Burleson County, in east central Texas, lies approximately forty-five miles east of the state capital at Austin and is bordered by Milam County on the north, on the east by Robertson and Brazos counties, on the south by Washington County, and on the west by Lee County. Caldwell, the largest town and the county seat, is sixty miles east of Austin. The county's geographical center lies at approximately 30°30' north latitude and 96°36' west longitude. State Highway 36 is the major north-south thoroughfare, and State Highway 21 spans the county east to west. The county is also served by two major railways, the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
Burleson County covers 668 square miles in the Post Oak Belt region of Texas. Most of its area features undulating to hilly terrain except for the broad alluvial valley along its eastern border, covering nearly one-fourth of the county's surface, which is nearly level. Its elevation ranges from 225 feet above sea level in the southeast to 475 feet in the northwest. The entire county lies within the drainage basin of the Brazos River, which marks its eastern border. The western and southern reaches of the county are drained by Yegua Creek and its principal tributary, East Yegua Creek, which form the county's southern and western borders, respectively, and empty into the Brazos at the southeastern corner of the county. Since 1967 Somerville Lake, an 11,160-acre reservoir on Yegua Creek near the town of Somerville, has provided recreation, tourism revenue, and much-needed flood protection for the residents of Burleson County.
Almost half the county is surfaced by upland soils of a grayish-brown sandy loam and clayey subsoils, while the Brazos bottoms, running the length of the county's eastern border along the Brazos, are surfaced by reddish, loamy to clayey, alluvial soils. The San Antonio Prairie, a strip of open grassland one to four miles in width stretching through the middle of the county from southwest to northeast, features dark, loamy to clayey, blackland soils with stiff clayey subsoils. With the exception of this band of almost treeless Blackland Prairie, most of the county lies within the Post Oak Savannah vegetation zone, characterized by a combination of post oak forest and "mosaic" areas of interspersed grassland, parkland, and woods. In addition to the predominant post oaks, the hardwood forests that mantle three sevenths of the county's area include such species as blackjack oak, hickory, elm, and hackberry. Many streams are fringed by thick stands of water oak, pecan, and walnut. Peat bogs and marshes abound in the bottomlands. The most abundant types of prairie grass include bluestem, Indian grass, tall bunchgrass, and buffalo grass. Between 21 and 30 percent of the land in the county is classified as prime farmland. Burleson County is also situated along the Luling Fault Zone, recently a focus of intensive oil exploration. Large, newly tapped reserves of petroleum and natural gas and considerable deposits of lignite coal—yet to be exploited commercially—are the most significant of the county's limited mineral resources. Although the bear, alligator, and buffalo that once roamed the area disappeared in the nineteenth century, the county is still inhabited by many wild animal species, including white-tailed deer, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, and opossums, and such wild birds as the mourning dove and bobwhite quail; all find haven in the Somerville State Wildlife Management Area. Temperatures in Burleson County range from an average high of 95° in July to an average low of 39° in January. Rainfall averages thirty-seven inches annually, and the average relative humidity is 84 percent at 6 a.m. and 54 percent at 6 p.m. The growing season averages 268 days a year.
The scanty archeological evidence recovered so far suggests that human habitation in the territory composing modern Burleson County began during the middle phases of the Archaic Period (ca. 7000 b.c.-500 a.d.). The earliest historical inhabitants of future Burleson County, the Tonkawa Indians, were probably descended from the Archaic and Neo-American peoples whose stone artifacts and ceramics were unearthed in the county in the mid-1960s. The Tonkawas were a nomadic hunting and gathering people who lived in widely scattered bands, practiced no agriculture, and sometimes traveled hundreds of miles to follow the buffalo. They camped along the rivers and streams of much of Central Texas, including the future Burleson County. Their numbers were greatly reduced by European diseases over the course of the eighteenth century. Though the Tonkawas were regarded as friendly by the Anglo-Americans who began to settle among them during the early nineteenth century, their petty thievery was a continual source of annoyance to the newcomers.
