Calhoun County is located on the Gulf Coast between Houston and Corpus Christi. Approximately one-fourth of the county's 540-square-mile area is under water. Calhoun County is bordered by Victoria and Jackson counties on the north, Matagorda Island and the Gulf on the south, Refugio County on the west, and Matagorda County on the east. The approximate center of the county is at 33°40' north latitude and 95°06' west longitude, five miles southwest of Port Lavaca, the county seat. The altitude of this Coastal Prairie county ranges from sea level to fifty feet. The terrain is flat, poorly to moderately well drained, and surfaced with loams underlain by cracking, clayey subsoils, including deep black soils and sandy clay. Matagorda Island, on the southern fringe of the county, is chiefly deep shell sand. The climate is mild, the rainfall averages about forty inches annually, and the growing season lasts 305 days a year. The flora includes tall grasses and live oaks with cordgrasses and sedges along the coast, and the animal life includes quail, deer, doves, cottontail rabbits, jackrabbits, armadillos, skunks, opossums, raccoons, and a few coyotes. Between 21 and 30 percent of the land is considered prime farmland. The county is drained by the Guadalupe River, Chocolate Bayou, and several creeks. Green Lake, a large natural lake, is in Calhoun County. Major incorporated communities include Point Comfort, Port Lavaca, and Seadrift. The county is served by the Union Pacific railroad, as well as by U.S. Highway 87 and State highways 35 and 185.
Evidence suggests that Calhoun County was inhabited from prehistoric times. A Clovis point is among examples of Paleo-American projectile points found in the area. Shell middens have been located at Mustang Lake, an arm of San Antonio Bay. Karankawa Indians populated the shoreline and roamed the Coastal Plain until the middle of the nineteenth century, when they were notorious among white settlers. Subgroups of the Karankawas occupied Matagorda Bay and Matagorda Peninsula. Fletching tools, scrapers, and spear and arrow points have been discovered at Lavaca Bay and Six Mile Creek. Tonkawa shelter sites have been found at Cox's Creek, Keller's Creek, and the mouth of the Guadalupe River, as well as on Green Lake, Chocolate Bayou, and Linn's Bayou in Port Lavaca.
In 1519 Alonso Álvarez de Pineda, exploring the Gulf Coast for the governor of Jamaica, drafted a map that included Espíritu Santo Bay and named the mainland "Amichal," but it is not clear whether he set foot in the future Calhoun County. René Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, is believed to have landed in 1685 near Powderhorn Lake after one of his four ships was wrecked while crossing the bar at Cavallo Pass. A monument placed by the Texas Centennial Commission in 1936 marks his landing site. The future county was explored by Spaniards, including Alonso De León, who found the ruins of the French fort in 1689, but no permanent settlement was made until Anglo-American colonization. As early as 1825, empresario Martín De León of Mexico brought forty-one families to the area and established a ranch near the former site of La Salle's fort. The first Anglo settlement site now in the county was at Linnville, where in 1831 John J. Linn established a warehouse and wharf three miles north of the future site of Lavaca (later Port Lavaca). Comanche Indians collecting horses sacked and burned the settlement during the Linnville Raid of 1840 before being pursued and defeated. The inhabitants escaped by boat to a bluff about three miles away, where a few men who operated a warehouse welcomed them; this was the beginning of the present town of Port Lavaca. Caught between settlers and the Comanches, the Tonkawas, who numbered 800 in 1836, became loyal to the Texans.
As early as 1836 Mary Austin Holley reported a population of 200 at Cox's Point. In 1844 Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels landed at Indian Point in Calhoun County with a hundred German families. Although few of them remained on the Gulf, their tent village, called Karlshafen, became Indianola, the town that served as Calhoun county seat for many years. In the 1840s other Germans established a community at Seadrift, and Poles arrived at Indianola between 1854 and 1856. Many native Tejanos were granted land in Calhoun County, where they developed more of the Spanish ranching culture on the flat, grassy prairie, which was well-suited for rangeland. Plácido Benavides, one of the Tejanos who fought with the Texans during the Texas Revolution, owned land in Calhoun County, as did many other prominent Mexican families. The majority of settlers in Calhoun County came from Southern states, including Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama.
