Brazoria County, on the prairie of the Gulf Coast at the mouth of the Brazos River in Southeast Texas, is bordered by Matagorda, Fort Bend, Harris, and Galveston counties. It covers an area of 1,407 square miles. Its highest altitude, Damon Mound, is 146 feet above sea level. The center of the county lies at approximately 29°10' north latitude and 95°26' west longitude, near the county seat, Angleton. Other principal towns include Alvin, Amsterdam, Brazoria, Damon, Pearland, Rosharon, West Columbia, Holiday Lake, Old Ocean, Bailey's Prairie, Iowa Colony, Bonney, Hillcrest Village, Brookside Village, Danbury, Liverpool, Manvel, and Sweeny; the towns that constitute Brazosport include Clute, Freeport, Quintana, Oyster Creek, Jones Creek, Lake Jackson, Richwood, and Surfside Beach. Key county roads include State highways 6, 35, 36, and 288, and railroad service is provided by the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroads. The annual rainfall is fifty-two inches, and the mean annual temperature is 69° F. Hurricanes and floods are common in the region, among the most notable being the hurricanes of 1854, 1900, 1909, 1915, 1932, 1941, Hurricane Carla in 1961, and the floods of 1899, 1913, 1915, 1929, and 1940. Soils in the county are chiefly alluvial loams and clays, and are highly productive when well drained. The growing season averages 309 days a year. In 1982, between 61 and 70 percent of the land was considered prime farmland. The principal streams flowing through Brazoria County into the Gulf of Mexico include the Brazos and San Bernard rivers, Oyster Creek, Bastrop Bayou, and Chocolate Bayou. The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway crosses Brazoria County near the coast. The Brazos River divides the county into two sections; the western one-third is covered by hardwoods, and the rest is generally prairieland. Abundant groves of pin oak, cedar, live oak, mulberry, hackberry, ash, elm, cottonwood, and pecan trees grow in the river and creek bottoms, while cordgrasses, bunchgrasses, and sedges predominate in the coastal marshes. When settlers first arrived, wildlife was abundant, including deer, bear, turkey, and fish. Two major national wildlife refuges, the Brazoria and San Bernard, are close to the Gulf Coast in Brazoria County. In 1947 the county ranked fourth in state timber production. More recently, the petrochemical industry and mineral resources including oil, gas, sulfur, salt, lime, sand, and gravel, concentrated in the Damon Mound-West Columbia-Freeport area, have dominated the county economy. Magnesium is also extracted locally from seawater.
Before Anglo-American colonization, the region was occupied by Karankawa Indians. Archeological excavations have revealed some of the shell middens and campsite refuse of this nomadic people, who exploited maritime and mainland resources on a seasonal basis as early as a.d. 450. Skirmishes with colonists, including the battle of Jones Creek in 1824, resulted in expulsion of most of the Indian population to the area south of the Rio Grande by 1850.
In 1528 Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca landed on the Isle of Mal Hado (Island of Evil Destiny), possibly San Luis Island. Scholars agree that his party probably crossed Oyster Creek, Old Caney Creek, and the Brazos and San Bernard rivers, roaming the area that became Brazoria County looking for provisions. Spanish soldiers under Alonso De León, governor of Coahuila, passed through the region in search of the La Salle expedition in 1689, and Joaquín de Orobio y Basterra came in 1727 searching for possible French intruders in the Trinity River area. In an effort to forestall French or English incursions, the Spanish began to occupy Texas in the eighteenth century, but entered the future Brazoria County chiefly to trade with Indians or search for stolen horses. Though expeditions on the Trinity probably traveled through for missionary purposes in the 1750s, the area was not settled by the Spanish. Similarly, early American military expeditions did not reach the future county, though a popular tradition suggests that pirate Jean Laffite used the mouth of the Brazos as a rendezvous and buried treasure along its banks.