Hunting parties of Caddo Indians from East Texas, also considered peaceful by the settlers, roved westward through the area as far as the Colorado River in pursuit of buffalo. The territory of the future county also lay within the range of more hostile southern Wichita peoples, such as the Tawakonis and Wacos, and fatal confrontations between members of these groups and White settlers were not uncommon. Raids on the settlements by small parties, typically seeking horses, seemed to become more frequent during the middle and late 1830s, but in the 1840s the Indians were expelled from the Burleson County vicinity. The federal census of 1850 found no Indians in the county.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the area of the future county was part of a vast arena of imperial competition between the Spanish and French. The first European to set foot within the bounds of future Burleson County was probably the French explorer and trader Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, who traveled through the area in 1713 en route from Natchitoches, Louisiana, to the Rio Grande. The trail that he blazed between the Trinity River and San Antonio soon became known as the Upper Road of one of the caminos reales, or the Old San Antonio Road, the most important route from San Antonio to the eastern border of Spanish Texas. In 1718, shortly after founding the Villa de Béxar at the site of present San Antonio, Martín de Alarcón, governor of Texas, traveled the Upper Road through what is now Burleson County to the Spanish missions among the Texas Indians in East Texas. The first American to visit the area of the future Burleson County may have been the explorer Zebulon M. Pike, who traversed the Old San Antonio Road to Natchitoches upon his release from imprisonment in Chihuahua in 1807. It is likely that Moses Austin journeyed through the territory of present Burleson County as he traveled the Upper Road from Arkansas to San Antonio de Béxar seeking an empresario contract in the fall of 1820.
Anglo-American settlement within the bounds of the future Burleson County began some time after the founding of Stephen F. Austin's first colony in the early 1820s and proceeded very slowly. The Old San Antonio Road was specified as the northern boundary of the colony, yet before the mid-1830s only a handful of settlers had actually taken up residence in the territory south of the road and north of Yegua Creek. Soon after the Mexican government adopted its Law of April 6, 1830, which prohibited further Anglo-American settlement in Texas, preparations were made for the construction of a fort on the Brazos to help implement the new policy. In October 1830 Fort Tenoxtitlán was established by Lt. Col. José Francisco Ruiz on a high bluff on the west bank of the Brazos, about twelve miles above the crossing of the Old San Antonio Road in what is now northeastern Burleson County. In defiance of his instructions, the Texas-born Ruiz permitted a group of more than fifty Tennesseans led by Sterling C. Robertson to take up residence in the vicinity of the fort in November 1830, while Robertson attempted to validate the settlement contract that his Nashville Company had negotiated with the Mexican government some years earlier. Some of these newcomers took up residence in the settlement that had arisen near the fort; by July 1831 Francis Smith had established a general store in the community. Other settlers, however, scattered through the countryside; many migrated into the Austin colony south of the Old San Antonio Road and awaited confirmation of Robertson's contract.
In August 1832 the garrison was withdrawn from Fort Tenoxtitlán, and the site was abandoned to the nearby American and Mexican settlers. Although the village of Tenoxtitlán in its turn disappeared during the Civil War, it remained the only settlement and trading post within the bounds of the future Burleson County until 1840. In 1834, when Robertson at last made good his right to direct settlement in what was thenceforth known as Robertson's colony, he opened a land office in Tenoxtitlán—which served as the capital of the colony until the founding of Nashville in what is now Milam County—and began issuing patents to land above the Old San Antonio Road. Among the prominent early settlers in what is now Burleson County were William Oldham, Alexander Thomson, Jr., Joseph B. Chance, John Teal, Isaac Addison, and John W. Porter. Most of these early settlers and their families, like those brought to Texas by Robertson's Nashville Company, came from the Old South, particularly Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama. Once in Texas, they set about perpetuating Southern culture and institutions—including slavery. Many brought with them considerable investments in slave property. Gabriel Jackson of Kentucky, for example, who arrived in Robertson's colony in December 1833 and soon established a large plantation in the Brazos bottoms of the future Burleson County, was the owner of 100 slaves.
