Gonzales County is south of Austin on U.S. highways 87, 90, 90A, and 183 and Interstate Highway 10. Gonzales is the county seat. Gonzales County, bordered by DeWitt, Lavaca, Fayette, Caldwell, and Guadalupe counties, comprises some 683,295 acres and 1,046.4 square miles, with elevations above sea level ranging from 2 to 400 feet. Major rivers that flow through the county include the San Marcos and the Guadalupe. The average annual rainfall is 32.6 inches, the annual temperature is 70° F, and the growing season averages 276 days a year. Three major land-resource areas in Gonzales County are the Texas Claypan Prairie, the Southern Blackland Prairie, and the Northern Rio Grande Plain. Seventy-five types of soils overlying nineteen different geologic formations have been identified in the county, the most diversified variety of any county in the state. Dark red sandstone is abundant in the northern and western areas of the county and quantities of light tan and gray sandstone have been quarried in the eastern area; both types of sandstone have been used as building material since the earliest arrival of settlers in the area. Typical vegetation in the county ranges from post oak savannah with tall grasses, post oak, and blackjack oak in the Texas Claypan area, to the dense growth of mesquite, prickly pear, brush, and low-growing grasses of the northern Rio Grande Plain, to the live oaks and pecan and walnut trees of the southern Blackland Prairie and timberlands. The walnut trees were a valuable source of wood for the numerous cabinetmakers that settled in the county; the demand for walnut was so great during the late 1800s that the trees were completely cleared. Natural resources include clay, used in the manufacture of household and personal-care products; sand and gravel, mined for road base and construction material; bentonite clay, used as a sealant; and oil, gas, and uranium (see URANIUM MINING). Large amounts of unconsolidated volcanic ash are found throughout the county, and at one time peat moss was mined in the Ottine area. The Salt Creek Flats in the southern portion of the county furnished the early settlers with enough salt to satisfy their needs, but salt was never produced commercially there.
Continuous human occupation has been documented in the Guadalupe River basin from the late Paleo-Indian period through the early historic period. Artifacts from hunter-gatherer groups, including pottery shards, worked stone, and bifaced stone tools, have been discovered. The Cuero I Archeological District, in Gonzales and DeWitt counties, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Bones of extinct animals have been located at Ottine. In historic times Coahuiltecan tribes occupied the area.
Empresario Green C. DeWitt's petition for a land grant to establish a colony in Texas was approved by the Mexican government on April 15, 1825. In January 1825, confident that the grant would be awarded, he had appointed James Kerr to survey the colony and its capital. Though Kerr selected a site near the confluence of the Guadalupe and San Marcos rivers to be the capital, he and his assistants built cabins near a creek (ever after called Kerr's Creek) while the townsite of the capital was being surveyed. This group became the first Anglo community west of the Colorado River. After two Indian attacks, the first probably the work of the Waco Indians and the second by the Tonkawas, Kerr's group abandoned their cabins in July 1826. DeWitt's colonists settled for a time at a site called Old Station, about six miles from the mouth of the Lavaca River. The Mexican government, however, refused their request to remain at Old Station, and late in 1827 some settlers returned to the Gonzales townsite that Kerr had surveyed. When Jean Louis Berlandier passed through in April 1828, he found six cabins near the river crossing, encircled by a fort-like barricade; other cabins were located in the surrounding forest. Cotton and corn had been planted, and there were domestic cows, pigs, and some horses. Buffalo were present, and nearby were two permanent Indian villages, one of Tonkawas and the other of Karankawas.
Within three years more than 100 families had arrived to settle in DeWitt's colony. The Mexican government refused to recognize Kerr as the official surveyor, and Byrd Lockhart was appointed in 1831 to resurvey the townsite. A population of 532 in 1831 convinced the Mexican government to send a six-pound cannon to Gonzales for protection against Indian raids. DeWitt's colony sent delegates to the conventions of 1832 and 1833 and to the Consultation of 1835. The Mexican government considered the conventions a treasonable act, and in September 1835 Mexican troops were sent to Gonzales to retrieve the cannon. On October 2, at the battle of Gonzales, the colonists resisted the attempts of Mexican troops to confiscate what came to be known as the Gonzales "come and take it" cannon. This was the first armed encounter of the Texas Revolution. Stephen F. Austin arrived in Gonzales and was elected the first commander in chief of the revolutionary army by the volunteers, many of whom took part in the siege of Bexar. Thirty-two men from DeWitt's colony who answered the call for assistance at the Alamo, and eight or nine other men from the colony who had volunteered earlier, perished at the battle of the Alamo. Sam Houston's order to retreat and the burning of Gonzales after the battle of the Alamo began the Runaway Scrape.
