Bowie County is in the far northeastern corner of the state, bordered by the Red River on the north, with Arkansas and Oklahoma across its northern boundary and Arkansas to the east. Boston, the county seat, is located near the center of the county at 33°27' north latitude and 94°25' west longitude, twenty-one miles west of Texarkana, the county's largest town. The county occupies 891 square miles of the East Texas Timberlands. The terrain is level to gently rolling; its elevation ranges from 200 to 450 feet above mean sea level. The county is drained by the Red and Sulphur rivers, which form its northern and southern boundaries. Most of the soils are either loamy or clayey. Mineral resources include oil, gas, lignite, and ceramic clay. The county also has abundant forest lands, and in 1981 its timber production totaled 10,292,035 cubic feet. Temperatures range from an average high of 94°F in July to an average low of 30° in January. Rainfall is abundant, averaging forty-seven inches a year, and the growing season is long, an average of 235 days annually. At first European contact, wildlife native to the area included buffalo, deer, bear, beaver, and turkey.
Archeological evidence in contiguous Red River County indicates that this portion of Texas was occupied by Indians as early as the Late Archaic Period, ca. 1500 b.c. At the time of first European contact, the area was occupied by the Caddo Indians, an agricultural people with a highly developed culture. During the last decade of the eighteenth century, due to epidemics and problems with the Osages, the Caddos abandoned the villages they had occupied for centuries. During the early 1820s bands of Shawnee, Delaware, and Kickapoo Indians immigrated to the area, but they had abandoned their settlements by the mid-1830s. Although White settlement of the county had already begun when these later bands of Indians arrived, relations between the Indians and settlers were relatively peaceful.
The time of the earliest European exploration of the county cannot be conclusively determined. The northernmost of the numerous routes attributed to the Moscoso expedition in 1542 crosses Bowie County; if the expedition actually took this route, the area was among the earliest explored parts of the state. The first European contact with this region more likely occurred, however, between 1687, when Henri Joutel traveled north in search of Henri de Tonti, and 1690, when Tonti returned to Texas in search of survivors of the La Salle expedition. Prolonged European activity in the area began in 1719, when Le Poste des Cadodaquious was founded by Jean Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe. American exploration of the area began in 1806, when President Thomas Jefferson, eager to strengthen the American claim to the area, dispatched Thomas Freeman and Dr. Peter Custis to explore the area. Following the Red River, the Freeman and Custis expedition reached Spanish Bluff, almost due north of the site of present New Boston, before being forced to turn back by Spanish soldiers.
Because the area of Northeast Texas encompassing present Bowie County was considered by many to be part of Arkansas, it was the site of some of the earliest White settlement in Texas. Hunters and traders were active in the area by 1815, and in contiguous Red River County permanent settlement was underway by 1818. Although the details of earliest settlement in Bowie County are not clear, the area was probably settled around 1820, when Miller County, Arkansas, was organized. This county encompassed not only what is now Bowie County, but all of the Red River settlements.
Although the early settlers seem to have regarded the area as part of the United States, when the United States government refused to issue them land titles many of these settlers turned first to the Mexican government and then to Arthur G. Wavell's agent, Benjamin R. Milam, in an attempt to obtain valid land titles. While doing so, they continued to send representatives to the Arkansas legislature. When the Convention of 1836 met at Washington-on-the-Brazos, the Red River settlements were represented by Richard Ellis, Samuel P. Carson, Robert Hamilton, Collin McKinney, and Albert H. Latimer. Three of these men—Ellis, Carson, and McKinney—were living within the confines of the future Bowie County. That year Red River County, which included all the territory now in Bowie County, was established.
Bowie County was demarked in December of 1840 and named for James Bowie. As originally delineated, the county included all or part of the territories of present Cass, Titus, and Morris counties. In 1846 the county was reduced to its present size and boundaries with the establishment of Cass and Titus counties. DeKalb, in the western part of the county, was designated temporary county seat, while a commission was appointed to choose a more appropriate permanent site. The commission chose the town then named Boston (see OLD BOSTON, TEXAS), which became the county seat in 1841. In the mid-1880s the citizens of Texarkana conducted a successful campaign to make Texarkana the county seat. About five years later residents of the western and central parts of the county campaigned successfully for yet another county seat, this one to be at the geographic center of the county. The new courthouse was constructed in 1890, and the town that grew up around it was named Boston. The county seat has remained at this location. Shortly before Texarkana ceased being the county seat, the courthouse burned and almost all the county records were destroyed.
