Chambers County, named for Thomas Jefferson Chambers, is a rural county less than twenty miles east of Houston in the Coastal Prairie region of Southeast Texas. The county is divided by the Trinity River. It comprises 616 square miles of level terrain that slopes toward Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, its southern and southwestern boundaries. The center point of the county is at 29°42' north latitude and 94°41' west longitude. The elevation rises from sea level to fifty feet. Chambers County has a subtropical, humid climate, with rainfall averaging forty-nine inches, a mean annual temperature of sixty-nine degrees, and a growing season averaging 261 days per year. The soils are chiefly coastal clay and sandy loam. The flora includes tall grasses, live oaks, cypress, pine, and cedar trees, as well as hardwoods along rivers and streams. The Union Pacific provides railroad service, and Interstate Highway 10 was built through the county in 1955. The county's abundant coastal marshland has never supported a large population, but its watery lowlands support the rice culture that yields the county's principal crop. Other farmers raise significant numbers of beef cattle, hogs, sheep, and poultry, as well as corn, feed grains, citrus fruits, vegetables, and some cotton. Natural resources include salt domes, industrial sand, and pine and hardwood timber; oil, gas, and sulfur are present in commercial quantities. Hurricanes that have struck Chambers County include those of 1875, 1900, 1915, 1943, 1957, 1961, and 1983.
Archeological excavations in the county have produced artifacts dating to A.D. 1000. Karankawa, Coapite, and Copane Indians lived in the area when the first expeditions traveled the lower Trinity River. The land that became Chambers County formed part of the Atascosito (or lower Trinity River) District, a subdivision of Nacogdoches in Spanish Texas. By the late seventeenth century the French intruded on Spanish interests by trading with the Indians as far as the Sabine. French trader Joseph Blancpain's expedition to the area along Galveston Bay and the lower Trinity in 1754 provoked Spanish efforts to protect the region with a system of missions guarded by adjoining presidios. In 1756 Spanish missionaries established Nuestra Señora de la Luz Mission near the site of present Wallisville, and, to gain strategic control of the lower Trinity, soldiers constructed San Agustín de Ahumada Presidio on its east bank near what is now the Chambers-Liberty county line. Missionaries worked with Orcoquiza Indians who inhabited the region. After the 1763 Treaty of Paris removed the French threat by awarding Louisiana to the Spanish, storms and constant Indian hostility resulted in removal of the missions to another location in 1766 and abandonment of the settlements by 1772. In 1805 Spanish troops landed at what is now Smith's Point to reinforce the Atascosito ("Marshy") community, but by 1812 few Spanish settlers had moved into the region. It was subsequently used by filibusters as a staging ground to mount attacks against Spanish Mexico.
By the early 1800s, Alabama and Coushatta Indians had arrived in the area from Alabama, assimilated the local Bidais and Orcoquizas, taken over their livestock trade with settlers along the Atascosito Road, and planted crops. A colony of French exiles from Napoleon's Grand Army under Charles François Antoine Lallemand, planning to free Napoleon and put his brother Joseph on the Mexican throne, attempted to establish themselves near the site of present Anahuac in 1818, but were driven out by the Spanish. Jean Laffite left the area permanently around 1820.
Mexican influence in the area increased after the Mexican war of independence from Spain in 1821, and Mexican place names replaced many earlier designations. In 1825 Perry's Point, the principal port of entry for the colonial grant, was renamed Anahuac, after the ancient capital of the Aztecs. American settlement began in 1821 at the invitation of the Mexican government. Some of Laffite's men stayed, and empresarios Haden Edwards, Joseph Vehlein, David G. Burnet, and Lorenzo de Zavala received grants in the area. The major part of what is now Chambers County became Vehlein's grant. T. J. Chambers received land for serving as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Coahuila and Texas and, in 1829, as surveyor general. Chambers's home, built in 1835, today houses the county library. Other early settlers, largely from southern and western Louisiana, included Peter Ellis Bean, James Morgan, James Taylor White, and the Wallis family, which settled at the future site of Wallisville. White is believed to have introduced a herd of longhorn cattle at Turtle Bayou in 1827; other farmers raised rice and cotton, and the lumber industry became important by the 1850s. Antebellum education in Chambers County was private.
