Hamilton County, in Central Texas, is bounded on the north by Comanche, Erath, and Johnson counties, on the west by Mills County, and on the south by Lampasas and Coryell counties. Its center lies at 31°47' north latitude and 98°13' west longitude, 114 miles north of Austin. The county was named for James Hamilton, a South Carolina governor who invested some $216,000 in gold to finance the Texas struggle for independence from Mexico. It covers 844 square miles wooded with pecan, live oak, elm, cedar, and post oak. Soils range from the sandy loams and sands and the dark, limy, crumbly, clays of the prairie, to the rich alluvial bottoms of the river valleys. The elevation of the county ranges between 900 and 1,600 feet above sea level. Except for the northwestern part, which lies in the Western Cross Timbers region, the county is rolling prairie marked by numerous flat-topped buttes that rise abruptly to stand on the divides between the county's many streams. The county is drained by the Leon, Lampasas, and Bosque rivers. Many of its deep, wide stream valleys are bordered by limestone cliffs that abut the intervening flat divides. The average annual rainfall is 29.61 inches; the average minimum temperature in January is 34° F, and the average maximum in July is 96°. The growing season lasts 239 days. The agriculture of the local economy earns about $31 million yearly, 90 percent of which derives from cattle, hogs, sheep, goats, and poultry. Crops include sorghums, small grains, cotton, hay, and pecans; irrigated land totals about 5,000 acres. The county's agribusiness also includes more than forty dairies. The manufacture of garments, wooden molding, steel products, and other goods earns the county about $5 million annually. Hamilton County has limited and declining oil production; production was about 5,000 barrels in 1982 and 2,067 in 1990. Major roads include U.S Highway 281 (north to south) and State highways 36 (northwest to southeast) and 22 (east to west).
Though the extent of prehistoric settlement in the area that is now Hamilton County is unclear, at least five Indian burial mounds have been found on the banks of Cowhouse Creek, about 3½ miles from Pottsville. Waco and Tawakoni Indians lived on the Brazos and Trinity rivers some sixty miles to the east and northeast; they traded with the Tonkawas, a nomadic tribe that moved around Central Texas. Comanches also traveled through the Hamilton County area.
The first permanent White settlers in the area were probably Robert Carter and his family, who arrived in 1854. By 1855 a number of others, including James Rice, Henry Standefer, Frederic Bookerman, William Beauchamp, and Asa Langford had settled there. Rice and Standefer opened a store that soon developed into the town of Hamilton; meanwhile, Langford built a sawmill, a blacksmith shop, a store, and a gristmill to form a settlement that came to be known as Langford's Cove (present-day Evant). Population grew rather rapidly, and in 1856 settlers circulated a petition asking that a new county be formed to accommodate their needs. Later that year the Texas legislature approved the request and marked off Hamilton County from land previously assigned to Comanche, Bosque, and Lampasas counties. Two years later a five-man commission selected the town of Hamilton to be the county seat.
By 1860, when the county's first post office was established at the hamlet of Hico, the county included several small but well-established communities; that year the census found 489 residents. Geography helped to determine the pattern of settlement, as pioneers built along the wooded streams that crossed the rolling prairie, leaving the intervening divides to remain open range. According to the 1860 agricultural census only 290 acres of the county's 1,800 acres of farmland was improved; the wheat harvest was about 1,050 bushels that year, and corn production was 1,900 bushels. Though most of the county's early residents engaged in stock raising, the census counted only 36 horses, 47 sheep, 160 milk cows, and 496 other cattle in the county that year.
Further growth was impeded by the Civil War, as county men formed militia units to defend themselves against the Indian raids that made life on the frontier dangerous. Indians attacked a school on the Leon River in 1867, for example, and killed the teacher, Ann Whitney, and a neighboring farmer; several children were wounded or captured. Though Indians continued to raid the area periodically until 1875, the threat had been considerably reduced by 1870, and settlers had begun moving into the county in greater numbers.
By 1870, seventy-five ranches and farms encompassing almost 12,500 acres (including about 2,600 improved acres) had been established in Hamilton County, and the population had increased to 733. Though local farmers harvested more than 27,000 bushels of wheat and about 3,300 bushels of corn that year, the area remained primarily devoted to ranching; more than 10,000 cattle were reported in the county in 1870. The development of the county's economy and social institutions accelerated between 1870 and 1880, as thousands of new settlers moved into the area. Ranchers drove their cattle to market on a branch of the Chisholm Trail that ran between Hico and Carlton. In 1876 a newspaper, the Hamilton Herald, began to publish; a year later the county's wooden jail was replaced by a new stone structure. Though a southern section of the original county was detached to become part of Mills County in 1877, in 1880 the census counted 6,365 residents in Hamilton County. By that year 949 farms and ranches, encompassing more than 139,000 acres, had been established in the county, and commercial farming was beginning to become an important part of the local economy. Almost 7,000 acres in the county was planted in cotton that year, while another 13,000 acres was planted with corn and almost 4,000 acres with wheat. Ranching had also grown; more than 14,200 cattle and almost 11,100 sheep were counted that year. Further growth was encouraged in 1880, when the Texas Central Railroad extended its tracks across the northeastern corner of the county, connecting Hamilton County more closely to national markets. Hico was moved two miles to the railroad, where it became the county's market center.
