Colorado County, located about sixty miles above the Gulf of Mexico in south central Texas, is bounded on the northeast by Austin County, on the southeast by Wharton County, on the south by Jackson County, on the southwest by Lavaca County, and on the northwest by Fayette County. It is roughly rectangular in shape except for a small strip extending to the southwest. The center point of the county is at 29°38' north latitude and 96°32' west longitude. The county was named for the Colorado River, which bisects it northwest to southeast. Columbus is the county seat. Colorado County is crossed by Interstate Highway 10, U.S. highways 90 and 90A, and State Highway 71, as well as by the Union Pacific railroad. The county includes 964 square miles of level to rolling land with elevations that range from 150 to 425 feet above sea level. The annual rainfall is forty-one inches. The average minimum temperature in January is 41° F, and the average maximum in July is 96°. The growing season lasts 280 days. From 11 to 20 percent of the land is considered prime farmland. Colorado County has several different soil sections: light-colored soils with clayey subsoils predominate in the southwest and northeast; poorly drained soils with cracking, clayey subsoils are found along the Colorado River; and loamy soils with cracking, clayey subsoils characterize the center. The northwest part of the county, in the Blackland Prairie area, supports elm, oak, pecan, and mesquite trees along streams. The remainder is a post oak savanna, where post oak, blackjack oak, and elm grow, with walnuts and pecans along streams.
Colorado County has been the site of human habitation for some 12,000 years. Archaic-age hunters and gatherers lived in the county on deer, bison, roots, and nuts. Within the historic period, the Coco branch of the Karankawa tribe hunted through the area, and Tonkawa Indians ranged up into the area from the south. When La Salle's party camped on Skull Creek on January 20, 1687, the Frenchmen found an Indian village that they called the Hebemes. It is probable that the fourth expedition of Alonso De León crossed the county in search of Fort St. Louis in 1689. Martín de Alarcón traversed the area on his way to La Bahía del Espíritu Santo in 1718, and in 1766 and 1767 the Marqués de Rubí crossed the Colorado near the site of present Columbus on his tour of inspection of East Texas.
The territory that is now Colorado County was settled by Anglo colonists, many of whom belonged to Stephen F. Austin's Old Three Hundred, beginning in 1821. A number of families settled near Beeson's Ford, several miles south of the site of present Columbus. In November 1822 the settlers along the Colorado River in the future Colorado and Wharton counties were authorized by the Mexican government to elect an alcalde. Early in 1823 a skirmish was fought between a militia company from the settlement and a band of Cocos along Skull Creek. In August of that year the Baron de Bastrop, Rawson Alley, Austin, and a party of slaves surveyed 170 acres above the Atascosito Crossing on the Colorado. The site was to be the capital of Colorado Municipality and the headquarters of all the Austin colony, but the location was later abandoned in favor of San Felipe de Austin. The frequency of Indian raids in the area and the fact that more colonists were located on the Brazos than on the Colorado probably caused the change in plans. Between 1824 and 1834 sixty-one individuals received land grants from the Mexican government in the future Colorado County. Columbus grew up at the site of Dewees Crossing, five miles north of Beeson's Ford, in 1835 (see DEWEES, WILLIAM BLUFORD). When Sam Houston's army retreated from Gonzales after the battle of the Alamo, it camped on the east bank of the Colorado in Colorado County, and the Mexican army camped about two miles west of the river; the armies remained for seven or eight days. Other Mexican troops under Antonio López de Santa Anna arrived on March 25, 1836, and Houston ordered further retreat. During the Runaway Scrape hundreds of persons crossed the river at Benjamin Beeson's ford.