In antebellum Texas, Calhoun County residents were active in the trade and commerce stimulated by the Federalist wars of Texas and northern Mexico and the French blockade of Mexican ports in 1838 and 1839. Goods and ammunition for South Texas and Northern Mexico went through Lavaca, Cox's Point, Linnville, and Texana for overland distribution by wagon train. Men from Calhoun County participated in the Mier expedition in 1842. United States Army quartermaster depots were located at Lavaca until 1854, and later Indianola supplied military forts and garrisons.
Newcomers began rounding up cattle during the 1840s and making ranching, traditionally a Hispanic concern, an American occupation. Lavaca, established in 1842 as a port, shipped hides and tallow and transported goods from New Orleans to San Antonio and points west. Its present name, Spanish for "cow port," reflected the importance of cattle to the local economy.
On April 4, 1846, Calhoun County was formed from parts of Victoria, Jackson, and Matagorda counties and named for John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who had advocated Texas statehood. Lavaca was the first county seat. But, as a result of the development of the Indianola Railroad, the formation of other transportation lines, and a shift of population, Indianola became more important and was made county seat in 1852. The county's earliest newspaper, the Lavaca Journal, began publication in 1848; the first county school opened at Lavaca in 1849; and a county courthouse was completed at Indianola in 1857. Both Lavaca and Indianola remained important trade centers until 1861. Exports from Lavaca included cotton, pecans, and lead and copper from Mexico; Indianola exported silver bullion and cattle. The Morgan Lines moved their headquarters from Lavaca to Indianola in 1849, and in 1852 operated regular service to New York. The San Antonio and Mexican Gulf Railway completed a line from Lavaca to Victoria by 1861, and the Indianola Railroad was completed in the 1870s. Both roads eventually became parts of the Southern Pacific system. Trade development ceased, however, with the beginning of the Civil War.
Despite cholera epidemics in 1849, 1852, and 1853, the county's population increased between 1850 and 1860 from 867 white and 234 Black residents to a total of 2,642, of which 414 were enslaved people. Plantations operated at Green Lake and Cox's Point, but most Blacks were urban dwellers who worked as servants or at seaport trades (see SLAVERY, URBAN). Only one free Black resided in the county in 1840 and nine in 1850; slave trading peaked at Indianola in 1852. In 1860 Calhoun County, not part of the plantation-based culture that dominated many Texas counties, produced only five bales of cotton, but residents nevertheless voted 276 to 16 the next year for secession. Calhoun County volunteers, organized in 1859 for the frontier, became part of the Third Texas Infantry of the Confederate Army. Others from the area joined the Indianola Guards or the Lavaca Guards, which became part of Company A of the Sixth Texas Infantry.
Because of the impact on its port facilities, Calhoun County felt the brunt of the war more than many Texas counties. During the war, women and slaves raised cotton, planted vegetables, and subsisted on cattle driven in to feed the families of soldiers. The 1860 census reported among county industries a manufacturer of turtle soup. Fort Esperanza, on Matagorda Island, constructed by Confederate forces using slave labor, covered the approaches to Cavallo Pass, but in 1863 the fort was captured after the battle of Matagorda Bay. Wharves, warehouses, railroads, and bridges were destroyed or damaged, and Indianola and Lavaca were taken by federal troops, many of whom were quartered in the county by the end of the war. The only Civil War land battle in Calhoun County was fought on Christmas Eve, 1863, at Norris's Bridge, but Union and Confederate graves remain at the site of Fort Esperanza.
The county recovered during Reconstruction. The population rose from 2,642 in 1860 to 3,443 by 1870, of which 907 were Black; most county residents lived at Lavaca or Indianola, which for a time in the 1870s surpassed Galveston as the leading Texas seaport. Factories increased from fourteen to thirty-three, and sharecropping, which developed in many Texas counties, was not as widespread, probably because the soil facilitated ranching more than farming. In 1870 the wealthiest man in the county, Fletcher S. Stockdale, a lawyer from Kentucky, had real property valued at $100,000 and personal property at $20,000.
