Hill County is in north central Texas. Hillsboro, the county seat and largest city within the county, is at the junction of Interstate Highway 35 East and West, about fifty-five miles south of Fort Worth and thirty-five miles north of Waco. The county's center lies at 32°00' north latitude and 97°07' west longitude. Hill County comprises 1,012 square miles within the Blackland Prairie, Grand Prairie, and Eastern Cross Timbers regions. The county topography includes level plains and gently rolling hills at an elevation varying between 400 and 900 feet above sea level. The Nolan River, Mustang Creek, and Whiterock Creek drain into the Brazos River, which forms the county's western border. Streams in the eastern and northern parts of the county, such as Richland, Ash, and Bynum creeks, empty into the Trinity River basin. Flood controls and water supplies for the county are provided by Lake Whitney in the west, Navarro Mills Lake in the southeast, and Aquilla Lake in the southwest. Wells provide another source of water for many cities and farms in Hill County.
A small part of the northwestern portion of the county has Quaternary Period geology and includes a sandy clay loam subsoil. The dominant foundation of the county is from the Cretaceous Period and includes six subgroups. The Austin Chalk, part of the Balcones fault zone, is on a west-facing escarpment running northward to the Ellis county line from Abbott to an area northeast of Itasca. The soils are shallow and the grasses are short. The Taylor Marl in eastern Hill County yields a deep, waxy and clayey soil along the gently rolling prairies as they extend from Abbott to Brandon. The Eagleford formation is in the southern part of the county between Abbott and Aquilla and in the northern part between Covington and Files Valley. The black, waxy, clayey soil includes the rich rolling hills and farmland of Hillsboro and Itasca. Cotton, grain sorghum, and corn are the primary crops of the region and provide stability to the area economy. Natural vegetation includes bunch grasses such as buffalo grass, big bluestem, switchgrass, and indiangrass. The Eastern Cross Timbers begins in the Woodbine formation that follows the reddish-brown sandy clay found along Aquilla Creek. Within this region, post oak, blackjack oak, live oak, and pecan trees provide a limited source of timber for the county. The Washita Group is a narrow belt of stony rolling hills composed of siltstone and limestone. The soil varies from shallow to deep concentrations of deposits rather than bedrock. The fossiliferous limestone of the Fredericksburg Group provides the western section of the county with dramatic limestone cliffs along the Brazos and Nolan rivers. The shallow soil yields short grasses, mesquite, and cacti. Bobcats, coyotes, white-tailed deer and gray foxes are among the animals found in Hill County.
Between April and September of each year falls 56 percent of the average annual rainfall: 36–40 inches in the eastern part of the county and 32–36 inches in the western. The temperature ranges between an average high of 95° F in July and an average low of 36° in January. The mild temperatures and adequate rainfall provide a growing season of 230 days a year. In the 1980s, 46 percent of the county was used for field crops, 32 percent for pasture, and 13 percent for rangeland. Urban and water usage took up 6 percent, and 3 percent remained wooded.
The first traces of human inhabitants in the area that became Hill County date back to A.D. 1300 and were found at Buzzard Cave on the Brazos River near Blum. In the early eighteenth century Waco and Tawakoni groups of the Wichita established small hunting camps of grass huts along Richland and Pin Oak creeks in the northeastern and southeastern portions of the county. Beginning with Spanish expeditions, Europeans entered the region. Pedro Vial, a Frenchman hired by the Spanish to find a route to Santa Fe from San Antonio, was probably the first European to reach what would become Hill County. He reported stopping at a Tawakoni village on the east side of the Brazos River between December 15 and 21, 1786. The first Anglo to reach the area that became Hill County was Philip Nolan, in 1801. He established a camp and three stockade fences northeast of Blum on Battle Creek to hold wild mustangs captured in the area. Nolan was killed by the Spanish in March 1801, after being warned to leave the area. Stephen F. Austin's survey map of 1822 included the Hill County area. A land dispute between Austin and Sterling Clack Robertson began after the Mexican government passed the Law of April 6, 1830. Austin claimed Robertson had not fulfilled his quota of colonists before the execution of the law, but Robertson won the appeal to the Mexican government and received the land that would later include Hill County. William Steele, the land commissioner for Robertson's colony, had issued the first land grant on March 15, 1825, to Peter Fleming, a twenty-nine-year-old Missourian. The land was located between the Brazos River and Aquilla Creek. In 1835 Robertson kept land for himself and gave further grants to John Burgess, Montgomery Shackelford, and John Carr; he gave the largest grant, twenty-four labores, to William McFarlin. Each parcel of land extended eastward from points along the Brazos River.