Though the alluvial bottomlands of the county's rivers attracted settlement by Americans as early as 1820, the passengers of the schooner Lively who landed at the mouth of the Brazos in December 1821 passed on to Richmond. The area was first populated when Stephen F. Austin selected it for his proposed settlement, and eighty-nine of Austin's Old Three Hundred had grants in what is now Brazoria County by 1824. The earliest communities were Velasco (at the site of present Surfside), East Columbia (originally known as Bell's Landing or Marion), Columbia (later West Columbia), and Brazoria. Quintana and Liverpool were also settled before 1832. In 1835 Mary Austin Holley observed, "The rage is now for making towns," but many new towns, including George L. Hammeken's thriving community on San Luis Island, failed to survive.
Brazoria County became part of the Victoria district when Austin's original San Felipe district was divided in two in 1826. In 1832 the legislature of Coahuila separated Brazoria Municipality from San Felipe and made Brazoria its capital. Brazoria Municipality was the scene of the battle of Velasco on June 26, 1832, and witnessed other agitation against Mexican rule. In 1833 county residents suffered both flood and cholera, but in 1834 population in the municipality reached 2,100, and prosperity returned. A decision was made to change the name of the municipality from Brazoria to Columbia, to make Columbia the seat of government, and transfer some territory to Matagorda Municipality. At the time, the largest settlements in the future county were Brazoria, with 500 residents, Velasco with 100, and Bolivar with fifty. As early as the mid-1830s, cotton farms produced more than 5,000 bales annually, and plantation owners in the area became some of the wealthiest in Texas. On March 1, 1835, a meeting near Brazoria led to the establishment of the first Masonic lodge in Texas, Holland Lodge No. 36 (see FREEMASONRY).
When Stephen F. Austin declared against Santa Anna at another meeting in Brazoria on September 8, 1835, Texans began to prepare for a revolution. Agitation for independence led to the formation of committees of public safety and public meetings to discuss the impending break. After the convention at San Felipe and engagements at Gonzales, Goliad, and Bexar, volunteer companies were organized and a provisional government approved on November 13, 1835. Henry Smith of Brazoria County served as the first provisional governor. Formation of a permanent council soon thereafter brought the inauguration of mail routes throughout the area. Rebellion grew in 1835 and 1836, culminating in the Texas Declaration of Independence.
Citizens of the county contributed men and means to the Texas Revolution and participated in the Runaway Scrape. After his capture at the battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, Santa Anna and members of his army were taken to Velasco, then the location of the provisional government. Here Santa Anna signed the Treaties of Velasco with the Republic of Texas on May 14, 1836. Columbia, the seat of the ad interim government, served as the capital of the republic when sessions of the first Texas Congress met in October 1836. During the first session Stephen F. Austin died and was buried at Peach Point. Houston became the capital.
Under the provisional government, Texas accepted the constitution that made its first counties from former municipalities. Brazoria County, among the first, took its name from the Brazos River when the Congress of the republic established it on March 24, 1836. Brazoria, which became county seat when the county was organized on December 20, 1836, served until 1896, when Angleton replaced it. The establishment of Fort Bend County in 1837 and of Galveston County in 1838 drew the present county boundaries, and the towns of Columbia, Velasco, and Brazoria were incorporated by the Congress of the republic in 1837.
According to some sources, the last shipment of African Americans brought as slaves into North America arrived at the mouth of the San Bernard River in 1840. At the time, the community of Brazoria had an estimated population of 800 and Columbia of 300; 80 slaveholders in the county owned a total of 1,316 slaves. Yellow fever and flooding in 1843 and 1844 slowed growth, but the annexation of Texas to the United States in 1845 and the Mexican War had little effect on residents of Brazoria County, mostly farmers. By 1847 Brazoria County had 1,623 White inhabitants and 3,013 slaves. In 1852 the county produced 7,329 hogsheads of sugar, the most of all Texas counties.
During pioneer days, the Brazos River was the chief artery by which immigration, communication, and commerce penetrated Texas from the Gulf. Small boats regularly navigated as far as East Columbia, and customhouses were located at Brazoria and Velasco. By 1840, Buffalo Bayou and the growing town of Houston had begun to draw commerce away from the Brazos, but freight and passenger service between Brazoria, other Brazos River ports, and Galveston was established by 1842, and a canal from the Brazos mouth to West Galveston Bay was completed by 1857 (see GALVESTON AND BRAZOS NAVIGATION COMPANY).
