Coryell County, in central Texas about 210 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, is bordered by Hamilton, Bosque, McLennan, Bell, and Lampasas counties. Gatesville, the county seat, is on U.S. Highway 84 and State Highway 36, about eighty miles north of Austin and 110 miles southwest of Dallas. The county's center lies about four miles southwest of Gatesville at approximately 31°23' north latitude and 97°48' west longitude. The present county comprises 1,031 square miles of plateaus and grasslands in the Grand Prairie region, with elevations ranging from 600 to 1,493 feet above sea level. Its two principal streams are the Leon River, which drains the northern and eastern parts of the county, and Cowhouse Creek, which drains the western and southern areas. Soils vary widely in the county, but most are alkaline with limestone underneath. Indigenous trees include red cedar, live oak, Spanish oak, burr oak, shin oak, cedar elm, hackberry, pecan, redbud, Mexican plum, buckeye, ash, and Eve's necklace; native grasses include bluestems, gramas, and buffalo grass. Approximately 25 percent of the county is considered prime farmland. The fauna includes deer, armadillos, skunks, coyotes, bobcats, opossums, ring-tailed cats, badgers, foxes, raccoons, and squirrels, as well as assorted birds, fish, and reptiles. The climate is temperate; the average minimum temperature is 33° F in January, and the average maximum is 97° in July. The growing season averages 244 days annually, and the rainfall averages about thirty-two inches.
Archeological evidence suggests that Central Texas, including Coryell County, has supported human habitation for at least 12,000 years. The hunting and gathering peoples who had established themselves along the Leon River by 4500 B.C. were probably ancestors of the Tonkawa Indians, who resided in the area in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Another Central Texas tribe, the Lipan Apaches, became neighbors of the Tonkawas sometime after 1300. In later years Kiowas sometimes resided in the area, and the Comanches occasionally passed through.
The area that became Coryell County was part of the Milam Land District, assigned by the Mexican government for settlement first to Robert Leftwich in 1825, and later to Sterling C. Robertson. Some of the land was surveyed as early as 1835, but few settlements existed before the late 1840s, when the United States established Fort Gates and other military posts along the frontier to protect incoming residents from Indians. The line of frontier forts was moved farther west in the early 1850s, and Fort Gates was abandoned in 1852. Settlers in the Fort Gates area numbered about 250 at that time, and they began to campaign for a county seat. In 1854 the legislature established Coryell County and named it in honor of frontiersman James Coryell, an early landholder. Residents chose the site for Gatesville, the county seat, in an election held in May 1854.
Besides Fort Gates, settlements established in Coryell County in the 1850s included Mound, Coryell Church, Rainey's Creek (Coryell City), Langford Cove (Evant), Boyd's Cove (Bee House), the Grove, Henson's Creek, Spring Hill, Station Creek, Turnover, and Lincolnville. The 1860 census showed the county's free population to be 2,360; 81 of this number were slaveholders, who owned a total of 306 slaves. The majority of residents were from the Old South. Of the heads of households in 1860, the largest number (115) were from Tennessee, forty were from Alabama, and thirty-seven each from Kentucky and North Carolina.
Unlike neighboring McLennan County, Coryell County had few large plantations. Most of its resources were devoted to stock raising and subsistence farming. The 1860 production included 25,000 cattle, 8,500 hogs, 3,800 sheep, 61,000 bushels of corn, 18,000 bushels of wheat, and forty-nine bales of cotton.
Although Coryell County residents owned relatively few slaves, the prevailing sentiment was decidedly in favor of secession. In the fall of 1860 residents held several mass meetings advocating secession and the formation of militia companies. James M. Norris represented the county at the Secession Convention in January 1861 and voted to leave the Union; Coryell County voters approved the ordinance later that year by a margin of 293 to 55. Several companies from Coryell County volunteered for duty in the Confederate Army or to help protect frontier settlers from Indians. Gatesville became headquarters of the Second Frontier District, under the command of Maj. George B. Erath. Local sources give little record of Coryell County during Reconstruction. Election returns for 1869 showed the county choosing Andrew J. Hamilton over Edmund J. Davis for governor by a unanimous vote, 259 to 0; the vote indicated that the Radical Republicans had been banished by that time and the Democrats restored to power.
