Camp County, the third smallest Texas county, comprises 203 square miles of the East Texas timberlands, an area that is heavily forested with a great variety of softwoods and hardwoods, especially pine, cypress, and oak. The terrain ranges from nearly level to hilly; the largest portion of the county is undulating to rolling. The county is located in northeastern Texas, forty miles from the state's eastern boundary and fifty miles from the state's northern boundary. Pittsburg, the county seat and the county's largest town, is located on U.S. Highway 271, sixty miles southwest of Texarkana and ninety miles northeast of Dallas. The county center lies at 32°58' north latitude and 94°57' west longitude. Two railroads cross Camp County and intersect in Pittsburg. The St. Louis Southwestern Railway, constructed as the Texas and St. Louis Railway in the late 1870s, crosses the county from north to south, and the Louisiana and Arkansas Railway, constructed in the late 1870s as the East Line and Red River Railway, crosses the county from east to west. The elevation ranges from 250 to 450 feet above mean sea level. The county is drained by Big Cypress Creek, which formed the northern and eastern boundaries of the county when it was organized. There are six major lakes within eighteen miles of Pittsburg that are reputed to be among the best bass-fishing lakes in Texas. By 1983 Lake Bob Sandlin and Lake O' The Pines had subsumed more than half of the creekbed along the boundaries of the county. The soils in Camp County are predominantly light-colored loam with loam and clay subsoils. Between 31 and 40 percent of the land in the county is considered prime farmland. Mineral resources include ceramic clay, industrial sand, oil, gas, and lignite coal. Temperatures range from an average high of 94° F in July to an average low of 30° in January. Rainfall averages forty-four inches a year, and the growing season extends for an average of 240 days.
The area of Camp County has been the site of human habitation for several thousand years, although perhaps not continuously. Artifacts have been recovered from sites to the north in Titus County that date from the Archaic Period (ca. 5000 B.C.-A.D. 500). During historic times, the earliest occupants of the county were the Caddo Indians, an agricultural people with a highly developed culture. During the 1820s and 1830s, American settlements in other parts of Texas caused a number of groups of Indians associated with other tribes such as the Creek, the Choctaw, and the Cherokee to settle in the area. But by the 1840s the Indians had generally been displaced by settlers.
The time of earliest European exploration of the area can not be conclusively determined. If one of the northernmost of the numerous conflicting route interpretations of the Moscoso expedition in 1542 is correct, then that group may have passed through the county. In 1719 the French founded Le Poste des Cadodaquious in what is now Bowie County. Although the French occupied the post for more than fifty years, little is known about their activities. They may have explored as far to the southwest as Camp County.
Anglo settlement began in the late 1830s, with most of the early settlers coming from the southern states of Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. The earliest communities in the area were Pittsburg, near the center, and Lilly and Pine, in the southwestern and south central part. There were probably some early settlers along Big Cypress Creek in the northern portion also, but no information is available about their activities. The first post office, established in 1848, was located in the community known now as Pine, and was called Pine Tree. In 1855 a post office was also established at Pittsburg, and by 1860 this town had become the most important supply center for northern Upshur County farmers.
These early, predominantly southern settlers brought with them their southern heritage and institutions. Most of the early settlers were Protestants, especially Baptists and Methodists. A number of the settlers were also slaveholders, who used the fertile soils of the county to grow the two most important southern crops, cotton and corn. Although precise figures are not available, the proportion of the population who were Blacks held as slaves probably exceeded the 1860 statewide average of about 30 percent.
Camp County was separated from Upshur County in 1874 and named for John Lafayette Camp, who was serving as state senator from Upshur County and presented the petitions that led to the action of the legislature. A county seat election was held, and Pittsburg won with 500 votes. Leesburg, to the west, received 228, and Center Point, in the southeastern part, received sixty-nine. Following the election, a courthouse was constructed of locally manufactured brick on a lot donated by William Pitts. Since the 1874 election the choice of county seat has never been contested.
The 1880 census provided the first population figures for Camp County. In 1880 the county had a population of 5,931, with 3,085 Whites and 2,845 Blacks. For the next ten years the Black population of the county grew at a faster rate than the White, and in 1890 there were 3,328 Whites and 3,296 Blacks. From that point the White population grew at a faster rate than the Black until 1920, when the 4,577 African Americans present constituted about 41 percent of the total population of 11,103. Between 1920 until 1960, with the exception of a modest gain between 1930 and 1940, the population of the county declined, with Black population declining at a faster rate than the White. By 1960 Blacks constituted about 38 percent of a total population of 7,849. From 1960 through 1980 the total population of the county began to rise, but the Black population of the county continued to decline. In 1980 the 2,369 Blacks constituted approximately 25 percent of the total population of 9,275, and in 1990, 24 percent of the county's 9,904 inhabitants were Black.
