Bell County, in east central Texas, is located along the Balcones Escarpment approximately forty-five miles north of the Capitol in Austin and is bordered by Coryell, McLennan, and Falls counties on the north, on the east by Falls and Milam counties, on the south by Milam and Williamson counties, and on the west by Lampasas and Burnet counties. Belton, the third largest town in the county, serves as the county seat and is sixty-five miles north of Austin. The county's center lies at approximately 31°02' north latitude and 97°30' east longitude. Interstate Highway 35 and State highways 195, 95, and 317 are the major north-south roads in the county; U.S. Highway 190 and State Highway 36 cross the county east and west. Bell County is also served by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and the Union Pacific railroads.
Bell County comprises some 1,055 square miles and is divided into regions by the Balcones Escarpment, which runs through the approximate center of the county from southeast to northwest. The eastern part of the county, on the Blackland Prairie, consists of comparatively level prairieland, mainly undulating to gently rolling. The western half of the county belongs to the Grand Prairie region of Texas, and includes undulating to rolling uplands, deeply cut with stream valleys that, in places, have stony slopes and steep bluffs. Bell County ranges in elevation from about 450 feet above sea level in the southeast to about 1,200 feet above sea level on the western boundary. The county is drained chiefly by the Little River and its tributaries, especially the Leon, Lampasas, and Salado rivers, which come together at historic Three Forks to form the Little River. Soils in the eastern part of the county are mostly dark, loamy to clayey "blackland" soils; the rich Houston black clay is the most common type and the most suitable for farming. The soils west of the Balcones fault are light to dark and loamy and clayey, with limy subsoils; shallow, stony soils in places have encouraged ranching and hardwood and pine production. Vegetation west of the fault is characterized by tall grasses and oak, juniper, pine, and mesquite trees, while the eastern part of the county, which has been extensively utilized for farming, is still wooded along its streams with a variety of hardwood trees. Between 41 and 50 percent of the land in Bell County is considered prime farmland. Mineral resources include limestone, oil, gas, sand and gravel, and dolomite.
In the mid-nineteenth century, early settlers found a rich wildlife population of, deer, wild turkeys, wolves, bear, buffalo, antelope, wild horses, ducks, geese, wild hogs, and an occasional alligator. While the buffalo, bear, and hogs were hunted to extinction in the county in the nineteenth century and the last alligator was killed in 1908, Bell County still provides habitat for many wild species, including deer, antelope, and numerous birds; Belton Lake and Stillhouse Hollow Lake provide a refuge for Bell County wildlife. Temperatures range from an average high of 96° in July to an average low of 36° in January. Rainfall averages thirty-four inches a year; the average relative humidity is 82 percent at 6 a.m. and 52 percent at 6 p.m., and the growing season averages 258 days annually.
The area currently comprising Bell County has been the site of human habitation since at least 6000 b.c. Evidence of Archaic Period (ca. 7000 b.c.-a.d. 500) and possibly Paleo-Indian Period (pre-7000 b.c.) inhabitants has been recovered from archeological sites at the Stillhouse Hollow Site, Lake Belton, and Youngsport. Numerous campsites, kitchen middens and burial mounds from the late prehistoric era have been found along the watercourses of the county, and rockshelters for burials have been discovered in the western part of the county. The earliest known historical occupants of the county, the Tonkawas, were a flint-working, hunting people who followed the buffalo on foot. During the eighteenth century they made the transition to a horse culture and began to use firearms. Lipan Apaches, Wacos, Anadarkos, Kiowas, and Comanches also frequented the land that become Bell County. The Lipans camped by the rivers and streams, and early White settlers had friendly relations with them. Early settlers also recorded that the Indians fired the prairie each spring to burn off the matted winter grass and facilitate new growth. But by the late 1840s the Lipans, Tonkawas and other groups who had customarily camped and hunted in the Bell County area had been decimated by European diseases and driven away by White settlement. Comanche raiding parties continued to strike into the county until 1870.
