Ellis County is located in north central Texas. Waxahachie, the largest town and county seat, is on Interstate Highway 35E thirty miles south of Dallas. The county is bounded by Dallas County to the north, Kaufman to the east, Navarro and Hill counties to the south, and Johnson County to the west. The center point of the county is at 32°21' north latitude and 96°48' west longitude. Ellis County comprises 939 square miles of the Blackland Prairie. Away from the streams it is almost treeless except for scattered mesquite, cacti, and shrubs. Native vegetation consists mainly of bunch and short grasses, including Indian, buffalo, grama, big and little bluestems, and three-awn. Such native trees as ash, cottonwood, pecan, hackberry, bois d'arc, oak, and elm grow along watercourses. The terrain is level to rolling, with an elevation ranging from 300 to 700 feet above sea level. The area lies in a southeastward-sloping plain and is well drained by many streams that flow into the Trinity River, which forms the eastern boundary of the county. Red Oak, Waxahachie, Mill, and Chambers creeks drain most of the county. The Austin Escarpment, a high chalk ridge, extends in a northeast-southwest direction and cuts off drainage to the southeast. Mountain Creek flows northeast and drains the northwestern part of the county. The soils—predominantly calcareous, marly and variegated clays and clay loams—have average to good moisture retention and are underlain by a water supply sufficient for livestock, irrigation, and domestic purposes. The alluvial soils are mainly clay. Mineral resources include gas, oil, stone, and clays valuable for brickmaking. Chalk and shale provide material for the manufacture of cement. Temperatures range from an average low of 35° F in January to an average high of 96° in July, rainfall averages slightly less than thirty-six inches a year, and the growing season extends for 245 days.
Tonkawa Indians were the earliest inhabitants of the future county, though parties of Wacos, Bidais, Anadarkos, and Kickapoos often hunted in the area. Spanish missionaries worked with the Tonkawas, and as the American settlers began to move into the region in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Indians offered little organized resistance. By 1859 the Tonkawas had been removed to Oklahoma. Before the Texas Revolution in 1836, the Mexican government granted land in what is now Ellis County to Thomas J. Chambers, Rafael Peña, and Alejandro de la Garza. In 1841 and 1842 the Republic of Texas granted land to William S. Peters in the northern half of the county, and Charles Fenton Mercer received a grant in 1843 in the southern part. One of the first settlers in the area was William R. Howe, who settled late in 1843 near the site of present Forreston. Howe immigrated under the Peters colony project and reportedly brought in a Black woman thought to be the first slave in the county. The Southerland Mayfield family settled at Reagor Springs in February 1844, and the Billingsly family located near Ovilla later that year.
Acting on a bill sponsored by Gen. Edward H. Tarrant, the state legislature officially established Ellis County on December 20, 1849. It was drawn from Navarro County, organized in February of the following year, and probably named for Richard Ellis, president of the Convention of 1836. Waxahachie was named the county seat and established on land donated by E. W. Rogers in August 1850. William Hawkins was the first chief justice (county judge). Judge Oran Milo Roberts presided over the first term of the Ellis County district court during the fall of 1850. A boundary dispute with Johnson County was temporarily settled during Reconstruction, when Ellis County ceded nearly 100 square miles of land. The argument resurfaced in the late 1880s and was finally peaceably settled by a new survey of the line in 1939.
The early settlers of Ellis County came predominantly from the southern part of the United States, bringing their farming methods and their slaves. During the 1850s the slave population of the county increased more than twelvefold, to 1,104 in 1860, while the White population quadrupled to just more than 4,000. A number of Czechs (Bohemians), Hungarians, and Germans settled in the county during the 1850s. The most profitable business was cattle raising because of the mild climate and the native grasses covering the fertile prairies. The first settlers generally took land along the streams and raised some small grains to use at home or to trade for lumber in East Texas. Small amounts of cotton were raised and transported to Houston or Shreveport by ox teams.
Ellis County found itself deeply embroiled in the secession crisis. Waxahachie citizens formed a chapter of the Knights of the Golden Circle, and in the fall of 1860 rumors of slave insurrections in Waxahachie and in nearby communities led to the lynching of a number of Blacks and allegedly antislavery Whites. In January 1861 Amzi Bradshaw and T. C. Neel represented Ellis County at the state Secession Convention in Austin. The following month the citizens of the county overwhelmingly supported secession. When William H. Parsons was instructed to raise a cavalry regiment, volunteers from Ellis County formed companies E, F, and H of the Twelfth Texas Cavalry, Parsons's Brigade. When the Nineteenth Regiment of Texas Cavalry was formed, Ellis County men formed companies A and C. The Confederate government operated a powder mill in Waxahachie and a hat factory near the site of present Italy during the Civil War.