Although Union troops were stationed in Calhoun County, the chief problems of the post-Civil War years were not political. A fire in 1867 destroyed buildings at Indianola, and a yellow fever epidemic reduced the population. In 1875 a Gulf storm brought heavy damage to Indianola, which recovered only briefly before a tidal wave virtually destroyed the community in 1886. By 1880 the county's population had dropped to 1,739. Lavaca, renamed Port Lavaca, became the county seat again in 1887, the post office and courthouse were moved there, and Indianola was never rebuilt. In 1878 the Southern Pacific Railroad bought out the property of the Morgan Lines, which had headquartered at Indianola since the 1850s, and in 1887 reopened the war-damaged railroad. This development, along with the growth of other railroads across the state, reduced Port Lavaca from a major seaport to a fishing center. Manufacturing establishments dropped to four by 1880 and disappeared altogether by 1890. The cattle industry peaked in 1890, when 32,629 head were reported, but by then the county population numbered only 815. Among those who registered brands in the county were several African Americans, including Ann Harred, a "free woman of color" who used the JD brand on her Matagorda Island ranch. Other Blacks, who had been cowboys as slaves, continued driving cattle to Texas ports. Of eighty-two farms in operation in 1900, fifty-six were operated by their owners and twenty-six by tenants.
The value of taxable property in Calhoun County grew between 1870 and 1912 from $1.5 million to almost $4 million. At the turn of the century, land companies offering mortgage loans at ordinary interest brought an influx of small farmers, most of whom raised cotton. Oyster shipping began at Port Lavaca, and developers established a new community at Port O'Connor. Swedes established a Lutheran colony at Olivia in 1892, and by 1900 European immigrants included Irish, Scots, Germans, and Bohemians (see CZECHS). The population increased gradually, reaching pre-1875 figures again only in 1910, when a total of 3,635 was estimated, and 4,325 by 1920, of which 584 were Black. By 1930 roughly one-fourth of the population was described as "Mexican." Hurricanes in 1914 and 1919 wrought further damage, and to defend itself Port Lavaca built a seawall in 1920.
Transportation improved in 1909 with construction of the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway in the southern part of the county, with its terminus at Port O'Connor. United States participation in World War I brought significant improvements in the county's economy, but slow growth during the Great Depression hurt county cattlemen, whose herds were reduced to a total of only 4,007 head by 1930. Livestock was raised on only half the county's acreage in the 1930s, as many farmers raised figs, citrus fruits, and other products. Tenant farming increased in the 1920s and reached a high during the depression. By 1930, of 574 county farms, 372 were operated by tenants. The total number of farms began to decline from 574 in 1930 to 331 in 1950, by which time the average farm size was 731 acres, agribusiness had developed, and more than 200 farms were commercial. Improvements came with the construction in 1931 of a causeway over Lavaca Bay that linked the area to the South Texas highway system, discoveries of natural gas near Port Lavaca in 1934, and oil in 1935. Black schools operated in the Port Lavaca and Long Mott districts. A colony of Christian Scientists was established at Magnolia Beach, which became a major resort. In World War II an army training camp was built on Matagorda Island, along with a Strategic Air Command base that remained in service until 1975.
The county suffered a tropical storm in 1945 and extensive damage from Hurricane Carla in 1961. From 1940 to 1950 the population increased from 5,911 to 8,971. An Alcoa plant that employed 2,600 workers opened at Point Comfort in 1947, and a Union Carbide and Carbon Chemicals Company plant near Seadrift opened in 1952; in 1980 it provided jobs for 1,400 employees. Other major industry included the Hartzog Shipyards, the U.S. Cold Storage Company, and the fishing and shrimping industry. By 1958 the county had a total of eleven manufacturers and seventy-seven mineral-related enterprises. In agriculture, a maximum county production of 10,570 bales of cotton and 133,996 pounds of corn were harvested in 1940, when 95,000 acres of land was planted with cotton, corn, sorghum, flax, and rice.