Between 1849 and 1859 plantation life in Brazoria County flourished, and the county became the wealthiest in Texas, with a typically Southern society based on slavery. Agriculture was the foundation of the county's early economy, and some of the state's largest and most prosperous sugar and cotton plantations grew up along the rivers and deeper creeks on which crops could be shipped by barges. Plantations in the county between 1850 and 1860 numbered forty-six, including nineteen sugar, sixteen cotton, and three that produced both sugar and cotton. Before the war, these plantations produced an average of 7,000 to 8,000 hogsheads of sugar annually, and up to three-fourths of the state's output in 1857. Many planters raised cattle, and some cultivated oranges, lemons, and other fruits. Each of twenty-six county residents owned more than $100,000 in property by the year 1860; the foremost planter was John H. Herndon, whose real property was valued at more than $1.6 million and personal property at more than $106,000. In that year Brazoria County had 2,027 White, 5,110 Black enslaved people, and six free Black residents; by 1864, when slaves numbered 5,125, their value was only slightly less than the county's 283,151 acres of land. Town life was subordinated to plantation life, and Old Velasco and Quintana served as Gulf seaports and resort centers for antebellum plantation society. Later, the two towns declined in importance as plans for an intracoastal canal to divert trade developed, and in 1875 and 1900 both were almost destroyed by hurricanes. Other transportation in the period was provided by the Houston Tap and Brazoria Railroad, chartered in 1856 and built by planters to connect East Columbia with Houston markets and with the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railroad at Pierce Junction. After the Civil War, this railroad became the property of the International-Great Northern.
Residents of Brazoria County cast more than 99 percent of their votes for secession, 527 for and two against. During the Civil War, the Dance Brothers gun works manufactured weapons, companies were organized for the Confederate Army, and women were left to run the plantations. Fortifications built at Velasco and Quintana weathered Union attacks in 1862. Confederate blockade runners operated along the coast, and some cotton was shipped overland by mule and wagon to Mexico. Though the county suffered little physical damage in the war, the presence of federal troops and loss of profit from cotton crops in 1864 brought increasing hardship. Some plantations were destroyed, and agricultural production declined sharply with the freeing of the slaves. David G. Mills alone lost 313 slaves as a result of emancipation. County land was valued at more than $3 million in 1860, but its value had declined to less than $2 million by 1866. During the same period, total property value in the county fell from almost $7 million to less than $3 million. Many plantations were divided into smaller farms or turned into pastures; others eventually became part of the Ramsey, Retrieve, Clemens, and Darrington state prison farms (see PRISON SYSTEM). In 1870 only a single Brazoria County resident, farmer William Bryan, had a prewar level of wealth, with real property valued at $100,000 and personal property worth $20,000. As conditions worsened, some Brazoria countians moved to Mexico, where they organized settlements in the Tuxpan River valley in Vera Cruz.
Brazoria County had been primarily Democratic in politics from annexation to the Civil War, but voted Republican throughout Reconstruction because the majority of voters were newly franchised freedmen. The county supported Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, James G. Blaine, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley in the national elections from 1876 to 1900. During Reconstruction, federal troops were stationed at Brazoria and Sandy Point. A Freedmen's Bureau agent arrived in the county in 1865, the Union League organized and registered Black voters by the mid-1870s, and voters elected Black legislator George T. Ruby as early as 1870 and Nathan H. Haller as late as 1894. Such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan, San Bernard Rifles, and Prairie Rangers attempted to maintain the supremacy of Whites in the county in opposition to Reconstruction measures, though some former slaves succeeded in attaining positions of wealth and leadership. The White Man's Union ultimately disfranchised Black voters, however, and removed local politics from the hands of carpetbaggers and freedmen. From 1895 until the 1950s, the Taxpayers Union worked to assure "the fact that this is a White man's country and that White supremacy must obtain," and held primaries in which only Whites could vote (see WHITE PRIMARY). Leaders posted notices that African Americans elected to office could not serve, and in the 1890s placed guards around the courthouse to enforce their edict. In presidential elelctions from 1900 to 1952 the county's voters generally favored Democratic candidates, though they did support Republicans Theodore Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding, and Herbert Hoover. After 1956, when Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, carried the county, the area began to trend more Republican, though Democrats did take the area in 1964 and 1968. After 1972, when Republican Richard M. Nixon won most of the county's votes, the county voted Republican in virtually every presidential election through 2004. The only exception was 1976, when Democrat Jimmy Carter carried the county. Third-party candidates usually received little assistance from Brazoria County, though in 1944, 1948, 1980, and 1992 they won a significant percentage of the vote. In 1990 half the county's residents were registered voters.