In antebellum Texas Bowie County was overwhelmingly rural and agricultural. At the time of the Civil War, Boston, the county's largest town, had a population of only 300 or 400. Most county residents were employed in agriculture, and cotton was the county's most important cash crop. The production of cotton began in the 1830s and expanded steadily. The county's farmers reported a crop of 1,113 bales in 1849 and 6,874 bales in 1859. Although cotton was clearly predominant, livestock was also important to the county's economy. In 1860 Bowie County farmers reported a total of 12,819 swine, 3,281 milk cows, 1,160 working oxen, 7,601 other cattle, and 1,331 sheep. Even though cotton was the principal cash crop, the largest crop was corn; the harvest amounted to 218,289 bushels in 1859. The self-sufficient county raised more than enough corn and hogs for subsistence.
Bowie County was largely settled by Southerners, and, as in most other areas in the cotton South, slavery was a vitally important economic and social institution. Throughout the antebellum years slaves outnumbered free inhabitants. In 1850 there were 1,641 Blacks in the county and 1,271 Whites. During the 1850s, although the White population grew at a slightly faster rate than the Black, in 1860 slaves outnumbered Whites 2,651 to 2,401. Of the county's 145 slaveholders in 1850, twenty-two (15 percent) owned more than twenty slaves each. These planters owned more than half of all the slaves in the county. During the 1850s slaveholding became more concentrated. While the free population of the county grew by 89 percent between 1850 and 1860, the number of slaveholders in the county increased by only 30 percent. Within the slaveholding class the distribution of slaves remained about the same. Roughly 23 percent of the slaveholders present in 1860 were of the planter class, and they owned 65 percent of all slaves in the county.
Bowie County's White population overwhelmingly supported the secession movement during the winter of 1860–61. When the Ordinance of Secession was voted on in February 1861, Bowie County residents approved it by a vote of 208 to 15. They also wholeheartedly supported the war effort of the Confederacy.
Bowie County was never invaded, and it thus escaped the physical destruction that devastated other parts of the South. Nonetheless, the war years were trying times for the county's citizens. In addition to concern for loved ones on the battlefield, citizens were forced to deal with disruptions to the local economy caused by the unstable Confederate currency and the lack of a market for their cotton. The end of the war brought wrenching changes in the county's economic foundation. While the end of slavery meant freedom for the Black, to the White slaveholder it was a serious loss of capital. In 1859 Bowie County slaveholders had paid taxes on 2,269 slaves appraised at $1,167,139, a sum that represented 64 percent of all taxable property in the county. After the war economic loss, the widespread belief that free Blacks would not work, and the uncertain status of the South in the nation led to a loss of confidence that caused property values to plummet in 1865.
Two events occurring almost simultaneously in the summer of 1867 turned the bitterness of many of the county's discouraged White citizens into rage. First, it became obvious that the Radical Republicans were intent on providing Blacks in the South a measure of legal and political equality. Second, in July 1867 federal troops were stationed in the county for the first time. Although local sources claim that the garrison in the county was composed of some eighteen to twenty men, federal records indicate that it never comprised more than twelve men. The soldiers were under the direction of William G. Kirkman, a former Union Army captain who was to act as an agent of the Freedmen's Bureau for the district. The number of troops in the county was just large enough to provide a galling reminder of the legal authority vested in the army of occupation, but not large enough to provide protection for area African Americans or Unionists. This was made evident during the army's first month in the county, when Kirkman and his men attempted to arrest the notorious killer Cullen Baker. Baker escaped the encounter, leaving one soldier dead and others wounded. As Baker and his gang increasingly restricted their killing to federal soldiers and freedmen, he gained the sympathy of many Whites in Bowie County. Although few in the county would ever have ridden with Baker, many were willing to help him elude capture. A local writer stated years after the event that "this man Cullen Baker was hailed as a hero, and by many, even as a Moses who had appeared, to lead them out of the wilderness of Northern Political Tyranny and oppression." About a year after Kirkman and his men clashed with Baker they tried a second time, and one of Baker's men was killed. Shortly thereafter, Kirkman was indicted for murder by the civil authorities in the county. A local Unionist wrote army headquarters saying that events had left Kirkman "partially deranged and not capable of knowing what course to pursue." Kirkman was ordered to close his office and report to headquarters. The day he was to leave Bowie County he was murdered, and though Baker boasted of having committed the crime, the act was officially ruled "murder by person or persons unknown." The soldiers who had been stationed in the county to support Kirkman were removed, and no other agent of the Freedmen's Bureau was stationed in Bowie County.