The number of cattle increased steadily after 1940, and by 1969 reached 20,404. National Starch, a manufacturer of vinyl acetate, began operation in 1962, Witco manufactured pitch oil at Point Comfort, and Vistron Corporation was in operation by the 1970s. Other industries produced oilfield products and metal cleaner; there was some marine construction. The population grew steadily after the 1950s, to 17,831 by 1970, of which 957 were Black. Of a total of 21,300 in 1982, 34 percent were Hispanic, 18 percent German, and 18 percent of English descent.
In the 1980s Calhoun County farmers raised cattle, sorghum, rice, corn, pecans, and soybeans. Seventy percent of the land was in farms and ranches, but farmers faced problems of inefficient irrigation, soil compaction, poor drainage, and shoreline erosion. Businesses in 1981 totaled 380. Major industries included oil and gas extraction, fish packaging, heavy construction, and industrial chemical production. In 1982 oil and gas production totaled 849,240 barrels of crude oil, 2,439,971,000 cubic feet of casinghead gas, 43,787,907,000 cubic feet of gas-well gas, and 313,318 barrels of condensate. In 1990 crude production was 1,179,390 barrels. Matagorda Ship Channel traffic in 1981 totaled 4,148,664 short tons, including 3,347,547 tons of imports, 153,501 tons of exports, and 647,616 tons of domestic shipments. Important exports included oil, cotton, seafood, and cattle. In the 1980s Calhoun County's principal natural resources, after discoveries around 1935, remained industrial sand, oil, and gas. Port Lavaca, Port O'Connor, and Magnolia Beach attracted tourists, and hunting, fishing, boating, and bathing offered recreation. In 1988 the Formosa Plastics Corporation of Taiwan, encouraged to locate in Calhoun County to improve employment, established a petrochemical factory at Point Comfort; controversy subsequently developed over the company's environmental practices. Calhoun County school districts consolidated after 1955 and, by the 1980s, a single school district was operating eight elementary schools, three middle schools, and one high school. Many local churches operated schools. Thirty-three percent of high school graduates planned to attend college. In 1990 the county's population was 19,053.
The voters of Calhoun County favored the Democratic candidate in virtually every presidential election from 1848 through 1968; the only exceptions occurred in 1872, when Republican Ulysses S. Grant took the county, and in 1952 and 1956, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower carried the area. Beginning in 1972, when Richard Nixon won a majority of the county's voters, the area began to trend more Republican. Though the Democrats won majorities in 1976 and 1988, the Republicans took the county in 1980 and 1984, and in every election from 1992 through 2004.
In 2014 the census counted 21,797 people living in Calhoun County. About 44.1 percent were Anglo, 47.6 percent were Hispanic, and 3 percent were African American; other minority groups comprised about 4 percent of the population. Seventy-nine percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and more than 12 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century aluminum manufacturing, plastics, and some other manufacturing concerns were key elements of the area's economy. In 2002 the county had 328 farms and ranches covering 247,827 acres, 59 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 38 percent to crops. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $18,893,000, with livestock sales accounting for $9,710,000 of that total. Cotton, cattle, corn, and grain sorghum were the chief agricultural products. Almost 594,000 barrels of oil and 9,446,198 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 103,913,124 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1935. Port Lavaca (population, 12,281) is the seat of government and the county's largest town; other communities include Seadrift (1,452), Port O'Connor (1,287), Point Comfort (743), and Long Mott (76). In 1985 a Texas historical marker was placed at Half Moon Reef Lighthouse. Matagorda Island State Park and Wildlife Management Area, Calhoun County's principal state park, covered 7,325 acres. Annual special events in the county include the Sea Fest in May, Texas Water Safari in June, Shrimp-Fest in July, Fishing Derby and Youth Rodeo in August, Christmas Parade in December, and Calhoun County Fair in October at Port Lavaca.