Between 1870 and 1880 the population in Brazoria County grew from 7,527 to 9,774, largely due to the arrival of federal soldiers and other Northerners, foreign immigrants, and Confederate soldiers from Texas and the Old South. S. A. Hackworth, a White Republican, bought land in Wharton, Fort Bend, and Brazoria counties and sold it to Blacks in the 1870s and 1880s. By the 1890s Columbia was the largest town in the county, followed by Brazoria, Velasco, Quintana, Sandy Point, and Liverpool, and new towns had been founded—Alvin, Angleton, and Pearland. In 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American War, Adm. George Dewey acquired 65,000 acres of land in Brazoria County.
Economic recovery came slowly in the post-Civil War era. The principal crops were corn, grains, sweet and Irish potatoes, fruits, wild grapes, and cotton and sugar for export. Sugar production, reduced in the early years of Reconstruction, burgeoned with the use of convict labor by 1871, but never again reached earlier levels. By 1867 the value of livestock, chiefly cattle, nearly equalled that of agriculture. When cattlemen found northern markets shut off in the late 1860s, hide and tallow factories were established along the Brazos River; Brazoria County packed $100,000 worth of canned beef in 1870. Figs were introduced in the Alvin area around the turn of the century and became an important crop. Four canneries were later built in the community. Live oak moss was ginned at Angleton.
Though the Galveston and Brazos Navigation Company was chartered as early as 1850, major improvements in transportation began only in the 1870s, starting with a canal across Galveston Bay, completed with the help of the federal government. By 1905 workers completed jetties to deepen the water in the harbors at Velasco and Quintana, and in part of what became the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. The Brazos River Harbor Association was founded in 1925, and by 1929 Brazos River diversion reduced the problem of sanding in the channel and opened the harbor at Freeport. Railroad transportation improved. The Houston and Brazos Valley Railroad reached Velasco by 1907, the Sugar Land Railroad was serving plantations along Oyster Creek by 1916, and the St. Louis, Brownsville, and Mexico Railway established service to Brazoria by 1937. All were later acquired by the Missouri Pacific system, and more recently by the Union Pacific. Major state highway construction in the county was done in the 1920s and 1930s, though State Highway 288 was not completed until later.
The value of Brazoria County agriculture rose steadily after Reconstruction, and the majority of residents earned their livelihood from the soil until the late 1930s. The use of mules declined with widespread use of tractors after 1925, and the number of farms increased steadily to a maximum of 3,065 in 1940. Houston Lighting and Power service reached the county in 1927. But by 1930 the effects of the Great Depression were obvious. Whereas fewer than a third of county farmers were tenants in 1880, by 1930 tenants constituted a majority, a condition that lasted until the 1950s. Between 1900 and 1930 Brazoria County was described as a cattle-raising area, with some oil and sulfur production, dairying, and diverse farming. The dairy industry, centered around Alvin, peaked between 1910 and 1930, and cotton culture in 1920. Corn culture concentrated near Sweeny, Brazoria, Damon, Danbury, and Angleton, stock farming around Alvin, truck farming in the Sweeny area, figs and poultry near Alvin and Angleton, and pecans around Sweeny and East Columbia.
