Harris County

By: Margaret S. Henson

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: November 9, 2020

Harris County, originally Harrisburg County, is located on the upper Gulf Coast in Southeast Texas and is bounded by Waller County on the north and west, Montgomery County on the north, Liberty and Chambers counties on the east, Galveston and Brazoria counties on the south, and Fort Bend County on the west. The center point is at 95°27' west longitude and 29°50' north latitude. The county comprises 1,778 square miles (1,729 in land) and is the largest Texas county east of the Nueces River. Its southern half is level coastal prairie, and the northern half touches the rolling East Texas timberlands. Central Harris County is fifty-five feet above sea level. The land rises gradually to more than 200 feet on the northern borders, while the smallish bluffs around upper Galveston Bay descend to sea level. The soil is heavy black coastal clay in the south and sandy loam north of Buffalo Bayou. This stream, better known in its last sixteen miles as the Houston Ship Channel, almost bisects the county from west to east before joining the north-to-south San Jacinto River just above its estuary at Morgan's Point on upper Galveston Bay. The eastern third of the county is drained also by Cedar Bayou on its eastern border and by Clear Creek and Clear Lake on the south. Spring Creek forms its northern boundary and, joined by parallel Cypress Creek, becomes the West Fork of the San Jacinto River. A dam below the East and West forks of the San Jacinto River impounded Lake Houston in 1954. This reservoir for the city of Houston lessened dependence on subsurface water, the use of which has caused up to nine feet of subsidence around the confluence of Buffalo Bayou and the San Jacinto River. The lake is a popular recreational spot. Addicks and Barker dams provide flood control in western Harris County. The average annual rainfall in Harris County is 48.19 inches, and the mean temperature is 69.1 degrees. The growing season lasts 300 days. Native trees include pine and such hardwoods as oak, ash, and hickory.

Archeological sites in Harris County reveal the presence of human beings 6,000 years ago. The oldest contains a previously undisturbed deposit of bone remains and dart points dating from 4000 to 1000 B.C. A site on Clear Lake features a shell midden and cemetery with early ceramics dating between 1400 B.C. and A.D. 950. Other sites in the western area and along Galveston Bay have yielded pottery, stone tools, and points from 2,000 years ago. Many shell middens along the bayshore and brackish streams were destroyed in the nineteenth century when residents used the convenient shell heaps for construction.

Although Spain claimed the Texas Gulf Coast, few Europeans visited the future Harris County between 1528 and 1821. It is possible that Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca ascended the San Jacinto River from Galveston Island about 1529 to trade with the woodland Indians, but his adventures failed to stimulate interest in the Texas coast. A few French traders from Louisiana visited Indians living on Spring Creek between the 1730s and 1745, but made no settlement. A Spanish mission and presidio complex, El Orcoquisac, was maintained near the mouth of the Trinity from 1756 to 1771 to monitor and oppose the intrusion of foreigners. In 1746 Capt. Joaquín de Orobio y Basterra from La Bahía visited the Orcoquisac villages along Spring Creek while looking for French traders. He reported the lack of roads or maps and on his return blazed a trail westward to find the Old San Antonio Road, on which he had traveled to Nacogdoches on his way to the lower Trinity and San Jacinto rivers. The first Anglo-Americans to explore Harris County were members of the various filibustering expeditions launched from New Orleans between 1815 and 1820 to aid the Mexican Republicans rebelling against Spain. Using Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula as a base, the men belonging to the expeditions and encampments of Louis Michel Aury, Francisco Xavier Mina, Jean Laffite, and James Long looked around the San Jacinto estuary for future homesites, their expected reward for freeing Mexico from Spain. Some of these men were among the pioneer settlers arriving by boat from Louisiana in early 1822, just after the Mexican War of Independence.

