Brazos County, between the Navasota and Brazos rivers in southeast central Texas, is bounded on the northwest by Robertson County, on the east by Madison and Grimes counties, on the south by Washington County, and on the southwest by Burleson County. The center point of the county is at 30°40' north latitude and 96°18' west longitude. The county was named for the nearby Brazos River. Bryan is the county seat, and College Station is the other major community in the county. Brazos County is crossed by U.S. Highway 190 and State highways 6, 21, and 30, as well as the Union Pacific railroad. It comprises 588 square miles of rolling prairie and woodland with elevations that range from 200 to 350 feet above sea level. The average annual rainfall is thirty-nine inches. The average minimum temperature in January is 39° F; the average maximum in July, the hottest month, is 95°. The county has a growing season of 268 days, its soils are alluvial to sandy, and between 11 and 20 percent of the land is considered prime farmland. The northern third of the county is in the Blackland Prairie area and is vegetated by elm, oak, pecan, and mesquite trees along streams. The remainder of the county is in the Post Oak Savannah vegetation area, which features post oak, walnut, and pecan trees.
Brazos County has been the site of human habitation for more than 12,000 years. Evidence of Paleo-Indian inhabitants in the area has turned up in the form of spearpoints, and the remains of a butchered mammoth have been found at the Duewall-Newberry Site on the Brazos River. Archaic hunters and gatherers in the future county lived on deer, bison, roots, and nuts. Within the historic period, Spanish explorers reported Bidai and Tonkawa Indians in the area, and there is evidence that groups related to the Apaches and Comanches occasionally hunted buffalo as far east as Brazos County. Spanish travelers on the Old San Antonio Road passed along the northwest boundary of the future county, but there was no Spanish settlement in the area.
The territory that is now Brazos County was included in Stephen F. Austin's second colony and became part of Washington Municipality under the Mexican government. Colonists who sought plantation sites on the Brazos between 1821 and 1831 included Elliot McNeil Millican, Richard Carter, James H. Evetts, Melvan Lanham, Lee C. Smith, and Mordecai Boon. In 1837 most of the area of present-day Brazos County was included in Washington County. The Brazos River, which bisected the latter, proved a serious obstacle to county government, and a new county, Navasota, was formed in January 1841. The first court, with Judge R. E. B. Baylor presiding, was held later that year in the home of Joseph Ferguson, fourteen miles west of the site of present Bryan. The county seat, named Boonville for Mordecai Boon, was located on John Austin's league and was surveyed by Hiram Hanover in 1841. In January of the following year Navasota County was renamed Brazos County. The 1850 census showed 466 Whites and 148 Black enslaved people in the county. Of the approximately 176,000 acres in farms at that time, less than 2,000 acres was cleared for crops. Farmers concentrated on growing corn and a bit of cotton. The county remained overwhelmingly rural in the 1850s; only two families lived in the county seat in 1852, and only two post offices, Boonville and Millican, operated in the county in 1856.
In 1860 growth in the county was speeded by the arrival of the Houston and Texas Central Railroad, with Millican as its terminus. By that year the county had some 14,509 acres under cultivation, and cotton production had increased from 142 bales in 1850 to 2,269 bales. On the eve of the Civil War, Brazos County had a mixed economy of small farms and a few larger plantations, with a population of 1,713 Whites and 1,063 slaves. Of the 118 slaveholders in the county, seventy-seven owned fewer than five slaves, and only four owned more than fifty. The county voted 215 to 44 for secession in 1861 and mobilized its inhabitants for the war. The railhead at Millican became an important transportation center for the Confederate war effort, and a training camp was established nearby in 1861. Local men formed companies or parts of companies in the Twenty-first and Twenty-fifth Texas Cavalry regiments, the Tenth Texas Infantry regiment, and other army units, and participated in various home and state guard units. During the war the Brazos County Commissioners Court acted to gather supplies for the Confederacy and assist the indigent families of men serving in the armed forces.
Federal troops arrived in Millican in June 1865, when Brazos County began almost eight years of Reconstruction turmoil. County Blacks and White landowners struggled to work out their new economic and social relations, and a series of Freedmen's Bureau agents, occasionally backed by small numbers of federal soldiers, attempted to mediate between the groups. While Black children attended school for the first time at Millican and at Wilson's Plantation, Whites and Blacks quarreled constantly over labor contracts, and interracial violence became increasingly common. This strife reached its peak in the Millican race riot of 1868. The Ku Klux Klan made its first appearance in the county in June of that year, when a group of masked men paraded through the Black neighborhood in Millican. Armed Blacks fired at the Klan members, drove them off, and organized a militia company under the leadership of George Brooks, a Black clergyman who had also been active in registering Black voters and was much hated by some White county residents. In July false rumors spread among the Black community of Millican that a local Black leader, Miles Brown, had been lynched by Whites. Escalating tensions on both sides eventually led to several armed confrontations between groups of Whites and Blacks that left at least six Blacks dead, including Brooks.