Rice culture enhanced the economy. Farmers near Danbury and elsewhere started planting rice after 1900 and began to dig rice canals in 1935. From a total of 6,000 acres planted in the crop in 1903, planting grew to 16,000 acres by 1940. In 1948 favorable growing conditions made Brazoria County the nation's number-one rice producing area, with a crop valued at more than $10 million. The average yield per acre almost doubled between 1956 and 1970; an average of 53,000 acres was planted during those years. Rice and grain exports comprised 65,000 tons in 1968; American Rice, Incorporated, at Brazosport, shipped 350,000 tons of rice in 1990.
Brazoria County mineral development began at West Columbia oilfield as early as 1901. Oil production started at Brazoria in 1902, reached 12,500,000 barrels in 1921, declined during the depression, and then resumed. Brazoria County ranked fourth among Texas counties in 1946, with 29,308,106 barrels produced. Sulfur deposits at Bryan Mound, Hoskins Mound, and Stratton Ridge Dome were first mined in 1912, and soon made the county first in United States production of sulfur. The Freeport Sulphur Company employed 800 persons at Bryan and Hoskins Mound in 1930 and extracted 2,000 tons of sulfur daily. By 1944 the firm had extracted 552,000 long tons of ore (see SULFUR INDUSTRY). The county's contribution to World War I came from factories at Brazoria, Sweeny, and Hasima that produced live oak nails for shipbuilding.
Brazoria County manufacturing was relatively unimportant as late as 1940, when it employed only 166 persons. During the 1940s, however, the number of manufacturing jobs increased rapidly. As the depletion of Bryan Mound sulfur deposits brought an end to the area's principal industry, Dow Chemical Company, drawn to natural resources at Freeport, came in 1939 and soon gave rise to the Brazosport industrial and port community. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, members of the Texas National Guard manned newly established Dow facilities, while the company constructed 2,300 dwelling units in less than two months for its workers. By 1945 exports from Brazosport amounted to 117,610 tons. Another effect of World War II on the county took the form of camps for prisoners of war, which housed German soldiers and members of Rommel's Afrika Corps for a time. A second phase of industrialization began in the 1950s as "customer companies," including Monsanto and processors of chemical fertilizers, established operations nearby to make use of Dow products. Industrial development attracted more workers, including people from East Texas and some African Americans from nearby communities, while real estate developments produced such new Brazosport communities as Lake Jackson. Transportation, meanwhile, included by 1949 the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway and the Missouri Pacific, which operated the Houston and Brazos Valley, the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico, the International-Great Northern, and the Texas and New Orleans. The county population grew from 27,069 in 1940 to 46,413 in 1950, and continued to expand. By 1982, at which time 17,800 persons were employed in 2,785 business establishments in Brazoria County, three decades of further growth had more than tripled the population to 185,244.
Small farms in Brazoria County increased through the 1930s and 1940s, and farmers increasingly raised crops as tenants rather than landowners. By 1945 agribusiness had appeared; fewer than 7 percent of all farms accounted for almost 70 percent of farm income, and more than 50 percent of farms made less than $1,000 annually. At the same time, the county ranked eighth in Texas cattle production, with 69,437 head, and farmers turned to the Brahman breed. Overall farm production peaked in the 1950s, with 130,000 acres of cropland harvested. County farmers owned almost 82,000 cattle by 1960, and by 1968 cattle outnumbered people. Roughly 60 percent of the county's agricultural income derived from rice in the 1970s, and 40 percent from livestock and poultry; cotton, soybeans, and grain increased in importance by the latter part of the decade. By 1976 the county had forty-eight oil and gas fields, including Old Ocean, Chocolate Bayou, Damon Mound, Hastings, Bryan Mound, Danbury, Manvel, and West Columbia. In the late twentieth century petroleum and mineral production and marketing, together with other extraction and manufacturing and the chemical industry, continued to shape the county's development and the lives of local farmers and ranchers. More than 2,549,000 barrels of oil and 44,831,552 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 1,270,790,962 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1902. Magnesium from sea water, which ranked Brazoria County first in the nation's production, along with oyster shell, sulfur, and salt, was manufactured at Freeport and Velasco. The shrimping industry grew at Freeport after World War II. In 1967, 610 boats harvested 14,000,000 pounds of shrimp; the 1971 catch was 160 times larger than that in 1970, and the harvest doubled again by 1972. Both fishing and the recreation industry, which grew up after 1960, fostered ongoing development on the Gulf Coast.