Responding to Stephen F. Austin's advertisements, the families wrongly assumed that the San Jacinto estuary was part of his empresario grant. Some moved to the Brazos River in 1824, but merchants and boatmen remained to exploit what turned out to be the best transportation system in Texas and to petition successfully for inclusion in the Austin grant. Since Galveston Island and the Gulf shore were forbidden to Anglo settlement, Harris County was the southeastern border of the colony. The pioneers found no Indians living in the future Harris County. In July 1824 a state land commissioner, the Baron de Bastrop, arrived and spent two months issuing twenty-nine titles to settlers, even though surveys were incomplete. The pioneers, including Nathaniel Lynch, William Scott, and John R. Harris, chose sites along Buffalo Bayou, the San Jacinto River, and the San Jacinto estuary. Between 1828 and 1833, when Austin's colonization effort virtually ended, twenty-three more families secured titles elsewhere in the county, usually along watercourses. In 1826, John R. Harris laid out Harrisburg on his league where Brays Bayou joined Buffalo Bayou, the head of navigation. He opened a store and built a saw and grist mill, while his brothers captained vessels between there and New Orleans and even Tampico. By 1833 Harrisburg was an established port of entry for immigrants and freight destined for the upper Brazos River communities of San Felipe and Washington. Moreover, it was the hub for east-west roads. Eastward from Harrisburg in 1830, travelers crossed the San Jacinto River on Lynch's Ferry on their way to Anahuac, Liberty, or Nacogdoches. Opposite Harrisburg, a road paralleled Buffalo Bayou heading northwest to a community on Spring Creek, then forked for the Brazos villages. A third important road followed the south bank of Brays Bayou for fifteen miles to a community on Oyster Creek near the site of present-day Stafford in Fort Bend County. This area was known as the San Jacinto District from 1824 until 1833, when it was renamed the Harrisburg District. From 1824 through 1827 Humphrey Jackson was the alcalde for the San Jacinto District, which stretched from Lynchburg on the San Jacinto River to the site of present-day Richmond on the west, and from Spring Creek to Clear Creek. Jackson reported to Stephen F. Austin until 1828, when the newly instituted ayuntamiento at San Felipe relieved the empresario and comisarios were named. The final stage of development under the Mexican system occurred on December 30, 1835, when the General Council set the boundaries of Harrisburg Municipality. Amid the growing crisis that culminated in Texas independence, 264 voters scattered over five precincts chose Edward Wray alcalde on February 1, 1836, and named Lorenzo de Zavala and Andrew Briscoe delegates to the March convention. Harrisburg District was represented at the conventions of 1832 and 1833 and the Consultation in 1835. Some residents also participated in the Anahuac Disturbances in 1832 and 1835 and the call for volunteers in September 1835 to oppose Gen. Martín Perfecto de Cos. On March 12, the required one-third of the Harrisburg militia responded to the call to leave immediately for Gonzales.

Harrisburg Municipality was the home of both President David G. Burnet and Vice President Lorenzo de Zavala of the new Republic of Texas. They were elected by the delegates at Washington after midnight on March 16, 1836, and the next morning left for Harrisburg, where water transportation offered an escape if the Mexican army should win. On March 25 the group reached Harrisburg, where the president conducted business for the next two weeks. Burnet and his bride had moved to Lynchburg from New Jersey in 1831 with equipment for a steam sawmill that he built on the San Jacinto River above Lynch's Ferry. Declining to claim a headright, he bought land from Lynch for his home on a small bay below the ferry. He was not chosen to represent his neighborhood in 1832, 1833, 1835, or 1836 because of his pro-Mexican views. Delegates, torn by rivalries, chose him because he was not a delegate.

Zavala, a refugee from Santa Antonio López de Santa Anna's wrath, bought a house on the north side of Buffalo Bayou below Harrisburg in August 1835, and his New York-born second wife and three children joined him in December. The republic's officials evacuated Harrisburg by steamboat to Lynchburg on April 12, when word arrived that Santa Anna's troops were crossing the Brazos below Richmond. The steamboat Cayuga later took the officials and their families to Galveston Island. A constant stream of refugees from the upper Brazos settlements had been crossing Harrisburg Municipality since mid-March en route to the United States.

Santa Anna and his advance units reached Harrisburg at midnight on April 14 and, after a day of looting, set fire to the settlement on the sixteenth. The general dispatched a cavalry troop to Morgan's Point on April 16 that almost captured the Burnet family. The battle of San Jacinto took place on April 20 and 21 opposite Zavala's house on widow Peggy McCormick's farm, where perhaps 600 dead soldiers remained unburied when neither commander ordered interment.

