Cherokee County is located in central East Texas, bordered on the north by Smith County, on the east by Rusk and Nacogdoches counties, on the south by Angelina County, and on the west by Anderson and Houston counties. It was named for the Cherokee Indians, who lived in the area before being expelled in 1839. Rusk, the county seat, is 130 miles southeast of Dallas and 160 miles north of Houston. The center of the 1,049-square-mile county is located near Rusk at 31°48' north latitude and 95°10' west longitude.
The soil surface in Cherokee County consists of sandy and clay loams interspersed with alluvial bottoms. Redlands cover a fourth of the county. A forest of shortleaf and loblolly pine with mixed hardwoods covers 57.6 percent of the land. Timber, rich soils, abundant water, oil, natural gas, clays, and iron ore lead the list of natural resources. The hilly terrain ranges from 250 to 570 feet above sea level. The Neches River forms the western boundary of the county and the Angelina River the southeastern boundary. Three major reservoirs lie wholly or partly within the county: Lake Palestine, Striker Creek Reservoir, and Lake Jacksonville.The underlying Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer provides much of the water supply to municipalities. Average annual rainfall is 44.26 inches. The temperature ranges from an average low of 38° F in January to an average high of 94° F in July. The average growing season extends 258 days.
Early Indian habitation has been thoroughly investigated at the George C. Davis Site at Mound Prairie, six miles southwest of Alto. Evidence of all stages of southeastern Indian development has been found, beginning with the 12,000-year-old Clovis culture. Indian development reached its peak after the arrival of the Caddos about A.D. 780. The Early Caddoan Period, which lasted until about 1260, saw the development of Mound Prairie as a regional ceremonial center with three earthen mounds, the southwesternmost examples of the Mississippian mound-building culture. In the Late Caddoan Period, Mound Prairie was abandoned, but numerous sites show a continuing Caddo presence in the northern two-thirds of the county. At the time of European contact, two tribes of the Caddoan Hasinai Confederacy lived in the county: the Neches, in scattered hamlets between Mound Prairie and Alto, and the Nacachau, located north of the Neches.
The record of early European contact is somewhat vague. Luis de Moscoso Alvarado may have passed through in 1542, and the French of the La Salle expedition probably visited in 1686–87. A strong Spanish influence came into the area in 1690 with the establishment of San Francisco de los Tejas Mission in neighboring Houston County. The first documented entry of Europeans came on November 6, 1691, when the expedition of Domingo Terán de los Ríos and Father Damián Massenet entered the county en route from San Francisco de los Tejas to the Red River. The mission was abandoned in 1693, and Europeans ignored the area until 1705, when French traders led by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis began to do business among the Hasinais. To counter the resultant growing French influence, Spanish authorities sent Capt. Domingo Ramón to establish a series of missions and a presidio in East Texas. On July 3, 1716, Ramón founded Nuestro Padre San Francisco de los Tejas Mission among the Neches Indians. In June 1719 French pressure led to the temporary abandonment of the mission, but the Marqués de Aguayo reoccupied the site on August 5, 1721, at which time it was renamed San Francisco de los Neches. The Spanish permanently abandoned the mission in 1730. Thereafter, a mission at Nacogdoches maintained the Spanish presence in the area.
The first land grant in the county went to Nacogdoches merchants William Barr and Peter Samuel Davenport in 1798, but they did not settle there. The Indians for whom the county was named—the Cherokees—joined by Delawares, Shawnees, and Kickapoos, began settling north of the Camino Real (the Old San Antonio Road) about 1820. Cherokee chiefs Bowl, Richard Fields, and John Dunn Hunter tried unsuccessfully to obtain title to their land from the Mexican government. Anglo-American settlers began moving onto land claimed by Cherokees near Linwood in the late 1820s. Indian hopes suffered another blow when in 1826 David G. Burnet obtained an empresario grant to lands north of the Camino Real, and the area south of the road fell to empresario Joseph Vehlein.
Rapid settlement began in 1834. The Houston-Forbes treaty (see FORBES, JOHN) of February 23, 1836, seemingly assured Cherokee neutrality, but the rejection of the treaty by the Texas Senate and the increased encroachment of settlers on Indian land led to violence. On October 5, 1838, Indians massacred members of the Isaac Killough family at their farm northwest of the site of present Jacksonville (see KILLOUGH MASSACRE). This led directly to the Cherokee War of 1839 and the expulsion of all Indians from the county. White settlers quickly occupied the abandoned Indian farms, and the communities of Pine Town, Lockranzie, Linwood, and Cook's Fort developed. Cherokee County was marked off from Nacogdoches County on April 11, 1846, and was organized on July 13 of that year, with the town of Rusk as the county seat. Only one family lived at Rusk then.
