Hays County occupies an area of 693.5 square miles in south central Texas; the center of the county is at 98°00' west longitude and 30°00' north latitude, twenty-three miles southwest of Austin. The county is located on the border between the Edwards Plateau and the southern Black Prairie region. The Balcones Escarpment divides it into hilly, tree-covered ranch country in the northwest three-quarters and grassy, agricultural plains in the southeast quarter. The principal natural grasses are big bluestem and Indian grass; trees commonly associated with Central Texas-including live oak, cedar, pecan, and mesquite-are indigenous to Hays County. The elevation rises from east to west, varying from 600 to over 1,400 feet. The county's numerous streams generally flow in an easterly direction; the principal waterways are Bear, Cypress, and Onion creeks and the Blanco and San Marcos rivers. The Edwards Aquifer underlies the eastern area, where San Marcos Springs, the second largest in Texas, delivers about 160 cubic feet per second. The soil varies from thin limestone to black, waxy, chocolate, and grey loam. The mean annual rainfall is 33.75 inches. The average maximum temperature in July is 96° F; the average minimum temperature in January is 40°. Hays County has a growing season of 254 days.
The many springs in the area that is now Hays County have attracted numerous visitors. Archeological findings indicate the presence of Paleo-Indian people near San Marcos Springs at least 8,000 years ago, and excavations at the Timmeron Site, west of Wimberley, reveal that Tonkawa Indians practiced farming in the area around A.D. 1200. During the Spanish period the region lay at the edge of the main route from San Antonio to East Texas, the Old San Antonio Road. In 1691 Domingo Terán de los Ríos crossed the southern edge of the county on his way to the East Texas missions and the Red River. The Espinosa-Olivares-Aguirre expedition explored the upper San Marcos River in 1709, and Louis Juchereau de St. Denis was attacked by Apaches in 1714 at the San Marcos River crossing. A mission to be called San Marcos was authorized in 1729 near the site of present San Marcos, but the authorization was later rescinded in favor of San Antonio. San Xavier Mission and San Francisco Xavier Presidio were located briefly at the site in 1755–56, but no permanent settlement was attempted until 1807, when some eighty persons were moved to the Old San Antonio Road crossing of the San Marcos River. San Marcos de Neve, one of a chain of defense settlements, was abandoned four years later, after flooding and attacks by Comanche and Tonkawa Indians. To encourage settlement after the Mexican War for Independence, the government of Coahuila and Texas issued land grants in the county to Juan Martín Veramendi in 1831, Juan Vicente Campos in 1832, and Thomas Jefferson Chambers in 1834. The first Anglo-American settler in Hays County, Thomas G. McGehee, was issued a league of land in 1835 by the Mexican government and was farming north of the site of present San Marcos in 1846.
On March 1, 1848, the state legislature formed Hays County from territory formerly part of Travis County. William W. Moon, Eli T. Merriman, and Mike Sessom, original settlers and members of John Coffee Hays's company of Texas Rangers, worked with Gen. Edward Burleson, a member of the Texas Senate, to have the new county named for Hays. County organization and the designation of San Marcos as county seat gave impetus to settlement; the population grew from 387 in 1850 to 2,126 in 1860. The county shrank slightly on February 12, 1858, when it lost acreage to the new Blanco County and gained a portion of Comal County. On January 10, 1862, the legislature again transferred another small area to Blanco County. Boundaries remained stable for nearly a century, until resurvey of the Hays-Travis county line in 1955 added over 16,000 acres to Hays County.
A stage line from Austin to San Antonio crossed the county in 1848, the year that Edward Burleson built the first sawmill. W. A. Thompson built the first cotton gin in the early 1850s, and between 1855 and 1885 Ezekiel Nance built and operated five gins, five gristmills, a sawmill, a shingle mill, and a beef packery. Alfred B. F. Kerr organized the first church in Hays County in 1847, and a school was built at San Marcos in 1849. Another school was opened at Snake Lake in 1851, and John D. Pitts built a school in Stringtown before 1860. Johnson Institute, founded in 1852 by Thomas Jefferson Johnson, drew students from a large area of Central Texas until it closed in 1872.
The early settlers of Hays County were a mix of old Texans and Georgia and Arkansas immigrants. With the coming of the Civil War a majority of the residents favored secession. Col. Peter C. Woods's Thirty-sixth Texas Cavalry regiment was organized at Camp Clark, in neighboring Guadalupe County, in 1862; Company A was primarily made up of Hays County men. During the war county beef helped to feed Confederate forces. Shortly after the war's end Col. George F. Snyder, a Georgian, established the first newspaper in Hays County, the Pioneer. During Reconstruction a Ku Klux Klan group was formed, and in May 1876 a military organization, the San Marcos Greys, was formed.
George Neill drove the first herd of cattle from Hays County to Kansas in 1867, and other drives followed. Farming also became more profitable in the eastern part of the county and helped encourage a fresh influx of settlers. By 1878 the county was out of debt, several new communities had been organized, and schools had grown in number to match the increased population. Coronal Institute was founded in 1866 and the San Marcos public school system in 1870. Southwest Texas Normal School was authorized at the turn of the century and opened in 1903 as a teacher-training institution; it became Southwest Texas State University in 1969. San Marcos Baptist Academy was established in 1907.
