Caldwell County, 120 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico in south central Texas, is bordered by Bastrop, Fayette, Gonzales, Guadalupe, Hays, and Travis counties. Lockhart, the county seat, is at the intersection of U.S. Highway 183 and Farm Road 20, thirty miles south of Austin and seventy miles northeast of San Antonio. The county's center lies four miles southeast of Lockhart at approximately 29°50' north latitude and 97°37' west longitude. The county comprises roughly 546 square miles of flat to rolling terrain with elevations ranging from 375 to 500 feet above sea level. It is bisected from southwest to northeast by the Luling-Darst Creek fault zone. The northwest part of the county is in the blackland prairie region, where the terrain is low-rolling to flat and tall grasses and mesquite flourish in the black, waxy soils. The southeastern half of the county is more hilly, and the sandy soils support a wider variety of vegetation, including hardwoods such as oak and elm as well as mesquite and grasses. The county is almost entirely within the Guadalupe River basin; it is drained primarily by Plum Creek and its tributaries, and by the San Marcos River, which forms the boundary with Guadalupe County. Wildlife in the area includes deer, javelinas, coyotes, bobcats, beavers, otters, foxes, raccoons, skunks, turkeys, squirrels, and a variety of small birds, fish, and reptiles. Among the county's mineral resources are clay, industrial sand, gravel, oil, and gas. The climate is subtropical and humid, with an average minimum temperature of 38° F in January and an average high temperature of 96° F in July. The growing season averages 274 days annually, and the rainfall averages thirty-five inches.
Although Caldwell County is on the border between Central Texas and the Coastal Plains, its archeological record is more closely related to that of Central Texas. The region has supported human habitation for several thousand years. Archeological evidence suggests that hunting and gathering peoples established themselves in the area as early as 10,000 years ago. Some of these may have been ancestors of the Tonkawa Indians, who appear to have been native to the region. Other Indian groups included the Karankawas, who sometimes ranged as far inland as Gonzales and Caldwell counties, and the Comanches, who migrated from north and west Texas in the early nineteenth century.
Caldwell County was part of Green DeWitt's colony, which was approved by the Mexican government in April 1825. Early settlement in the colony centered around the Gonzales area. The surveying of the Caldwell County area began in the late 1820s. Most of the early grants, made between 1831 and 1835, were located along the San Marcos River and Plum Creek, and most of the early communities, such as Prairie Lea, Plum Creek, and Atlanta, developed along these watercourses in the southwestern and central parts of the county. One exception was the McMahan area on Tinney Creek in eastern Caldwell County, which was settled in the late 1830s. Settlement was disrupted during the Runaway Scrape in 1836 but resumed soon after the war ended. The Congress of the Republic of Texas made the Caldwell County area part of Gonzales County in 1836. In the early years of the republic residents were threatened by Indian raids, but after the defeat of the Indians in the battle of Plum Creek in 1840 only minor skirmishes occurred.
By 1847 the population in the northern part of Gonzales County had increased so much that residents petitioned the Texas legislature to establish a new county, Plum Creek County, with Lockhart Springs as county seat. In March 1848 the legislature approved the formation of the county from Bastrop and Gonzales counties but named it Caldwell instead of Plum Creek; the county seat was called Lockhart. Although the legislature did not say why the name Caldwell was chosen, it was probably in honor of Mathew Caldwell, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. The county seat was located on a tract of land that had been part of Byrd Lockhart's Plum Creek grant.
Caldwell County grew fairly quickly between 1850 and 1860. According to the 1850 census it had 1,055 free residents and 274 slaves; by 1860 the number of free residents had more than doubled to 2,871, and the number of slaves had increased more than 5½ times to 1,610. Among the new communities were Fentress, Martindale, and Lytton Springs. The county's early economy was primarily based on livestock rather than on crops; the number of cattle in the county increased from 3,800 in 1850 to more than 33,000 in 1860, and the number of hogs rose from 3,400 to 11,480 during the same time period. The increase in livestock would probably have been even greater if the region had not been had a severe drought from 1857 to 1859.
The earliest schools in Caldwell County were private institutions that met in someone's home or in space donated by Masonic lodges. Although the legislature established a system of public school districts in 1854, the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 delayed improvements in buildings and textbooks. Redistricting in 1875 and in 1884 made districts smaller and more numerous; most districts centered around established communities, allowing children to attend school near their home. It was not until the 1930s and 1940s that improved transportation made large-scale consolidation of schools into independent school districts possible. Until the mid-twentieth century, extensive schooling was for many children in Caldwell County a luxury that took second place to their duties on the family farm, and dropout rates were high. As late as 1940 only 8 percent of the population over twenty-five had completed high school. The percentage of adult residents who had finished school began to rise, however, as the job market expanded; it was nearly 15 percent in 1960, 58 percent in 1980, and 60.3 percent in 2000.