In national politics, Coryell County was staunchly Democratic from the end of Reconstruction through the late 1960s. However, voters chose Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and George Bush in 1988 and 1992. Occasional third parties, such as the Greenbackers, Populists, and Progressives, drew a sizable portion of the vote, but never enough to swing the county's overall election results. Residents generally voted Democratic in state elections.
Before the Civil War, schools in Coryell County were operated as private or subscription institutions, with state funds supplementing the budgets. The legislature enacted a system of public schools in 1870, and by 1872 Coryell County had twenty teachers and nineteen schools for nearly 600 schoolchildren. Nearly every community either had its own school or was near a community that did. As in many Texas counties, however, extensive schooling was for many children a luxury that took second place to helping on the family farm. As late as 1940 fewer than 9 percent of the population over the age of twenty-five had completed high school. Large-scale consolidation of common schools into independent school districts took place in the 1930s and 1940s, making it possible to use available resources more efficiently. After World War II the percentage of residents who finished school gradually rose. By 1960 nearly 18 percent were high school graduates, and by 1980 the number represented 72 percent of the population over twenty-five.
In the early years of Coryell County few communities had their own preacher; itinerant ministers went from place to place, sometimes staying two or three months in a town. Among the earliest churches established in the county were a Baptist church at Coryell Church in 1854 and a Methodist church at Gatesville in 1854. The first Presbyterian church was organized at Rainey's Creek in 1858. A Christian church was in operation by the mid-1860s, and Germans and Wends brought the Lutheran church to the area, establishing St. John's in Coryell City in 1889. Coryell County had no Catholic church until 1940, when an influx of military families diversified the area's religion; before that, Catholics had to travel to Lampasas or Waco in order to attend services. In the early 1990s, the county had approximately 100 churches, representing fifteen different faiths; Southern Baptist, United Methodist, and Church of Christ were the largest communions.
Like most areas in the South, Coryell County suffered a severe economic decline after the Civil War and throughout Reconstruction. Between 1864 and 1866 the county lost 63 percent of its tax base. About a third of the lost property was in slaves; the rest came from declines in farm acreage, farm value, and livestock value, each of which had fallen 30 to 50 percent by the time of the 1870 census. Recovery was slow because transportation was poor and the economy was so dependent on stock raising and farming.
The county economy began to recover in the late 1860s. The overall population more than doubled between 1870 and 1880, rising from 4,124 to 10,924, and the market for agricultural products increased. The 1880 census reported 1,546 farms in the county, up from 279 ten years earlier, and the amount of improved land rose from 11,831 acres in 1870 to 83,258 acres in 1880. Field crops such as corn, wheat, oats, and cotton took up about 65 percent of the improved land, while livestock dominated the rest. By 1880 the county had nearly 23,000 cattle, 10,300 hogs, and 4,300 sheep. A branch of the Chisholm Trail passed through the county, and the area around Copperas Cove served as a camping ground for traildrivers. When the arrival of the railroad made long trail drives unnecessary, Copperas Cove continued to prosper as a shipping point for cattle. Coryell County ranchers reported more than 46,000 cattle and 19,800 hogs in 1890, but by 1900, due to the influx of new residents from the Old South, farming had become the dominant occupation; cotton, corn, and oats were raised on more than 65 percent of the county's 200,000 improved acres.
