Concho County, in Central Texas, straddles the northern edge of the Edwards Plateau. The county derives its name from the Concho (or "Shell") River, which in turn was named for the large number of mussels found there. The center of the county lies at approximately 31°20' north latitude and 99°52' west longitude. Paint Rock, the county seat, is situated in the north central part of the county on U.S. Highway 83, approximately thirty miles east of San Angelo and 150 miles northwest of Austin. Concho County comprises 992 square miles with an elevation of 1,600 to 2,100 feet above mean sea level. The terrain in the north is rolling, with steep slopes and benches, while that to the south, on the Edwards Plateau, is flat but broken by numerous deep creekbeds. The thin and stony soil of the Edwards Plateau supports oak, juniper, and mesquite, while the clay loams to the north sustain grasses, mixed with oak, juniper, and mesquite in the northwest and with mesquite in the north central region. The county is drained by the Concho River, which flows east to west across the northern part, and by the Colorado River, which forms the northeastern county line. Major creeks, or creek systems, include Dry Hollow, Kickapoo, Duck, Mustang, Brady, and South Brady. The creekbeds were originally thick with elm, live oak, and post oak trees. Of the total county area, 11 to 20 percent is considered to be prime farmland. Temperatures range from an average low of 33° F in January to an average high of 97° in July. Rainfall averages twenty-three inches; snowfall, three inches; and the growing season, 228 days per year. The climate, on the whole, is mild and dry. Natural resources include oil and gas, limestone, caliche, dolomite, and bituminous coal. In 1982, 218,748 barrels of oil and 1,982,444 thousand cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county.
The two sites of Indian activity in Concho County that have drawn the most attention lie along the bluffs of the Concho and Colorado rivers. About a mile west of Paint Rock, above the Concho, are found some of the most noted Indian pictographs in Texas (see PAINT ROCK). To the east of Paint Rock on the Colorado, the area of O. H. Ivie Reservoir has been the scene of the most intensive archeological investigation in the county. Evidence here indicates occupation as early as 10,000 to 8,000 B.C. The area was attractive for its plentiful food, water, and lithic resources, and for the protective high cliffs along the river. The diet of the groups who camped here may have consisted of such plant foods as yucca, prickly pear, mesquite beans, pecans, and grass seeds, as well as fish, mussels, prairie chickens, and wild turkeys. Deer would not have been abundant, and buffalo may not have been generally available until the late Archaic Period (ca. A.D. 1100). In 1981 this area marked the farthest point north that ring middens and burned-rock middens had been discovered.
Around 1500 Athabascan-speaking Indians associated with the prehorse Plains culture lived in this part of Texas. In the 1600s the Jumanos established themselves along the Concho and traded with the Spaniards. Seeking protection against the Lipan Apaches, in 1683 the Jumanos requested that the Spaniards establish a mission in their territory. In response to this request Juan Domínguez de Mendoza led an expedition in 1684 that built a temporary mission, San Clemente, at a location that has been fixed variously west of Ballinger, near the confluence of the Concho and Colorado, on the South Llano, and on the San Saba a little west of Menard. After several months, however, attacks by the Apaches forced the Spaniards to withdraw. By 1771 the Jumanos had apparently been absorbed by the Lipans. A map of Texas in 1776 places the area of Concho County within the domain of the Lipans, which extended southward from the Colorado River. The territory above the Colorado belonged to the Comanches, and that east of the Colorado to the Tonkawas. By about 1840 the Comanches had overrun the area of Concho County and pushed as far south as the vicinity of modern Austin. By the late 1850s the Lipan Apaches had reestablished control over the Concho valley, though Comanches continued to raid along the river in the 1860s and 1870s. The last significant conflict in the area between Indians and whites ended with the 1874 campaign of Ranald S. Mackenzie, which drove the remaining Indians out of the region and forced them onto reservations.
The area of present-day Concho County was included in the Fisher-Miller Land Grant of 1842. By 1845 the Adelsverein (the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas) had secured complete rights to the Fisher-Miller contract. In 1847 John O. Meusebach, after concluding a peace treaty with the Comanches, sent surveyors into the tract on behalf of the society. The area surveyed included much of the land along the banks of the Concho River now in Concho County. Although the colonization contract stipulated that the lots surveyed should be as nearly square as possible, the survey marked off long lots along the Concho. This may have been done to increase access to a water supply, since rain in the region is sparse. The Concho country did not yet attract immigration, however, as it lay beyond the farming frontier where Indian attacks were frequent.