Gonzales County, named for the capital of Green DeWitt's colony, was established in 1836 and organized in 1837 as one of the original counties in the Republic of Texas. It occupied the same area as DeWitt's colony-a territory some sixty miles long and twenty-five miles wide, with an area of 1,100 square miles. After the annexation of Texas to the United States in 1845, portions of Gonzales County were detached to form what are now the counties of Caldwell, Comal, DeWitt, Fayette, Guadalupe, Jackson, Lavaca, and Victoria. James W. Robinson, the first official of Gonzales County, was appointed district judge by the Congress of the Republic of Texas in 1836. In 1837 an election was held for the "depopulated counties"; those settlers who had participated in the Runaway Scrape or were temporarily living in other locations voted in this election. On December 14, 1837, the first Gonzales county court was organized, with B. D. McClure as chief justice. The settlers of DeWitt's colony obtained land grants and patents in the fertile blackland valleys of the Guadalupe and San Marcos rivers and along the major creeks, including Plum Creek (now in Caldwell County), Rocky Creek (now in Lavaca County), Peach Creek (named Arroyo de los Theodolites before Anglo settlement), Sandy Fork, and Sandies and Salt creeks. Early Gonzales County settlers had established farms and ranches first in the river valleys, then in the sandy lands, and finally on the Black mesquite uplands. Settlers from soil-exhausted southern states quickly converted the rich alluvial soil into productive acreage, finding it possible to grow peaches, grapes, plums, pears, figs, apples, and apricots. Timber was harvested early in the county's history, and walnut was used by skilled local cabinetmakers. Some wheat was raised in the early years, and all kinds of vegetables and some fruits have been raised throughout Gonzales County history, but cotton and corn became the chief crops in the county. Salt was pressed by the pioneers on the salt flats near Pilgrim but was never produced in commercial quantities. By 1840, cotton, corn, potatoes, sugarcane, rye, oats, and barley were produced in abundance, along with significant numbers of hogs and sheep. Early trade passed through Indianola, roughly 100 miles away.
County residents joined in the fight against Indian and Mexican incursions during the 1840s. After the Comanche Indians raided Victoria and Linnville in August 1840 (see LINNVILLE RAID OF 1840), a number of Gonzales County men joined other volunteers in the attack and defeat of the Indians in the battle of Plum Creek in nearby Caldwell County. During the Mexican invasions of 1842, volunteers from the county joined the Texas forces and families living along the rivers, and many from the town joined in what is sometimes called the Second Runaway Scrape. By 1850 the county population had reached 1,492, including 601 slaves. The port of Indianola was used not only for trade, but as a port of debarkation for immigrants. The arrival of immigrant settlers in the 1850s stimulated enough growth to establish in 1853 the first newspaper in the county (the Gonzales Inquirer), as well as post offices in several communities, including Rancho, Mule Creek, Copperas Creek, Moulton, Harmony Grove, Centerville (Belmont), Canoe Creek, China Grove (Big Hill), Ebenezer, Lemmonds School (Five Mile), Hopkinsville, McClure's Hill, Palo Alto, Peach Creek, Pilgrim, Pecan Grove, Round Lake (Clabbertown), Sandies Chapel, Sandy Fork, Sulphur Springs, and Zoar. Gonzales College, founded in 1851 by slave-owning planters, was the first institution in Texas to confer A.B. degrees on women before the Civil War. By 1855 the number of slaves in the county had reached 2,140. Before the Civil War only a single free Black (see FREE BLACKS) was reported in Gonzales County.