Colorado County, one of the original counties of the Republic of Texas, was formed in 1836 and organized in 1837, the first district court being held by Robert M. Williamson in April 1837 at Columbus, the county seat. By 1840 there were 249 heads of families and 319 slaves in the county. A German settlement grew up around the community of Frelsburg around 1839, and the first German university in the state, Hermann University, was chartered there in 1844. Men from Colorado County made up most of Company E, First Texas Mounted Riflemen, during the Mexican War. Cotton and corn were the main crops grown in the 1840s. Among the more notable plantations in the county was that of Robert Robson, who arrived from Dumfries, Scotland, about 1839 and built a concrete castle of homemade lime and gravel on his estate on the south bank of the Colorado River. The castle, surrounded by a moat crossed by a drawbridge, was probably the first building in Texas to have running water, and was a center of social life for the local planters. A steamboat, the Flying Jenny, ran from the castle up the Colorado to Austin. The county was heavily dependent on the river for transporting its crops in the 1840s and 1850s. Keelboats and flatboats operated in the early years of the county, and by the 1840s the Moccasin Belle and other steamboats carried cotton from the county to Matagorda. Water traffic was heavy until the Colorado became too blocked by a raft of floating and sunken timber. Railroads displaced river navigation after the Civil War.
By 1850 the county population was 2,257, including 644 Black enslaved people. Corn, cotton, and tobacco were the primary crops. Farmers raised sheep, hogs, cattle, and dairy cows in significant numbers. Colorado County grew dramatically in the 1850s, reaching a population of 7,885, including 3,559 African Americans, in 1860. A significant plantation economy had emerged, based on cotton. Fourteen Colorado County men had fortunes of $100,000 each in 1860. That year the county had 397 farms, many of them small establishments that existed alongside of the great plantations. Slaveowning was widespread; of 306 slaveholders in the county, 160 held fewer than 5, while 12 had 50 or more and 4 had more than 100. In 1856 the county was the scene of what may have been one of the few attempted slave insurrections in Texas. According to local reports as many as 400 slaves plotted to arm themselves and fight their way to Mexico, but before they could act a slave gave the plot away, and several slaves were executed by hanging or by being whipped to death. In the 1850s new communities were founded at Osage and Oakland. Two other towns, Eagle Lake and Alleyton, grew up on the line of the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway, which began to build into the county in 1859. For a time Alleyton flourished as an important cotton-shipping point. The county's first newspaper, the Colorado Citizen, began publication in 1857 in Columbus. Colorado County had the fifth-largest cotton crop of all Texas counties in 1860, more than 14,000 bales. It also had four slaveholders who owned more than 100 slaves each. Alongside of the cotton and corn grown on the plantations and farms, sheep ranching reached its all-time peak in the county (6,034 head) in 1860. With almost 30,000 head, cattle ranching began to assume an important role in the county economy.
In 1860 the county voted in favor of secession 584 to 330. Most of the sizable number of German settlers were opposed to leaving the Union, and the predominantly German town of Frelsburg voted against the secession proposal 154 to 22. On the other hand, most of the Anglo settlers in the county favored secession. At least three "castles" of the Knights of the Golden Circle had been formed in Colorado County by December of 1860. During the Civil War, men from the county served in a number of military units; they formed companies in the Fifth Texas Cavalry and the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Seventeenth Texas Infantry regiments. Although there was no actual fighting in the county, the war devastated the county economy. The extent to which Colorado County had been dependent on slavery is shown by the drop in value of county farms from $3,066,070 in 1860 to $493,890 at the end of the war. While the value of livestock in the county fell by about half during the decade, the value of overall farm property fell by five-sixths. In spite of the decline of the county economy, the population continued to grow, reaching 8,326 in 1870.