The next notable settlement in the area took place in 1849, when Robert S. Neighbors led a small expedition in search of a wagon route to El Paso. American interest in establishing routes to the West had been intensified in 1848 by the acquisition of the Mexican Cession and by the discovery of gold in California. Neighbors's group, which included John S. Ford, crossed the southern part of the future Concho County, following the course of Brady Creek. The route that Neighbors subsequently recommended, known as the Upper Route, passed just south of the county; it was used extensively by emigrants and the military.
The legislature formed Concho County out of Bexar County in 1858, but it was not organized until 1879. In the meantime, in the early to middle 1860s, cattlemen began to move into the open range in Concho and adjacent counties. John S. Chisum, the first large-scale cattleman in the county, established a string of cow camps on the Concho River in the northeastern part of the county in 1862 or 1863. He moved his headquarters to New Mexico in 1873, though he still had a camp on the Concho near the site of present-day Paint Rock in the fall of that year. There is no record of his activity in the area after 1875. Other large early operations included the U-Bar and OH Ranch, or Concho Cattle Company, which first ran cattle about 1878, and the Davies and Holland Ranch. Both of these operated in the 1880s and 1890s. For the most part, however, ranching in Concho County was relatively small-scale.
As the Texas farming frontier advanced, cattle drives shifted from the more easterly Chisholm and Shawnee trailsqqv to the Western Trail. The Western Trail began in South Texas and pushed northward through the center of Concho County, crossing the Colorado River at the Concho-Coleman county line. Near the site of present-day Eden the Goodnight-Loving Trail branched off from the Western Trail and led toward New Mexico. By the mid-1880s, however, most of the grazing land in Concho County had been enclosed. In 1888 the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway completed a line from Ballinger, in Runnels County, to San Angelo, in Tom Green County, giving Concho County ranchers their closest rail access to markets. It was another two decades, however, before railroads built into Concho County itself.
Concho County was organized in 1879, after the required petition was signed by at least seventy-five voters. There being no established community in the county, the vote to select officers and a site for the county seat was held near Mullins Crossing on the Concho. The location chosen for the county seat was at a ford on the Concho about a mile below the mouth of Kickapoo Creek, twelve miles west of the confluence of the Concho and Colorado rivers, and five miles south of the Concho-Runnels county line. The county seat was named Paint Rock, after the nearby pictographs. The town developed steadily. By 1884 it had an estimated population of 100 and had become a shipping center for pecans, wool, hides, and mutton (the cattle were routed elsewhere). In 1886 a permanent courthouse was constructed.
Eden, on Hardin Branch in the south central region of the county, was established in 1882. By 1931, when Paint Rock had reached its peak population of 1,000, Eden had surpassed it with 1,194. Thereafter the population of Paint Rock declined and that of Eden remained relatively constant. The southwestern part of the county saw the development of several early communities, but none of them attained any size, and the names of all but one have disappeared from the map. These included Kickapoo Springs, Erskine, and Vigo, which succeeded one another on virtually the same location on Kickapoo Creek. Ruth and Live Oak (the latter still marked on the 1963 county map) were situated approximately ten miles and eight miles southwest of Eden, respectively. In the west central part of the county grew up the small communities of Vick and Henderson Chapel and, around the turn of the century, the more substantial community of Eola. In 1988 Eola was the third largest town in the county. Lowake, on the Concho, San Saba and Llano Valley Railroad in the far northwestern corner of Concho County, was established in 1909. Concho, a small community on the Concho River about seven miles northeast of Paint Rock, maintained itself through the 1960s. Millersview, in the east central region, acquired a post office in 1903 and in 1988 was the fourth largest community in the county. In the southeast, the communities of Pasche, Welview, and Lightner grew up along the railroads that entered the county around 1910, but none of these has survived.
At the time of the first census, most settlers had come from Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Kentucky, in that order. A map of nineteenth-century cultural distributions in the county shows the eastern half dominated by the "Appalachian hill folk" culture, a way of life imported chiefly from the Appalachians and Ozarks and oriented to a subsistence economy. The western half of the county had a blend of the Appalachian culture and that of the middle-class upper South, which embraced grain and cotton farming and was oriented to a market economy.
Between 1910 and 1912 three railroad lines were completed into or through Concho County. The Concho, San Saba and Llano Valley was completed from Miles, in southwestern Runnels County, to Paint Rock in 1910. In 1911 the Fort Worth and Rio Grande Railway completed a line across the southeastern corner of the county, and in 1912 the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe finished a line from Lometa, in Lampasas County, to Eden. All of these lines have been abandoned, that to Paint Rock in the mid-1930s and those to Eden and through the southeastern corner in 1972.