The first church in Caldwell County, the Clear Fork Baptist Church, was organized in 1848. Among the early churches were a Primitive Baptist congregation organized at Prairie Lea in 1851, Christian and Episcopal churches organized at Lockhart in 1852, and a Primitive Baptist church organized at Tinney Creek in 1852. By 1870 the county had eleven churches: five Baptist, two Methodist, two Presbyterian, one Episcopal, and one Christian. Few communities had their own preachers; itinerant ministers went from place to place, sometimes staying two or three months in a town and teaching school to help earn their keep. Camp meetings also played an important role in the county's religious development, especially after 1870, and people came as far as thirty miles to attend them. The first Catholic church in the county was St. Mary's of the Visitation, which was built in Lockhart in the mid-1880s. In 1902 the Southwest Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention was established in McMahan (see SACRED HARP MUSIC). In the early 1980s the county's forty-seven churches had an estimated combined membership of 10,559; Southern Baptist, Catholic, and United Methodist were the largest denominations. In 2000 the county had fifty-five churches with an estimated combined membership of 16,420.
Spencer Ford of Lockhart represented Caldwell County at the Secession Convention in January 1861 and voted in favor of secession; Caldwell County voters accepted the ordinance later that year by a margin of 434 to 188. Several hundred men from Caldwell County served in the Confederate Army, in at least six companies that served in the New Mexico and Red River campaigns, in Galveston and Brownsville, and on the frontier. Because most men of military age had enlisted, women, children, old men, and slaves were left to maintain family farms. Many acres lay idle for lack of enough people to work them. The crops and livestock that families did manage to raise were in danger of being confiscated by troops foraging for supplies.
During Reconstruction, several incidents of racial violence prompted the stationing of federal troops at Lockhart and Prairie Lea, and clashes between federal soldiers and local residents led to considerable ill-feeling, as elsewhere in the South. Because of the loyalty oath required, the first elections after the Civil War attracted few former Confederates as voters, although some residents did turn out to harass Blacks who came to the polls. By the election of 1869, however, enough Democrats had regained their eligibility to choose Andrew J. Hamilton for governor over Edmund J. Davis by a vote of 413 to 352. In presidential politics Caldwell County was staunchly Democratic from the end of Reconstruction until 1972, when the vote went to Richard Nixon. Since then the county has voted for Republican presidential candidates in 1984, 2000, and 2004.
Like most areas in the south, Caldwell County suffered a severe economic decline immediately after the Civil War and throughout the Reconstruction period. Between 1864 and 1866 property-tax receipts declined 70 percent. A little more than half of the loss was in slaves; the rest came from declines in total farm acreage, farm value, and livestock value, each of which fell 33 to 60 percent by the time of the 1870 census. Recovery was slow because transportation was poor and because the economy was so dependent on agriculture.
After the war many former slaves remained in the area. By 1870 the Black population in the county had increased to 2,531, 38 percent of the total. With the exception of St. John Colony, which was established by former slaves in the early 1870s, there were no independent Black communities in the county. Instead, separate church and school facilities were built in existing communities. The number of Black residents increased steadily until 1900, although the number of Whites who moved in was such that Blacks as a percentage of the total population fell from 34 percent in 1880 to 26 percent in 1900. The Black population fell slowly to 4,664 in 1930 and 2,582 in 1960, but remained at a stable 15 percent of the total number of residents. In 1980 the county's 3,867 Black residents represented slightly more than 16 percent of the total. By 2000 the percentage of Black residents in the county had declined further to some 8.58 percent.
The Caldwell County economy began to show signs of recovery by 1880, thanks in large part to the growth of the cattle industry, improved transportation, and an influx of people from other states and other countries. The Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway connected the new community of Luling with Columbus in 1874, thus providing southern Caldwell County with easier access to markets. With the railroads came new towns—Maxwell, Dale, and Reedville; other towns, like Brownsboro, McNeil, Taylorsville, and Elm Grove were bypassed by the railroads and faded as their residents moved away. The county population rose from 6,572 in 1870 to 11,757 in 1880, and the census reported 1,421 farms in 1880, up from 357 ten years earlier. The amount of land in farms rose from 124,690 acres in 1870 to 205,335 acres in 1880, but the average farm size fell from 349 acres to 144 acres. Many of the county's large farms and ranches were divided into smaller units and leased to tenants in the years immediately following the Civil War; other farms were broken up and sold for taxes. New residents were able to take advantage of the availability of land and start new farms of their own.
Although production in 1880 included 190,648 bushels of corn, 11,098 bushels of wheat, and 7,609 bales of cotton, the principal commodity was cattle; the county reported 16,900 head of cattle that year. Large herds passed through the county on trail drives to northern markets. Before the introduction of barbed wire into the region in the 1880s, a shortage of fencing materials made it difficult for farmers to protect their crops. The open prairie lent itself more easily to the grazing of cattle. When barbed wire did come into use, fence-cutting was a serious problem until the expansion of railroads eliminated the need for extended trail drives. The Missouri, Kansas and Texas completed its track between Lockhart and San Marcos in 1887, and the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway connected Lockhart and Luling to Shiner in 1889. In 1892 the Missouri, Kansas and Texas laid track from Lockhart east to Smithville.