When voters went to the polls to select the county seat in 1874, they also elected the first county officials. Most of those elected were Republicans. As in most Texas counties controlled by the Republican party during this Reconstruction period, the votes for Republican candidates came almost exclusively from Black voters, while the candidates themselves were generally White. By 1876 Democrats had regained control of the county. On the local level they were generally successful in maintaining control; in fact, by the 1890s the Republicans no longer fielded a county ticket. But in state and national elections, Republicans waged vigorous campaigns. The vote was generally close through the nineteenth and into the first years of the twentieth century, particularly when third-party efforts divided traditionally Democratic voters. In the 1888 national election, for example, the Democrats won by just thirty-eight votes out of 1,232 votes cast. In 1892, 1896, and 1900, the Republicans carried the county in most state and all national races, as the People's party waged a generally unsuccessful campaign against the Democratic party for control of the county.
Beginning with the imposition of the poll tax in 1902, the state government implemented a series of procedures that effectively limited Black political participation. In Camp County these measures meant that the Democratic hold on the county was strengthened. The measures, coupled with the apparent certainty of a Democratic victory, also acted to keep many Whites, particularly poorer ones, away from the polls. In the 1900 general election, 1,596 votes were recorded, while in 1904, although the county population was increasing, only 895 county residents voted.
In the late 1940s the impediments to participation by Blacks and poor Whites were gradually lifted, beginning with the end of the white primary. Although the population of the county was declining, voter turnout jumped from 1,488 in 1948 to 2,487 in 1952. The voters of Camp County favored the Democratic candidate in every presidential election until 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon carried the county over Democrat George McGovern. Though Democrats carried the county in 1976, 1980, and 1988, the area's voters had begun to trend Republican. Democrat Bill Clinton was able to win a plurality of the county's votes in 1992 and won the county outright in 1996, but this was partly because third-party candidate Ross Perot ran strongly in Camp County during those elections. In the 2000 and 2004 elections, however, Republican George W. Bush won majorities in the county.
Although Pittsburg had become an important supply center for area farmers by the 1870s, at its beginning, Camp County was largely rural and agricultural. At the time of the 1880 census, most residents lived and worked on the county's 607 farms. For the next sixty years the economic base of the county was agriculture. During that period cotton was the principal cash crop, and for most of this period corn was the principal food crop. From 1880 until 1940 census returns indicated that at least two-thirds of the harvested cropland of the county were planted in these two crops. Although cotton provided the county's major source of income, it did not bring prosperity for most of the farmers. From 1880 until 1930 each census recorded a higher percentage of farmers who did not own the land they farmed. In 1880, 37 percent were tenants. By 1930, 60 percent of farmers fell into that category.
Camp County was hit hard by the Great Depression, which actually began for most southern farmers in the 1920s. Between 1920 and 1930, although the average size of the county's farms had increased from sixty-one to eighty-six acres, the average value had fallen from $3,253 to $1,722. The programs of the New Deal provided relief that ameliorated the worst effects of the depression for many of the county's residents. In 1933, for example, cotton-reduction payments to county farmers from the Agricultural Adjustment Administration totaled a little over $56,000. In January 1934, 832 Camp County families were receiving commodities from the local welfare office.
The depression signaled the beginning of the end of a number of long-term Camp County economic and social trends. One of these was population growth. Every census had recorded a larger population from 1880 through 1920. During the decade of the 1920s, though, the population declined for the first time, and, although it rose slightly during the 1930s (from 10,063 to 10,285), it subsequently fell steadily until 1960. The long-term trend in tenant farming was also reversed, beginning in the 1930s. The 1940 census was the first to record a decline in the percentage of farmers in the county who did not own the land they farmed, as the percentage of tenant farmers dropped to just under 50 percent. The initial stages of this process were hard on tenants, as they were forced off the land by governmental policies that paid farmers to remove cotton lands from cultivation. During the 1940s, however, tenants generally continued to desert the land because of other opportunities, offered by the World War II production boom and afterward by urban jobs produced as the state's industrial base expanded. By 1959 only 15 percent of the county's farmers were tenants.