The population grew steadily from 800 in 1880, the date of the county's first census, to 1,427 in 1900. Over the next ten years the figure jumped to 6,654, the greatest increase in the county's history. Part of this growth may have been stimulated by the work of the Pecan, Colorado, Concho Immigration Association, which operated during the 1890s on behalf of Concho and ten other counties. The influx was also doubtless encouraged by a number of wet years between 1895 and 1910, which, together with the introduction of improved dry-land-farming techniques, made agriculture appear more viable. In addition, an act of the state legislature in 1895 made the purchase of public land easier by reducing the price and allowing forty years for payment at 3 percent interest. After peaking at 7,645 in 1930, the population of Concho County began a steady decline that was intensified by the drought of 1950–56. In 1980 the population stood at 2,915.
The population of Concho County has remained overwhelmingly white. Fewer than twenty black residents have been enumerated in every census year except 1920, when 198 were reported, and 1930, when 82 were counted. It is difficult to trace the presence of Hispanics in the county because they were apparently not recorded separately from Anglos until recently. In 1980, the first year in which they were specifically enumerated, Hispanics in Concho County numbered 806, or 28 percent of the total population.
In the mid-twentieth century, concentrations of ethnic groups in the county included pockets of Germans in the northwest corner and a cluster of Swedes on the Concho-McCulloch county line. In 1970 over 100 Czechs resided in the vicinity of Eola, in the far west central part of the county. A 1971 map of religious affiliation showed, in the extreme northwest corner, a Catholic simple majority with substantial Lutheran and Reformed representation. In the extreme southeast, Baptists were a simple majority and Methodists had a significant presence. Elsewhere in the county Baptists were an absolute majority and Methodists a minority.
The local economy, based originally on cattle, soon embraced sheep ranching and farming. In 1988, when Concho County was the leading sheep-producing county in Texas, 60 percent of its $15 million in farm income came from sheep, cattle, and goats, and the leading crops were grains and cotton. In 1982 farms and ranches occupied 95 percent of the county. Sheep were first introduced into the county in the 1870s and by 1890, the year of the first enumeration, numbered 41,724. After a coyote-eradication campaign between 1917 and 1922 the number of sheep soared, increasing from 41,802 in 1920 to 220,533 in 1930. Most shepherds employed in the care of these flocks were Mexican-American pastores. Angora goats also became an important resource. Their numbers increased from 197 in 1900 to 4,248 in 1920 and 18,483 in 1930. The largest increase in cattle came between 1880 and 1900, when the number reached 56,182. This figure was reduced by almost half over the next decade, when farming became widespread, and fell to a low of 11,903 in 1940. After that date the number of cattle rose again, reaching a total of 26,364 in 1969.
The number of farms in Concho County increased dramatically between 1900 and 1910, the decade of swiftest population growth. The total of 865 farms in 1910, compared to 119 in 1900, marks the second highest recorded level, next to the top figure of 1,137 reached in 1930. Subsequently the number of farms declined to 376 by 1982. Though farm acreage fell slightly during the period of rapid growth between 1900 and 1910, the number of improved acres increased more than tenfold. Of the land under cultivation, by far the most was devoted to cotton, a crop that dominated Concho County agriculture until the 1930s, partly because it is relatively drought resistant. The number of acres devoted to cotton culture rose from 591 in 1900 to 38,734 in 1910. By 1930 the figure had soared to 72,381 acres (65 percent of the acres harvested).
With cotton cultivation came tenant farming. In 1900 only four of the county's 119 farms had been operated by tenants. By 1910, more than half the farms in the county were tenant-operated. A drought in 1917–18 reduced both the total number of farms and the number operated by tenants, so that by 1920 owner-operated farms were slightly more numerous. As the number of acres planted in cotton doubled between 1920 and 1930, however, the number of tenant farmers soared. During this decade, also, sharecropping became a prominent feature of Concho County agriculture. In 1930, 449 farms were operated by owners and 682 by tenants, of whom 619 were sharecroppers-a greater than tenfold increase in sharecroppers since 1920.