Two railroads were completed through Coryell County in 1882: the Texas and St. Louis Railway laid a narrow-gauge track from Waco to Gatesville, and the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe crossed the southern tip of the county near Copperas Cove, making its way from Belton to Lampasas. The arrival of the railroads prompted the establishment of Oglesby, Lime City, and Leon Junction, and provided new economic opportunities for Mound, Gatesville, and Copperas Cove. A third railroad company, the Stephenville North and South Texas, laid track from Hamilton to Gatesville in 1911, providing the northwestern part of the county with easier access to rail service and making the communities of Ireland and Levita more important commercial centers.
Between 1880 and 1900 the population of Coryell County nearly doubled again, rising to 21,308 by the turn of the century. Most of the incoming residents were from other parts of Texas or from other southern states; some, however, came from other countries. New immigrants arrived from Germany in the 1880s and 1890s via Galveston, Lee, and Fayette counties, and from Mexico soon after the turn of the century. In 1930, 145 residents of Coryell County were native Germans, and 352 were native Mexicans. As for African Americans, some former slaves left the county after the Civil War, but most stayed either to continue working for their former owners or to start new lives on their own. One group settled in Lincolnville, about four miles west of Gatesville. Between 1880 and 1950, the number of Black residents in the county increased at roughly the same rate as the White population; Blacks represented from 2 to 3 percent of the county's total population during those years. The permanent establishment of Fort Hood in 1950 changed the ethnic makeup of the county. By the early 1980s, 22 percent of the county's 56,767 residents were of British descent, 21 percent were German, 19 percent were Black, 8 percent were Hispanic, 2 percent were Asian, and 0.6 percent were Indian; the remaining percentage was unspecified.
For the first third of the twentieth century, roughly 30 to 50 percent of the county's improved acreage was devoted to cotton culture, with production generally ranging from 18,000 to 30,000 bales annually; the county's record crop of nearly 58,000 bales occurred in 1906. Production totals fell in the 1930s, as low yields and the onset of the Great Depression persuaded farmers to devote more of their resources to feed crops and livestock. In 1940 farmers planted 50,500 acres in cotton, compared to the 109,000 acres they had planted ten years earlier; in the late 1950s, cotton was grown on fewer than 17,000 acres. No cotton production was reported in the early 1980s.
Farmers and ranchers kept more of their land as pasture for livestock. Sheep and goat ranching, which had been first introduced to the area in the 1850s and 1860s, gradually increased in importance in the 1930s. Production of wool rose from 32,800 pounds in 1920 to 665,700 in 1940, while mohair production increased from about 16,000 to 121,300 pounds; these two industries declined somewhat in the 1960s and 1970s as cattle production increased. The cattle industry remained fairly stable between 1900 and 1940, with the amount of stock on hand averaging about 35,000 head. The number of cattle rose to nearly 48,000 in the late 1960s and to 93,000 in the early 1980s.
Tenant farming and sharecropping, which had accounted for the operation of a third of the county's farms in 1880, increased steadily in the early twentieth century, peaking at 58 percent in 1930. The depression forced some people, many of them tenants, to give up farming and look for work elsewhere. The establishment of Camp Hood in the early 1940s took approximately 225 square miles of land in southern Coryell County, eliminating two dozen communities and nearly 1,200 farms. Although some small farmers in other areas of the county managed to keep their land, the trend was toward larger farming and ranching operations; the number of farms in the county fell from 3,101 in 1930 to 1,841 in 1950 and 991 in 1982, while the average size of a farm rose from 188 acres in 1930 to 268 acres in 1950, and to 627 acres in the early 1980s. In 1950, 28 percent of the farms were run by tenants, and by 1982 that figure had fallen to 12 percent.
By virtue of its rural environment and relatively small population Coryell County escaped many of the hardships suffered by more urban areas during the depression of the 1930s; nevertheless, relief programs were necessary to see local residents through the difficulties that they did experience. Among these programs were two camps established by the Civilian Conservation Corps-one at Mother Neff State Park to construct park buildings and tourist facilities, and one at Gatesville as a soil-conservation and brush-control detail.