White residents deeply resented Reconstruction, which was marked by Union army occupation, emancipation and enfranchisement of Blacks, and Republican politicians. Even before the Democratic party regained control of the political machinery of the state in 1874 Ellis County voted Democratic in national elections. The county voted solidly Democratic in all presidential elections from Reconstruction through the 1960s, though in 1948 the votes were too late to be counted. After 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon carried the county over Democrat George McGovern, the area began to trend Republican. Though Democrat Jimmy Carter carried the county in 1976, the area went Republican in every other presidential election from 1972 through 2004. Ellis County grew much in the 1870s. In 1868 J. W. Ferris and W. H. Getzendaner opened a bank that played a vital role in the development of the county's resources. The area began the change from a cattle range to an agricultural region in 1872 with the coming of the Houston and Texas Central Railroad. After the Panic of 1873 the heavy immigration from the Old South cotton areas prepared the country for its future leadership in cotton culture. The population almost tripled, growing from 7,514 in 1870 to 21,294 in 1880. Cotton production increased sixfold by the end of the decade, when it amounted to 18,956 bales. From 1855, when Rev. Michael Dickson organized the first county school at Milford, the residents of Ellis County were interested in education. During the postbellum period, most county schools were considered semiprivate because students paid some tuition in conjunction with a small supplement of state funds. Marvin College in Waxahachie opened in 1870 and made a significant contribution to the growth of the county.
Ellis County continued to be agricultural and rural from 1880 to 1930. The population grew quite rapidly in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, to 50,059 in 1900, and increased more slowly thereafter to 55,700 in 1920. A slow decline set in by 1930, when the population was 53,936. The Black population grew more rapidly than the White, as African Americans increased to almost one-fourth of the county population in 1930. The number of farms in the county rose from 2,884 in 1880 to about 6,000 in 1900, and stayed at that level through 1930, when it reached an all-time high of 6,082. By 1900 the average farm included 87.5 acres, down more than thirty acres during the previous two decades. Cotton became the leading money crop as land was fenced with barbed wire, herds were sold or driven farther west, and small grains lost acreage to cotton. Ellis County produced 91,298 bales at the turn of the century and in the early twentieth century was recognized as one of the leading cotton-growing areas in the United States. Agricultural growth did not necessarily bring prosperity to county farmers, however, as the percentage of tenants increased to 70 percent by 1900 and almost 82 percent by 1930. Though Ellis County had better than average transportation facilities for north central Texas, its nonagricultural economy expanded slowly from 1880 to 1930. Seven railroad companies built track in the county before 1910, including the Missouri, Kansas and Texas, the Fort Worth and New Orleans, and the Trinity and Brazos. Two electric railway lines were also built by the Texas Electric Railway Company around the time of World War I. The two earliest roads were stage roads leading from Dallas to Waco and Dallas to Corsicana. By 1892, after some lobbying in the county seat, a substantial number of iron truss bridges were built over Ellis County creeks. Ellis County developed in other ways as well around the turn of the century. Texas Presbyterian College, a school for girls in Milford, served the county before it was consolidated with Austin College in 1929. Trinity University, founded at Tehuacana during Reconstruction, moved to Waxahachie in 1902. In 1887 Ellis County sponsored its first county fair, an event that was held intermittently until World War II. Southwestern Telephone Company introduced telephone service into Waxahachie by 1883. The first efforts to bring electricity to the county started in 1887. Waxahachie Electric Light Company was established in 1890 and provided limited service. In 1913 and 1914 Texas Power and Light Company constructed a high-voltage transmission line, with substations in six Ellis County towns. The county had 203 industrial establishments at the turn of the century, more than at any time before the mid-twentieth century.
The 1930s and 1940s marked the beginning of changes in Ellis County at least as important as those brought on by the Civil War and the coming of the railroad. The Great Depression drastically affected the county. There were more than 2,100 fewer farms in 1940 than in 1930, a trend that continued into the 1980s. In the same period the value of farm property fell 42 percent. Unemployment became a problem. In 1935, 3,054 workers were on government relief in Ellis County. The unemployment rate jumped from 6.9 percent to 16 percent between 1930 and 1940. In the latter year 1,026 workers were employed on public emergency works, and another 1,747 were looking for work. The number of pupils enrolled in the county public schools declined 18 percent during the decade. Farmers began to replace their farm animals with tractors, and the average farm size increased. The cotton crop was reduced by soil erosion and acreage controls. Increasing acreage was used for other crops, particularly small grains. Though World War II ended the depression, the trends begun in 1930 lasted for another forty years. County population fell to 47,753 in 1940 and to a twentieth-century low of 43,395 in 1960. In 1940 Ellis County was 48 percent urban after the decline of its farms in the previous decade. Two years later Trinity University moved from Waxahachie to San Antonio. A Southwestern Assemblies of God school did, however, move into Waxahachie in 1943. By 1950 more than half the county residents lived in urban areas.