During the 1820s Comanche and Taovaya (Towash) Indians migrated into the region, concealing their movement by following the Cross Timbers. By 1824 Stephen F. Austin had sent a commission to make a treaty with the Indians of the area. The land dispute between Austin and Robertson continued to frustrate efforts to establish peace with the Indian groups of the area. In the 1830s Hasinai and Anadarko groups left East Texas, and by February 1844, under the leadership of José María, an Anadarko, they had settled in the Hill County area. One of the Torrey Trading Houses was established and served as a focal point for the 150 Indian huts. In an effort to keep watch over Indian activity and intercept Comanche raiding parties, the Texas Rangers established Fort Smith, a temporary camp, on the high ground near White Rock on September 15, 1845. Fort Graham, at the mouth of Bear Creek, was established on March 27, 1849. It served as one of nine permanent outposts constructed on a line from the West Fork of the Trinity River to Eagle Pass. The outpost was abandoned on November 9, 1853, but a town remained in the area. Though 240 Indian raids were recorded in the counties surrounding Hill and Johnson counties, there was no record of such raids in Hill or Johnson. A lieutenant Whiting made the observation that the area that later became Hill County was probably used as a "council-spot" for discussions and making treaties. Safe passage was given to all people through the area.
In an effort to stimulate land speculation, army doctor Josephus Murray Steiner and Elijah Sterling Clack Robertson, son of Sterling C. Robertson, devised a plan to divide Navarro County. A petition was circulated on September 19, 1852, to carve a new county from Navarro County. Things moved quickly as Governor Peter Hansbrough Bell called a special session of the legislature to deal with frontier problems; a bill to divide Navarro County was signed on February 7, 1853. Hill County was named for Dr. George Washington Hill, who had served as President Sam Houston's secretary of war and who had been elected to the state legislature from Navarro County in 1851. An election of county officials was held on May 14, 1853, in Lexington on Jack's Branch, currently Union Bluff. J. H. Dyer was elected county judge; Charley Davis, sheriff; C. N. Brooks, county and district clerk as well as the first justice of the peace; and Thomas Steiner (brother of Dr. Steiner), one of the county commissioners. A special session of the commissioners' court was called on August 23, 1853, to select the county seat. Thomas Steiner, John Caruthers, and Jonathan Newby offered to donate 260 acres as the county seat; their offer was accepted. Another special session was called on September 24 to survey the town of Hillsborough; town lots went on sale November 1. C. N. Brooks, the county clerk and justice of the peace, built the first courthouse, which was twelve feet square and consisted of elm poles around a dirt floor. A second courthouse was built in 1854, at a cost of $200. In the same year, post office rules changed, and the town's name became spelled as Hillsboro.