While the Spanish had explored the Little River to the east in what would become Milam County and had established missions along the San Gabriel to the southeast in the eighteenth century, there is no evidence that they traversed the future Bell County area. Anglo settlement began in the 1830s, when the area was part of Robertson's colony and, somewhat later, part of old Milam County. The area was first settled in 1834 and 1835 by the families of Goldsby Childers, Robert Davidson, John Fulcher, Moses Griffin, John Needham, Michael Reed, William Taylor, and Orville T. Tyler, who settled as colonists along the Little River. The settlements were deserted during the Runaway Scrape, reoccupied, and then deserted again after the Indian attack on Fort Parker in June 1836. In their retreat from the fort several of the settlers were overtaken by Indians and killed. The area was reoccupied in the winter of 1836–37. In November 1836 George B. Erath established a fort on the Little River about a mile below the Three Forks, which has been variously known as Smith's Fort, the Block House, Fort Griffin, and Little River Fort. The settlements along the river were considerably troubled by marauding Indians. The more important engagements of 1837 were the Elm Creek Raid on January 7 and the Post Oak Massacre in June. Little River Fort was abandoned, and by 1838 all settlers had left the Bell County area. On May 26, 1839, the Bird's Creek Indian Fight, a bloody but indecisive skirmish between Texas Rangers and Comanches, took place about 1½ miles northwest of the site of present Temple.
Settlers began to return to the Bell County area after the peace treaties of 1843–44, and Indian raids into the county became less frequent. By the census of 1850, the population of what would shortly become Bell County was approximately 600 Whites and sixty Black enslaved people. Bell County was formed on January 22, 1850, and named for Peter H. Bell. The election held to organize the county took place in April at the "Charter Oak," near the center of the county at the military crossing on the Leon River. Nolan Springs was chosen as the county seat and named Nolanville. On December 16, 1851, the name was changed to Belton. In 1854 Coryell County was marked off from Bell County, and in 1856 the legislature attached a six-mile-wide strip of Falls County to Bell County. In 1860, when a resurvey of the line between Bell and Milam counties was made and recognized by the legislature, Bell County assumed its present boundaries.
The last serious Indian raid occurred in March 1859. The Independent Blues, a company of volunteer rangers led by John Henry Brown, was organized in the immediate aftermath of the raid to protect the frontier. This group functioned for about two months. It was succeeded by several other volunteer units that operated into the summer of 1860. Bell County had a population of 3,794 Whites and 1,005 Blacks in 1860. Most of the settlers had come to the county either from the older settled counties of lower and eastern Texas, or from the southern United States. The county was not really part of the plantation economy like the eastern part of antebellum Texas; two-thirds of the 179 slaveholders in 1860 owned seven or fewer slaves, and only four county residents owned twenty slaves or more. Belton, Aiken, and Salado, the only towns, were on a stage route running north from Austin. Salado College was established in 1859 and flourished in the second half of the nineteenth century. Early settlement in the county was along the creeks and rivers, but by 1860 most of the county land, some 462,884 acres, was divided into farms. A series of drought years in the mid-1850s hindered the development of farming in the area, and Bell County farmers still operated in a frontier economy on the eve of the Civil War. Due to the uncertain supply of water, much of the land in the county was considered worthless for anything but undeveloped pasture, and county residents raised large herds of cattle and sheep. The 42,037 cattle enumerated by the 1860 census was not equalled again until the 1950s. There were only 21,196 cleared acres in the county in 1860, and the large number of oxen in the county, 2,132, when compared to the relatively small number of mules, 646, indicates that many farmers were still doing the heavy work of breaking the land to the plough. Corn and wheat were the main crops, though cotton was introduced into the county along the Little River in the mid-1850s and 514 bales of cotton were harvested in 1860.
