Fort Bend County is in the coastal plains of southeastern Texas. Richmond, the county seat, at 29°35' north latitude and 95°45' west longitude, is twenty-eight miles west-southwest of Houston and at the approximate center of the county. The county comprises 869 square miles of level to slightly rolling terrain with an elevation ranging from eighty to 250 feet above sea level. Temperatures range from an average high of 94° F in July to an average low of 44° in January; rainfall averages slightly more than forty-five inches a year, and the growing season lasts 296 days. The Brazos River flows diagonally northwest to southeast through the county and drains the broad central valley via numerous creeks and bayous. The San Bernard River, which forms the west boundary, drains the western quarter of the county. Major streams include Big Creek, which flows east into the Brazos River; Oyster Creek, which winds parallel to and east of the Brazos River; and Buffalo Bayou, which rises in the northern tip of the county and flows east into Harris County. Soils vary from rich alluvial in the Brazos valley to sandy loams and clay on the prairies. Native trees include pecan, oak, ash, and cottonwood; there are some timberlands in the north and along streams. Mineral resources include natural gas, oil, and sulfur; sand, clay, and gravel are also produced in commercial quantities.
The settlement of Fort Bend County began in the early 1820s as part of the Anglo-American colonization of Texas under the auspices of the Spanish government. Authorization to settle 300 families in the valleys of the Brazos and Colorado rivers was initially granted to Moses Austin, but plans were delayed by his death in June 1821 and Mexican independence from Spain. Stephen F. Austin assumed the responsibility of leadership from his father and gained confirmation of the original Spanish grants from the newly established Mexican government in 1823. Following arrangements with Austin, a group of colonists sailed from New Orleans in November 1821 on the schooner Lively and anchored near the mouth of the Brazos River on the Texas coast. In 1822 a small party of men from this group left the ship and traveled inland some ninety miles and, on a bluff near a deep bend in the river, built a two-room cabin. As the settlement grew, the cabin became known as both Fort Settlement and Fort Bend; the latter name, in time, prevailed. In 1824 the Mexican government issued documents officially granting to the colonists their leagues of land. Of the 297 grants, fifty-three were issued to Fort Bend settlers (see OLD THREE HUNDRED). The presence of the Karankawa Indians near the new colonial settlements proved to be a comparatively minor problem. The first settlers had a few skirmishes, but as the colonies increased, the Karankawas began moving out of the area and by the 1850s had migrated as far south as Mexico.
In May 1837 the Congress of the Republic of Texas passed an act incorporating nineteen towns, including Richmond. Robert Eden Handy of Pennsylvania and William Lusk of Richmond, Virginia, both of whom had arrived in Texas shortly before the war for independence from Mexico, founded and named the town with eight other proprietors, including Branch T. Archer, Thomas Freeman McKinney, and Samuel May Williams. An act establishing Fort Bend County and fixing its boundaries was passed on December 29, 1837; Wyly Martin was appointed the first chief justice. On January 13, 1838, the citizens voted to make Richmond the county seat. The county was taken from portions of Austin, Brazoria, and Harris counties. Its irregular shape was, in part, the result of using waterways to form the west and segments of the south and east boundaries. Several efforts have been made to change the lines but with little success.
Some of the first settlers in Fort Bend County played prominent roles in early Texas history. Nathaniel F. Williams and Matthew R. Williams cultivated and milled sugar on their Oakland Plantation near Oyster Creek in the early 1840s, thus laying the groundwork for an industry that continued to develop and thrive in Sugar Land (see IMPERIAL SUGAR COMPANY); in 1837 Jane Long opened a boarding house in Richmond, where she lived until her death in 1880; and Mirabeau B. Lamar moved to Richmond in 1851 and built a plantation home on land purchased from Jane Long. Both Mrs. Long and Lamar are buried in Morton Cemetery, Richmond. During the Texas Revolution many of the people of Fort Bend fled in great haste as Antonio López de Santa Anna's army marched through the area. Part of this army camped at Thompson's Ferry on the Brazos River while part marched on to meet defeat at the battle of San Jacinto. Fort Bend settlers returned from the Runaway Scrape to find their homes plundered or burned and their livestock scattered or dead.
Soon after its founding, Richmond developed into a prosperous trade center for the surrounding agricultural region of the lower Brazos valley. Barges and steamboats plied the Brazos River, transporting cotton and other products to the port at Galveston, as merchants of Richmond and other river towns vied with Houston for the lucrative agricultural trade. Transportation facilities were greatly improved in 1853, when the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway was completed to Stafford's Point from Harrisburg, which was located on Buffalo Bayou's navigable channel to Galveston. The prosperity of the 1840s and 1850s, however, ended with the Civil War.