The county's settlers were mostly from the South and brought with them the economic and social traditions of that region. The 1850 population of 6,673 was the third largest in the state. By 1860 the population had grown to 12,098, of whom 3,250 were slaves, two were free Blacks, and fourteen were Spanish surnamed. Of the White families, 29 percent owned slaves, although only thirty-two plantations had twenty or more slaves; seven slaveholders in the county owned more than forty slaves. Cotton was important to the local economy, and in 1860 local farmers produced 6,251 bales of the fiber. The area's principal crops, however, were corn and wheat. County farmers produced more than 496,000 bushels of corn in 1860, and about 21,000 bushels of wheat (see COTTON CULTURE, CORN CULTURE, WHEAT CULTURE).
Cherokee County voters strongly supported secession, and twenty-four companies from the county entered Confederate service. The Confederate Army maintained two training camps, a prisoner of war camp, a large commissary depot, and conscription and field-transportation offices in the county. War demands allowed the development of two iron foundries and a gun factory.
After the war, despite a brief military occupation, Republicans had little impact and did not seriously challenge Democratic control. There was little evidence of Ku Klux Klan or other terrorist activity in the county during Reconstruction. Until the 1990s the only serious challenge to Democratic control came from the Populist party, which carried the county in local elections with strong Black support in 1894 and 1896, despite the leading role in the Democratic party of Governor James S. Hogg, a native of Rusk. The voters of Cherokee County supported the Democratic candidates in 1848, 1852, 1856, and 1860, and in every presidential election from 1872 through 1964; the only exception was in 1956, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower carried the area. The county's political balance shifted substantially after 1968, when independent candidate George Wallace won a plurality of the county's voters, and 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon took the county by an almost two-to-one margin over Democrat George McGovern. Though Democrat Jimmy Carter took the county in 1976 and (just barely) in 1980, the Republicans carried the area in every presidential election from 1984 through 2004.
Baptists, who organized the first church in 1844, remain the largest religious denomination. Methodist and Presbyterian churches also appeared at Alto, Rusk, and Jacksonville in the 1840s. Blacks organized separate congregations shortly after obtaining freedom. Other Protestant groups appeared in the twentieth century. A Catholic parish has been active in Cherokee County since 1905, but it remained quite small until the recent influx of Hispanics.
Educational institutions began to develop in Cherokee soon after White settlement in the area. There was a secondary academy by 1848, and in 1850 Cherokee County had seventeen public schools and ranked first in the state in the number of school children attending (537 males, 446 females). In 1854 the county commissioners established forty-four school districts, which received some public assistance. Higher education was available as early as 1855 at Hale Institute in Rusk, but the most important institution of higher education was Larissa College, which opened in 1856. The Civil War considerably disrupted education, but with Reconstruction came free public education for children of all races. Improved transportation in the twentieth century led to consolidation of the rural schools. There are now six independent school districts wholly in the county, while parts of three others extend into the northern part of the county. Desegregation came in the 1966–69 period. Higher education is now represented by two church-related junior colleges, Lon Morris College and Jacksonville College, and by North American Theological Seminary. By 1980, 49.6 percent of Cherokee County residents over age twenty-five had completed at least twelve years of school; in 2000, almost 69 percent had graduated from high school and more than 11 percent had college degrees.
In addition to Rusk, several new towns appeared shortly after the organization of the county. Larissa, founded in 1846 in the northwest part of the county, became the largest town. Gum Creek, soon renamed Jacksonville, was founded in 1847. Alto was established on the Old San Antonio Road in 1851. Lone Star (originally Skin Tight), Knoxville, and Griffin were other pioneer communities.
Railroad construction and agricultural development, especially the expansion of cotton cultivation, helped the county to grow and mature between 1870 and 1900. In 1870 there were 1,216 farms and ranches in Cherokee County, and the county had a population of 11,079; by 1900, 3,683 farms and ranches had been established in the county, and the population had increased to 25,154. During this same period total acres in farms rose from 133,014 to almost 341,000; the number of improved acres more than tripled, from about 43,000 to almost 149,000.
The arrival of the railroads also drastically altered the settlement pattern. All the old towns except Jacksonville, Rusk, and Alto disappeared, unable to compete with the new railroad centers. The International-Great Northern (later the Missouri Pacific), built in 1872, gave rise to Troup and a relocated and revitalized Jacksonville. Between 1882 and 1885 the Kansas and Gulf Short Line built north-to-south through the county, producing new towns—Bullard, Mount Selman, Craft, Dialville, Forest, and Wells—and bringing rail service to Rusk and Alto. In 1905 the Texas and New Orleans produced Cuney, Reese, Turney, Gallatin, Ponta, and Reklaw. Maydelle appeared on the Texas State Railroad in 1910. The only new town not associated with a railroad was New Summerfield, which was founded as a market center in the late 1890s. The automobile and school consolidations led to the growth of the four central towns—Jacksonville, Rusk, Alto, and Wells—at the expense of the others, which today typically have only one or two stores.