Struggles between Anglo settlers and Mexican authorities increased as officials sought to prevent further immigration from the United States and maintain control. The Mexican government established Fort Anahuac in 1830 and gave command of the port at Anahuac to John Davis Bradburn, whose difficulties with the settlers culminated in the Turtle Bayou Resolutions and the eventual withdrawal of the Mexican garrison. Bradburn also arrested Francisco I. Madero, whose commission was to grant land titles to American immigrants. In a further foreshadowing of the Texas Revolution, discontented settlers rose against Mexican rule in 1835 in a conflict set off by disagreements over Mexican tariff policy (see ANAHUAC DISTURBANCES). At the same time, others chose to get along with a lax Mexican government that levied no taxes and frequently failed to enforce the law. A substantial number of these moved eastward during the Texas Revolution.
In the 1840s, the western edge of the future county was developed. Among those who acquired land was Sam Houston, who established a home at Cedar Point around 1837. The first post office was established at Anahuac, then known as Chambersea, in 1844. When the area became part of Liberty County after independence, land quarrels broke out, among them the notorious conflict between Charles Willcox and Chambers, who, with property valued at more than half a million dollars by 1860, was the county's wealthiest resident.
Chambers County was formed in 1858 from Liberty and Jefferson counties, and organized the same year with Wallisville as its county seat. By 1860, census returns reported merino sheep, 26,632 cattle, and only 344 slaves countywide, a reflection of the importance of livestock in the local economy. Of sixty families that owned slaves in 1859, John White held thirty-three, and only twelve families among the remainder owned more than ten. Cotton growing increased in the antebellum period, but by 1860 only 100 cotton farmers operated in a county population of 1,508. Industry was confined to a steam sawmill and a shipyard.
Chambers County residents voted 109 to 26 for secession, and many participated in the ensuing conflict. The Liberty Invincibles, formed in 1861, joined Company F of the Fifth Regiment of Texas Volunteers. Others joined the Twenty-sixth Regiment of Texas Cavalry, the Moss Bluff Rebels, which became Company F of the Twenty-first Regiment of Texas Cavalry, or Company B of the Texas State Troops. Fort Chambers was established by Confederate troops in 1862 to protect the Gulf Coast, and Union troops reached Liberty by July 1865, but no major fighting occurred in Chambers County.
During Reconstruction the county began to recover from the hardships of war, but by 1870 its population had dropped to 1,503, below the prewar total. Roughly one-third of this number were Black, and as many as fifteen African Americans were property owners. The Freedmen's Bureau opened a Black school at Wallisville in 1869, and other Black and White schools opened in 1871. By 1898 thirteen White schools were operating with an enrollment of 324, and ten Black schools with 211. Local politics reflected a struggle for control between those seeking to institute reforms and others resistant to change. Among the most notable incidents was Gen. Joseph J. Reynolds's attempt in 1869 to remove county and city officials who did not qualify under the Iron Clad Oath. Other conflicts arose from Ku Klux Klan opposition to the Union League, which sought to enroll Black voters, and from other opposition to improvements in the lives of former slaves. In 1876 the election of local officials reflected passage of a new Texas constitution that overturned many Radical Republican reforms. Thereafter the white primary and the poll tax remained as obstacles to civil rights.
The opening of a meat-packing plant in Wallisville in the 1870s reflected the continuing importance of ranching in the Chambers County economy, though many cattlemen drove their herds north to Kansas City or shipped them after railroad service reached the area. The Whites and Jacksons maintained large ranches, and James Jackson introduced wire fencing on 26,000 acres in 1882. Price declines after the Civil War kept cotton farming to a minimum. Brickmaking on Cedar Bayou supported a Galveston building boom in the 1870s, while other manufacturers turned to boatbuilding, particularly at the Turtle Bayou Shipyard. The lumber industry centered at Wallisville helped that city to grow in the 1880s and 1890s, while Anahuac remained unoccupied.