A significant minority of Bell County residents were Unionists during the secession crisis. A Whig newspaper, the Independent, was published in Belton, and, in the election of 1859, Bell County strongly supported Sam Houston. In 1861, however, the county voted 495 to 198 in favor of secession, and many of the former Unionists loyally supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. Out of a White population of some 4,000 at the beginning of the war, one source claims that more than 1,000 Bell County men served in Confederate or state military units. Companies organized in the county served in the First, Fourth, Sixth, and Eighteenth Texas Cavalry regiments, and the Sixth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Texas Infantry regiments. Bell County civilians established a variety of rural industries to provide shoes, saddles, and other goods for themselves and the forces. Unionist sentiment never entirely disappeared, however, and from 1862 to 1865 some Union sympathizers and Confederate deserters congregated in northern Bell County at what locals called "Camp Safety."
Reconstruction in Bell County was a troubled and violent period. Federal troops were quartered in Belton in 1865–66 to support Hiram Christian, newly appointed chief justice of the commissioners' court, but they were powerless to prevent a series of feuds between political factions that resulted in murders and lynchings. Horse and cattle thieves thrived in the unsettled conditions of the time and contributed to the anarchy that prevailed in the county. During the brief return to self-government under Governor James W. Throckmorton in 1866–67, Bell County sent X. B. Saunders to the Constitutional Convention of 1866, and a Belton mob helped to discredit Throckmorton's administration by lynching several pro-Union men who were being held prisoner for feud-related murders. Bell County Whites chafed under the imposition of congressional Reconstruction in 1868, and a Ku Klux Klan–like organization was established in the county. Due to the small number of Black voters in the county, Radical Republicans were dependent on military assistance for local control, and the election of December 1869 returned Bell County to Democratic party rule. The pattern of lawlessness continued into the mid-1870s; and the worst example of vigilante violence occurred on the evening of May 25, 1874, when a mob of men from Bell and other counties broke into the Belton jail and killed nine men, eight members of a gang of accused horse thieves and an accused murderer. One of the most interesting cultural movements of the period in Texas was the Belton Woman's Commonwealth, a celibate commune of "sanctificationists" that flourished in Belton from the 1870s through the 1890s.
Before the Civil War, African Americans had formed some 21 percent of the county population. The difficulties they faced in finding a niche in Bell County society in the postwar period can be glimpsed in an 1868 description of the county's Blacks by a former Confederate officer: "The negroes behave as well as any one expected, though a large majority of them...are inclined to shift from place to place without having any settled employment." Most of the immigration to the county after the Civil War was White; the Black population fell to 11 percent of the total in 1870 and fluctuated between 8 and 12 percent until the 1970s, when it increased to about 16 percent. As in other areas of Texas, Blacks were relegated to segregated and inferior housing and educational facilities until the 1960s. Though racial violence was not as common in Bell County as it was in some areas of the state, there were at least two lynchings, in 1911 and 1915, and the Klan was revived in the county in the 1920s.
The Civil War and Reconstruction had a dramatic, if temporary, impact on the county economy. In 1870 the value of Bell County farms was only half of what it had been in 1860. Recovery was fairly rapid, aided by the growth of the cattle and sheep industries and, in the 1870s, by a dramatic expansion of cotton farming. From 1866 to the mid-1870s, stock raising was the chief county industry. One of the main feeder routes to the Chisholm Trail entered the county near Prairie Dell, extended through the center of Salado and the eastern edge of Belton, and left the county in the direction of Waco. Many cattle drives passed through or originated in the county from the 1860s to the early 1880s. Cattle raising, after declining somewhat in importance in the early twentieth century, was again a major part of the county agricultural economy by 1950, and in 1969 ranchers owned a record 56,101 cattle. Sheep and goat raising also followed a similar pattern in the county. The number of sheep grew from 9,718 in 1870 to 21,224 in 1880, and nearly doubled again to 42,063 sheep producing 198,665 pounds of wool in 1890. The sheep industry declined dramatically in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to some 7,859 sheep producing 31,245 pounds of wool in 1920, but revived in the 1930s and reached a new high of 50,141 sheep and 270,311 pounds of wool in 1940. Mohair became a significant agricultural product by 1930, and reached a peak in 1959, when some 32,269 goats were raised in the county (see WOOL AND MOHAIR INDUSTRY).