In March and April 1836, alarmed by the news of the fall of the Alamo and by the fugitives streaming eastward on the Old San Antonio Road, the residents of the area joined the mass flight from the advancing Mexican army known as the Runaway Scrape. As news of the battle of San Jacinto spread, however, the settlers quickly returned to find their homes untouched. Growth of the area accelerated after the establishment of the Republic of Texas. But as White inhabitants became more numerous in the sparsely populated territory, Indian raids became more frequent. The settlers often responded to rumors of impending hostilities by taking refuge at Tenoxtitlán or within the fortifications at the home of William Oldham, in what is now southern Burleson County. But Tenoxtitlán itself became a favorite target of Indian attacks. The last fatal raid within the bounds of the present county occurred in May 1841, the final occasion on which the White population repaired to the forts for defense. With settlement expanding westward and northward, Tenoxtitlán became increasingly inaccessible, and its protection grew less important as the Indian menace diminished rapidly during the 1840s.
Population increase soon produced demands for the organization of local government. In 1830 the territory of present Burleson County south of the Old San Antonio Road was included in the Precinct of Viesca, while the area of the future county north of the road, part of Robertson's colony, was incorporated into Viesca Municipality. In 1835 the region north of the road became part, first, of Milam Municipality, and then of Milam County, after the foundation of the republic in 1836. The territory south of the road and north of Yegua Creek was initially included in Washington Municipality, organized in 1835, and then in Washington County in 1836. In 1840 the area of the present county south of the Old San Antonio Road was transferred from Washington to Milam County. A small settlement and trading post established by Lewis L. Chiles by 1840 at the place where the Old San Antonio Road crossed Davidson Creek in what is now Burleson County was chosen to become the seat of the newly constituted Milam County. A new townsite, soon known as Caldwell, was platted in 1840 by George B. Erath. Finally, on March 24, 1846, the state's First Legislature established Burleson County, named for Gen. Edward Burleson, and designated Caldwell the county seat. The county acquired its present boundaries in 1874, when its western reaches beyond East Yegua Creek were given to the new Lee County, thus reducing Burleson County by some 31 percent.
With heavy immigration continuing from the southern United States and from the older settled parts of Texas, the county's White and Black populations continued to expand rapidly until the end of antebellum Texas. In 1847 there were 866 Whites and 330 slaves in the county. Although no free Blacks were enumerated in any of the antebellum censuses, several are believed to have resided in the county. As early as the mid-1830s Hendrick Arnold, a free Black from Mississippi and a veteran of the battle of San Jacinto, lived within the future boundaries of the county. The Black settlement on the large estate of William Oldham, who purchased Arnold's property in 1837, was known for many years as the "Free Settlement" and was probably home to a number of free Blacks (presumably including Oldham's seven children by a slave mistress). During the final antebellum decade the county began to acquire an unmistakable flavor of the Old South, as many large plantations were established on the fertile alluvial soils of the Brazos bottoms in the eastern part of the county. These plantations accounted for much of the county's agricultural production. Cotton and corn were virtually the only crops raised, aside from fodder crops and vegetables. In 1850, 70,000 bushels of corn and 1,010 bales of cotton were harvested in the county from only 5,182 acres of improved farmland. Stock raising had already become quite extensive by this date in the uplands of the central and western parts of the county; 12,117 cattle, 13,607 hogs, and 376 sheep were produced in Burleson County in 1850.
The decade of the 1850s witnessed a remarkable expansion of both the county's population and its agricultural production, especially livestock production. Total population increased more than threefold, to stand at 5,683 by 1860; the White population tripled in this period to 3,797, while the slave population quadrupled, to 2,003. By 1860 the county's improved agricultural acreage had increased more than 300 percent, to 23,838 acres. Corn production virtually doubled, to 135,631 bushels; the cotton yield jumped more than fourfold, to 4,418 bales. The county's cattle production soared to 42,469 head by 1860, a 350 percent increase over the 1850 future; not until the 1950s would so many cattle again be raised in Burleson County. Hog production almost doubled during the 1850s, to 24,562. The number of sheep raised in the county registered an astonishing eighteenfold increase, to 6,788 animals, by 1860. However, despite the evidence of impressive growth, frontier conditions persisted in Burleson County agriculture on the eve of the Civil War. Although much of the county's area had already been divided into farms, only 23,838 acres had been improved by 1860. The prevailing high ratio of oxen to mules, 2,031 to 456, suggests that farmers were still struggling with the task of breaking the land to the plow.