Reconstruction was a difficult period of adjustment for county residents. Columbus was occupied by federal troops in June 1865, and was intermittently the site of small garrisons through 1870. Freedmen's Bureau agents stationed in Columbus opened schools for Black children and attempted to mediate labor contracts between planters and freedmen. An organization similar to the Ku Klux Klan, composed of Colorado and Fayette County men and formed around a nucleus of Confederate veterans, was active in the county in the late 1860s. Several Blacks from Colorado County held state and county office during and after Reconstruction, including county commissioner Isaac Yates, state representative B. F. Williams, and county commissioner Cicero Howard. A few lawless Colorado County Whites attempted to intimidate Black voters in 1873 by killing two freedmen, though the county nevertheless voted for Republican governor Edmund J. Davis that year and supported Republican presidential candidates from 1872 to 1884. In spite of the growth of one of the White Man's Union Associations in the county in the late 1870s, Blacks continued to hold county office through the 1880s, elected a second Black legislator, Robert Lloyd Smith, as late as 1894, and in 1896 helped produce the last Republican majority the county saw until the 1950s. The formation of the White Man's Reformation Association in 1894 and the White Man's party in 1902 restricted the Black vote in primaries. The poll tax led to the official disfranchisement of Black voters in the county by 1904 (see ELECTION LAWS, and WHITE PRIMARY). From a peak of 3,990 voters in 1896, the number of voters declined some 62 percent to 1,518 eight years later. The county electorate did not again approach the voting levels of 1896 until the 1950s. With the exception of a strong third party showing in 1920, from the election of 1900 until the 1950s the county remained solidly Democratic. After 1952, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower carried the county, Colorado County began to trend more strongly Republican. Subsequently, local voters supported Republican presidential candidates in 1956, 1968, and 1972, and from 1980 through 2004.
Feuding and violence occurred amid the postwar recovery. C. C. Herbert, a prominent planter and legislator, was murdered in 1867. Three local families, the Staffords, the Townsends, and the Reeses, were involved in a number of murderous incidents in the final decades of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century, including the Colorado County Feud. Meanwhile, further development of the railway network invigorated the economy. The Columbus Tap Railway, a branch line from Columbus to the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway, had been chartered before the Civil War but was not actually completed until 1867. This line was farther extended from Columbus to the west in 1873, linking the county with San Antonio and leading to the founding of Weimar. The San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway built through the county in the late 1880s, and about 1900 the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe was built from Eagle Lake to Matagorda. The Missouri, Kansas and Texas later built across the northeastern tip of the county. The 1870s through the 1890s were decades of dramatic growth for the county. The number of farms grew between 1870 and 1880 from 456 to 1,666 and reached a peak of 2,992 in 1900. The county population more than doubled in the 1870s, reaching 16,673 in 1880, and then increased at a more moderate rate to a maximum of 22,203 in 1900. The value of farms increased fourfold between 1870 and 1880 and surpassed prewar levels by 1890. Colorado County's prosperity at this time was based on cotton, corn, and cattle. In 1880 cotton, the dominant agricultural product, was planted on 32,994 acres; corn acres totaled 28,711. The dependence of the county on cotton and corn reached its peak about 1900, when 69,093 acres was devoted to cotton and corn was grown on 39,861 acres. These two crops together accounted for 60 percent of improved acres in the county. Cattle raising reached a peak of 108,368 head in 1880 and declined thereafter to 34,879 head in 1900.
Substantial numbers of Europeans entered Colorado County after the Civil War. Germans, present in the area since the early 1830s, numbered 776 in 1870. This number increased to 1,328 by 1880, when 207 Austrians also lived in the county. The number of foreign-born Whites in the county, mostly from Germany, Austria, and the future Czechoslovakia, reached its peak in 1890, when 2,376, or 22 percent of the Whites in the county, were of foreign birth. The Black population grew as well, reaching a peak of 46 percent of the county population in 1880; thereafter, while continuing to grow in absolute numbers, African Americans declined in relative terms to 43 percent of the whole by 1900.
After 1900 several new crops became important to county agriculture. Rice, which had been introduced in the county in 1898, became economically feasible with large-scale irrigation around the turn of the century and was grown on 15,000 acres in 1903. Sugarcane was also an important crop. A large sugar refinery was opened in the community of Lakeside in 1901. Dairy farming also grew in prominence during these years. The county had several creameries by 1913. However, cotton and corn remained the most important crops until the 1940s. In 1930, of the 87,200 acres of cropland harvested, 43,551, or 50 percent, was planted in cotton, and 28,052 acres, a further 32 percent, was planted in corn. In the 1930s and 1940s cotton declined in importance, amounting to only 7 percent of the cropland harvested in 1950, while farmers continued to grow substantial amounts of corn and began growing hay. Rice, grown on more than 40,000 acres in 1950, was the most important crop that year.