Cotton, the second boom industry in Bell County, also developed after the Civil War. Cotton culture in the county, which had been relatively insignificant before the war, rose to successive heights of 9,217 bales in 1880, 37,473 bales in 1890 and a peak of 58,050 bales in 1910. The number of improved acres increased more than sevenfold between 1870 and 1880, and nearly doubled again to some 378,355 acres by 1890. While much of the land was used to grow wheat, corn, oats, and other food crops in 1880, cotton was grown on 26 percent of the cropland in 1890, 45 percent in 1900, 55 percent in 1910, and 61 percent as late as 1930.
Attracted by economic opportunities in ranching and farming, large numbers of immigrants swelled the population of Bell County in the later nineteenth century. The number of residents doubled between 1860 and 1870, from 4,799 to 9,771, more than doubled again to 20,517 in 1880, and had reached 45,535 by the turn of the century. Many immigrants came either from the older counties of Texas or from other southern states, particularly Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Population pressure and the shift to cotton production after 1870 adversely affected the economic position of the growing number of county farmers. Increasingly concerned over marketing and credit issues, Bell County citizens pioneered the Grange movement in Texas in the 1870s, and Salado became one of the state centers of Grange activities. Nevertheless, as early as 1880, 41 percent of the county's farms were worked by tenants. The number increased to 58 percent by 1900 and remained at about 60 percent until the 1920s, when it increased still further to a maximum of 68 percent by 1930. Tenancy rates began to decline during the Great Depression with the shift away from cotton and other staple crops, and by 1959 had dropped to approximately 24 percent of the county's farmers.
Both the cotton and cattle booms were aided by the improved communications available in the county in the later nineteenth century. The Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe, the first railroad to be built in Bell County, reached Belton in 1881 and established Temple as its headquarters that same year. Temple quickly surpassed Belton to become the largest town in the county by 1890. In 1882 the Missouri, Kansas and Texas crossed the county, and Belton secured a branch line of this railroad from Echo. The Belton and Temple Interurban, an electric line, was constructed in 1905 (see ELECTRIC INTERURBAN RAILWAYS). Roads were generally poor throughout the county in the early twentieth century. There were 11,748 automobiles in the county by 1935, and extensive improvements, including blacktopping, of all major roads took place in the 1930s, as highway development continued throughout the state.
In 1870 only eighty-four foreign-born inhabitants out of a population of 9,771 lived in Bell County. Significant numbers of Germans, Austrians, and Czechs moved to the county between 1880 and 1920. Though foreign-born residents never exceeded 5 percent of the county population, these groups and their descendents formed distinctive cultural enclaves, particularly in the southern and eastern parts of the county. For the most part these groups seem to have coexisted peacefully with the Anglo majority of Bell County citizens, but they were harassed by the County Council of Defense during World War I and by the county Klan in the 1920s. The Hispanic population never exceeded 3 percent of the county total until the second half of the twentieth century, when it rose to some 11 percent of the whole.
By 1930 Bell County had an ethnically mixed population of 50,030. The county economy was still overwhelmingly agricultural, with only 41 manufacturing establishments employing some 565 workers in operation that year. While cotton production was near its peak in terms of percentage of cropland, the cotton industry was already undergoing a rapid transformation. The combined effects of soil depletion, overproduction, and the boll weevil had already damaged the industry by the mid-1920s, and the situation of cotton growers was further worsened by the depression. The county population dropped to 44,863 in 1940, as many residents left to find jobs elsewhere. Among the county farmers who remained, the depression encouraged diversification and a shift away from staple crops to livestock. Between 1930 and 1940 the number of acres used for cotton growing fell by more than half, and cotton production shrank from 57,574 bales to 30,435. Acres used for corn production increased over the same period by almost half, and wool and mohair production almost doubled, to 137,434 pounds and 75,827 pounds respectively. Though cotton continued to be an important crop in eastern Bell County, the county's farmers increasingly turned to such other crops as sorghum and wheat and to livestock raising in the later twentieth century. Poultry production also grew in significance in the county economy, and in 1970 Bell County ranked first in the state in turkey raising.