By 1856 post offices had been established in the communities of Caldwell, Brazos Bottom, Chance's Prairie, Lexington (now in Lee County) and Prospect. Caldwell, near the geographical center of the county, was a transportation hub and by 1856 had attained a population of 300; until the early 1850s all county roads ran through the town, which was the site of one of the region's finest hotels, the Caldwell House. Census returns at the end of the final antebellum decade describe three county residents as holders of property worth at least $100,000 each; a fourth, Judge A. S. Broaddus, immigrated from Virginia in 1854 with 120 slaves.
As the crisis of the Union unfolded in 1860 and 1861 some opposition to secession developed within Burleson County. T. H. Mundine, the county's representative in the Eighth Texas Legislature and a member of the Constitutional Union party, courageously published an address opposing ratification of the secession ordinance. Most county residents, however, supported the secession movement. A chapter of the secret order known as the Knights of the Golden Circle was formed at Caldwell and agitated for dissolution of the Union. In the referendum of February 23, 1861, the county voted for secession, 422 to 84. Most county Unionists, including Mundine, appear to have loyally supported the Confederacy during the war. Hundreds of Burleson County residents enlisted in Confederate or state military units. State formations to which companies organized in the county were attached included the First, Second, Third, Fifth, and Seventeenth Texas Infantry regiments, the Eighth Texas Cavalry, and Waul's Legion. On the home front, farmers experimented with the cultivation of unfamiliar food crops, such as wheat. To circumvent the Union Navy's blockade of the Texas coast, county planters transported cotton to Mexico in trains of ox wagons. Far from halting immigration, the war in fact generated a new influx of planter refugees from the lower South seeking protection for their slave property. Newly arrived slaveowners who had difficulty obtaining land hired out their workforce to large plantation operators, as did servicemen compelled to leave their farms in the care of wives and children. Between 1860 and 1864, according to local tax rolls, the county's slave population increased by almost 50 percent, to 2,905. Though some Blacks entering the county under these circumstances eventually returned to the communities from which they had been uprooted, many others simply began building a new life where they found themselves at the end of the war.
Reconstruction in Burleson County, as in much of the rest of the state, was a violent and chaotic period. Outlaws and brigands—many of them veterans unwilling to resume a peaceful life—took advantage of the confusion, and several bands of cattle rustlers and horse thieves operated freely in the heavily forested southern and western parts of the county, along the Yegua and its tributaries. The notorious Sam Bass and his gang reportedly lived in this area for a time. Some communities resorted to vigilante justice in an effort to curb the lawlessness; the citizens of Yellow Prairie, for example, broke up one gang by capturing and lynching five of its members.
Although no federal soldiers were garrisoned within Burleson County, a company of State Police, composed almost entirely of Blacks, was stationed at Caldwell during this period, charged with protecting the lives, property, and civil rights of all citizens, including freedmen. Their presence did ensure access to polling places and the court system, but their numbers were too few and their resources too limited to enable them to enforce the laws everywhere within the county. The eastern half of the county, in which the Black population was concentrated, fell within the twentieth subdistrict of the Freedmen's Bureau, variously headquartered in Grimes and Brazos counties. The records of the subassistant commissioner include numerous reports of violent crimes committed by Whites against Blacks in Burleson County. Although many, perhaps even most, of these crimes were political in nature, some were blatantly so. In July 1868 a freedman named Wilson, a county registrar, was dragged from his bed at night by an armed mob and hanged and his body mutilated before being tossed into the Brazos River. A Ku Klux Klan cell emerged in the county to engage in night-riding and other acts of intimidation aimed at freedmen and their allies. Law-enforcement officials were helpless to bring the perpetrators of such crimes to justice.