Because railroad routes reached no farther than the county's eastern and western borders by the 1890s, with the exception of a single branch line that provided freight service to the interior, Chambers County remained isolated and dependent on steamer traffic and other water transportation to Galveston. No important towns developed in the county until 1896, when settlers from the Midwest, who also developed the port at Bolivar, helped to complete the Gulf and Interstate Railway from Beaumont to Bolivar Peninsula. Later, important railroad towns developed at Winnie and Stowell, in the extreme northeastern part of the county. Railroads in the western part of the county were first built from Dayton to the Goose Creek oilfield by Ross S. Sterling and later taken over by the Southern Pacific.
A disastrous fire at the county's wooden courthouse destroyed early records in 1875, hurricanes in 1875 and 1900 damaged crops and livestock, and a smallpox epidemic in 1877 killed many residents. Though some farmers left Chambers County after the 1875 hurricane, total farms increased from 146 to 327 between 1870 and 1900. In the latter year the total acres in farms reached 366,436; farm value had increased tenfold in the previous ten years. General prosperity resulted in a near doubling of the population between 1880 and 1910 from 2,187 to 4,234. In 1900 county farmers owned a total of 49,000 cattle, the highest in the county's history.
Between 1910 and 1930, tenant farmers increased from roughly 27 percent to more than 35 percent of all farmers. Mules in use as draft animals reached a high of 1,022 in 1920. In the early 1900s, canal development by the Lone Star Canal Company and other firms enabled some farmers to begin rice farming, while others in the eastern part of the county turned to truck farming. A total of 210,000 barrels of rice was harvested in 1903, and significant quantities of sweet potatoes, Indian corn, and sugar were produced by 1910. Lumber peaked at Wallisville in 1906, but declined during the panic of 1907. The largest local mill and the community's only important industry, Cummings Export Lumber Company, built by the Cummings brothers in 1898, closed in 1915 when another major hurricane blew through.
In 1906 Wallisville adopted a stock law to prevent pigs from running loose. Anahuac had become a boomtown. In 1908 Anahuac supporters filed suit and, in spite of Wallisville's genteel swine law, succeeded in making their town the county seat. Efforts to dissolve the county itself were made in 1915, 1923, and 1925 as conflicts developed over stock laws, prohibition, and the county seat question; these were complicated by offers of lower taxes from Harris and Liberty counties, whose officials hoped to cash in on Chambers County oilfields.
Despite increased agricultural production, the Chambers County population declined from 4,234 to 4,162 between 1910 and 1920, then rose again to reach a high of 5,710 by 1930 as a growing oil boom brought new residents to the area. Barbers Hill oilfield, developed after 1918, reached its peak production of 8,082,000 barrels in 1933; the field was later serviced by five pipelines. Oilfields were subsequently discovered at Lost Lake, Anahuac, Monroe City, and Turtle Bay, and near Hankamer, and gas reserves were developed in the eastern part of the county. Oil production provided jobs and revenue that helped the county weather the Great Depression with relatively little discomfort, and brought in workers who increased the population to 7,511 by 1940. Transportation gains after 1926 included the extension of State Highway 146 from Anahuac to Stowell.
During World War II many Chambers County residents found employment in refineries and shipyards at Baytown, Houston, Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange. After September 1943 rice farmers employed German prisoners of war from camps in Liberty and Chambers counties. The establishment of the Fraternity of the White Heron, the Forward Trinity Valley Association, the Texas Water Conservation Association, and the Chambers-Liberty County Navigation District advanced area water interests, including the dredging of a channel from the Houston Ship Channel to Smith Point, Anahuac, and Liberty. The Trinity Bay Conservation District was started in 1949. Major highway improvements were made to Farm roads 563 and 565 and State Highway 73, later Interstate 10.
After the war the population grew to 7,871 by 1950 and 10,379 by 1960. By 1959 county farms totaled 483, of which roughly 62 percent were commercial and only 12.4 percent tenant-operated. Mining, contract construction, wholesale distribution, petroleum extraction, and natural-gas production were the chief county industries. Only four manufacturing firms were operating, among 112 mining and mineral establishments. By 1966, though the overall population continued to increase, no populated place in Chambers County had as many as 2,500 inhabitants; 22.5 percent of the population was described as living in poverty; and the population density was only nineteen persons per square mile. In this period, many Black residents left for jobs in urban areas.
