Houston County, the first county established by the Republic of Texas, is east of Waco in the East Texas Timberlands region. It is bordered on the north by Anderson County, on the east by Cherokee, Angelina, and Trinity counties, on the south by Walker and Madison counties, and on the west by Leon County. Its center lies at 31°20' north latitude and 99°25' west longitude. Crockett is the county seat and largest town. In addition to U.S. Highway 287 the county's transportation needs are served by State highways 7, 19, and 21 and the Union Pacific Railroad. Houston County covers 1,234 square miles, with elevations ranging from 200 to 300 feet. The Neches River forms the northeastern boundary of the county, and the Trinity River is the western boundary. The terrain is gently rolling to hilly. Soils are generally light colored and loamy, with very deep reddish clayey subsoils. In the southwest and west the soils are sandy with clayey subsoils. The predominant vegetation is mixed pine and hardwood forests. Between 21 and 30 percent of the land in the county is considered prime farmland. The climate is subtropical and humid, with cool winters and hot summers. Temperatures range in January from an average low of 36° F to an average high of 58°, and in July from 71° to 94°. The average annual rainfall is 42 inches. The average annual snowfall is less than one inch. The growing season averages 260 days a year, with the last freeze in early March and the first in late November.
The area has been the site of human habitation for several thousand years. Archeological artifacts recovered in the region suggest that the earliest human inhabitants arrived during the Archaic Period, approximately 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. Evidence of the prehistoric Caddo culture that flourished between A.D. 1000 and 1600 has also been found in the area; the earliest Spanish explorers encountered the remnants of that culture during their first forays into the region. The area now known as Houston County was also a stronghold of the Alabama-Coushatta, Cherokee, and Tejas Indians. The first recorded European exploration there was carried out by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and it is believed that a remnant of the Moscoso expedition reached the vicinity. On Alonso De León's second expedition in 1690 the first East Texas mission, San Francisco de los Tejas, was founded in the neighborhood of the present Weches, in the northeastern part of the county. The mission was abandoned in 1693 because of Indian hostility. The Old San Antonio Road, the most important of several caminos reales in the future state of Texas, crossed the county, and travel and trade were carried on over this route for a hundred years before any permanent settlements were made. A village on the right bank of the Trinity, established in 1774 and named Bucareli, reached the size of forty-two houses and a population of 348 before it broke up and the residents moved to Nacogdoches under the leadership of Antonio Gil Ibarvo.
The earliest permanent settlers in the future county were Daniel McLean, who crossed the area with the Gutiérrez-Magee expedition, and his brother-in-law John Sheridan; they settled near the site of present-day Augusta around 1821. Land grants in the area were made by the Mexican government as early as 1828 to members of Joseph Vehlein's colony. Among the first to receive them were Jacob Masters, who settled ten miles northeast of the site of present Crockett in 1828. Other early settlers included Masters's son Jacob Masters, Jr., Elijah Gossett and his three sons, and Joseph Redmond Rice, who started a plantation on the Old San Antonio Road about five miles northeast of Crockett.
In 1837 the boundaries of Houston County were laid out and its government was organized. It was named for President Sam Houston, who signed the order establishing the county on June 12, 1837. Upon its formation from Nacogdoches County in 1837, Houston County included the territory that later became Trinity and Anderson counties and part of Henderson County. Land was donated for the county seat by Andrew E. Gossett, who named it for his father's friend and former Tennessee neighbor, David Crockett. Collin Aldrich was first chief justice; George Aldrich, county surveyor; James Madden, sheriff; and Stephen White, clerk of the district court.
During the early years of the county's existence, there were frequent hostile encounters between settlers and Indians. In October 1838 an Indian band attacked the home of John Edens on San Pedro Creek, where a number of women and children had taken refuge while the men of the area were away combatting the Córdova Rebellion. In what became known as the Edens-Madden massacre, more than a half dozen people were killed and a number of others were wounded. Many early families constructed forts or blockhouses for protection, but sporadic attacks continued until the early 1850s.
During the early 1840s the population of the county grew rapidly. In 1847 the number of residents reached 1,929, and by 1850 it stood at 2,721. Many of the early settlers were planters from the Old South who brought their slaves with them, and the early tax rolls of the county show that the number of slaves increased steadily during the decade, rising from 308 in 1840 to 545 in 1850. Much of the early settlement was along the Neches and Trinity rivers. Linking the two rivers was the Old San Antonio Road, which provided the main overland route to and through the county. Farming in Houston County was originally conducted on a subsistence basis, but by the late 1840s a thriving plantation economy, based primarily on cotton, had developed. In 1850, Houston County plantations produced 740 bales, and the figure grew rapidly over the next decade. During the 1850s Alabama and Hall's Bluff, both on the Trinity River, became important shipping sites for the county's cotton crop. Planters hauled the heavy bales overland to the river and then transported them by flatboat to Galveston for sale and export to New Orleans and other sites.
In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, Houston County had a population of 8,058, including 2,819 slaves. Despite the rapid population growth of the previous decade and a half, the area remained sparsely settled. Arable land amounted to less than 40,000 acres, and Crockett was the only sizable town. Alabama, Augusta, Randolph, Hall's Bluff, and several other sites had post offices, but most of these communities were little more than villages.