Though prewar Unionists such as T. H. Mundine were prominent among the county officials appointed during the provisional administration of Governor A. J. Hamilton, the election of 1866 saw conservatives return to power in the county. In late 1867, however, the conservative officials were in their turn swept out of office by the military government imposed upon the state under the congressional Reconstruction plan. Yet, even with the State Police to protect freedmen and other Republican voters, the Democratic party emerged triumphant in Burleson County in the election of 1869 and remained in control of the government virtually without interruption for the next 120 years. One notable exception who proved the tenacity of Republican sentiment in the county was John Mitchell, who represented Burleson, Brazos, and Milam counties in the Twelfth Legislature in 1870.
The county's Black population had expanded steadily throughout the antebellum era and the Civil War, and it continued its growth after the war; by 1870, 3,040 African Americans lived in the county, 52 percent more than in 1860. In 1860 Blacks had constituted 35 percent of the population; by 1870 their proportion had risen to 37 percent, and it continued to increase until the early twentieth century, cresting at 46 percent in 1910. During World War I, however, as industrial jobs in the North began to open to them for the first time, Blacks began to leave Burleson County in large numbers. The county's Black population fell 24 percent between 1910 and 1920. Although this trend was reversed in the 1920s, which witnessed a 10 percent increase in the county's Black population, the Black exodus resumed during the Great Depression, as agricultural tenancy began to decline, and then accelerated during the 1940s, as new defense-related jobs opened to Blacks in urban areas of the North and West. The county's Black population declined by 38 percent during the 1940s and continued to fall by an average of more than 13 percent a decade until, by 1980, Blacks constituted only 22 percent of the population. Although the wave of violence unleashed against them in the immediate postbellum years gradually subsided, African Americans in the county suffered the same segregation in housing, public education, and public accommodations, and the same pervasive economic and social discrimination inflicted upon Blacks elsewhere. During the 1920s Ku Klux Klan organizations reemerged in Caldwell and Somerville to harass not only Blacks but the county's numerous foreign-born residents as well.
Economic recovery from the Civil War was slow. By 1870 the value of Burleson County farms had fallen to just 35 percent of their value in 1860. In 1870 no county residents were listed among the owners of property worth $100,000. However, by the end of the nineteenth century the development of cotton farming and the livestock industry had restored much of the county's former economic vitality. From the mid-1860s through the end of the 1870s county stock raisers drove their cattle northward along a branch of the Chisholm Trail that passed through the Deanville area in western Burleson County and thence toward Waco, paralleling the Brazos. Although the 16,308 cattle raised in the county in 1870 represented only 38 percent of the 1860 figure, annual-production levels gradually increased to a postbellum high of 30,765 in 1890. The industry declined somewhat over the next several decades, with production falling to a historic low by 1930, when only 23,334 cattle were enumerated. After 1930, however, the county's cattle herds grew steadily, climbing to a pinnacle of 65,137 animals in 1974. Hog raising also remained a significant agricultural activity. Although the 1860 herd size was never regained, postbellum production rose to a peak of 19,974 animals in 1910, before beginning a long gradual decline to 2,136 by 1987. The county's sheep industry, on the other hand, though managing to recover prewar production levels as early as 1870, dwindled to insignificance during the 1890s and has never revived. Poultry became important after 1880 and remained so for a century before declining precipitously in the 1980s.
Cotton culture expanded slowly in Burleson County during the first fifteen years following the Civil War, but began to boom in the 1880s and by the end of the nineteenth century had become the most important economic activity in the county. The 6,423 bales of cotton raised in 1870 represented a 45 percent increase over the modest 1860 figure. Between 1870 and 1880, however, production declined by 7 percent before soaring 169 percent, to 16,062 bales, by 1890 and then climbing a further 64 percent to a postbellum peak of 25,243 bales in 1900. The number of improved acres in the county doubled between 1870 and 1880 and doubled again by 1890, to 99,584; thereafter acreage grew more slowly, reaching a historic maximum of 144,115 acres in 1930. Only 31 percent of the county's cropland was devoted to cotton cultivation in 1880, but that proportion expanded steadily over the next several decades, to 36 percent in 1890, 44 percent in 1900, and 51 percent in 1910, before cresting at 63 percent in 1930. Although wheat, oats, and vegetables were cultivated on a small scale after the Civil War, corn remained the most important food crop, raised on anywhere from 21 to 34 percent of the county's cropland between 1880 and 1960.