Growing national support for environmental preservation and passage of the 1967 National Environmental Policy Act had important effects on Chambers County. Relying upon an earlier study by the United States Army Corps of Engineers in preparation for the construction of a saltwater barrier across the Trinity River to aid rice farmers, improve river navigation, and provide increased water supplies for adjacent counties, in 1960 state legislators proposed a 23,200-acre reservoir and wildlife refuge that would inundate Wallisville. Despite protests, engineers purchased the townsite, the plan was approved in 1962, and work began. Excavations led to the unearthing of a primitive burial site and other historic discoveries. Ultimately, the project drew the interest of the Sierra Club, and other environmental groups as well as a representative of the commercial shrimping industry filed suit against several state and national agencies. In 1973 a United States district judge ordered construction stopped, when the project was 75 percent complete. The corps of engineers eventually wrote off the $23 million investment and in 1977 recommended a smaller project. Wallisville Heritage Park, established in 1979, henceforth preserved the townsite and some of the community's historic buildings.
Between 1970 and 1980 the rural population of Chambers County grew 52 percent, and in the early 1980s the total county population was 19,100. People of English origin comprised 27 percent, Irish 17 percent, French 6½ percent, African-American 14 percent, and Hispanic 3 percent. Forest products and cattle, along with rice and soybeans, potatoes, peaches, and pecans constituted the county's principal products. A total of 288 business establishments operated countywide, including sixteen manufacturing establishments with 400 employees. Oil and gas extraction, agribusiness, petroleum refining, and the manufacture of plastics and resins topped the list of industries. The proximity to Houston enabled many residents to commute to jobs in that city. In the late 1980s, after a number of petroleum-industry-related accidents nearby, residents of Mont Belvieu were moved and the community was purchased by oil companies, which rebuilt it at another location. The county's three school districts included four elementary, three middle, and three high schools. Whereas in 1960 only 10 percent of the population had completed high school and fewer than 3 percent had completed college, 57.5 percent of the county population had completed high school and 10 percent had finished college in 1982. By 1990 the county's population had grown to 20,088.
Chambers County residents consistently supported Democratic presidential candidates up to 1920, but voted Republican in roughly half of subsequent elections, including those for Warren Harding in 1920, Herbert Hoover in 1928, Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and George H. W. Bush in 1988 and (with a plurality) in 1992. By the end of the twentieth century the area was solidly Republican. Bob Dole took the county in 1996, and George W. Bush won solid majorities in 2000 and 2004.
In 2014 the census counted 38,145 people living in Chambers County. About 69 percent were Anglo, 8.3 percent were African American, and 20.6 percent were Hispanic; other ethnic groups comprised about 1 percent of the population. Almost 77 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 petroleum and chemical production, agribusiness, fish and oyster processing, and tourism were key elements of the area's economy. In 2002 the county had 610 farms and ranches covering 274,853 acres, 49 percent of which were devoted to crops and 44 percent to pasture. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $13,374,000, with livestock sales accounting for $7,899,000 of that total. Rice, cattle, soybeans, corn, grain sorghum, and sugar cane were the chief agricultural products. More than 1,732,000 barrels of oil and 23,892,480 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 907,859,827 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1916.
Incorporated communities in Chambers County include Anahuac (population, 2.288), the seat of government; Beach City (2,365); Cove (505); Mont Belvieu (4,418); Stowell (1,839); Old River-Winfree (1,248); and Wallisville (300). Several important wildlife areas are located in Chambers County, including Moody National Wildlife Refuge and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, at the juncture of Oyster Bay and East Bay. Lake Anahuac and Fort Anahuac Park were built in the 1940s, H. H. (Hub) McCollum Park in 1959, and Whites Park in 1965. The Texas Rice Festival, which began in 1969, is celebrated annually at Winnie-Stowell in September.