The dramatic increase in cotton production in Concho County reflected the fiber's growing importance both at home and abroad. But by 1928 prices began to signal a glut in the market. With the onset of the international depression, revenues from cotton plummeted. Between 1928–29 and 1932–33, the average gross income per cotton-farm family fell nationwide from $735 to $216. Beginning in 1933 the federal government undertook a series of measures designed to limit the amount of cotton grown. Other factors discouraging production included an increased import allowance on foreign-grown cotton, the introduction of synthetics, and a shortage of labor during World War II. In 1940 cotton still claimed the most acres in Concho County, but the number had fallen to 29,301, while sorghum culture, which now occupied 21,556 acres, had made heavy inroads on former cotton lands. By 1969 cotton cultivation accounted for 10,837 acres, or 11 percent of acres harvested. The drop in cotton acreage resulted in the displacement of large numbers of tenant farmers throughout the South. Between 1930 and 1950, the number of rented farms in Concho County rose from 63 to 164, but the number of farms worked by sharecroppers fell from 619 to 25. In 1910 sorghum grains were second in importance to cotton in Concho County, with 10,241 acres in cultivation. By 1950 sorghum had surpassed cotton, and wheat culture had risen to rough parity; that year sorghum was grown on 33,346 acres, cotton on 30,502, and wheat on 25,803 acres. In 1969 wheat claimed 27,397 acres (27 percent of acres harvested) and sorghum, 22,698 acres (23 percent of acres harvested). Like cotton, sorghum and wheat are relatively drought resistant. In 1982, 7 percent of Concho County farmland was irrigated.
Manufacturing has never become established in Concho County on a significant scale. One manufacturing establishment was reported in 1982, and the county has seldom recorded more than that figure.
Between 1930 and 1940 the Great Depression reduced the number of farms in Concho County by more than half (1,137 to 483), while the population declined from 7,645 to 6,192. Federal programs provided some relief: between 1933 and 1940 the Concho County Agricultural Adjustment Office disbursed $1,649,465 to county farmers and ranchers. Federal programs also made possible soil and range conservation measures, which were then implemented for the first time on a wide scale. Terracing and contour farming were introduced, and funds became available for the construction of dams, tanks, and wells, and for the eradication of prickly pear cactus. In 1940 Concho County became part of a soil-conservation district. The use of tractors also seems to have become prevalent during the 1930s, as the number of mules, which had averaged 1,717 in the three census years since 1910, dropped to 257 in 1940.
In the early decades, education in Concho County was largely a matter of one-teacher country schools. By 1940 the county had four independent school districts, in the incorporated communities of Paint Rock, Eden, Eola, and Millersview, and ten common-school districts. A study conducted that year found significant differences in the education offered by these districts. The common schools had a more limited curriculum and also placed greater instructional demands on their teachers, having too few instructors for the number of grades taught. In addition, fewer than half of the teachers in the common schools had completed bachelor's degrees (8 of 23), while virtually all of the teachers in the independent school districts had done so (46 of 47). By 1955 the total number of districts had been reduced to four and by 1989 to two, Paint Rock and Eden. Between 1950 and 1960, the percentage of Concho County residents over the age of twenty-five who had completed high school doubled, rising from 10 to 21 percent. In 1982, 218,748 barrels of oil and 1,982,444 thousand cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county. In 1990 the population of Concho County was 3,044.
Most Concho County voters supported the Democratic presidential candidates in virtually every election from 1880 through 1964; the only exception occurred in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover won a plurality of the county’s votes. Republican candidates began to become more competitive in the area after 1968, when Democrat Hubert Humphrey won only a plurality of the county’s votes, and 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon took the county with a comfortable majority. Democrats won majorities in the county in 1976, 1982, and 1988, but Republican Ronald Reagan won there in 1984. In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton won a plurality of the county’s votes; in 1996, Republican Bob Dole did. George W. Bush carried the county with comfortable majorities in 2000 and 2004.
The U.S. census counted 4,050 people living in Concho County in 2014. About 42.6 percent were Anglo, 54.5 percent were Hispanic, and 2.5 percent African-American. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 66 percent had completed high school, and 15 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agriculture remained the central element of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 411 farms and ranches covering 544,312 acres, 72 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 26 percent to crops. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $14,309,000; livestock sales accounted for $7,444,000 of the total. Sheep, cattle, goats and feed grain were the chief agricultural products. More than 506,500 barrels of oil were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 25,948,824 barrels of petroleum had been taken from county lands since 1940, when oil was first discovered in the area.
Paint Rock (population, 262) remains the county’s seat of government; other communities include Eden (2,725), Eola (215), Millersview (80), and Lowake (40). County attractions include boating, hunting, fishing, the Paint Rock pictographs, and the Concho County Fair, which is held annually in August and September.