As the county economy gradually recovered from the havoc of the war, rapid population growth resumed. Driven mainly by the large influx of war refugees, population grew by 45 percent between 1860 and 1870, to 8,229. The increase slowed to 12 percent during the 1870s, then accelerated to a robust 41 percent in each of the two subsequent decades, to stand at 18,367 in 1900. As before the war, most of the county's postbellum immigration came from older areas of Texas or from the states of the lower South, particularly Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Many of the newcomers, like most of the county's Black population, became tenant farmers as the rapid spread of cotton cultivation produced a rapid expansion of the crop-lien system. By 1880, 37 percent of the county's farmers were tenants. That figure escalated to 53 percent in 1890, climbed to 61 percent by 1910, and reached a maximum of 63 percent in 1930. Thereafter, with the onset of the depression and the curtailment of cotton cultivation, tenancy rates began to decline; just 15 percent of the county's farmers were tenants in 1959.
The economic resurgence was greatly abetted by improvement of the local transportation system in the late nineteenth century. In the 1860s many Burleson County planters began hauling their cotton to the Houston and Texas Central Railway line in neighboring Brazos County. Indeed, several large landowners in the Brazos bottoms of Burleson County took up residence in Bryan, the seat of Brazos County. Traffic between the two counties provided a thriving business for a number of ferry operators on the Brazos River, and the first bridge between the counties, Pitt's Bridge, was erected in 1875. In the late 1860s the commercial and demographic links between Brazos County and eastern Burleson County generated demands by residents of the Brazos bottoms to transfer that prosperous farming district into Brazos County—demands that were firmly rejected by Burleson County officials. Finally, with the coming of the railroad to Burleson County, these political pressures subsided. In 1880 the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway extended the Brenham-Cameron section of its main line through the county, passing through Caldwell. In the early 1880s Somerville was founded as a station on this line just north of Yegua Creek; by the early twentieth century it rivaled Caldwell as a commercial and industrial center, and surpassed it in population after the First World War. In 1883 the GC&SF constructed a spur between Somerville and Navasota that was soon extended into the piney woods of eastern Texas. In 1895 the Hearne and Brazos Valley Railway completed a short line between Hearne and the Brazos bottoms in an effort to capture the trade of the region for the merchants of Robertson County. The Houston and Texas Central extended its Hearne-Giddings branch line through Caldwell in 1912. And in 1918 a short line known as the "Peavine" was constructed between Bryan and Whittaker in the Brazos bottoms. The roads remained in deplorable condition through the 1930s. State Highway 36 became the county's first paved highway in 1939, and Highway 21 was paved a few years later. Construction of a network of paved farm roads was begun in the 1940s and completed during the 1950s (see HIGHWAY DEVELOPMENT).
Transportation improvements and economic revival in the late nineteenth century attracted not only large numbers of American-born immigrants but, for the first time, significant numbers of foreign immigrants as well. Although Burleson County had received a trickle of foreign immigration from the beginning, as late as 1870 the foreign-born constituted only 2 percent of the county's population. In the 1870s, however, substantial numbers of Germans and Austrians began settling in communities throughout the county, from Cooks Point in the east to Deanville in the west. During the 1880s large numbers of Czechs began to settle in many parts of the county; like the Germans they often formed distinct enclaves within older communities, but they also founded several all-Czech towns as well, including Frenstat, New Tabor, and Sebesta, later known as Snook. In the 1890s farmers in the Brazos bottoms in need of agricultural labor assisted in settling considerable numbers of Italians, mostly Sicilians, in eastern Burleson County, where they were initially employed as sharecroppers. Although the foreign-born never constituted more than 8 percent of the population during the nineteenth century, they enriched the county's cultural and social life immeasurably. As the county's Black population declined during the era of World War I, shortages of agricultural labor became acute. To help alleviate this condition, increasing numbers of Mexican migrant workers found employment in the county. Many took up residence, so that Mexicans Americans became the largest foreign-immigrant group to settle in the county during the twentieth century. By 1930 there were 2,024 persons of Hispanic origin in Burleson County, some 10 percent of the population. Although Mexican immigration was sharply curtailed in the early forties, the county's Hispanic population remained fairly stable and in 1990 still constituted 11 percent of the total population.
