Bee County is in the Rio Grande plain of south central Texas, fifty miles northwest of Corpus Christi and 146 miles southeast of Austin. It is bordered on the north by Karnes and Goliad counties, on the east by Refugio County, on the south by San Patricio County, and on the west by Live Oak County. Beeville is the county's largest town and seat of government. The center point of the county is 28°25' north latitude and 97°45' west longitude. Several important thoroughfares cross the county, including U.S. highways 59 and 181 and State highways 202 and 359. An airport built in 1966 serves Beeville and the surrounding region.
Bee County covers 866 square miles that slope gently to the coast. The elevation ranges from 200 to 300 feet. Geologically northern Bee County is in the Rio Grande embayment; the Lissie and Beaumont formations extend into the southern part of the county to form a broad, flat, and fertile plain. Blanco, Medio, and Aransas creeks and their tributaries, which flow in a southeasterly direction, drain the county. The southwest corner of the county has cracking clayey soils or loamy surfaces with cracking clayey subsoils. The northern two-thirds of the county has dark, alkaline soils, with loamy surface layers and cracking clayey subsoils, while the remainder of the county has light-colored acidic soils, with loamy surface layers and cracking clayey subsoils. Between 41 percent and 50 percent of the land in the county is considered prime farmland.
Most of the area is in the South Texas Plains vegetation region, characterized by open grasslands and scattered shrubs and cacti. Buffalo, antelopes, deer, bears, panthers, and wolves once roamed the region; early records indicate that the area also supported wildcats, coyotes, and jackrabbits. Many small mammals are currently found in the county, including foxes, squirrels, opossums, mice, rats, gophers, skunks, moles, and bats.
The climate is subtropical and humid, with mild winters and warm summers. Temperatures range in January from an average low of 42° F to an average high of 65°, and in July from 73° to 96°. The average annual rainfall is thirty inches. There is no snowfall. The growing season averages 275 days per year, with the last freeze in late February and the first freeze in early December. Hurricanes are likely to occur during the late summer.
Bee County has been the site of human habitation for several thousand years. Artifacts recovered in the region suggest that the earliest human inhabitants arrived around 6,000 to 10,000 years ago and camped along the creek valleys. At the time of the first contact with Europeans, various Karankawa bands inhabited the eastern part of the future county, while Lipan Apaches and Borrados roamed the northwest and southwest sections. The Skidi Pawnees left arrowheads in Sulphur Creek near the site of present Pawnee.
The first Spanish grant in the area was made to Carlos Martínez in 1789 for his services in the king's army at La Bahía and his father's deed of killing an Apache chief at San Antonio de Béxar Presidio. The first permanent settlers, Jeremiah O'Tool, his sons Martin and Michael, and James O'Reilly, sailed from Ireland in 1826. Women and children arrived in 1829 and helped to established the community of Corrigan, named for Ellen O'Tool Corrigan's husband. In 1828 William and Patrick Quinn settled in the Power and Hewetson colony at Papalote Creek, and in 1834 settlers from Tipperary, Ireland, landed at Copano Bay and went to the headwaters of the Aransas River (near the site of present Beeville), in the McMullen-McGloin colony. Other early residents included Martín De León, who established a ranch east of the Aransas in 1805, and the Castillo, Santos, and Moya families, who received Mexican land grants in the area in the early 1830s.
Eleven Bee County landowners, including Timothy Hart, William Quinn, James O'Conner, and James and William St. John, were among the signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence. During the Texas Revolution many of the settlers fled to New Orleans, but most returned, and in the 1840s and 1850s a small but steady stream of settlers moved to the area. Most took up ranching, which was ideally suited for the broad open expanses of grasslands.
Bee County was established shortly after the settlement of the Cart War, which originated ten miles east of the site of Beeville. The county, named for Barnard E. Bee, Sr., was formed from San Patricio, Goliad, Refugio, Live Oak, and Karnes counties on December 8, 1857, and officially organized on January 25, 1858, when the first officers were elected. Beeville, the first county seat, was on Medio Creek, near Medio Hill, where the first post office had been established in 1857. In 1860 Maryville became county seat; this community was later designated Beeville-on-the-Poesta to distinguish it from the former county seat.