The United States involvement in World War II brought an end to the depression; on a local level, new war industries paved the way for a dramatic increase in the population of Coryell County. Among the military facilities built in and near the county in the 1940s were Camp Hood, the Bluebonnet Ordnance plant, and a camp for German prisoners of war. Because of the large number of soldiers, construction workers, and other government employees who came to the area during the war years, there was a severe housing shortage, and many local families offered rooms for rent in their homes. When the military decided in 1950 to make Fort Hood a permanent base, the population of Copperas Cove mushroomed, from 1,052 in 1950 to 4,567 in 1960 and to 10,818 in 1970. During the same period Gatesville's population grew by only 800, from 3,838 to 4,683.
The St. Louis Southwestern of Texas abandoned its track to Gatesville in 1972, leaving the town without rail service; the branch to the northwest had been discontinued in the 1940s. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, Gatesville was chosen as the site for several new units of the Texas Department of Corrections (see PRISON SYSTEM). The Gatesville State School for Boys, established in 1887, closed in the early 1970s, and the facility became the Gatesville Unit of TDC. Mountain View School for Boys, established in 1962, was also transferred to TDC in 1975 to provide relief for overcrowded conditions at the Goree Unit Women's Prison in Huntsville. The Hilltop Unit, a minimum-security prison for men, opened in 1981. In all, more than 1,000 people worked for the prison system at Gatesville, making TDC one of the county's largest employers.
In the early 1980s, 88 percent of the land in Coryell County (exclusive of Fort Hood) was devoted to farms and ranches. About 20 percent of the farmland was under cultivation, with oats, wheat, and sorghum accounting for 94 percent of the 101,000 acres harvested; other crops were hay, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peaches, and pecans. Eighty percent of the county's agricultural receipts came from livestock and livestock products, the most important ones being cattle, sheep, wool, Angora goats, mohair, hogs, and turkeys. Although agriculture continued to be an important part of the local economy, farm receipts represented less than 8 percent of the county's total income. Professional and related services, manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, and public administration employed 68 percent of the workforce in the 1980s; 10 percent of the workforce was self-employed, and 8 percent was employed outside the county. Coryell County had 56,767 residents in 1980, a 60 percent increase over the 1970 population of 35, 311. The county's population in 1990 was 64,213, according to census records.
The voters of Coryell County supported Democrat James Buchanan in the presidential election of 1856, and John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party in 1860. In 1872, the first year after Reconstruction that county voters could participate in national elections, Democrat Horace Greeley carried the county, and thereafter the county gave majorities to the Democratic candidates in every presidential election from 1876 through 1964. The county’s political loyalties began to shift, however, in 1968, when Democrat Hubert Humphrey won only a plurality of the area’s votes, and in 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon took the county with an overwhelming majority. Thereafter the Republican presidential candidates carried the county with decisive majorities in almost every election from 1976 through 2004. The only exception occurred in 1992, when Republican George H.W. Bush won only a plurality of the county’s votes, partly because that year independent candidate Ross Perot won many votes that might otherwise have gone to the Republicans.
The U.S. census counted 75,562 people living in Coryell County in 2014. About 60.2 percent were Anglo, 17.2 percent were African American, and 17.2 percent Hispanic. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 81 percent had completed high school, and 12 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agriculture, plastics and other manufacturing, and the presence of Fort Hood and state prisons were important elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 1,221 farms and ranches covering 493,087 acres, 58 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 33 percent to crops, and 6 percent to woodlands. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $34,691,000; livestock sales accounted for $29,541,000 of the total. Beef cattle, forage, oats, wheat, corn, and grain sorghum were the chief agricultural products.
Gatesville (population, 15,673) is the county’s seat of government and its largest town; other communities include Copperas Cove (33,064), Flat (210), Jonesboro (125), Mound (125), Oglesby (467), and South Mountain (381). County attractions include hunting, fishing, and the Shivaree held each June.