In 1860 Gonzales County had a total population of 8,059, more than a fivefold increase since 1850; the 1860 population included 384 slaveholders and 3,168 slaves. On February 23, 1861, residents voted for secession (802 in favor and 80 against). Gonzales County, with a population of about 5,000 free inhabitants, saw some twenty-two volunteer companies, including home-guard units, organized there during the Civil War. Membership rosters for seventeen of these companies are on record. In 1863 the Confederacy commissioned Fort Waul to be built to protect against invasion by northern troops through Indianola. In the 1990s remnants of the fort could still be seen north of the city of Gonzales. Though no Union troops fought in Gonzales County during the war, a small group of fifteen or twenty Union soldiers was encamped on the Gonzales public square for several months during Reconstruction. In February 1868 the mayor of Gonzales complained to the military authorities that the soldiers were intimidating county citizens. Several months later two soldiers were accused of murder. According to accounts in the local newspaper, they began firing into the town, beat the postmaster, wrecked the post office, and pulled a civilian into the street and murdered him. The two soldiers were eventually tried by a military court and found not guilty. Gonzales County was also involved in the outlaw conflicts of the late 1860s and 1870s and witnessed numerous lynchings. In addition, several citizens were involved in the Sutton-Taylor Feud. John Wesley Hardin married Jane Bowen in the county and, after his 1894 pardon from prison, practiced law in Gonzales.
The cattle industry was one of the mainstays of county agriculture both before and after the war. The first cattle brand and hog ear marks were recorded in the county in January 1829. Cattle became increasingly important in the economy, numbering 29,226 head by 1850. The first known cattle drive from the county occurred in 1853, and in 1856 two herds-one of 500 head and one of 600-were driven north. Extensions of the Chisholm Trail were blazed through Gonzales County in 1866. After the Civil War, thousands of unbranded cattle roamed the prairie. By 1870, cattle in the county numbered 75,278 head. During the 1870s more than 40,000 head, plus large herds of horses, were driven north. Other livestock important in the county included hogs and sheep. There were 35,796 hogs by 1879, after which their numbers declined. Raising sheep was profitable for a time, and their numbers reached 27,564 in 1869, but the total number of sheep declined thereafter, with only 1,859 sheep remaining in the county by 1897.
The Gonzales County population increased somewhat during and after the war, reaching 8,951 in 1870; it then increased by some 60 percent during the 1870s, to 14,336 in 1880. In the postwar period, settlers moved to the county from Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, and Arkansas. The population continued to rise for the rest of the century, reaching a new peak of 28,882 in 1900. By 1876 the county had numerous Black communities with schools, including Wesley Chapel, Terry's (Terryville), Braco Lake (Brasco), Elm Slough, Hood's Point, Princeville, Hopkinsville, Guadalupe, Winnton, Monthalia, Rock Fort, Coe, Lone Oak, and Canoe Creek. By 1880 African Americans in Gonzales County numbered nearly 5,000-roughly a third of the population. This proportion was roughly maintained through 1900, when there were 8,642 Blacks in the county. Gonzales County included a number of African-American landowners, including the Price family; Anderson Price donated land for the first Black Masonic lodge in Waelder. Gus Smith, a Black Populist (see PEOPLE'S PARTY), ran for county clerk on an independent ticket in 1896. Immigrants, 98 percent of whom were farmers, made up a large part of the population in 1887. That year there were some 1,582 Germans, 225 English, and a number of Scots, Irish, and French; one Chinese was also reported. In 1900 Gonzales County included 318 foreign-born Czechs, who listed Moravia, Bohemia, and Austria as their place of origin.
Railroads played an important part in the growth of the county from the 1870s through 1900. The Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway was built through the eastern and northern part of Gonzales County in 1874. The towns of Waelder and Harwood, formed by the railroad company, began to flourish. The Texas and New Orleans line, built into the county in 1877, was abandoned in 1945. Businessmen from Gonzales, seeing their community declining without a railroad, donated money and land in 1882 to build a branch line from the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio at Harwood to Gonzales. The Texas, Gonzales and Northern Railway (see GONZALES BRANCH RAILROAD) was operating the line in 1995 as one of the most profitable spurs in the nation. The San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway, built through in 1885, stimulated the formation and growth of communities such as Dilworth, Maurin, Slayden, and Ottine. It was abandoned in 1931 and 1932. The Southern Pacific line was built through the area in 1905 and bypassed the active community of Rancho. The survey for the town of Nixon was completed on March 2, 1906, and most of the Rancho residents and businesses moved to the new townsite. That railroad line was abandoned in the late 1950s. In the early twenty-first century the Texas, Gonzalez and Northern line continued to operate as a spur connected to a Union Pacific line that ran through the north sections of the county.