The decline of farming, which began in the 1930s, and increased industrial job opportunities in the years during and after World War II led to another major population shift. County population reached a peak of 43,970 in 1940, then declined to 38,694 in 1950, and to 33,120 in 1960 before dropping to its lowest point of 32,008 in 1970. Yet, during these same years, the population of the larger towns in the county increased. This indicated both emigration from the county to outside urban areas and migration within the county from the countryside to the towns.
Although no longer preeminent, agriculture remains important in the economy. Cotton replaced wheat as the major crop immediately after the Civil War, and continued to grow in importance into the twentieth century; in 1928 the county's cotton production reached its maximum (36,951 bales), and in 1929, 113,689 acres of Cherokee County farmland was devoted to its cultivation. But in the 1930s production fell sharply because of low prices and New Deal allotment programs; by 1940 cotton production utilized only about 45,000 acres in the county. Peaches became important after the introduction of refrigerator cars in 1893, and Cherokee County orchards produced a record of 1,204 carloads in 1912 before the San José scale and marketing troubles brought a decline. In the late 1930s, however, peach production revived somewhat (see FRUITS OTHER THAN CITRUS). From its beginnings at Craft in 1897, tomato culture grew until by 1917 Cherokee County produced 90 percent of the tomatoes shipped from Texas. Tomatoes remained a major product in the county until increased competition and marketing problems caused a sudden collapse in the 1950s. Since then, Cherokee County agriculture has centered on cattle and timber. The nursery industry dates from the 1880s and is of increasing importance in the New Summerfield-Reklaw area. Some truck farming still exists, and dairies remain significant. Some poultry production remains from the boom of the late 1950s. Sharecropping, which had been prevalent since Reconstruction, largely disappeared with farming. The typical Cherokee County farm of today is a beef-and-timber operation run as a sideline by a landowner with a job in town.
The twentieth century brought great improvements in transportation. The first automobile arrived in 1905; by the 1920s automobile ownership was commonplace. During the 1930s and 1940s the basic highway system was paved. Four federal and four state highways now cross the county, while hundreds of miles of paved farm-to-market roads network the rural areas. Rail transportation has been sharply curtailed. The last passenger train ran in the late 1960s, and in the early 1980s the Southern Pacific stopped all service, as did the Cotton Belt, south of Rusk. The first airport in the county was established at Jacksonville in 1934. The present county airport, built in 1961, has no scheduled airline service.
Sawmills provided the first industry, beginning with John Durst's mill at the lower San Antonio Road crossing of the Angelina in 1832. Three times the rich iron ore deposits have produced important industries. Blast furnaces operated during the Civil War, in the 1884–1909 period, and during World War II. The industry led to the founding in 1888 of New Birmingham, which grew to be a city of some 2,000 inhabitants before collapsing completely as a result of the panic of 1893. After World War II industry became an important element of the private sector of the county's economy, employing around 30 percent of the private-sector work force. By the late 1970s Jacksonville had become the industrial and commercial hub of the county; more than sixty firms there made wood, metal, and plastic products. Altogether, some 114 manufacturing firms operated in the county in 1977. Oil was discovered in 1933, but technical and financial difficulties prevented development until 1934. Thanks to later discoveries, petroleum and natural gas production contributed to the county's economy throughout the late twentieth century and beyond. Almost 291,600 barrels of oil and 13,822,614 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 70,710,888 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since production began.
By the early 1980s some 26 percent of the county's labor force worked in professional and related services (a relatively high figure reflecting employment at the Rusk State Hospital), 22 percent in manufacturing, and 18 percent in wholesale and retail trade. Tourism grew increasingly important, spurred by the establishment in 1971 of the Texas State Railroad State Historical Park. During the 1970s the area's population began to grow again, rising to 38,127 in 1980 (a 19.1 percent increase over 1970) and to 41,049 in 1990.
The census counted 50,902 people living in Cherokee County in 2014. In that year, about 61.8 percent of the population were Anglo, 14.9 percent were African American, and about 21.7 percent were Hispanic. In the early twenty-first century timber, nurseries, some industries, and agriculture were the central elements of the area's economy. Almost 13,859,000 cubic feet of pinewood and over 6,490,000 cubic feet of hardwood were harvested in the county in 2003. In that same year, there were eighty manufacturing firms in the county, many of which produced plastics, coils, or timber products. In 2002 the county had 1,508 farms and ranches covering 286,306 acres, 42 percent of which were devoted to crops, 33 percent to pasture, and 21 percent to woodlands. In that year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $123,180,000; crop sales accounted for $86,332,000 of the total. Nursery plants, dairy, beef cattle, hay, and truck crops were the chief agricultural products. Towns include Rusk (population, 5,638), the county seat; Jacksonville (15,236); Alto (1,243); Wells (825); New Summerfield (1,154); Cuney (140); and Gallatin (439). Reklaw (389) is partly in Rusk County, while Troup (1,884) and Bullard (2,679) are mostly in Smith County. The Texas State Railroad State Historical Park in Rusk is a popular tourist attraction, and Jacksonville hosts a Tomato Fest in June.