352 to 335 against secession. But they rallied for the Confederate cause, arming and equipping military companies and providing for soldiers' families. Reconstruction brought tensions similar to those experienced across the South, with racial confrontations flaring around the community of Cedar Creek.
In 1870 Bastrop County's population topped 11,000, and it had thirty-four manufacturing establishments. The following year brought a further stimulus to growth in the form of the Houston and Texas Central Railway, completed through the northern part of the county to connect Austin and Brenham. Towns soon sprang up along the railroad, the most substantial being Elgin. Now many farmers had a freight outlet for their harvests of corn and cotton.
In 1874 Bastrop County assumed its present size with the establishment of Lee County. Nine years later, the Bastrop County Courthouse burned and a new one, still in use more than 100 years later, was built. Further railroad development occurred in the 1880s and 1890s, when the Taylor, Bastrop and Houston Railway connected the Bastrop County towns of Smithville and Bastrop with Lockhart, Waco, San Antonio, and Houston. In 1894 the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad, which had taken over the Taylor, Bastrop and Houston, selected Smithville as the site of its central shops. This move soon made the community rival Bastrop and Elgin in size.
At the turn of the century Bastrop County had 26,845 residents and was still primarily agricultural, with a peak number of farms (3,509) and peak production of cotton (41,730 bales) reported in the 1900 census. In this year the county also reported its largest number of manufacturing establishments, though the eighty-seven concerns employed only 293 people.
The discovery of oil in the county in 1913 led to years of oil testing and drilling at various sites. The pool found at the Yost farm four miles east of Cedar Creek in 1928 was representative of those discovered–productive but unspectacular. In the 1920s, however, oil was not the only resource being developed. County coal belts were being mined, with the Winfield mines providing lignite to various state institutions. Clay deposits around Elgin were making the town the "Brick Capital of the Southwest," and the lumber industry around Bastrop was reviving.
At the same time, changes were occurring in Bastrop County agriculture. Farmers had continued to raise corn and cotton primarily, and 1920 was a peak year for corn, with almost a million bushels harvested. Although most of the county's cultivated land was still set aside for cotton, the county picked only 14,250 bales that year. A farm depression that began in 1920 forced changes in land use, with greater agricultural diversification and increased cattle production.
The 1920s farm depression was followed by the general economic depression of the 1930s. The number of farms in Bastrop County dropped between 1920 and 1940 from 3,325 to 2,473, and farm value decreased from over $17 million to $7,246,372. Population, too, was sliding. In 1920 the county reported a population of 26,649, with the ratio of white to black about two to one. In 1940 the population was 21,610.
The World War II years brought an acceleration in cattle production and an economic upsurge for Bastrop, Elgin, and other communities with the foundation of the army training facility Camp Swift in the north central part of the county. But the war also drew residents off farms to work in war plants, and many did not come back. In the late 1940s, Bastrop County faced an economic decline. Camp Swift was phased out, the coal mines were closed, and lumbering had exhausted the remaining commercial timber. Cotton cultivation occupied only one-sixth its 1920 acreage.
However, farmers were diversifying successfully. Sorghum was being produced in large quantities, watermelons were a significant cash crop, and increasing crops of peanuts and pecans were being produced. In 1950 alone, Bastrop County farmers harvested 1,719,200 pounds of peanuts. More significantly, the number of cattle in the county had grown to 41,529 in 1950 as agricultural emphasis shifted from crop production to beef-cattle raising and more land was set aside for pasture.
Only fourteen manufacturing establishments employing 387 workers were reported in the county in 1947; the steadiest industry was probably brick and tile manufacturing at Elgin, where two large plants were operating in the 1940s, to be joined by a third in the 1950s.
Bastrop County population continued to decline, hitting a low of 16,925 in 1960. The number of farms continued to decline as well, reaching a low of 1,029 in 1969. But by then, population was gradually rising. The number of cattle continued to rise, too, with 68,769 reported in that year.
The beef industry remained strong through the 1970s and early 1980s, with 70,066 cattle reported in the 1982 census. But pasturelands were being taken over by suburban development as the growth of nearby Austin produced growth in Elgin, Bastrop, and such smaller communities as Cedar Creek and Red Rock. By 1980 the county population had risen to 24,726 and was soon to surpass the 1900 high of 26,845. As of 2014, the population of the county was 78,069. The census classified 55.8 percent of the population as Anglo, 34.2 percent as Hispanic, and 8 percent as African American. The three largest communities remained Elgin, with 8,757 people, Bastrop, with 7,949, and Smithville, with 4,125.
In 1982 the county reported 1,507 farms. Over one-third of these were producing hay; ninety-seven were harvesting nuts and fruits, while only twenty-eight were producing vegetables for sale. In the same year, the county had twenty-eight manufacturing establishments employing 700 workers. Wages paid were over $9.5 million, and product value was almost forty million dollars. Industries ranged from two brick plants still operating in Elgin to an oil-well supply in Bastrop. Both towns had furniture plants. Bastrop had a tourist industry stimulated by historical preservation efforts and by the proximity of Lake Bastrop and Bastrop and Buescher State parks. In the early 1990s, residents of Bastrop County were coping with the challenges of growth brought on by the suburban development of nearby Austin and were seeking further opportunities for agricultural and industrial diversification.
Bastrop County has a long political history. In the presidential elections of 1848 and 1852, most of the voters in the area supported the Whig candidates; in 1856, most voted for John C. Fremont, the candidate of the new Republican Party; and in 1860, John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party carried the county. In 1872 (the first year county voters could vote for president after Reconstruction) Horace Greeley, the Democratic candidate, won most of the county’s votes. Thereafter the Democratic presidential candidates carried the county in virtually every election from 1874 through 1968; the only exception occurred in 1896, when Republican William McKinley won a plurality of the county’s votes. After 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon took the county with a comfortable majority, Republican candidates began to become more competitive in the area. The Democrats won majorities in the county in 1976, 1982, and 1988, but Republican Ronald Reagan won there in 1984; and in 1992 and 1996, Democrat Bill Clinton won only pluralities in the area, partly because independent candidate Ross Perot attracted many voters who might otherwise have voted Republican. George W. Bush carried the county with comfortable majorities in 2000 and 2004. Democratic officials continued to maintain control of most county offices into the late twentieth century: in the 1982 primary 97 percent of those participating voted Democratic and 3 percent Republican, with a total of 5,578 votes cast. But by the early twenty-first century, Republican candidates were fully competitive in races for local offices too.
The U.S. census counted 78,069 people living in Bastrop County in 2014; about 55.8 percent were Anglo, 34.2 percent were Hispanic, and 8 percent African-American. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 77 percent had completed high school, and seventeen percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century tourism, agriculture, bio-technology research and computer-related industries were important components of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 2,187 farms and ranches covering 422,852 acres, 49 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 34 percent to crops, and 14 percent to woodlands. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $27,822,000; livestock sales accounted for $23,535,000 of the total. Hay, beef cattle, horses, goats, and pecans were the chief agricultural products.
Elgin hosts Western Days in June and the Hogeye festival in October.