In addition to the activities of Baker and his gang, armed bands of a county organization resembling the Ku Klux Klan patrolled the county killing or expelling Blacks who were intent on exercising their political rights. At the same time, they worked to prevent most Blacks from leaving the county, thus preserving a labor force to work the cotton fields. The operation of these bands, coupled with the failures of the Union military, made Reconstruction of short duration in the county. Whereas in Harrison County, a county with roughly the same proportion of slaves in 1860 located about eighty miles to the south, the Southern Democrats were unable to regain control of the county until 1878, Bowie County Democrats regained control of the county at the first election after the radical Constitution of 1869 was promulgated.
After the election of 1869, Bowie County remained solidly Democratic. In presidential politics the county voted Democratic in every presidential election until 1968, when its vote went to independent candidate George Wallace in a close three-way race. Subsequently the county voted for Republican presidential candidates in virtually every presidential election from 1972 through 2004; the only exceptions were 1976, when Democrat Jimmy Carter carried the county, and 1992, when Bill Clinton won a plurality of the county's votes.
The turmoil of Reconstruction was probably largely responsible for the decline in the county's total population between the censuses of 1860 and 1870. In 1870, though the county's White population had risen slightly, from 2,401 to 2,434, the county's Black population had dropped from 2,651 to 2,249. For the first time since annexation, Whites were in a majority in the county. The census of 1870 registered what was the beginning of a long-term trend. With some exceptions, though the number of Blacks in the county grew larger every ten years, as a percentage the Black population declined. By 1980 the 16,498 Blacks living in the county constituted a little less than 22 percent of the county's 75,301 residents. In 2000 about 70 percent of the county's 89,306 residents were Anglos, and 24 percent were Black, and about 5 percent were Hispanic.
For sixty years after Reconstruction the economic base of Bowie County remained largely agricultural. Cotton was still the principal crop, and following the disastrous 1869 harvest of 2,990 bales, production of the staple expanded steadily, to a high of 30,520 bales in 1929. The production of corn, the principal food crop, ranged from the 1869 low of 104,805 bushels to a high of 929,954 bushels in 1909. For many of the county's residents, cotton provided a livelihood but not prosperity. Beginning in 1880, when the statistics were first compiled, each census recorded a higher percentage of farmers who did not own the land they farmed. In 1880, 36 percent of all farmers in the county were tenants, the largest portion of whom farmed on shares. By 1930, 64 percent of the farmers in the county were tenants.
Though agriculture was the foundation of the county's economic base, the county was never exclusively agricultural. Manufacturing provided jobs for a small portion of the labor force in 1850, when fourteen persons were employed to make products valued at $12,100. Between 1880 and 1890 the county experienced a small boom in manufacturing. In 1880, 185 people were employed to make products valued at $417,840. By 1890 the number of people employed had jumped to 1,157, and the annual product was valued at $1,757,425. The depression of the 1890s was probably responsible for a serious decline during the next ten years, as the number of people employed dropped to 500. Afterward, manufacturing expanded steadily; in 1930, 1,583 people were employed at wages totalling $1,568,500 to make products valued at $11,919,153.
In addition to an expansion in manufactures, the county was also becoming more urban. This change was largely due to the coming of the railroad. When the Texas and Pacific Railway was constructed through the county, beginning in 1873, towns along its route began to garner an increasingly larger share of the market activities of area farmers. The railroad also was responsible for a new town, Texarkana, which, almost from its founding, served as a major market center and shipping point for farmers in the surrounding three-state area. By 1900 the 5,256 people who lived on the Texas side of Texarkana comprised almost 20 percent of the population of the county. By 1930 the 16,602 people in that part of the town amounted to 34 percent of the population of the county. In 1930 the county's four largest towns had a population of 19,071, a little over 39 percent of the county's total population.
Like most other areas of the country, Bowie County was hit hard by the Great Depression. For the agricultural sector of the county the effects of the depression were becoming apparent by 1930, when the average value of county farms fell from the 1920 value of $3,498 to $2,373. The effect of the depression on manufacturing is not so obvious because that segment of the county's economy was not really depressed until after the census of 1930 had been taken, and by the census of 1940 recovery was underway. Still, the census of 1940 registered a drop in number of employees (from 1,583 to 1,536), wages paid (from $1,568,500 to $1,041,528), and value of products (from $11,919,153 to $7,175,535).
World War II brought the same trauma to residents of the county that other wars had brought, as hundreds of the county's citizens fought overseas. But it was also the beginning of more positive and lasting changes in the county's economy. In 1941 two massive military installations were constructed in the county, the Lone Star Army Ammunition Plant and Red River Army Depot. These two installations, which occupy almost 40,000 acres, employed thousands of people in building and storing war supplies. By 1945, 769,977 tons of matériel had been shipped from these two locations. After the war, operation of the plant and depot continued; in 1992 more than 8,000 people, civilian and military, were employed at them.