The agricultural depression and the programs of the New Deal designed to deal with it also signaled the beginning of the end of cotton culture in Camp County. Between 1930 and 1940 the number of acres farmers planted in cotton declined from a little over 28,600 to a just over 12,700 acres. The decline continued, and by 1969 there were no cotton fields in the county. Cotton was replaced by livestock rather than by other crops. By 1982, 97 percent of the county's income from agriculture was generated by livestock and livestock products. Most of it came from hens, pullets, eggs, and commercial broiler production. Mechanization and the increasing emphasis on livestock also resulted in fewer and larger farms in the county. In 1920 the county had 1,709 farms. By 1959 the number had dropped to 537. In 1982 the 413 farms averaged 169 acres each.
The decline in the number of farmers led to a decline in county population. By 1960 it had fallen from the 1920 high of 11,103 to 7,849. A more dramatic decline was probably prevented by events in Pittsburg, the county seat. As the state began to industrialize, Pittsburg participated in the trend. In 1930, 197 county residents had been employed in manufacturing, and most of the industry was in Pittsburg. By 1947 the number employed in manufacturing had jumped to 507. Many of these jobs may have been in industries related to the war effort that had just ended, however, for by 1958 the number had dropped to 272. Still, the town had established an industrial base that continued to grow. By 1972, 700 county residents were employed in manufacturing. Although the number has continued to grow, census figures have been withheld since 1972 to protect the privacy of Camp County manufacturers. The largest industry in the county in the 1970s and early 1980s was Pilgrim Industries, a poultry-processing company that employed more than 500 people in 1976. Pine and hardwood production in 1981 totaled 2,168,053 cubic feet. Oil was discovered in Camp County in 1940, and in subsequent years the production of petroleum and natural gas contributed to the local economy. In 1982 more than 435,000 barrels of oil and almost 4,323,000 cubic feet of gas-well gas were extracted from Camp County lands. In 2000 more than 511,600 barrels of oil and 55,696 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county; by the end of that year 27,592,815 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1940.
As Pittsburg's manufacturing base expanded, so did its population. In 1890 it was 1,203, or about 18 percent of the county's total population. By 1920 the number had increased to 2,540, a little less than 23 percent of the county's total population. In 1980 the population of the town had grown to 4,245. That figure represented nearly 46 percent of the county's total population. Although Pittsburg continued to serve as a supply and shipping point for area agriculturists, the economy of the town no longer revolved around those functions.
The changing nature of employment opportunities has led to an increasing emphasis on the importance of formal education. In 1897 most of the county's school-aged children attended one-room, ungraded schools. Children generally walked to school, so districts were small. Small districts, and the traditional policy of rigidly segregated schools, meant that the county's limited resources were divided and strained. None of the county's thirty-four common school districts in 1897 contained school libraries, and only one had a graded school. School terms varied from a low of forty-nine days to a high of 140. Most children in the county quit without ever attending high school. By 1937 improvements in transportation had led to consolidation, and the number of school districts in the county had dropped to seventeen. All of the schools were graded, and school terms varied from a low of 110 days to a high of 179 days. More than 600 pupils were attending high school that year. Still, resources were inadequate, and fewer than one-third of the county's teachers had received a bachelor's or higher degree. By 1955 all of the school districts in the county had been consolidated into the Pittsburg Independent School District. In 1980 less than twenty percent of all children between the ages of sixteen and nineteen had dropped out of school before graduating from high school, and for the first time in its history, more than 50 percent of the county's residents over the age of twenty-five had graduated from high school.
In 2014 the census counted 12,621 people living in Camp County. About 57.6 percent were Anglo, 16.9 percent were Black, and 23 percent were Hispanic. Almost 70 percent of residents over twenty-five had graduated from high school and more than 12 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agribusiness, chicken processing, light manufacturing, and the timber industry were the key elements of Camp County's economy. In 2002 the area had 399 farms and ranches covering 69,343 acres, 50 percent of which were devoted to crops, 32 percent to pasture, and 14 percent to woodlands. In that year farmers and ranchers in the county earned $81,672,000 (down 46 percent from 1997); livestock sales accounted for $80,751,000 of the total. Poultry and poultry products, beef, dairy cattle, horses, peaches, hay, blueberries, and vegetables were the chief agricultural products. Pittsburgh (population, 4,586) is the county seat and the largest town in the county; other communities include Leesburg (128) and Rocky Mound (71).