As Ellis County suffered an agricultural decline and a population loss from 1930 into the 1960s, other developments indicated recovery. Since many of the area soils were damaged before World War II, soil-conservation districts were established in the 1940s to improve the agricultural output of the county. The automobile revolutionized transportation and necessitated improved roads. Ellis County had only 10,823 motor vehicles registered in 1938. By 1969 the total was 18,493. All major roads in the county were paved by 1948. By 1970 Interstate 45 and Interstate 35E were completed through the county. The Rural Electrification Administration brought electricity to the rural residences and farms in the county. The Brazos Electric Power Cooperative began its service in 1941. By 1954, 95 percent of the farms in the county had electricity. Educational advances were also evident. In 1950 only 21 percent of those aged twenty-five or older were high school graduates. By 1970 this figure had risen to 41 percent. Oil was discovered in 1953. Maize acreage overtook that of cotton, and ranches took the place of many small farms. Developments in Ellis County during the 1960s and 1970s suggested that the downward trend of the preceding decades was being halted or reversed. The county population began to increase again in the 1960s, reaching 46,638 in 1970, when the number of Blacks had declined to 8,593, or some 18 percent of the whole. The population reached a new high of 59,743 in 1980, when Black residents constituted 12 percent of the whole and Hispanics had risen to 10 percent. The decrease in the number of farms slowed, while agricultural property value rose to more than $275 million. All types of nonagricultural economic activities made gains. Establishments dealing in oil and gas, contract construction, manufacturing, transportation and public utilities, and wholesale trade more than doubled between 1970 and 1983. The growth of Waxahachie and the increasing development along Interstate 35E suggested a trend toward significant commercial county development. Educational advances continued; a majority of residents twenty-five or older were high school graduates in 1980, and by 2000 more than two-thirds of them were.
By 1990 the Ellis County economy showed a balance between varied manufacturing, agribusiness, and commerce. The county population was 85,167. For the first time Hispanic residents formed a higher percentage (13.2) of the county population than Blacks (10 percent). More than a third of the county's residents lived in the two largest communities, Waxahachie and Ennis. Many county residents were employed in Dallas, and the growth of such communities as Midlothian, Red Oak, Ferris, and Ovilla demonstrated how county development had become tied to the Dallas-Fort Worth economy. Cultural events in the county included Scarbrough Faire, the National Polka Festival at Ennis, and the Gingerbread Trail homes tour, and the county continued to exhibit an extensive interest in historical preservation. The growth and development of the 1970s and 1980s continued into the early twenty-first century. By 2014 there were 159,317 people living in the county. Waxahachie (population, 31,621), the county's largest city and seat of government, had grown significantly, as had Ennis (18,707), Midlothian (20,183), Glenn Heights (11,782), and Red Oak (11,315). Other towns included Alma (337), Avalon (400), Bardwell (668), and Pecan Hill (628).
In 2002 the county had 2,089 farms and ranches covering 464,039 acres, 59 percent of which were devoted to crops and 15 percent to pasture. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $43,436,000; crop sales accounted for $26,952,000 of the total. Cotton, cattle, hay, turf grass, nursery plants, wheat, horses, and sorghum were the chief agricultural products.
In 1989 Ellis County was chosen as the site for the Superconducting Supercollider, a planned fifty-four-mile tunnel in which electrically charged protons would be accelerated for collision experiments. Ellis County residents exulted at the prospect of a burst of prosperity. The Texas National Research Laboratory Commission oversaw the purchase of almost 17,000 acres of land and began to construct facilities west of Waxahachie. But opposition to the project in Congress, resulting from charges that it was "pork" for Texas and from uncertainty about the value to be derived from a supercollider, resulted in the defunding of "Super Clyde" in 1993. At that point some 20 percent of the project had been completed, including fourteen miles of tunnel, a magnet-development complex, the supercollider central facility, and the linear accelerator. At its peak the project had employed some 2,100 people at the Ellis County site. In 2005 the Ellis County government owned the site, and was actively looking for a buyer to develop it.