Coleman County (J-12) is located in west central Texas. Coleman, the county seat and largest town, is sixty miles southeast of Abilene. The center point of the county is 31°45' north latitude and 99°25' west longitude. The county is bordered on the south by the Colorado River, on the north by Taylor and Callahan counties, on the west by Runnels County, and on the east by Brown County. Coleman County encompasses 1,280 square miles. It lies in the transitional area between the Edwards Plateau and the Rolling Plains and has some characteristics of each. Rolling hills dominated by mesquite brush and oaks predominate in the county. The county has an elevation range of 1,500 to 2,250 feet. The most significant topographic features include Jim Ned Peak (2,140'), Chandlers Peak (2,173'), and Robinsons Peak in the northern half of the county; and the Santa Anna Mountains (2,000'), Speck Mountain (1,520') and Parks Mountain in the southern half. The flora and fauna of Coleman County are typical of west central Texas; species are mostly western, but some eastern plants and animals can be found. The flora consists of three natural types-mesquite-grassland savanna, upland scrub, and bottomland woodland along the creeks and the Colorado River. The fauna of the county includes such reptiles as yellow mud turtles, Texas map turtles, Western cottonmouth snakes, hognose snakes, Western diamond-backed rattlesnakes, coachwhips, horned toads, and the eastern tree lizard; birds such as turkeys, screech owls, wood ducks, turkey vultures, and red-tailed hawks; and such mammals as white-tailed deer, black-tailed jackrabbits, opossums, and ringtails. The natural resources of the county include oil, gas, rock, and clay. The northern half of the county is drained by Jim Ned and Hords creeks, which meet and flow into Pecan Bayou in neighboring Brown County. Both creeks have been dammed and have reservoirs on them, Coleman Lake on Jim Ned Creek and Hords Creek Lake on Hords creek. The southern half of the county is drained by the Colorado River. Grape and Bull creeks are the two major tributaries of the Colorado within the county. Coleman County has an average growing season of 235 days. It receives 26.82 inches of rainfall on the average annually. Temperatures range from a mean January low of 34° F to a mean July high of 96°.
Human occupation of the future Coleman County began 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, as archeological evidence along the Colorado indicates. Closer to modern times, the area was dominated by the Lipan Apaches and the Comanches. European exploration into the county was not frequent, but as many as four seventeenth-century Spanish explorations came through the area. In 1632 a Father Salas led an expedition to the upper Colorado; in 1650 captains Hernán Martín and Diego del Castillo explored the western portion of the county. Four years later Diego de Guadalajara followed the same path as Martín and Castillo, and in 1683–84 Juan Domínguez de Mendoza established a short-lived mission somewhere near the confluence of the Concho and Colorado rivers. The exact location, however, is unknown and has been the subject of some debate. Some archeologists and historians put the mission site at the Concho-Colorado confluence, while others put it at the site of present-day Leaday in Coleman County.
Anglo exploration of the county came with the establishment of Camp Colorado. The camp was originally located in what later became Mills County, but in August of 1856 was moved to Mukewater Creek on the Jinglebob Trail of John Chisum in the eastern part of Coleman County. Because of disease the camp was moved in July 1857 twenty miles north to Jim Ned Creek. Camp Colorado was operated by the United States Army until the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861–62 the camp housed state militiamen, and from 1862 to 1865 a company of Texas Rangers was stationed there. Some of the notables who served at Camp Colorado include Earl Van Dorn, John Bell Hood, Edmund Kirby Smith, Lawrence S. (Sul) Ross, and Fitzhugh Lee. In 1870 the site was purchased by H. H. Sackett.
Coleman County was formed in 1858 from parts of Brown and Travis counties. Organization began in 1862 and was completed in 1864. The county was named for Robert M. Coleman, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence and an aide to General Houston at San Jacinto. After organization was completed settlers began moving into the county. Some of the more notable were Rich Coffey, William Day, Mabel Doss Day Lea, and John Chisum. Chisum established a store at Trickham and maintained a ranch headquarters on Home Creek in the southern part of the county. Coffey established himself on a ranch between the site of present Leaday and Voss about 1866. He also served as a county commissioner, participated in the first county grand jury, and was part of a commission to select a new county seat. William Day ran a ranch in the southwestern corner of the county. His holdings sprawled from Grape Creek in the north, eastward to Elm Creek and then southward to the Colorado River. He died in June 1881 from injuries received in a cattle stampede. His wife, Mabel, whom he had married in 1879, continued to run the ranch for a time after his death. Because of debts she sold the ranch to homesteaders in 1904.
Camp Colorado served as the county seat from 1864 to 1876. But with an increasing population, a new county seat in a more central location was needed. In 1876 a commission was selected to find a suitable site. Early that year a tract on Jim Ned Creek was chosen as the site of the future city of Coleman. In July 1876 town lots were sold to settlers. The "second city" of Coleman County, Santa Anna, came into existence three years later. It had formerly been called Gap because of the cleft in the Santa Anna Mountains but changed names when the residents petitioned for a post office.