Brazos County politics was also tumultuous in the postwar period. Immediately after the war, during the presidential phase of Reconstruction, former Confederates were allowed to hold local office and the prewar political structure of the county remained unchanged. At the end of 1867 many officeholders were removed from office by federal authorities as part of the new policies of congressional Reconstruction, and by the following year the county was dominated by the Republican party. Powerful local families like the Millicans, who were leaders in the Democratic party, and the Myerses, who were prominent Republicans, engaged in questionable voting practices and occasional violence in the struggle to control county politics. By the time of the gubernatorial election of 1873, Brazos County was once again Democratic by a slim majority. Blacks continued to hold office on the county commissioners' court through the 1880s, and one county Black, Elias Mayes, served in the Texas House of Representatives in 1879 and 1889. In 1890 local White Democrats instituted a "White Man's Campaign" similar to the white primary movement in other counties, which acted to disfranchise Black voters. The Republican party remained a force in county elections for a time, and Brazos County voted for Republican presidential candidates in 1888 and 1896. From the election of 1900 until the 1950s, however, the county remained solidly Democratic. Subsequently, county voters supported Republican presidential candidates in 1952 and 1956, and from 1968 through 2004.
While county residents worked out the social and political problems left by the Civil War, the county prospered and grew. In 1866 the Houston and Texas Central Railroad resumed construction past Millican, and county citizens voted to make a site on the railroad line, the new community of Bryan, their county seat. Both Millican and the former county seat, Boonville, declined rapidly as their inhabitants moved themselves, their goods, and in some cases, the lumber from their homes and stores to Bryan. By 1870 Brazos County had 9,205 inhabitants, more than a three-fold increase since 1860. Cotton production had also tripled since 1860, and for the first time county ranchers raised cattle and hogs in substantial numbers. Sheep ranching reached an all-time county record in 1870, when 8,565 sheep were counted, in contrast to only 219 in 1860.
Population growth continued at a more modest rate in the next few decades, reaching 13,576 in 1880 and 16,650 in 1890. The Black population of the county increased more rapidly than the White, growing from 3,759 in 1870 to 6,250 in 1880. In 1890 the number of African Americans reached 8,845, and for the only time in its history the county had a Black majority. Beginning in the 1870s substantial numbers of Germans, Austrians, and Czechs (Bohemians) migrated to the county, and Italians began arriving in the 1880s. In 1900 the county population reached 18,859. Of the 10,005 White residents that year, 1,403, or 14 percent, were foreign born, including 553 from Italy, 239 from Germany, and 223 from Bohemia. Settlement and economic growth were hastened in the county by transportation developments in the last decades of the nineteenth century. In the 1880s the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway built through the southern part of the county and the Hearne and Brazos Valley Railway built through the northwest. In 1900 the International-Great Northern built through to Bryan, and in 1910 the Bryan and College Station Interurban Railway was started between Bryan and Texas A&M College.
In the last decades of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century cotton increasingly dominated county agriculture. Acres planted with cotton grew from 28,044 in 1880 to almost 44,000 in 1890 and to an all-time high of 72,275, about a third of all improved acres in the county, in 1910. About half the cotton acreage was usually allotted to corn, the second major crop in the county. The county also followed the general Southern pattern of large numbers of small farms, many of them worked by tenants and sharecroppers. The number of farms increased from 666 in 1870 to 1,630 in 1880 and 2,088 in 1890. In 1900, of the 2,613 farms in the county, 1,576, or 60 percent, were worked by tenants and sharecroppers. Black farmers were much less likely to own land than their White counterparts. In 1900 more than half of the White farmers owned their own farms, while only 20 percent of Black farmers were owners. In 1920 the number of farms reached a peak of 3,023, and the number of tenant farmers reached its zenith at 1,939, or 64 percent. As a percentage of the total cropland harvested, cotton land probably reached its peak in 1930, when more than 64,000 of the 88,224 acres harvested was used to grow cotton. Thereafter, county farming began to change in response to changing technologies and opportunities. During the Great Depression much of the rural workforce left the county to seek work in the cities of Texas or left the state entirely. By 1940 the number of farms had fallen to 1,773, comparable to the number of farms back in 1880. Mechanized farming began in the bottomlands of the county along the rivers in the late 1920s and slowly spread to other parts of the county. With the loss of even more of the rural labor supply after World War II, farmers consolidated their holdings and turned to tractors, mechanical cotton harvesters, and other machines to work their fields.