In antebellum Texas slaves were essential to the development of the valley plantations. As early as 1840 there were already 572 slaves in Fort Bend County, and by 1845 that number had risen to 1,172, placing Fort Bend near the top of counties with the largest slave populations. In 1850, Fort Bend was one of only six counties in the state with a Black majority. The labor provided by the burgeoning slave population made possible the growth of the plantation economy. In 1860 there were 159 farms in Fort Bend county, with about 12,000 acres in cotton, 7,000 acres in corn, and 1,000 acres in sugarcane; the slave population totaled 4,127, more than twice that of the 2,016 Whites. Fort Bend planters, believing that their economic and social successes, among other reasons, justified the institution of slavery, strongly supported the Confederacy, and, in 1861, voted 486 to O for secession from the United states. The majority of county men volunteered for Confederate service; many joined the Eighth Texas Cavalry (Terry's Texas Rangers), a regiment organized by Benjamin Franklin Terry, a wealthy sugar planter from Sugar Land.
Although battle never reached Fort Bend, the war's duration and ultimate loss imposed economic hardships and social and political stress on the community. During Reconstruction, efforts to live in peace with politics dominated by Radical Republicans and Black officeholders brought no more than an uneasy compromise. White Democrats, outnumbered by Blacks more than two to one, were unable to regain control of local government until the late 1880s, when their all-out campaign to attract Black as well as White votes led to the Jaybird-Woodpecker War. This brief but violent conflict, which took place on August 16, 1889, abruptly ended the Republican, or "Woodpecker" rule, and the Democrats quickly formed the Jaybird Democratic Association. With a constitution that declared as its purpose the "protection of the White race" and "an honest and economical government," the association controlled local politics mainly through the white primary, which excluded Blacks. Nevertheless, a majority of the county’s voters supported the Republican candidate for U.S. president in every election from 1872 through 1904. The white primary helped to exclude Black citizens from the county’s polls until the United States Supreme Court, in 1953, supported a lower court's ruling forbidding the practice. The Jaybird Association accepted the ruling, continued for a few years, then disbanded in 1959. The area’s voters supported the Democratic candidate for president in almost every national election from 1908 through 1964; the only exceptions occurred in 1952 and 1956, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower carried the county. After 1968, when Richard M. Nixon won a plurality of Fort Bend County’s votes, the area’s sympathies began to shift, and the Republican presidential candidates carried the county in every election through 2004.
Fort Bend County remained a state Democratic party stronghold until the 1970s, when the combination of population growth and the growing association of conservative political ideas with the Republican party broke the trend. In a special election held in April 1976 the people of the county elected Ron Paul, a physician from Lake Jackson in Brazoria County, as congressman, the first Republican elected to office in Fort Bend County since Reconstruction. Paul focused his campaign on the evils of "big government" and the "ultraliberalism" of his Democratic opponent.
New towns and a new demography began to develop in the last quarter of the nineteenth century as railroads branched out across the county. In 1878 the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe line from Galveston crossed the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio (the former Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado) one mile west of Richmond. This junction, called Rosenberg, became a community when the developers of the New York, Texas, and Mexican Railway made it their headquarters in 1882. With the addition of the San Antonio and Aransas pass and the Texas and New Orleans railroads, all parts of the county were served. The new lines, with routes passing through potentially productive farmlands, attracted new settlers, many of whom were immigrants from Central Europe. Germans, Austrians, and Bohemians (see CZECHS) comprised 400 of the 5,259 new residents entering the county from 1890 to 1900. They were primarily agrarian in orientation—small farmers or merchants serving farmers—and many were Catholic. Their distinctly different cultural and linguistic characteristics added a new dimension to the established Anglo-Protestant community, and their agricultural achievements contributed to the county's economic stability and development. Among the many towns founded in the 1890s by or for these immigrants were Beasley, Needville, and Orchard, which still exist as small rural communities serving farmers.
Missouri City, on the far eastern edge of the county near Houston, was founded in 1894; Katy, a tri-county town in Fort Bend, Waller, and Harris counties, developed after the Missouri, Kansas and Texas (Katy) Railroad was completed to that point. In the 1890s, a million-dollar refinery was built at Sugar Land and a new cane mill was constructed; in 1907, they were purchased by the Imperial Sugar Company, a major industry in the county and the only cane-sugar refinery in Texas.
In 1920 Rosenberg's population edged past Richmond's by the thin margin of 1,273 to 1,279; by 1950 Rosenberg residents overshadowed those of Richmond 6,210 to 2,030. Two decades later, Rosenberg-Richmond, as the "twin cities" population center, had counts of 12,098 and 5,777, respectively, in a county of 52,134 residents. Fort Bend County population declined between 1940 and 1950; however, in the same period, Rosenberg grew by nearly a third and Richmond held steady, a fact that reflects the national rural-to-urban movement.