The years between 1880 and 1920 were prosperous for Coleman County. Agriculture dominated the local economy. In 1880 the county had a population of 3,603. There were 435 total farms with an average size of 389 acres. The estimated value of all farm products that year was $154,727. In 1890 the county's agriculture showed a modest growth, and the population had increased to 6,112. The number of farms had increased to 582, with an average size of 696 acres. The estimated value of farm products increased to $286,610 by 1890. Between 1880 and 1890 the number of sharecroppers increased significantly. In 1880 there were thirty-two sharecroppers in the county, or a little over 7 percent of the operating farmers. In 1890, however, there were seventy-six sharecroppers, or about 13 percent of the operating farmers. This trend continued into the twentieth century.
The local economy continued to grow overall, however. The county population increased through the first two decades of the twentieth century. In 1900 it stood at 10,077. By 1910 it had doubled. In 1910 farm products worth almost $6 million were produced and $821,102 worth were sold. Coleman also grew at a rapid pace, from 1,362 people in 1900 to 3,406 in 1910. In 1910 manufacturing concerns produced over $74,000 worth of goods in the town.
Between 1910 and 1920 the economy began to falter, particularly in agriculture. In 1917 only 12.74 inches of rain fell, and the cotton crop suffered. That year the cotton crop was 15,231 bales, but in 1918 it was only 916 bales. The drought became so bad that the city of Coleman had to import water. People moved away; the census of 1920 recorded only 18,805.
In the same decade the oil industry began in Coleman County. Natural gas had been discovered around Trickham, and in 1916 the wells were producing 2½ million cubic feet of gas a day. In 1917 oil was discovered north of Coleman on the J. P. Morris ranch. By the end of 1918 Coleman County had produced over 31,000 barrels of oil.
In the 1920s the agricultural economy of Coleman County was depressed. In 1919 the value of the crops grown was more than $10 million, but crops grown in 1924 were worth only a little over $6 million. Tenancy increased dramatically in the twenties. In 1920, 54.8 percent of Coleman County farmers were tenants. By 1925 tenants amounted to over 63 percent. The oil industry began to grow in this decade, however, and continued to grow for the next thirty years. In 1927 the county produced more than 400,000 barrels of oil.
Coleman County reached its highest population in 1930, with 23,669 people. This increase signaled no boom, however. Throughout the 1930s the farm economy was depressed, and the oilfields experienced only modest growth. The Great Depression hit county farmers hard, and tenancy continued to increase. In 1935 the number of tenants was almost twice that of farm owners. But oil continued to flow; in 1934 and 1935 the county produced almost 500,000 barrels of oil annually.
The years after the depression saw many changes in Coleman County. In the next four decades the county experienced a decrease in population, a stabilization of agriculture, and booming oilfields. The population of the county in 1940 was 20,571, a figure representing a net decline of 13 percent since 1930. For the first time in many years the farm segment of the economy began to improve. In 1945 only about one-third of the farm operators were tenants, and of these the largest group were cash tenants. The oilfields of the county were producing over a million barrels a year by 1948.
In 1950 the population of Coleman County had declined to 15,503, nearly 25 percent less than in 1940. Also by 1950 the urban population increased significantly. More than 42 percent of the county's population was urban by 1950, compared to a little less than 30 percent in 1940. The oil industry, centered in Coleman, accounted for this shift in population. Coleman had 6,530 people in 1950. Oil reached its peak in the county during the 1950s and early 1960s. In a period of about ten years Coleman County produced over three million barrels of oil a year. Agriculture continued its rise. With the loss of rural population, the number of holdings decreased, but the average size increased due to a greater reliance on machinery. In 1950 there were 1,596 farms with an average size of 485.7 acres. In 1954, however, the number of farms had decreased to 1,427, and the average size of each holding had increased to 526.7 acres. Tenancy continued to decrease. In 1950, 37.3 percent of the county's farmers were tenants. By 1954 tenancy had decreased to 34.5 percent. Again most of these were cash tenants.
In the 1960s and 1970s the economic trends of the previous two decades continued. The population of the county declined to 12,458 by 1960. For the first time in the county's history most of the population was urban. By 1960 the number of farms had decreased to 1,105 and earned an annual income of over $7 million. The petroleum industry began to slow down, however. In 1968 production was a little over a million barrels, less than half the yield of 1960.
The 1970s brought similar changes. In 1969 the county had 1,073 farms with a total area of 795,000 acres; the value of products of these farms was almost $9 million. By 1974 the number of farms had decreased to 847, and the total area under cultivation had also decreased, to 747,000 acres. However, the value of farm products sold annually had increased to $10 million. Oil production slowed further during the 1970s. In 1972 the county produced just over 700,000 barrels of oil; in 1976 the total was 643,000. Production increased during the 1980s, increasing to nearly one million barrels, but in the early 1990s it had fallen to about 700,000 barrels annually.
Politically Coleman County has been staunchly Democratic, though in the late twentieth century the Republican party made strong inroads, particularly in national and statewide races. Between 1952 and 1990 Republican presidential candidates have outpolled their Democratic counterparts in every election except those of 1964, 1976, and 1992. Republican candidates in gubernatorial and senatorial contests also fared well. In 1980 the county population had increased to 10,439 people, as compared to 10,288 in 1970. In 1990 the county population was 9,710, and it was 8,430 as of 2014.