Farm tenancy rose and fell with the vagaries of the cotton market. Tenant farming had become a dominant feature of Colorado County agriculture by 1900, when 1,632, or 55 percent, of the county's 2,992 farms were occupied by tenants. Blacks were far more likely to become tenants than Whites; in 1900, 59 percent of White farmers owned their land, while only 21 percent of Black farmers were owners. Tenant farming declined somewhat in the early decades of the twentieth century to 47 percent in 1910 and 48 percent in 1920, only to shoot back up again during the Great Depression to a record 60 percent of the 2,589 farms in 1930. During the 1930s and 1940s both the number of farms and the tenancy rate fell, and by 1950 only 29 percent of the county's 1,840 farms were worked by tenants.
After dropping 15 percent between 1900 and 1910 to 18,897, Colorado County's population remained relatively static during the twentieth century, numbering 19,129 in 1930, 17,638 in 1970, and 18,383 in 1990. The migration of Blacks from the county started after 1900; they declined to 37 percent of the county population in 1910, 30 percent in 1940, 25 percent in 1950, and 17 percent in 1990. Mexican Americans formed 14 percent of the county population in 1980 and 15.4 percent in 1990. Throughout most of the twentieth century Columbus, the county seat and largest town, was the home of 15 to 20 percent of the county's population. The town had 3,367 residents in 1990.
The county oil and gravel industries began to develop in the first decade of the twentieth century. Companies and individuals began to explore for oil in the county as early as 1901, though the first significant find did not occur until 1932. By 1990, 31,523,143 barrels of oil had been produced in the county. Almost 420,500 barrels of oil and 20,588,278 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 41,221,056 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1932. Digging gravel for commercial purposes began by 1906. The county had two gravel companies by 1910 and has been one of the leading producers of gravel in the state since the 1930s. In 1980 the economy was dominated by agribusiness, the extraction of sand and gravel, and oil and gas production. The county was third in the state in rice production. Other major crops were corn, hay, soybeans, oats, and sorghum. Hogs and cattle were the principal livestock, though dairying remained an important feature of the economy. In 1982, 94 percent of the land in the county was in farms and ranches and 20 percent of the farmland was in cultivation. In the 1980s, with cutbacks in the oil and gas industry and in gravel production, the county suffered a depressed economy. The same primary businesses had rebounded somewhat by 1990.
Colorado County has made slow but steady progress over the years in educating its citizens. The first schoolhouse in the county was built in Columbus in the early 1830s. By 1879 the county had sixty public schools, thirty-six for White students and twenty-four for Black. In spite of the efforts of the public schools and several parochial establishments, as late as 1910, 14.5 percent of the county population was illiterate; the illiteracy level among Black residents was more than twice as high at 30.5 percent. In 1950 only 1,170 county residents over age twenty-five, about 7 percent of the county population, had completed high school. Ten years later that number had more than doubled to 15 percent, and by 1980, 42 percent of county residents over age twenty-five were high school graduates. In 1980 Colorado County supported forty-six churches, with Catholic, Southern Baptist, and United Methodist as the largest communions.
In 2014the census counted 20,719 people living in Colorado County. About 58.3 percent were Anglo, 27.9 percent were Hispanic, and 13.3 percent were African American. More than 69 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and more than 14 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agribusiness, oil-field services, and oil-field equipment manufacturing were key elements of the area's economy. In 2002 the county had 1,770 farms and ranches covering 538,635 acres, 49 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 39 percent to crops. In that year local farmers and ranchers in the area earned $41,586,000, with crop sales accounting for $22,940,000 of that total. Rice, cattle, corn, nursery plants, poultry, hay, and sorghum were the chief agricultural products. The county is well supplied with recreational facilities and tourist sites. With neighboring Washington, Fayette, and Austin counties, it forms part of the Texas Pioneer Trail. Columbus is rich in Victorian-era homes, a number of which are open to the public during the Magnolia Homes Tours the third weekend in May. The Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge hosts a festival every October. Incorporated communities in Colorado County include Columbus (population, 3,842), the seat of government; Weimar (2,223); and Eagle Lake (3,868). Weimar hosts a "Gedenke" (Remember) celebration on Mother's Day.