Harrisburg County was formed by the First Congress on December 22, 1836. The lawmakers also named Andrew Briscoe chief justice and the infant city of Houston the county seat and national capital (see CAPITALS). The county encompassed the territory of the old municipality plus Galveston Island (the mainland was attached to Brazoria County) until May 1838, when its modern boundaries were established. In December 1839, Congress changed the name to Harris County, in honor of John R. Harris. The county briefly lost its northwest corner in 1841 when Spring Creek residents tried to form a separate county. The first county court, convened in February 1837, was composed of the chief justice (called the county judge after 1861), the sheriff, the clerk, and two justices of the peace who served as associate justices. Voters in each militia precinct chose two justices of the peace, and between 1837 and 1846 these men annually elected two of their body to serve as the two associate justices on the county court. Later, with statehood and a new constitution, four county commissioners represented the four precincts on the county court, and justices of the peace exercised their duties only within their precincts. The Congress also established district courts for criminal and civil cases; the first session of the Second District Court met in Houston in March 1837. This court is the forerunner of the Eleventh District Court established after the Civil War. The criminal district court serving Harris and Galveston counties began in 1867 and lasted until 1911, when each county formed its own criminal court. Since the first log court building, the county has built four successive imposing courthouses on the courthouse square in Houston. The 1911 structure still stands but is augmented by four major new buildings on separate blocks housing courts, offices, and the jail. The county has acquired several older office buildings around the courthouse for courts and offices.

Harrisburg recovered from the revolution slowly. By 1853 it had a steam mill and was the terminus for the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway, which crossed the county to Stafford's Point to facilitate the shipment of cotton and sugar. Five other railroads followed before the Civil War. The Galveston, Houston and Henderson connected the island to the mainland, while the Texas and New Orleans constructed tracks along the north side of Buffalo Bayou to Liberty and Orange, thus enabling Confederate troops from Harris County to reach the Neches River on their way to Virginia. The Houston and Texas Central ran west from town to Cypress, Hockley, and Hempstead. The Houston Tap and Brazoria linked Houston with the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado south of town and had a line to Columbia to serve the Brazoria County sugar plantations.

Early settlers in Harris County were mainly from the United States-Southerners bringing their Black slaves. Besides cultivating field crops, some of the African Americans worked the cattle on the open-range ranches, particularly in the area south of Buffalo Bayou, which remained ranching country into the early twentieth century. By the 1840s a number of Germans and French had immigrated to Harris County. Both groups included city-dwelling artisans, merchants, and farmers, some Catholic, some Protestant. Many of the immigrant agrarians settled north and west of Houston and established successful truck and dairy farms that drew Europeans through the turn of the century. Contrary to legend, few Mexican prisoners chose to remain in Harris County when all were released on April 21, 1837, by President Sam Houston. The 1850 United States census revealed no Mexican-born males of the right age in Harris County or surrounding counties. A few Mexican families lived in Houston in the 1880s. It was the economic opportunities offered by the Houston Ship Channel and the railroads, combined with the unsettled political conditions following the Mexican Revolution, that brought Mexicans to Houston. Most settled in the city close to their work and the Catholic churches. Asian immigrants have also settled in large numbers within the city since the 1970s.

While the first settlers lived along the streams, those coming after the Civil War chose sites along the railroads that crisscrossed Harris County. By 1890 land developers in the Midwest had purchased land along the new North Galveston, Houston and Kansas City Railroad, which ran east from Houston along the south side of Buffalo Bayou towards Morgan's Point and south to the mouth of Clear Creek. They expected to attract other midwesterners to raise fruit, berries, and vegetables or just to seek relief from cold winters. Pasadena, Deer Park, and La Porte were established in 1892, and Seabrook followed about 1900. South Houston, Genoa, and Webster developed along the Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad after the 1870s. Around the turn of the century, Japanese were invited to the Webster area to develop rice farms on the flat prairies and also at a site on a branch line of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway south of Houston that became Mykawa. Between 1911 and 1936 the Galveston-Houston Electric Railway, called the Interurban, ran parallel to the GH&H and provided thirty-minute service from Webster to Houston. In the 1960s the land east of Webster became the home of the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center, renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in 1973. Houston quickly annexed the area. The development changed the rural aspect of the area when several new towns sprang up along the north shore of Clear Lake, the largest being Clear Lake City. Northern Harris County developed similarly. After the Civil War other railways such as the Houston and Great Northern, the Trinity and Brazos Valley, the Houston East and West Texas, and the Burlington-Rock Island entered north Harris County to converge on Houston. The lumbering and farming interests established small towns such as Spring and Tomball along the tracks. The population of Humble, near the Houston East and West Texas Railway, increased with the oil boom at Moonshine Hill in 1905. Harris County east of the San Jacinto River remained an agricultural community focusing on rice culture in the 1890s. Its only commercial developments were small boatyards at Lynchburg and Goose Creek and a brick factory on Cedar Bayou that mushroomed during the 1880s to supply a building boom in Galveston. Between 1903 and 1907 oil was discovered on the eastern shore of the San Jacinto estuary at Goose Creek and Tabbs Bay. Migrant roughnecks and their families moved to the area and established a temporary boomtown amid the derricks between 1915 and 1917. The shantytown was replaced in 1917 by Pelly, which was built on private land above the noisy and dirty oil camp. In 1919 Ross Sterling and his Humble Oil and Refining Company (now Exxon) built a refinery on the San Jacinto above the mouth of Goose Creek. The site was bordered by the Humble company town, Baytown, for workers, and a middle-class enclave, Goose Creek, for executives and others. Pelly and Goose Creek vied for dominance, and after Humble sold the company houses to the workers beginning in the late 1920s, the three towns consolidated to become the "Tri-Cities" in the 1930s and finally to be renamed Baytown in 1948. Eastern Harris County also had an electric interurban train, the Houston-North Shore Railroad, which in 1925 connected the three towns to Crosby and ran along the north side of Buffalo Bayou to downtown Houston.