In 1880 the first Hays County rail line, built by the International-Great Northern Railroad, was completed to San Marcos from Austin; it later extended to San Antonio. Another population boom followed the railroad. The county population nearly doubled, from 7,555 in 1880 to 14,142 in 1900, and then remained virtually unchanged for the next fifty years, despite the influences of World War I and the depression of the 1930s. Even the economic stimulus of World War II had only momentary effect. Hays County remained predominantly agricultural; almost 90 percent of the mid-1960s farm income came from livestock. Not until the establishment of the Gary Job Corps Training Center on the site of the former Gary Air Force Base in 1964 and the growth of enrollment at the university in San Marcos did Hays County begin a period of steady growth-from 19,934 in 1960 to 27,642 in 1970, 40,594 in 1980, and 65,614 in 1990. Although agriculture remained significant in county economics, nonagricultural income, primarily at the educational and training facilities, played an even larger role. The 1979 per-capita income of $6,009, however, remained well below the state average of $8,778.
The ethnic and racial composition of Hays County is difficult to document with precision, but certain broad features emerge from the county's census history. One discernible trend is a slow but consistent proportional decrease of African Americans in the county. Slaves were a primary source of labor in the county's early history, and blacks constituted more than a third of the county population by the end of antebellum Texas. Just twenty years after the onset of the Civil War, however, fewer than 20 percent of the residents were black. The decrease slowed briefly during the Great Depression, but by 1950 the black population had dropped to less than 10 percent, and by the 1980 census it amounted to less than 3 percent. There is still less data regarding another major ethnic group in the county, Mexican Americans. The few available figures suggest that Hispanics have constituted roughly a third of the population since 1930. The most reliable information, that from the 1980 and 1990 censuses, shows Hispanic-surnamed residents as 30.5 percent and 27.8 percent, respectively, of the population.
The political history of Hays County nearly mirrors that of the state as a whole. With the exception of the 1956 election, when the county returned to Democratic ranks while the majority of Texans voted for the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower's reelection, Hays County has consistently voted with the statewide majority. In the mid-1850s the American (Know-Nothing) party registered unusual strength in the county and came within two votes of capturing a majority of the 1856 county vote for president, and in 1860 most voters in the county supported John Bell, the Constitutional Union candidate. In 1872 (the first year after Reconstruction that Texans could vote in a national election) most of the county’s presidential votes went to Democrat Horace GreeleyThereafter, Hays County remained in the Democratic column until 1928, when Herbert Hoover carried the county and the state. Except for Eisenhower's 1952 victory, the county did not vote Republican again until the Nixon-McGovern contest in 1972. After Nixon’s decisive victory the county began to lean Republican. Though Democrat Jimmy Carter was able to win a majority there in 1976, the Republican presidential candidates carried Hays County in almost every election from 1980 through 2004. The only exception occurred in 1992, when Democrat Bill Clinton was able to win a plurality of the county’s votes, partly because independent candidate Ross Perot attracted many voters who might have otherwise voted Republican.
Since early in the century, Hays County has enjoyed a steady influx of tourists attracted by the caves, springs, and spas of Wimberley and San Marcos. Aquarena Springs and Wonder Cave are particularly well known. Camp Ben McCulloch, near Driftwood, was organized in 1896 as a site for reunions of the United Confederate Veterans; their descendents continue the annual tradition. More recently, the county caught the attention of environmentalists. Ezell Cave, a watery cavern in San Marcos, is the habitat of several rare animal species, including the Texas blind salamander, and six of the ten known varieties of aquatic cave fauna are found only in this cave and its underground waters. The only known habitat of the San Marcos salamander is San Marcos Springs, and two other unique fish of the springs, the fountain darter and San Marcos gambusia, were classed as endangered in 1990. Also on the endangered list is Texas wildrice, which is not known to exist outside a small area near the springs.
During the 1970s and 1980s growth in the northern and eastern parts of the county was influenced by the expanding Austin metropolitan area and the Austin-San Antonio urban strip along Interstate Highway 35. In 1973 Hays County became part of the Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area.By the early twenty-first century, most of the county was feeling the effects of rapid growth, and part of the county had been annexed by Austin.
The U.S. census counted 185,025 people living in Hays County in 2014. About 56.8 percent were Anglo, 36.7 percent were Hispanic, and 4 percent African American. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 85 percent had completed high school and 31 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century higher education, tourism, and various manufacturing concerns were important elements of the economy. In 2002 the county had 1,106 farms and ranches covering 278,452 acres, 67 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 21 percent to crops. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $14,614,000; livestock sales accounted for $10,627,000 of the total. Beef cattle, goats, nursery crops, hay, corn, sorghum, wheat, and cotton were the chief agricultural products.
San Marcos (population, 55,527) is the county’s seat of government and home to Texas State University. Other communities include Wimberley (2,548) Kyle (32,673), Buda (10,822), Dripping Springs (1,919), and Hays (234). The county offers visitors attractions such as hunting and fishing, Blanco River water resorts, and artistic and cultural activities at Texas State University and in Wimberly.