Reflecting the increase in population and the new marketing opportunities offered by the railroads, the number of farms in the county increased dramatically, from 576 in 1860 to 2,025 in 1880. Growth slowed during the 1880s, with some 2,180 farms reported in 1890, then increased to reach 3,816 farms in 1900. Cotton and corn dominated agriculture in the county. The land devoted to cotton increased from 22,729 acres in 1880 to 103,253 acres in 1900-over half the cropland harvested that year. About thirty-five cotton gins operated countywide by 1909, and by 1920, the peak year of cotton production in the county, some 146,426 acres were devoted to cotton, more than 55 percent of the total acreage planted in Gonzales County. Corn increased from 30,984 acres in 1880 to 56,744 acres in 1900, and stayed at roughly that acreage through the 1940s. Additional acreage was given to hay, forage, and peanuts. Over time the size of the average farm decreased steadily, falling from 209 acres in 1890 to 139 in 1920 and to a new low of 121 in 1930. Over the same period, fluctuations in prices paid for crops and an overconcentration on cotton as a cash crop led to the steady growth of tenant farming (see FARM TENANCY). As early as 1890, 41 percent of the farmers in the county were working someone else's land, and the number of tenant farmers increased to 58 percent of those in the county in 1900 and to 64 percent in 1920. By 1930 two-thirds of the county's 4,696 farms were worked by tenants. Tenant farming decreased dramatically during the 1930s, as the number of farms in the county plummeted by a third, to 3,254 farms by 1940.
By the 1920s beef cattle were resuming much of their former prominence in the county economy, with some 45,000 head reported there in 1930. During the Great Depression new dairying operations, as well as pecans, tomatoes, and other truck crops, were an important source of income. In addition, poultry production has been a leading source of income for Gonzales County for many years. As early as 1899, some 300 turkeys, raised mostly on the range, were shipped from Gonzales County, which rivaled DeWitt County as a center for turkey production. Lloyd Bell of Smiley is credited with the founding of the broiler industry in the county. In 1921 he sent the first shipment of broilers by railway express to New Orleans and in 1922, with A. R. Bell and T. L. Cantley, opened the first feedhouse. They financed trusted farmers who had no security other than their desire to be in the poultry business. By 1945 Gonzales, with a broiler crop estimated at 16 million, ranked with the top producers in the state. Feed mills and commercial hatcheries also became an important industry.
Gonzales County received attention during the Texas Centennial in 1936, when a monument was dedicated at the Alamo, honoring the "immortal thirty-two" from Gonzales who entered there five days before the fall of the Alamo. Besides the "immortal thirty-two," there were eight or nine other men from DeWitt's colony who had entered the Alamo at an earlier date and who also died there. On March 14, 1937, Governor James Allred dedicated a large monument that commemorated the first shot of the Texas Revolution; it was sculpted by Waldine A. Tauch and built by the state of Texas near the town of Cost in central Gonzales County.
The population of Gonzales County remained at between 28,000 and 29,000 inhabitants from 1900 into the 1930s, then began to decline during the Great Depression, falling to 26,075 by 1940. Though rural electrification began in the county in 1940 and the first farm-to-market road was completed in 1945, World War II and its attendant changes took its toll on the population, which had fallen to 21,164 by 1950. The county continued to lose residents through 1970, when its population level bottomed out at 16,375; its population began to grow slowly thereafter, reaching 17,205 by 1990. The larger Gonzales County communities in 1990 included Gonzales (population 6,527), Nixon (1,995 in Gonzales County, partly in Wilson County), Smiley (463), and Waelder (745).