Between 1880 and 1900 cotton farming, grain production, and sheep and cattle ranching expanded despite periodic droughts and financial difficulties experienced by local farmers. During the 1880s and 1890s many settlers bought farm tracts from speculators who subdivided former rangeland; others purchased public school lands. Fence-cutting disputes occurred, conflicts erupted between cattlemen and the increasing numbers of sheep raisers, and a drought devastated the county from 1881 to 1887. The Journal-News, a Populist paper, was published in Hamilton, and the People's party won some county offices in elections between 1894 and 1900. The number of farms in the county rose to 1,208 by 1890 and 1,872 by 1900; by that time, more than 517,800 acres of county land was in farms. Meanwhile, the population grew to 9,313 by 1890 and to 13,520 by 1900.
Much of the county's growth during this period can be attributed to a significant rise in cotton cultivation in the area. In 1880 only about 6,900 acres had been planted in cotton, but the acreage devoted to the crop rose steadily; by 1890, when almost 21,000 acres in the county was planted in cotton, it had already become Hamilton County's most important crop; by 1900, cotton cultivation had spread to almost 47,500 acres of county land. The production of other crops, especially wheat and corn, also grew significantly between 1880 and 1900. Almost 15,000 acres was planted in wheat, and almost 29,000 in corn, by 1900. Cattle and sheep ranching in the area also expanded. There were almost 28,000 cattle in the county in 1890, and about 27,000 in 1900; there were more than 81,500 sheep in 1890, and more than 68,000 in 1900. Poultry production also became an important part of the local economy during this period. By 1900, there were almost 74,000 chickens on Hamilton County farms. The cotton boom continued after 1900 and reached its peak in 1910, when more than 79,000 acres in the county was devoted to the crop.
The economic development of the county was further encouraged in 1907, when the county gained two new rail connections. That year the Stephenville, North and South Texas Railway connected Hamilton with Stephenville, and the St. Louis Southwestern Railway of Texas connected Hamilton with Comanche. By 1910 there were 2,237 farms in the county, and the population had grown to 15,315. Though cotton production continued to expand, other parts of the economy declined significantly in the early years of the twentieth century. By 1910 only 1,051 acres was devoted to wheat, and only 17,127 to corn; meanwhile, the number of sheep in the county declined to about 13,000, and the number of cattle dropped to about 19,500.
Sometime between 1920 and 1930 the area's economy began to sink into an extended decline. Cotton production dropped significantly by 1920; that year, only about 42,000 acres was devoted to the fiber in Hamilton County. Though corn and wheat culture rose during the decade before 1920, and though cotton made a limited recovery during the late 1920s, these rises were not enough to offset the losses experienced by county cotton farmers. The number of farms in the county dropped to 2,049 in 1920 and 1,987 in 1929; meanwhile, the population fell to 14,676 by 1920 and 13,523 by 1930. The Great Depression of the 1930s intensified and extended the area's economic problems; by 1940 only about 24,000 acres of county land was planted in cotton. None of the county's banks failed during the depression, but the county lost two of its rail connections during this period. The Stephenville, North and South Texas line ended its service to Hamilton in 1934, and in 1940 the St. Louis and Southwestern line followed suit. Fortunately, most farm families also raised their own fruits, vegetables, and meats, and the poultry market provided a little badly needed cash. Farmers also benefited from various national relief programs during the depression, including the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. In 1934 the Civil Works Administration's payroll included 747 Hamilton County men, who together earned about $2,000 daily. By 1940 the number of farms in the county had declined to 1,897, and the population had dropped to 13,303.
Due in part to farm consolidations and an extended drought from 1948 to 1954, the population decline extended into the 1940s and continued for almost thirty years thereafter. The number of residents dropped to 10,660 by 1950, to 8,488 by 1960, and 7,198 by 1970. The population rose significantly during the 1970s, however, and by 1980, 8,297 people lived in the county. In 2014, Hamilton County's population was 8,199. Of those, 86.3 percent were Anglo, 0.9 percent African American, and 11.2 percent Hispanic. In national politics Hamilton County voters voted solidly Democratic until the early 1950s, when majorities began to fall regularly into the Republican column. From 1952 to 1992 the county voted for the Republican presidential candidate in every election but two: 1964, when a majority of county voters supported Lyndon B. Johnson, and 1976, when a majority supported Jimmy Carter. Communities in the county include Hamilton, the county seat (population, 2,977), Hico (1,356), Evant, Aleman, Fairy, Indian Gap, and Pottsville. Tourist attractions include the Hico Old Settlers' Reunion in August, a livestock show in March, and a dove festival in September.