The opportunities for employment off the farm accelerated changes in agriculture that had begun during the depression. Federal payments to farmers who withdrew a part of their land from cultivation had caused some landlords to drive the tenants off their land. The number of farms in the county fell from 5,451 in 1930 to 3,890 in 1940, and the percentage of tenant farmers in the county fell to 46. During the 1940s, as tenants left for better jobs in the cities, the number of farms in the county continued to fall. By 1950 tenants operated just 21 percent of the 3,127 farms in the county. As tenants left the land, farms became larger and increasingly mechanized, a change registered in the census. In 1930 one of the chief power sources for farmers was the mule (see HORSE AND MULE INDUSTRY). The census that year counted 8,527 mules in the county. By 1950, the last year for which figures are available, the number had fallen to 2,214.
Changes in consumer products also led to decreasing demand for cotton, and production of the staple declined to 20,168 bales in 1940 and to 9,015 bales in 1950. Cotton remained a major crop for Bowie County farmers through the 1960s; the 1968 crop was reported as 8,938 bales. But Bowie County farmers gradually abandoned cotton in the 1970s, so that by 1981 no production was reported. By 1982 livestock was the most important agricultural commodity, with county farmers reporting a total of 62,528 cattle. Wheat, soybeans, and hay were the largest crops in 1981, when production was reported as 391,955 bushels, 201,163 bushels, and 61,385 tons, respectively. Ninety-seven percent of the farmers in Bowie County owned all or part of the land they farmed, and the 1,130 farms in the county were worth an average of $176,125 each.
During the period after World War II, though agriculture remained vital, it was replaced as the cornerstone of the county's economy by manufacturing and wholesale and retail trade. These two industries employed 48 percent of the county's labor force and headed a list of nonfarm occupations that generated almost $683 million in earnings in 1981. Agricultural receipts in 1982 were $30,491,000. After oil was discovered in the county in 1944, petroleum and natural gas production also became part of the area's economy. More than 221,500 barrels of oil and 331,712 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2000; by the end of that year 5,821,773 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1944.
The changes in the county's economic base were reflected in other areas. The proportion of urban residents in the county continued to increase through the census of 1980, when 64 percent of the county's residents lived in urban areas as defined by the United States Census Office. Texarkana, situated on Interstate Highway 30 and U.S. Highway 82, remained a major market center and the county's largest city. The changing nature of employment opportunities had led to an emphasis on the importance of formal education. In 1950 only 26 percent of all residents of the county over twenty-five had completed high school. By 1980 that figure had risen to almost 60 percent; by 2000 more than 77 percent had completed high school, and more than 16 percent had college degrees.
Bowie County is home to various types of recreation and entertainment. The Bowie County Courthouse and Jail in Boston is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, along with seven sites in and around Texarkana, including the Draughn-Moore House, the Offenhauser Building, the Saenger Theater, the Hotel McCartney, the Rialto Building, the Whitaker House, and the Roseburough Lake Site. There are seven major lakes in the county, the largest being the 20,300-acre Wright Patman Lake. Game and fur animals include deer, squirrel, quail, muskrat, beaver, otter, opossum, mink, ring-tailed cat, badger, fox, raccoon, skunk, and civet cat (see FURBEARING MAMMALS). Texarkana supports a museum and a zoo as well as various cultural events sponsored by Texarkana College. Finally, the county serves as a major point of entry into the state of Texas because of its location on Interstate 30.
In 2014 the census counted 93,275 people living in Bowie County. In the early twenty-first century agribusiness, lumbering, government services, and some manufacturing were key elements of the area's economy. In 2002 the county had 1,337 farms and ranches covering 307,531 acres, 41 percent of which were devoted to crops, 28 percent to woodlands, and 27 percent to pasture. In that year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $37,342,000; livestock sales accounted for $30,444,000 of the total. Beef cattle, hay, dairy, corn, soybeans, wheat, poultry, pecans, milo, rice, nursery plants, truck crops, horses, and goats were the chief agricultural products. Over 8,706,000 cubic feet of pinewood and over 6,167,000 cubic feet of hardwood were harvested in the county in 2003. Texarkana (population, 38,073 in Texas, 30,049 in Arkansas) is the county's only sizeable city. Other communities include New Boston (4,523), where the county courthouse is located; Wake Village (5,555); Hooks (2,817); De Kalb (1,694); Maud (1,071); Red Lick (1,021); Redwater (1,047); and Simms (300). Texarkana holds the Quadrangle Festival in September and New Boston hosts Pioneer Days in August.