During the twentieth century, Bryan and College Station played an increasingly important role in the life of the county. After its founding as a railroad town in 1866, Bryan slowly grew to a community of 3,589 in 1900, when approximately one-fifth of county residents lived there. The nearby community of College Station, which grew around Texas A&M after its founding in the 1870s, numbered only 391 inhabitants in 1900. Both communities grew steadily, and by 1940 they had a combined population of 14,026; at that time more than half of the county population lived in the two communities. As the county population continued to grow—to 38,390 in 1950, 57,978 in 1970 and 93,588 in 1980—the urban population continued to grow both absolutely and with relation to the rural population. In 1980 the 81,506 inhabitants of Bryan-College Station were 87 percent of the residents of Brazos County. Significant industries that developed in the two-city area in the later twentieth century included defense electronics and varied manufacturing.
At the same time that the county was becoming more urban, the building of a network of rural roads in the 1930s and 1940s transformed the Brazos County countryside. As late as 1930 the great majority of the county's farms, 2,100 of 2,439, were located on dirt roads. Twenty years later only 538 were still on dirt roads. Similarly, though only forty-eight farms had electricity in 1930, rural electrification brought power to most of the county's farms by the early 1960s. Starting in the 1960s, as Texas A&M University embarked on a major expansion program, much of the rural land in the vicinity of Bryan-College Station was brought into the suburban orbit of the two cities. By the mid-twentieth century, county farmers had increasingly turned away from the old agricultural staples of corn and cotton and had moved on to cattle ranching. In the 1980s cotton was generally grown on approximately 12,000 acres, only 15 percent of the acreage used for cotton in 1925. The number of cattle in the county increased from 25,354 in 1940 to 42,545 in 1950 and fluctuated between 45,000 and 57,000 through the 1980s. As part of the shift to cattle, feed crops of hay, oats, and wheat became more important in the county in the decades following 1950. Oil, first discovered in the county in 1942, became an important part of the county economy in the 1970s, and by 1990 a total of 73,427,789 barrels had been produced. Almost 2,215,000 barrels of oil and 6,807,187 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 137,027,692 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1942.
In 1982, 67 percent of the land was in farms and ranches, with 18 percent of the farmland under cultivation and 20 percent irrigated. Primary crops were hay, cotton, sorghum, oats, and wheat, and primary livestock and products were cattle, hogs, and milk. The industries with the most employment were agribusiness, oil and gas extraction, and construction. In 1980 Brazos County was one of the most densely populated counties in the state. Of its 94,492 inhabitants, the largest ancestry groups were English and German. The Black population of the county, which had remained relatively static at about 9,000 for most of the century, began to increase in the 1970s and was 10,350 in 1980. Significant Hispanic migration to the county began in the second half of the twentieth century; by 1980 Hispanic residents numbered 9,455. In 1990 the county had 121,862 residents.
In 2014 the census counted 209,152 people living in Brazos County. About 57.7 percent were Anglo, 24.5 percent were Hispanic, and 11.3 percent were African American. More than 81 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and 37 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century Texas A&M University played a key role in the area's economy, and other local companies produced high-tech equipment and services, wine, and other goods; agribusiness was also important. In 2002 the county had 1,350 farms and ranches covering 308,814 acres, 51 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 38 percent to crops, and 9 percent to woodlands. In that year Brazos County farmers and ranchers earned $47,060,000, with livestock sales accounting for $38,215,000 of that total. Cattle, eggs, cotton, hay, sorghum, and horses were the chief agricultural products. The incorporated towns were Bryan (population, 79,417), College Station (100,091), Wixon Valley (252), Millican (239), and Wellborn (400). Brazos County hosts a number of fall, spring, and summer festivals. The Texas Brazos Trail, which offers tourists scenic views of wildflowers and forests, passes through the county, and there are recreational parks for boating and fishing on several of the county's lakes and reservoirs. The Texas World Speedway, which opened in 1969, is a local venue for auto racing.