By 1860 the county had 3,653 inhabitants, including 650 slaves. Hill County overwhelmingly approved secession (by a vote of 376 to 63), and the county remained loyal to the South throughout the Civil War. Home guards were established in May 1861, and during the war Hill County supported three cavalry units, which saw action primarily in Louisiana and Arkansas. During Reconstruction, when the Republican party controlled Hill County, its citizens faced serious political challenges. Power conflicts flared up occasionally between local citizens and governor Edmund Jackson Davis's Texas State Police. Lawlessness increased in the postwar period. Outlaw John Wesley Hardin arrived in the fall of 1869, to speculate on cotton and hides, and murdered a local citizen. More serious was the presence of several groups of outlaws who operated in the county. When, in September 1870, the State Police moved to suppress a band of outlaws led by Kinch West and the Cox brothers, local citizens refused to cooperate. In December of the same year, Hill County citizens blocked the arrest of two local men accused of murdering a black couple, and assaulted several policemen. Governor Davis declared martial law in the county in January 1871, and fined several prominent county residents for leading assaults on state police. Martial law was lifted after two days.
By 1873 the county had been "redeemed" for the Democratic party. Hill County introduced a white primary in 1899. The county's voters supported the Democratic candidates in every presidential election from 1872 through 1968; the only exception was in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover beat Al Smith. The area began to trend more Republican in 1972, when Richard Nixon took the county over Democrat George McGovern. Though the county's voters returned to the Democrats in 1976 and 1980, the area went Republican in 1984 and 1988. In 1992 Democrat Bill Clinton won a slim majority of the county's votes, but in 1996 Republican Bob Dole carried the area, and George W. Bush won large majorities in 2000 and 2004.
Hill County's population had doubled to 7,453 by 1870. The famous Chisholm Trail, which Texas cowmen recognized as running from the Rio Grande to central Kansas, reached through the northwest corner of the county between 1871 and 1872. F. M. Harris was the first county resident to send cattle up the trail from the county. As the cattle trails declined, the number of ranches and farms began to increase, going from 611 in 1870 to 2,259 in 1880. Around 1870 a more substantial two story brick courthouse was built; when it burned in September 1872, many of the county records were lost in the fire. Arson was suspected. The current courthouse was completed in 1890 by the contractors Lovell, Miller, and Hood, for a total cost of $83,000. The old courthouse was sold at auction for $120.
Hill County benefited greatly from the coming of the railroad. By September 1881 the Missouri, Kansas and Texas had become the first railroad to reach the county. That same year the Fort Worth-Temple section of the line was completed, and by November 1887, connections to Dallas had been completed. By 1913 Hill County had 200 miles of lines of the Cotton Belt (see ST. LOUIS SOUTHWESTERN RAILWAY), the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe, the Trinity and Brazos Valley, and the Texas Electric railways. In part because of the railroads, the county population increased substantially. Between 1881 and 1910 various towns developed along the railroads or expanded because of better rail communications; these included Itasca, Bynum, Birome, and Hillsboro. The railroads also facilitated the relocation of many new immigrant groups into the county. Germans and Eastern Europeans had a major impact on the development of towns located in the southeastern section of the county, such as Mertens, Abbott, and Penelope.
Beginning with the year (1853) that Hill County was established, its population almost doubled in each decade of the 1800s. In 1860 it reported a population of 3,653, which grew steadily until 1900, when it reached 41,355. In 1910 the county reached a peak population of 46,760. During this period the number of farms in the county also increased dramatically, going from 2,259 in 1880 to 3,430 in 1890 and to an all-time county high of 5,539 in 1910. Cotton, corn, wheat, and oats were the most important crops, and by the early decades of the 1900s, cotton was raised on 60 percent or more of the cropland in use. The proliferation of small farms and the impact of the boll weevil and the Great Depression led to a steady rise in the rate of farm tenancy in the county. By 1900 more than 57 percent of the farmers in Hill County were tenants, and by 1930 almost 75 percent of the farmers were working on land they did not own.