The development of Harris County as an industrial power began in 1911, when voters approved the formation of the Harris County Ship Channel Navigation District. Authorized by Congress and approved by the state legislature, the district could improve the waterway and manage the waterfront within the county. It immediately issued bonds to widen and deepen the channel in order to make the Houston port accessible to oceangoing vessels. In 1914 the United States Army Corps of Engineers finished deepening the existing fifty-mile-long channel to twenty-five feet from the Gulf through Galveston Bay and up the San Jacinto River and Buffalo Bayou to the district's turning basin at the Port of Houston. By 1918 petroleum refineries began locating along Buffalo Bayou and the San Jacinto River, as did various other industries. Since that time, the channel has been deepened to fifty feet and widened to accommodate larger vessels. The very profitable Harris County Navigation District owns the wharves and warehouses around the turning basin (about two miles above old Harrisburg), the Long Reach docks, and various other facilities, including a bulk handling plant at Greens Bayou, the terminal railroad, and the container facility at the Bayport industrial complex, below Morgan's Point. In addition, in the 1950s the district joined national and state governments to build the Washburn Tunnel under Buffalo Bayou from Pasadena to the north side and the Baytown-La Porte tunnel beneath the San Jacinto River, in order to reduce the number of hazardous automobile ferries. Exports from the port include rice, wheat, grain sorghums, cotton, caustic soda, cement, and petroleum products. Imports include crude oil, iron ore, molasses, coffee, gypsum, and automobiles. Another venture authorized by Harris County voters was the Harris County Domed Stadium, which was completed in 1965 and has been leased to the Houston Sports Association. The Astrodome, the first stadium of its kind, was touted as the "Eighth Wonder of the World." The county also maintains two public hospitals in Houston and since 1935 has worked to control flooding through the Harris County Flood Control District.

The success of the ship channel in attracting industry caused a surge in population. In 1930, when residents numbered 359,328, Harris County surpassed its rivals, Dallas and Bexar counties, by more than 100,000 people. It remained the most populous county in Texas. In 1960 it had more than a million residents. In 1990 it reached a population of 2,818,199, of which 64.7 percent were White, 22.9 percent Hispanic, 19.2 percent Black, 3.9 percent Asian, .3 percent American Indian, and 11.9 percent assorted others. The population of Houston, the county seat, was 1,630,553. Almost three quarters of the county in 1990 was covered by the city of Houston and thirty smaller communities; only 27 percent (310,000 acres or 485 square miles) of the county was rural. County agriculture embraced 50,000 irrigated acres planted in rice, soybeans, grains, hay, corn, and vegetables. Cattle, horses, hogs, and poultry were raised.

The voters of Harris County supported the Democratic candidate in virtually every presidential election from 1848 to 1948; the only exceptions occurred in 1872, when Republican Ulysses S. G rant carried the county, and in 1928, when Herbert Hoover did. After 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower decisively defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson in Harris County, the area began to trend strongly Republican. The Republican presidential candidate carried the area in every election from 1956 through 2004.