The economy into which the successive waves of newcomers blended remained overwhelmingly agricultural into the 1980s. Aside from lumbermills, gristmills, and cotton gins, virtually the only industrial activity in Burleson County had been that associated with the Santa Fe Railroad, which for many years maintained a division headquarters and extensive shops in Somerville. Until after World War II the Santa Fe Tie and Lumber Preserving Company in Somerville remained the county's only industrial operation with more than a handful of employees. This lopsided economic development made the county vulnerable after the turn of the century. Between 1900 and 1940 the population failed to grow. After a meager 2 percent increase between 1900 and 1910, population fell by 10 percent in the ensuing decade, as Blacks began to move out. Population did manage to expand during the twenties by a respectable 18 percent—aided by heavy Mexican immigration and a temporary halt in Black emigration—and reached a maximum of 19,848 in 1930. However, during the thirties, as the depression transformed the county's agriculture—thus curtailing both cotton production and tenancy—the population fell by 8 percent, to 18,334 in 1940. It plummeted a further 29 percent in the 1940s, as the Black exodus resumed on an unprecedented scale and thousands of Whites also abandoned the county in search of industrial jobs in the state's urban areas. Over the next twenty years the Burleson County population continued to contract by an average of more than 12 percent a decade, falling to 9,999 by 1970.
Major reconfiguration of the county's agriculture began in the 1930s, as cotton acreage began to decline under the impact of continuing low prices, diminishing soil fertility, and New Deal acreage-reduction programs. The 91,021 acres devoted to cotton cultivation in 1930 dropped by almost half by 1940. The decline continued over the next half century, so that by 1987 cotton was grown on only 8,431 acres in the county. Although the yield remained as high as 27,355 bales as late as 1950, by 1987 that figure had fallen to 13,740. As cotton acreage was reduced, the cultivation of alternative crops such as hay and sorghum and, briefly, peanuts and oats, was expanded; wheat growing has become of some significance since the seventies, with as much as 87,435 bushels being produced on 5,572 acres by 1982. However, most of the former cotton land was withdrawn from crop raising altogether and devoted to livestock production, which after World War II became the county's most important industry; by 1982, 75 percent of the county's agricultural revenues were derived from livestock and livestock products. Oddly, dairying had played only a limited role in the stock-raising boom; although it expanded briefly following World War II, it soon began to decline and by the 1980s was no longer of commercial significance. Meanwhile, the county's harvested cropland fell from 122,274 acres in 1930 to 40,551 acres by 1987. Even the production of corn, an important feature of the county's economy throughout its history, fell off after the war, with yields falling from 634,200 bushels in 1940 to 243,878 in 1987 and acres planted in corn plummeting over the same period from 35,791 to 3,489.
Residents of Burleson County participated enthusiastically in the two world wars and contributed their sons unreservedly to both, but the county was not as directly affected by these conflicts as were many other Texas counties. To further the effort on the home front during the First World War, a Burleson County Council of Defense was organized as early as March 3, 1917, a full month before the formal American declaration of war, a circumstance that reflected the rising tide of anti-German sentiment in the county. County officials vigorously promoted conservation and directed the rationing of flour, sugar, and other essential commodities. The county exceeded its quota in the four Liberty Loan and the Victory Loan bond sales by more than $100,000. A Burleson County Chapter of the American Red Cross, with branches in a dozen communities and a membership of more than 3,900, was formed in July 1917 and worked diligently to provide relief and various social services to military personnel and their families. The county's large German-American population fell under suspicion of disloyalty, and non-English-speaking citizens of all ethnic backgrounds were pressured into using English in schools, churches, and elsewhere. Almost 830 county residents served in the armed forces, including 381 Blacks. The rationing programs and loan campaigns of the Second World War were as successful as those of the First. The county's economy was boosted during World War II by the proximity of Bryan Air Field (see BRYAN AIR FORCE BASE), just east of the Brazos River. In 1942 farm roads in the Snook area were among the first county roads to be paved in order to facilitate access to a temporary air strip, Smith Field, an adjunct of Bryan Field. More than 1,300 county residents—7 percent of the population—served in the military during this conflict.