By the 1980s the county had 186 manufacturing establishments that employed almost 18,000 workers. In the 1990s, when the county had more than 41,000 acres of rice in production, the chief agricultural products were rice, cattle, cotton, corn, small grains, forage, and truck crops, with some sorghum, soybeans, and horses. The Brazoria-Galveston Soil Conservation District promoted adequate drainage to allow cultivation.
The population of Brazoria County became more homogeneous during the twentieth century. After 1900 the White population grew steadily. By 1920, as Blacks began to leave for employment in northern cities, the county had twice as many White as Black residents. A typical county resident at the turn of the century was born either in the lower South or within the state of Texas. Native Whites comprised 62.9 percent of the total population in 1930, and grew to 71.4 percent in 1940. Mexican Americans increased in the 1930s, especially around Alvin, where they were employed as farm laborers. The county population, 23,114 in 1930, increased steadily but predominantly in urban areas after 1940, and rose almost 57 percent between 1970 and 1980. Of a total population of 182,244 in 1982, almost 68 percent were native Texans, 13,152 were African American, and 22,679 Hispanic.
Brazoria County's first school was established in 1827, Brazoria Academy in 1839, Alvin Normal School in 1890, and the University of South Texas in 1897. By 1900 eight independent school districts with 200 teachers and forty school buildings served the county's 6,000 pupils. Alvin Community College, founded in the late 1940s, enrolled 3,900 students in 1990. Brazosport College began in 1968. Common-school districts expanded significantly around 1920, suffered declining enrollments during the Great Depression, but grew again by 1940 as the northern county population increased with the rapid growth of Houston, and the southern and central parts of the county grew through the influence of increasing industrialization. New independent school districts became necessary. In 1935 the county had twenty-seven schools for Whites and twenty-eight for Blacks, and in 1940 Pearland had the only first-class high school among the common-school districts. In 1950 only 23 percent of the county population had completed high school, but by 1982 more than 65 percent had done so. College graduates numbered almost 14 percent that year.
In 2014 the census counted 338,124 people living in Brazoria County. About 50.7 percent were Anglo, 28.9 percent were Hispanic, and 13.3 percent were African American. Almost 80 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and more than 19 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century petroleum and chemical production, tourism, and agribusiness were the key elements of the area's economy. In 2002 the county had 2,455 farms and ranches covering 613,891 acres, 55 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 37 percent to crops, and 7 percent to woodlands. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $47,422,000, with crop sales accounting for $24,824,000 of that total. Cattle, hay, rice, beans, sorghum, nursery plants, corn, and cotton were the chief agricultural products. Over 19,271,000 cubic feet of pinewood and over 3,680,000 cubic feet of hardwood were harvested in the county in 2003.
Angleton (population, 19,926) is the county's seat of government and Pearland (103,841) its largest city. Brazosport (58,597) is a community of nine cities, including Brazoria, Clute, Freeport, Jones Creek, Lake Jackson, Oyster Creek, Quintana, Richwood, and Surfside Beach. Other towns include West Columbia (3,969), Sweeny (3,725), Manvel (6,530), Brookside Village (1,570), Danbury (1,755), Holiday Lakes (1,183), Bailey's Prairie (733), Damon (579), Danciger (90), and Bonney (328). Brazoria County offers water sports, fishing, hunting, and other recreation, along with historic sites including Varner-Hogg Plantation State Historical Park. The county celebrates a San Jacinto Festival at West Columbia and the Spring Fling at Clute in April; a Mexican Fiesta at Pearland and Youth Rodeo and Frontier Days at Alvin in May; a Fishing Fiesta at Freeport, a Fireworks Display at Alvin, and the Great Texas Mosquito Festival and Parade at Clute in July; a Founders Day Celebration at Pearland in September; and a County Fair and Rodeo at Angleton and the Bluegrass and Gospel Fall Festival at Brazoria in October.