Brenham, the county seat of Washington County, is on U.S. Highway 290 seventy-two miles northwest of Houston. The Hickory Grove community changed its name in 1843 to Brenham in honor of Republic of Texas hero Dr. Richard Fox Brenham, who had practiced medicine in the vicinity. In February 1844 Brenham became the county seat through the electoral efforts of Jabez D. Giddings and Jesse Farral's and James Hurt's offer of 100 acres as a townsite. A post office was established in 1846. In 1858 the new county seat, a rapidly growing supply center for a prosperous agricultural area, was incorporated. With the construction of the Washington County Railroad in 1860, Brenham, the rail terminus, served as a distribution point for the state's interior until 1871, when the Houston and Texas Central was extended to Austin.
Despite the 1867 yellow fever epidemic, the burning of commercial buildings by federal occupation troops during Reconstruction, and destructive fires in 1873 and 1877, Brenham's economy expanded to include banking (1866), silk and cigar manufacturing (1880s), and other light industry. Jewish merchants helped stimulate the town's extensive retail and wholesale trade. Arrival of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway in 1880 augmented Brenham's significance as a regional marketing center. Immigration, primarily of Germans, peaked in the early 1880s.
By the 1890s cottonseed oil, mattress manufacturing, food and fiber processing, and metal fabricating were significant economic activities. In 1905 the Washington County State Bank, in 1988 the oldest surviving state bank in Texas, was organized. Black professionals and Black-owned stores served their own community during the first half of the twentieth century. Brenham's population doubled every decade between 1860 and 1900. Despite a brief reign of terror by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, merchandising, marketing, and processing industries enabled the town to preserve its position as a regional economic center between 1910 and the 1950s. Brenham's population briefly declined around 1910 and then increased slowly through the 1950s.
The annual Maifest in Brenham, begun in 1881, originated from German immigrants' Volksfests (1874–79). The annual Juneteenth celebration, initiated in the late 1870s and revived in 1983, attracted Blacks from Texas cities in the 1920s and 1930s. A Black church was organized in Camptown, Brenham's first Black neighborhood, by 1872. Jewish residents founded an Orthodox congregation in 1885. St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church (1890), St. Mary's Catholic Church (1870), the German Methodist Church (1873), and the Presbyterian church (1877) were formed as a result of European immigration. Brenham's Fortnightly Club, still in existence, established Brenham Public Library in 1899. the Southern Enquirer (1866) became the Brenham Banner-Press in 1913 and is still being published. From 1873 to 1919 the German-language Texas Volksbote was published in Brenham.
Brenham has served as a regional educational center since Reconstruction, when a large freedmen's school was established there. In 1875 the town began operating the first tax-supported school system in Texas, including a school for Blacks. One of six Texas school systems to receive Peabody Funds, Brenham schools achieved a reputation as one of the state's best educational organizations. German Methodists of Brenham founded Mission Institute (1883), later renamed Blinn Memorial College (now Blinn College) in appreciation of financial support from Rev. Christian Blinn (1889). The Lutheran College (1891) and a Black female college also provided higher education in later nineteenth-century Brenham.
The population rose rapidly, from 7,740 in 1960 to 12,796 in 1988. The population increase was triggered by the influx of Houston-area and rural Washington County residents, expansion of processing and light industry, and the advent of new manufacturers, encouraged by the Brenham Industrial Foundation, established in 1953. Brenham State School, established in 1974, is a leader in the field of managing intellectual disabilities. Blue Bell Creameries, which began as Brenham Creamery Company in 1907, became the biggest ice cream producer in Texas in 1970 and by 1987 had annual sales of over $100 million. Firemen's Park, established in 1884, and Henderson Park, established in the 1920s to serve the Black community, are Brenham's oldest parks. Several Victorian residences in town have been restored, and the Main Street Program has renovated downtown Brenham to encourage tourism. This effort has been supported by the Washington County Heritage Society. In 1990 the population was 11,952. The population grew to 13,507 in 2000.