Under the stimulus of increasing economic diversification and industrial development after World War II, Burleson County at last resumed growth. The number of manufacturing establishments in the county increased from four in 1947 to twelve in 1982, and the number of employees in the manufacturing sector rose over the same period from 260 to 400. Petroleum was discovered in the county in 1938, but until the energy crisis of the 1970s only token quantities were recovered from the deep rock strata, including the Austin Chalk, in which it is embedded. In the late 1970s production of both crude oil and natural gas increased dramatically. Almost 2,450,000 barrels of oil and 3,003,263 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 192,213,840 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1938.
Much of this new industrial activity arose in the vicinity of Caldwell, which after 1940 regained from Somerville its former position as the county's largest town. In 1940 Caldwell's population stood at 2,165, Somerville's at 1,621. In 1990 Caldwell had 3,181 residents; Somerville, Snook, and Lyons were the only other towns with populations greater than 150. Although agriculture was still the county's preeminent economic activity, significant employment had been produced in other sectors of the economy in the previous few decades. By 1982 only 14 percent of the county's labor force remained employed in agriculture, while 17 percent were employed in trade, 17 percent in manufacturing, and 20 percent in services. Almost one-third of the work force, however, continued to find employment outside the county in such communities as Rockdale, Bryan, and College Station. One of the most important aspects of late-twentieth-century development was the construction of Somerville Dam and Reservoir on Yegua Creek in 1967. Somerville Lake became one of the most prominent recreation areas in south central Texas, attracting several hundred thousand visitors annually and providing stimulation for the county's economy. Furthermore, construction of the lake finally helped end the disastrous flooding of Yegua Creek and the Brazos River, which has plagued the county throughout its history; and it at last rendered obsolete such ineffectual flood-control measures as the thirty-mile-long levee on the west bank of the Brazos, first erected by landowners in 1910.
Politically, Burleson County remained steadfastly Democratic after Reconstruction, although there were sizable minorities of Greenbackers in 1880 and Populists in 1892. The Populists, in fact, actually triumphed in the county in the election of 1894, and the Socialist ticket was only narrowly defeated in 1920. Otherwise, the long string of Democratic victories continued into the late twentieth century. After the presidential election of 1972, when the county voted for Richard M. Nixon, the county began to trend more Republican. Though Democrats carried almost every election in the county from 1976 to 1996, when Bill Clinton won a plurality of the area's votes, Nixon's win in 1972 and Ronald Regan's in 1984 marked a shift awary from the area's traditional leanings. By the early twenty-first century the Republicans were clearly in the ascendance, as George W. Bush won the county with solid majorities in 2000 and 2004.
In 2014 the census counted 17,253 people living in Burleson County. About 66.3 percent were Anglo, 12.7 percent were African American, and 19.6 percent were Hispanic. More than 71 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and more than 13 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century oil and gas production, tourism, and agribusiness were important elements of the area's economy; many residents worked at Texas A&M University. In 2002 the county had 1,550 farms and ranches covering 388,982 acres, 51 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 34 percent to crops. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $36,248,000, with livestock sales accounting for $25,824,000 of that total. Cattle, cotton, corn, hay, and broilers were the chief agricultural products. Caldwell (population, 4,210) is the seat of government and the county's largest town; other communities include Somerville (1,313), Snook (505), Lyons (360), Deanville (130), and Chresman (30).