In antebellum Texas the Bee County economy was based almost exclusively on cattle ranching. By 1860 cattle in the county numbered 33,376. Some families grew small crops of corn and other grains, but farming remained on the subsistence level until well after the Civil War. Because of the emphasis on ranching, on the eve of the war only seventy-nine slaves lived in the county, out of a total population of 910, most of whom were evidently cowherds and drovers. During the war cattle were driven to the Mississippi and to Mexico. The cowmen organized home guards at Papalote and Beeville under captains William P. Miller and Allen Carter Jones, and some Bee County men served with Confederate forces elsewhere. Although the local economy experienced a marked downturn as a result of the conflict, Bee County as a whole was spared the worst effects of the war. By the early 1870s its fortunes began to recover.
The most important economic event in the early postwar period was the great cattle boom. Many postwar cattle drives to the north followed the Chisholm Trail until about 1877, when that route was replaced by the Dodge or Western Trail. During the 1870s and early 1880s many Bee County ranchers drove their cattle to the Rockport-Fulton area, where a large number of hide and tallow plants had sprung up. In 1880 the census counted 25,030 cattle in the county, and in 1890 the total was more than 32,000. During the decade of the 1870s sheep ranching also enjoyed a brief heyday. Between 1870 and 1880 the number of sheep in the county grew from 1,860 to 61,130, and a for a time it appeared that sheep might supplant cattle as the county's most important export. But during the 1880s the sheep declined sharply; by 1910 fewer than 1,000 sheep were kept on Bee County ranches.
The 1880s saw the beginnings of large-scale agriculture, with corn and oats as the principal crops. In 1870 the county had only twenty-five farms; by 1890 it had 264; and by 1900 the farms numbered 628. In 1895 a state Agricultural Experimental Station was opened near Beeville, which assisted local farmers in selecting appropriate crops and introducing modern farming methods. Corn, flax, peanuts, fruits, vegetables, and onions became the principal products.
The railroads contributed to the rise of the farming economy. The San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway was completed from San Antonio to Pettus and Beeville in 1886. The following year the railroad extended south to Skidmore and Papalote. In 1888 the Gulf, Western Texas and Pacific Railway was built from Victoria to Beeville. The railroads not only opened up new markets outside the county, but also brought large numbers of new settlers. Between 1870 and 1890 the population of the county nearly quadrupled, from 1,082 to 3,720. Over the course of the next twenty years it almost quadrupled again, reaching 12,090 in 1910. Many of the new settlers were recent immigrants, drawn to the area by its mild climate and abundant land. By 1910 nearly a quarter of the county's population was foreign born, with new residents from Mexico (1,381) and Germany (188) forming the largest contingents. The growth in population encouraged dramatic growth in agriculture. Between 1900 and 1920 the number of farms in Bee County increased from 628 to 1,497, and agricultural receipts grew nearly fivefold. Cotton, which had been introduced during the 1890s, became a leading crop, and by 1930 the county was producing some 15,000 bales annually.
Despite the impressive growth of farming, livestock raising continued to play a central role in the county's economy. The number of ranches and cattle continued to increase steadily after the turn of the century. Commercial-scale poultry raising was introduced during the early 1900s. By 1930 county farms raised 73,236 chickens, and turkeys and geese were also being raised in significant numbers (see POULTRY PRODUCTION). Horse ranching also played an important role in the economy during the first three decades of the century. In 1920 there were more than 5,000 horses on Bee County's ranches, and buyers came from all over South Texas to attend horse auctions in Beeville.
The growing population and expanded farming activity combined to drive up land prices, and during the early 1920s large-scale tenant farming was introduced. By 1930 more than half (1,182) of the county's 1,731 farms were operated by tenants, who came from all strata of society, though, in contrast to tenants in some other areas of the state, the majority were White. Most were recent arrivals unable to buy land. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many fell victim to falling prices for agricultural products and to the reluctance of banks to extend credit. By 1940 fewer than half (629) of the tenants who had farmed a decade before were still on the land.
In 1929 oil and gas were discovered at Pettus, and revenues and jobs from the oilfields helped to offset some of the affects of the depression. But the economy did not begin to recover until World War II, when several military installations were opened in and around Beeville. Despite the downturn in the county's economy, the population continued to grow steadily. In 1940 it was 16,481, up nearly 1,000 since 1930, and in 1950 it reached 18,110.