Harris County transportation systems serve intrastate and interstate needs with the Union Pacific, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and the Port Terminal Railroad Association lines hauling freight to distribution centers and to the port; passenger rail service is limited to Amtrak. Buses, trucks, and passenger cars utilize a network of highways including Interstate 10 east and west and Interstate 45 north and south, U.S. Highway 59 crosses the county from northeast to southwest and goes to the Rio Grande valley, and U.S. 290 leads to West Texas via Austin. Loop 610 encircles the heart of Houston, and a second loop, Beltway 8, allows traffic to move around the perimeter of the urban sector. Both loops have high-rise bridges over the Houston Ship Channel, and a third new high-rise bridge spans the San Jacinto River and replaces the Baytown-La Porte tunnel. Two major airports, George Bush Intercontinental and William P. Hobby, are within the city of Houston.

In 2014 the U.S. Census counted 4,441370 people living in Harris County. About 31.9 percent were Anglo, 41.6 percent were Hispanic, and 19.5 percent African American. Of residents twenty-five and older, 75 percent had graduated from high school and 27 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century Harris County was highly industrialized with an increasingly dense population. Houston (population, 2,201,974) was the largest city in Texas, and the fourth-largest in the United States. More than 80 foreign governments maintained offices in the city, which contained the largest concentration of petrochemical plants in the United States and was among America’s leading ports for national and international trade. Though the area was increasingly urbanized, in 2002 the county had 2,452 farms and ranches covering 304,868 acres, 51 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 41 percent to crops, and six percent to woodlands. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $52,878,000; crop sales accounted for $34,999,000 of the total. Nursery crops, cattle, horses, turf-grass, hay, vegetables, and corn were the chief agricultural products.

Other communities in Harris County include Pasadena (population, 152,868), Baytown (75,764), Spring (58,156), and Channelview (40,830). The county offers many cultural and entertainment attractions for its residents and visitors, including professional baseball, football, and basketball teams, Astroworld and Waterworld amusement parks, the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, the San Jacinto Battleground, the Battleship Texas, and Sheldon Lake State Park.

Herbert Eugene Bolton, Texas in the Middle Eighteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1915; rpt., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970). Max Freund, ed. and trans., Gustav Dresel's Houston Journal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1954). William Fairfax Gray, From Virginia to Texas, 1835 (Houston: Fletcher Young, 1909, 1965). Margaret S. Henson and Kevin Ladd, Chambers County: A Pictorial History (Norfolk, Virginia: Donning, 1988). Margaret Swett Henson, History of Baytown (Baytown, Texas: Bay Area Heritage Society, 1986). The Heritage of North Harris County (n.p: North Harris County Branch, American Association of University Women, 1977). John H. Jenkins, ed., The Papers of the Texas Revolution, 1835–1836 (10 vols., Austin: Presidial Press, 1973). David G. McComb, Houston: The Bayou City (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1969; rev. ed., Houston: A History, 1981). C. David Pomeroy, Jr., Pasadena: The Early Years (Pasadena, Texas: Pomerosa Press, 1994). "Reminiscences of Mrs. Dilue Harris," Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 4, 7 (October 1900, January 1901, January 1904). Marilyn M. Sibley, The Port of Houston (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968). Virginia H. Taylor, The Spanish Archives of the General Land Office of Texas (Austin: Lone Star, 1955). Texas House of Representatives, Biographical Directory of the Texan Conventions and Congresses, 1832–1845 (Austin: Book Exchange, 1941). Herb Woods, Galveston-Houston Electric Railway (Los Angeles: Electric Railway Publications, 1959).

  • Counties
  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Margaret S. Henson, “Harris County,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 27, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/harris-county.

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November 9, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects:

Harris County
Currently Exists
Place Type
Altitude Range
0 ft – 310 ft
Civilian Labor Counts
People Year
2,302,599 2019
Land Area
Area (mi2) Year
1,703.5 2019
Total Area Values
Area (mi2) Year
1,777.5 2019
Per Capita Income
USD ($) Year
56,474 2019
Property Values
USD ($) Year
529,092,108,213 2019
Rainfall (inches) Year
56.8 2019
Retail Sales
USD ($) Year
101,312,297,794 2019
Temperature Ranges
Min (°F) Max (°F) Year
43.4 90.7 2019
Unemployment Percentage Year
10.3 2019
USD ($) Year
44,027,842,359 2019
Population Counts
People Year
4,713,325 2019
Great Texas Land Rush logo
Adoption Status: ⭐
This place has been adopted and will not be available until May 6, 2022
Adopted by:
The Hughes Family
Dedication Message:
In memory of Mary M Hughes