Hill County's population began to decline after 1910, falling to 43,036 in 1930, 31,282 in 1950, and 22,596 in 1970. Declining farm prices and a decrease in the number of farms and manufacturers within the county contributed to the decrease in population. In 1916 Hill County was the fourth leading county in Texas in cotton production, with 98,052 bales, but by 1959 the county was reduced to 34,844 bales at the same time that Lubbock County was ginning more than 211,000 bales. Similar decreases in the production of corn, wheat, and oats were experienced in the county in the same time period. The total number of farms also decreased, from 5,488 in 1930, to 3,954 in 1940, 2,151 in 1960, and 1,501 in 1987. In 2002 the county had 2,014 farms and ranches covering 504,322 acres, 58 percent of which were devoted to crops and 36 percent to pasture. In that year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $54,019,000; crop sales accounted for $29,808,000 of the total. Cattle, nursery crops, sorghum, dairies, wheat, hay, turkeys, and cotton were the most important elements of the county's agricultural sector. Drought, combined with increasingly efficient farming tools and methods, resulted in the smaller number but larger size of farms, and also led to a dramatic decline in rates of farm tenancy beginning in the 1930s. Oil was discovered in Hill County, but in very insignificant quantities, on May 28, 1929, near Mount Calm, at a depth of 700 feet. The discovery of a major oilfield eluded Hill County at a time when other areas of the state received a much-needed economic boost from that resource.
Manufacturing in the county also began to decline after 1910. The number of manufacturing establishments had decreased from 38 to 17 by 1929. However, the value of their products remained fairly constant, at $3.7 million. The importance of cotton and cotton by-products helped maintain the area's economy. The numbers continued to slip until 1958. Plastic, copper, and furniture plants were established in the county during the 1950s. The number of workers also increased, as more people gave up their farms and ranches. In the early 1980s these manufacturing plants faced major cutbacks because of the increasing need for updated facilities. Apparel and textile companies faced the greatest reductions, as natural textiles were increasingly replaced by synthetic cloth.
As the number of manufacturers declined, retail trade, particularly eating establishments, showed signs of improvement consistently from 1956 through 1988. Nursing and medical care also increased in Hill County during the same period. The count of 405 employees recorded in the service industry in 1956 had risen by 1988 to more than 1,000. Hillsboro underwent a major face-lift in 1981 as one of the first towns in Texas chosen for the Texas Historical Commission's Main Street Project. The project included an assessment of the town's architectural resources and the development of strategies to encourage economic growth within the city and county. Hillsboro suffered a severe setback, however, when the county courthouse burned down in 1993.
The earliest schools in Hill County were sponsored privately by individuals, groups, or churches. The Masonic Lodge orders arranged to build and sponsor schools throughout the county. Hillsboro received the first in 1857 and continued its operation until 1883. In the late 1870s other schools were established in the towns of Peoria, Osceola, Files Valley, Woodbury, and Itasca. By September 1883, eighty-two school communities existed in the county. By 1889 Hillsboro, Whitney, and Hubbard had established independent school districts. In Hillsboro the high school and a junior college were combined within the same building after a fire destroyed the high school building in 1922. In 1950 only 11 percent of the county population had completed high school. This situation improved dramatically over the next thirty years, and in 1980, 48 percent of the population had graduated from high school or had some college training. By 2000 more than 63 percent had graduated from high school and 9 percent had college degrees.
After bottoming out in 1970, Hill County's population began to grow again, reaching 27,146 in 1990, 32,321 in 2000, and 34,848 in 2014. In the early 1990s the county had numerous small cities and towns, each inherently important as a center of agriculture. Hillsboro (with a 2014 population of 8,235) serves as the center of county government, manufacturing, and retail distribution. Hillsboro's location at the junction of Interstate Highway 35 East and West, and the consequent through traffic, has encouraged the growth of antique shops and a manufacturers' retail outlet mall. As an educational center, Hill College maintained the Audie Murphy Gun Museum and the Confederate Museum. Whitney (population, 2,058) was a center of recreation because of its proximity to Lake Whitney and the Brazos River. Hubbard (1,374), once famous for its mineral waters, functioned as a center of agriculture for the eastern section of the county. Itasca (1,597) was an agricultural center for the northern portion of the county and also served as the headquarters for the Hill County Electric Cooperative.