In 1954 the first United States Navy all-jet base opened at Naval Auxiliary Air Station (now Chase Naval Air Station) in Beeville; the base closed in the early 1990s and was later redeveloped into Chase Field Industrial Complex. Several small industries–most of them relating to agribusiness–have opened in Beeville and Pettus in the late twentieth century, but the mainstay of the economy remained farming and ranching. In 1982, 93 percent of the land in the county was in farms and ranches, 17 percent of the farmland was under cultivation, and 5 percent was irrigated. Bee County ranked 139th among the 254 Texas counties in agricultural receipts, with 63 percent coming from livestock and livestock products, primarily from cattle. Principal crops included grain sorghums, corn, and wheat. Cotton culture, which declined sharply during the depression, had made a comeback and become a leading cash crop.
Oil and gas extraction form the other mainstay of the local economy. In the early 1990s oil production averaged some 800,000 barrels annually; between 1930 and 1991 crude production was 99,091,271 barrels. A number of petroleum industries and oilfield-service firms are located in Pettus. More than 588,000 barrels of oil, and 32,537,611 thousand cubic feet of gas well gas, were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 107,761,821 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1929.
The total number of businesses in the county in the early 1980s was 491. In 1980, 8 percent of laborers were self-employed, 21 percent were employed in professional or related services, 4 percent in manufacturing, 20 percent in wholesale and retail trade, and 19 percent in agriculture, forestry, fishing, and mining; 13 percent worked in other counties, and 1,507 retired workers lived in Bee County. Nonfarm earnings in 1981 totaled $206,200,000.
The first schools in the county were opened in 1858. Two of the earliest were located in Papalote and Beeville. In the early 1990s Bee County had four school districts with eight elementary, two middle, and four high schools. The average daily attendance in 1981–82 was 4,884, with expenditures per pupil of $2,299. Forty-two percent of the 307 high school graduates planned to attend college. In 1983, 39 percent of the school graduates were White, 59 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Black, and 0.7 percent Asian. Bee County College (est. 1965), a vocational and academic two-year college under local and state control, is located in Beeville. In 1992 the enrollment was 2,250.
The voters of Bee County favored the Democratic candidate in virtually every presidential election from 1872 through 1948; the only exception occurred in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover took the county. Though Republican Dwight Eisenhower carried the county over Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, the Democratic candidates won majorities there in 1960, 1964, and 1968. After 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon took the county by a large majority, the area began to trend more Republican. Democrat Jimmy Carter won most of Bee’s voters in 1976, but Ronald Reagan took the county in 1980 and 1984. Democrat Bill Clinton won pluralities there in 1992 and 1996, partly because independent candidate Ross Perot attracted many of the county’s conservative voters in those elections. Republican George W. Bush won solid majorities in the county in 2000 and 2004. Democratic officials continued to maintain a virtual monopoly on countywide offices, however, into the early twenty-first century.
In the mid-1980s Bee County had forty-five organized churches, with an estimated combined membership of 15,748. The largest denominations were Catholic, Southern Baptist, and United Methodist. The county population was 23,775 in 1960, 22,737 in 1970, 26,030 in 1980, and 25,135 in 1990. As of 2014, the population was 32,863. In the 1970s and 1980s came a marked influx of new Hispanic residents. In the early 1990s the county ranked forty-ninth among all United States counties in the percentage of persons of Hispanic origin, and persons of Hispanic descent (46 percent) form the largest ancestry group, followed by English (16 percent) and German (16 percent). In 2014, 33.1 percent of the population was Anglo, 8.5 percent African American, and 57.4 percent Hispanic. Rural Bee County grew in population by 24 percent between 1970 and 1980. The age groups with the largest increases were those between twenty-five and twenty-nine and from birth to five years. The jobless rate in the early 1990s was around 6.5 percent.Of the county’s residents who were twenty-five and older, 74 percent had completed high school, and 12 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agriculture and oil and gas production continued to be significant components of the area’s economy. In 2002 the county had 866 farms and ranches covering 509,544 acres, 66 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 28 percent to crops. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $19,471,000; livestock sales accounted for $12,034,000 of the total. Beef cattle, corn, cotton and grain sorghum were the chief agricultural products.
Beeville (population, 13,061) is the county’s largest town and its seat of government; other communities include Blue Berry Hill (880), Skidmore (918), Tynan (282), Tuleta (296), Pawnee (165), and Mineral (65). Hunting leases and camping draw numbers of tourists to the area. Among the leading attractions are the Beeville Art Gallery and Museum, the annual West Fest held in October, the Diez y Seis de Septiembre celebration (one of the fiestas patrias) and nearby Choke Canyon State Park and Lake Corpus Christi.