The cattle industry in Caldwell County peaked in the late 1880s and the 1890s, and cotton began to take its place. In 1890 the 38,710 acres planted in cotton represented nearly 30 percent of the county's improved acreage, and the yield of 21,326 bales was nearly three times higher than the 1880 harvest. In 1900 farmers planted more than 90,000 acres in cotton, or nearly 70 percent of the improved land; the yield was 42,660 bales. As marginal land came into use and the soil of good land was depleted, the amount of cotton produced per acre fell. In 1920, 137,197 acres produced only 21,857 bales; in 1930, 124,802 acres produced only 11,878 bales. The low cotton yields, combined with the success of an experimental farm established by the Luling Foundation, persuaded farmers to diversify their crops and devote more of their resources to livestock.
Immigrants from Mexico began arriving in Caldwell County in large numbers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The 1890 census reported 477 native Mexicans, representing 3 percent of the county's population; by 1910 the number totalled 4,113, or 17 percent of the population. Some became tenant farmers or sharecroppers, while others became part of a migratory labor force that helped to sustain the county's cotton-dependent economy. From the 1930s through the 1980s roughly a third of the county's population was of Mexican descent, increasing to 40 percent by 2000. Other large ancestry groups in the county were German and English, each of which made up 16 percent of the population in the 1980s.
Caldwell County's departure from an almost total dependence on agriculture began after the discovery of oil in 1922. Speculation about the possible presence of oil in Caldwell County had started soon after the discovery of the Spindletop oilfield in 1901, but it was not until 1914 that various enterprises began to drill test wells around Luling. After Edgar B. Davis discovered the Luling oilfield in 1922, the new industry expanded rapidly. By the end of the 1920s significant oil deposits had also been found in the Buchanan, Dale, Larremore, and Salt Flat fields, and production ranged from six to twelve million barrels a year. Although oil prices fell from $1.09 a barrel in 1929 to $0.51 in 1931, they recovered briefly in 1932 and stabilized at $0.95 in 1934. Annual oil production fluctuated between three and five million barrels during the 1930s. The civilian market fell in the early 1940s, but the loss was quickly offset by increased military demand. Production varied between two and four million barrels a year from the 1950s through the 1980s, then declined to around a million barrels a year by 2000.
Although the economic activity generated by the new oil industry spared Caldwell County some of the hardships of the Great Depression, the population began a thirty-year decline in the 1930s, falling from 31,397 residents to 17,222 by 1960. Many of the people who left were tenant farmers and sharecroppers. After 1930 the agricultural emphasis of the county shifted from small family farms to larger ranches, and from cotton to pastureland and feed crops. Tenant farming had accounted for nearly half of all the county's farming from 1880 through 1900, and as much as 75 percent, or 2,346 of the 3,149 farms, in 1930; but by 1960 fewer than 20 percent of the county's 819 farms were tenant-run. As the number of farms decreased, the average farm size increased, from eighty-six acres in 1930 to 330 in 1960.
In the early 1980s 83 percent of the land in the county was in farms and ranches, but only 20 percent was under cultivation. Sorghum, hay, cotton, wheat, and corn, the primary crops, accounted for more than 95 percent of the 38,500 acres harvested; other crops were watermelons, peaches, and pecans. More than 80 percent of the county's agricultural receipts came from livestock and livestock products, the most important ones being poultry, eggs, cattle, and hogs. Professional and related services, manufacturing, and wholesale and retail trade involved more than 50 percent of the workforce in the 1980s; 11 percent of workers were self-employed, and 38 percent were employed outside the county. Industries with the highest employment included oil and gas extraction, poultry processing, and the manufacture of clothing, wood products, and engineering and scientific instruments. By 2000 some 50 percent of the workforce worked outside the county as the proximity of both Austin and San Marcos affected the local economy. The majority of the workforce was engaged in educational, health, and social services; manufacturing; retail trade; construction; and public administration. Petroleum, agribusiness, and varied manufacturing were the leaders in the county economy.
Caldwell County's downward population trend reversed itself in the 1960s; it increased to 21,178 in 1970, 23,637 in 1980, 26,392 in 1990, 32,194 in 2000, and 39,810 in 2014. The majority of residents lived in three towns: Lockhart (13,098), Luling (5,626) and Martindale (1,166). Other communities include Dale (300), Fentress (380), Maxwell (500), and Prairie Lea (320). Mustang Ridge (930) is mostly in Travis County and Uhland (1,022) and Niederwald (577) are partly in Hays County. Part of San Marcos is also in Caldwell County. Ethnically, the population in the county is 42.6 percent White, 48.9 percent Hispanic, and 7.1 percent African American.
Recreation available in Caldwell County includes boating and fishing; hunting deer, javelinas, ducks, and geese; a botanic garden in Luling; and Lockhart State Park. In June the Chisholm Trail Roundup and a rodeo are held in Lockhart and the Watermelon Thump is held in Luling. The Texas Independence Trail runs through Caldwell County.