The two world wars had a major impact on Bell County. The community enthusiastically threw itself into the war effort in 1917, providing twice its draft quota on one occasion and forming a variety of citizens' organizations to assist in rationing, in maintaining morale, and in providing services for the armed forces. A more permanent change in county life brought about by World War II was the establishment of the military base at Fort Hood in the western part of the county; this large installation continues to function as a military training center. In the 1980s much of western Bell County lay within the boundaries of the military reservation, and the fort's estimated 160,000 military personnel, dependents, military retirees, and civilian employees exerted a tremendous economic and social influence on the civilian communities bordering the base. Neighboring Killeen was the largest city in the county, and the contiguous communities of Killeen, Harker Heights, and Nolanville, with an estimated combined population of 50,949 in 1980, were home to almost a third of the county's inhabitants.
The growth of the Fort Hood-Killeen area was matched by developments in the rest of the county. Bell County's population shot up to 73,824 in 1950, and increased by 27 to 32 percent every decade thereafter, to reach 157,820 in 1980 and 191,088 in 1990. The county also became increasingly urbanized: by 1980, 81 percent of the population lived in urban areas, and Bell County was one of the most densely populated counties in the state. Population growth benefited from and contributed to economic diversity in Bell County. In 1982 approximately 6,900 county residents were employed in factories, more than three times as many as in 1963; other major areas of employment in the 1980s were construction, agribusiness, retail trade, and services. Among the noteworthy educational and medical institutions in the county were the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, Central Texas College, Temple Junior College, the University of Central Texas, Scott and White Memorial Hospital, and the Olin E. Teague Veterans Center.
Politically, Bell County remained solidly Democratic for a century after Reconstruction, though there were sizable minorities of Greenbackers in 1880, Populists in 1892, and supporters of James Ferguson, a Temple man, in 1920. Independent farm movements attracted supporters in the county in 1880s and 1890s, and county prohibitionists achieved their goal of a dry county in a local-option vote in 1915. The county went Republican by a narrow margin in the 1928 presidential election rather than vote for the Catholic Al Smith, and went Republican again in the presidential election of 1972. County voters chose Jimmie Carter in 1976 and then supported Republican presidential candidates through the election of 2004.
In 2014 the census counted 329,140 people living in Bell County. About 48.9 percent were Anglo, 22.4 percent were African American, and 23.2 percent were Hispanic. About 75 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and almost 20 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century the presence of Fort Hood remained a central element of the area's economy, but local firms also manufactured a wide variety of products, including computers, plastic goods, furniture, and clothing. In 2002 the county had 2,080 farms and ranches covering 450,923 acres, 52 percent of which were devoted to crops and 42 percent to pasture. In that year Bell County farmers and ranchers earned $40,832,000, with livestock sales accounting for $23,378,000 of that total. Beef, corn, sorghum, wheat, and cotton were the chief agricultural products. Belton (population, 19,621) is the seat of government and Killeen (138,241) is the county's largest city. Other towns include Temple (70,730), Harker Heights (28,233), Salado (2,164), Morgan's Point Resort City (4,228), Nolanville (4,322), Troy (1,738), Little River Academy (1,949), Rogers (1,214), Holland (1,126), and Heidenheimer (224). Fort Hood had a population of 30,633 in 2014. Recreation and tourist attractions in Bell County include Belton and Stillhouse Hollow lakes, the Central Area Museum in Salado, the Belton Independence Day celebration and rodeo (July), the Central Texas State Fair in Belton (September), and the Salado Art Fair (August) and gathering of the Scottish clans (November).