The ethnic mix of the county also changed over time. While Blacks formed about a third of the county population in 1890, this proportion fell to 21 percent in 1940, to 18 percent in 1960, and to only 10 percent in 1990. Few Hispanics settled in the county until well after 1900. The total Hispanic population reported in Gonzales County in 1883 was only 143, but on October 4, 1894, the Inquirer reported they had issued a Spanish paper, named La Opinión del Pueblo, for Sr. E. R. Robles. By 1930 the 6,838 Hispanics in Gonzales County represented almost 25 percent of the total population, and in 1980 they represented nearly 30 percent. In 1990 more than a third of the county residents claimed Hispanic ancestry.
In the second half of the twentieth century, farming declined in Gonzales County, but the cattle industry returned to the proportions of earlier days. By 1982, a total of 1,632 farms and ranches were operating in the county. That year, with only 12 percent of the land in farms under cultivation, the county ranked fifth in the state in agricultural receipts, with 96 percent of this derived from livestock and livestock products. That same year, the county was first in the state in the production of hens, pullets, eggs, turkeys, and pecans, and second in the state for beef cows and commercial broilers. In 1995 poultry production, which included broilers, hens, eggs, and turkeys, was expanding rapidly and leading the state.
Though farmers dominated nineteenth-century politics, the Farmers' Alliance, the Grange movement, the Greenback party, and the Populist party groups in the county did not endure. Residents supported Democratic party candidates both locally and nationally through 1968. After 1972, when almost seventy percent of the county’s voters supported Republican Richard Nixon, the area’s sympathies began to shift. Though Democrat Jimmy Carter won a majority of the county’s voters in 1976, the Republican candidate carried the area in every presidential election from 1980 through 2004.
County citizens have freely participated in all wars from the Texas Revolution to the present. Twenty-three men served, and two died, during the Spanish-American War (1898). Three served with the First United States Volunteer Cavalry (the Rough Riders). In World War I, 1,106 men from the county served, of whom 358 were volunteers and 748 were conscripts. A total of 544 men served overseas, and fifty-eight died in service. During World War II, 3,000 men from Gonzales County served in the armed forces; seventy-nine of them died.
The Gonzales Warm Springs Foundation (see TEXAS REHABILITATION CENTER OF GONZALES WARM SPRINGS FOUNDATION), the state's first specialty hospital for physical medicine and rehabilitation, was chartered in 1937 for the treatment of polio; in the 1950s the hospital began to address all types of physical rehabilitation. In 1946 the Texas Elks Foundation (see ELKS LODGE) built a hospital in Gonzales County for the treatment of polio. During the 1990s it continued to care for the needs of handicapped children through an extensive evaluation and education program.
In 2014 the U.S. Census counted 20,462 people living in Gonzales County; about 43.2 percent were Anglo, 49.1 percent Hispanic, and 7.7 percent African American. Of residents twenty-five and older, 62 percent had graduated from high school and 11 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century, agriculture and hunting leases were central components of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 1,816 farms and ranches covering 695,774 acres, 60 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 26 percent to crops, and 12 percent to woodlands. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $277,537,000; livestock sales accounted for $255,904,000 of the total. Poultry, cattle, hogs, hay, corn, sorghum, and pecans were the chief agricultural products.
Gonzales (population, 7,410) is the county’s seat of government; other communities include Nixon (2,442), Waelder (1,091), Smiley (563), and Belmont (55). Recreational facilities abound in Gonzales County. Palmetto State Park, established in 1933, includes 264 acres of palmetto swamps, sulfur and iron springs, and camping and recreational-vehicle facilities on the San Marcos River. A wide variety of birds, rare trees and other plant life, quaking bogs, and other unusual phenomena make it attractive to naturalists, botanists, and the general public. There are two major lakes in the county-Gonzales 4-H and Wood 5-H on the Guadalupe River; these offer exceptional fishing, camping, and water sports. The 250-acre Independence Park in Gonzales includes a golf course, a variety of recreational facilities, and camping and recreational-vehicle connections. Other recreational spots include the Pioneer Village Living History Center and Noah's Land Wildlife Preserve. Annual celebrations in the county include the Feather Fest, at Nixon, honoring the poultry industry; the Settlers Set To, at Smiley; the Guacamole Fest, at Waelder; and the "Come and Take It" festival, at Gonzales, which commemorates the firing of the first shot of the Texas Revolution.