Dickinson is on State Highway 3 at the edge of the Galveston metropolitan area in the northwest corner of Galveston County. It was named after John Dickinson, who in 1824 received a Mexican grant for land just north of the community's present site. A settlement called Dickinson existed on Dickinson's Bayou shortly before 1850. The Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad, one of the earliest chartered in Texas, was built straight through Dickinson. In 1857 one of the railroad's directors, Ebenezer B. Nichols, built a summer estate on Dickinson Bayou. During the Civil War Dickinson was a Confederate town. The Nolan home there served as a Confederate hospital, and Gen. John B. Magruder used the GH&H railroad for his successful retaking of Galveston in 1863. The town had a post office in 1890 registered under its current name.
In the 1890s Fred M. Nichols, the son of E. B., and eight other businessmen organized the Dickinson Land and Improvement Association to market unoccupied land in the Dickinson area. The primary attraction was the local soil's proven suitability for growing fruit, cane, berries, and potatoes. Nichols converted forty acres of his estate into a public park, the Dickinson Picnic Grounds. For the next three decades large groups came out from Galveston to picnic and holiday on the grounds. A Texas Coast Fair was organized there in 1896, and a harness racetrack (where the great harness champion Dan Patch supposedly ran) was built to attract more people to Dickinson. By 1911 the Galveston and Houston Electric Railway Company had three stops in Dickinson, and prominent Galvestonians had established the Oleander Country Club and built homes there.
Another impetus for Dickinson's development came from Italian immigrants in 1900. A large group from Sicily who had settled in the Bryan area in 1894 were forced by a series of floods to seek resettlement help from the Italian consul in Galveston, Clemente Nicolini. He helped them resettle in the Galveston area, including Dickinson, where he was a property owner. In 1905 the Italian ambassador, Baron Mayor des Planches, in his efforts to find suitable places of settlement for the large number of newly arrived Italians living in overcrowded tenements in Eastern cities visited Dickinson. His welcome by an estimated 150 Italians at the train station helped convince him that Dickinson would be a good place to direct additional immigrants.
Industrialization and the growth of the oil industry in the Houston and Galveston area after both world wars contributed further to Dickinson's growth. More growth came with NASA's establishment in 1962 of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Webster just north of Dickinson. The fluctuating population figures of the town reflect these influences. Dickinson had a population of 149 in 1904. In 1914 the town had a population of 250, twelve businesses and a bank. After World War I the population had risen to 1,000; it dropped to 760 in 1931 but rose again to 1,000 in 1933; it remained stable through the rest of the Great Depression years. During World War II it rose to 1,500. By 1952 it was 3,500 and by 1961, 4,715. In 1970 the town's population peaked at 12,161. In 1977 Dickinson was incorporated with a population of about 11,000. In 1990 it had an estimated population of 9,497 and more than 150 businesses. In 2000 the population was 17,093 with 671 businesses.
Dickinson has been an agricultural service center, a residential community, and the site of a mineral-oil processor. It once had a reputation as a strawberry capital. The Dickinson Railroad Museum testifies to the town's past as a commercial hub.