Fort Bend County produces substantial minerals. Throughout the county subterranean salt domes hold concentrated deposits of oil, gas, sulfur, and salt that made early development possible. Gulf Oil Company brought in the first commercially producing oil well in 1919 at Blue Ridge and, three years later, located another major field at Big Creek. Thompsons had a major oilfield in 1921. In 1926 Gulf discovered a major sulfur and gas deposit in Orchard; the Humble Oil Company (now ExxonMobil Corporation) opened a high-producing gas field near Katy in 1935 and later built a gas plant that produced 450 million cubic feet of gas daily in the mid-1980s. Between 1954 and 1957 oil production in the county averaged 30,000 barrels a day, as compared to the 21,600 barrels a day in 1963. As demand for petroleum increased in the mid-1970s, developers managed to bring in forty new wells in 1976 and 1977, providing the county with $121 million from the sale of crude oil. Since that time a recession in the petroleum industry has caused development in the county to drop sharply. In 1976 the top three taxpayers in the county were, in order, Exxon, Gulf, and Houston Lighting and Power Company; in 1983 the top three taxpayers were Houston Lighting and Power, Exxon, and Utility Fuels. Gulf dropped to fourth place.
Farming and ranching have been the central focus of Fort Bend County economic and social life since its inception. The influx of new settlers in the 1880s and 1890s helped county agriculture to change from antebellum plantations to productive small farms. The county had 2,365 farms with 183 acres each in 1900, in contrast to 995 farms with 154 acres each in 1890. The national recession of the 1890s, a major flood on the Brazos River in June 1899, and the great Galveston hurricane of 1900 forced many farmers into tenantry. By 1910, 61 percent of the county's farmers were working as cash or share tenants. By 1925, of the 3,659 farms in the county, approximately 72 percent were operated by tenants, a partial result of a statewide economic recession and adverse summer weather from 1919 to 1922. During the World War II years, with the rural to urban movement and military service, farm tenantry dropped, and full ownership of farms increased. Since the 1960s, home developments, industry, business, and commerce in the county have forced a trend toward fewer commercial farms. The 1974 Census of Agriculture reported 1,340 farms in the county, but only 758 of these reported cash sales in excess of $2,500. Among the four top agricultural commodities for cash income in the mid-1980s were cotton, sorghum, beef cattle, and rice. Cotton culture, a source of income for nearly 700 families in the county, varies greatly with seasonal weather, allocated acreage, and selling prices. Sorghum culture has increased in recent years due to favorable selling prices and more consistent profit. Total value of the crop in the county in 1976 was $11 million. Rice culture began as early as 1901 with plantings on acreage once considered worthy only of grazing; rice yielded eighteen to twenty bags an acre in 1903. The 1990 annual acreage was just above 25,000 acres, with a yield of 4,488 pounds per acre. In 1982 agriculture provided more than $90 million in average annual income for the county.
Ample grazing land and free-roaming herds of longhorn cattle encouraged the first settlers in Fort Bend County to combine cattle raising with farming. The Fort Bend County Book of Brands indicates that landowners with minimal acreage tried to turn a profit in the cattle business. As elsewhere in Texas, the boom years of the 1870s and early 1880s culminated in the bottom falling out of the market by 1886. Local cattlemen began fencing their pastures and upgrading their herds with shorthorns, Brahmans, and Herefords. Today, more farms in the county produce cattle than any other cash crop.
Transportation facilities for Fort Bend County include the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad systems, two commercial lines of motor-freight services, and two airports for private and commercial aircraft. Major highways are U.S. Highway 59, which joins U.S. Highway 90 Alternate in the county and runs northeast to southwest; Interstate 10, an east-west route through Katy; State Highway 6, north-south through Sugar Land; and State Highway 36, north-south through Rosenberg. Numerous farm roads serve the rural areas.
Until the last decade commerce and industry have been associated with the development and transport of oil, gas, and sulfur in the county. Local businesses provided agricultural needs and products and services for the communities. As the population increased in east Fort Bend County, a result of Houston's westward expansion, industry and commerce became more diverse. Among the top ten commercial taxpayers in Fort Bend County in 1983 were three property-development corporations and two high-technology corporations.
In the last decades of the twentieth century Fort Bend was among the fastest-growing counties in the United States. Between 1980 and 1990 the population nearly doubled, from 130,960 to 225,421. In 1990, 62.6 percent of the population was White, 20.7 percent Black, 19.5 percent Hispanic, 6.4 percent Asian, and 0.2 percent American Indian.
In 2014 the U.S. Census counted 685,345 people living in Fort Bend County; about 35.6 percent were Anglo, 24 percent Hispanic, and 21.2 percent African American. Of residents older than 25, 84 percent had graduated from high school, and 37 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agriculture, petrochemicals, technology, retailers, and manufacturing concerns were all important elements of the area’s economy. In 2002 the county had 1,560 farms and ranches covering 415,251 acres, 47 percent of which were devoted to crops, 46 to pasture and 5 percent to woodlands. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $49,851,000; crop sales accounted for $36,536,000 of the total. Nursery crops, cotton, sorghum, hay, soybeans, cattle, horses and rice were the chief agricultural products. Richmond (population, 11,372) is the county’s seat of government; other towns include Rosenberg (32,571), Houston (with 38,124 in Fort Bend County), Missouri City (38,473 in Fort Bend County), and Sugar Land (81,898). Two major social and cultural events characteristic of the county and its people are the Fort Bend County Fair, first held in 1933 and still held annually each October, and the Fort Bend County Czech Fest, first held in 1976 as a spring tourist attraction and continued annually each May.