The Civil War and its aftermath brought profound changes to the county. Its citizens voted overwhelmingly for secession, 552 for and only 38 against, and county men volunteered for the Confederate Army in large numbers. Despite having a White population of little more than 5,000, the county provided nearly 1,000 men to the war effort. Many of these spent long periods away from home during the war, and those who remained behind were forced to deal with the lack of markets and wild fluctuations in the value of Confederate currency, as well as concern for their relatives and friends on the battlefield. The end of the war brought wrenching changes in the county's economy. For many Houston County residents, the abolition of slavery meant devastating economic loss. Before the war slaves had constituted nearly half of all taxable property in the county, and their loss, coupled with a sharp decline in property values, caused a profound disruption for most planters. The value of farms in the county dropped from $1,154,435 in 1860 to $57,180 in 1870.
The Black population fared no better. Many Black farmers left the farms owned by their former masters to seek better working and living conditions, but for the vast majority the change brought only marginal improvement. Most ended up working on the land on shares, receiving one-third or one-half of the crop for their labors. Politically, however, Houston County Blacks fared somewhat better than freedmen in other counties; as late as 1873, largely as a result of Black voters, Republican gubernatorial candidate Edmund J. Davis won a narrow majority of the county's votes. As was the case elsewhere in the state, however, the introduction of the white primary and other discriminatory voting practices eventually served effectively to disfranchise African Americans until the 1960s.
Although Houston County witnessed little of the violence that many other counties experienced during Reconstruction, the effects of the war were felt for some time, and the economy did not begin fully to recover until 1872, when the Houston and Great Northern Railroad was built through the county. The new railroad provided improved access to markets outside of Texas and brought in large numbers of new settlers, who helped to reinvigorate the county. Between 1870 and 1880 the population grew from 8,147 to 16,702. Many of the new residents settled along the tracks, where numerous new communities, among them Grapeland, Latexo, and Lovelady, were built. The influx of new settlers had a dramatic impact on the agricultural economy. Between 1870 and 1880 the number of farms in the county increased from seventy-five to 1,698, and the number of improved acres grew from 6,746 to 73,884. Corn, cotton, and cattle were the leading products. In 1880 the county's farmers produced 283,402 bushels of corn and 9,730 bales of cotton; the agricultural census counted 14,368 cattle. The construction of the railroad also stimulated interested in lumbering the large virgin pine forests in the eastern part of the county, and by the 1890s several sawmills were in operation. In 1902 the Eastern Texas Railroad built from Lufkin to Kennard, in southeastern Houston County, further stimulating the lumber industry. The largest mill, the Four C Mill, was established in the Ratcliff area in 1901. It operated until the 1920s, by which time more than 120,000 acres of timberland had been cut.
In 1904 commercial lignite mining was also introduced. But the mainstay of the economy during the early decades of the twentieth century remained agriculture, particularly cotton farming. Between 1900 and 1930 the amount of land given to cotton culture steadily increased, rising from some 40,000 acres to more than 130,000 acres. In 1926, one of the peak years of the cotton boom, Houston County farmers produced 48,461 bales, placing the county among the leaders in the state. In addition to cotton, farmers also produced significant quantities of corn, butter, milk, eggs, and peaches.
The county population grew gradually from 25,452 in 1900 to 30,017 in 1930. The number of farms increased during the same period from 4,181 to 5,656. During the late 1920s and early 1930s cotton remained the leading cash crop, but droughts, boll weevil infestations, and falling prices combined to drive down production in the 1930s. Although the amount of land planted in cotton continued to be quite high, both yields and profits dropped significantly, especially after 1929. In 1930 Houston County farmers produced only 27,960 bales, down nearly a third from the peak production figure of the mid-1920s, despite the fact that the amount of land devoted to cotton continued to grow. By 1930 nearly half of the cropland in the county—143,131 of 221,141 acres—was planted in cotton.
Because of the growing population, land prices showed a marked increase, and many new farmers found it impossible to buy land. Accordingly, the number of tenants and sharecroppers grew rapidly, particularly in the 1920s, and by 1930 more than half of all farmers in the county—3,851 of 5,656—were working someone else's land. As a result of the poor yields and the reluctance of banks to extend credit to financially strained farmers, many of those who made a living from the land, particularly tenants, found themselves in a precarious position. Numerous farmers were forced to give up their livelihood and seek work elsewhere. As a result the number of tenants dropped sharply, from 3,851 in 1930 to 2,236 in 1940, and the number of farms in the county fell from 5,656 to 4,103. Many of the small tenant farmers were Black, and they were particularly hard hit during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Public Works Administration funds helped some in need; among the leading federal projects was the construction of a new county courthouse, which is still in use. Oil, discovered in the county in 1934, enabled some cash-strapped farmers to settle long-standing debts. But the economy did not begin to rebound until the early 1940s, when commodity prices began to climb again.
Since World War II Houston County has been a regional leader in agricultural production. During the late 1940s and early 1950s the farming economy became increasingly diversified. Truck and fruit farming were introduced and greater emphasis was placed on the dairy industry and poultry production. Bruce plums were also grown in large quantities around Grapeland. In the early postwar years cotton was still being grown in large amounts, with some 15,000 bales reported in 1951, but as the decade wore on, peanuts, corn, sorghum, tomatoes, beans, and other crops gradually grew in importance.
During the 1960s stock farming gradually replaced crop farming as the leading agricultural pursuit, and by the early 1980s, 86 percent of the county's farm income was from livestock and livestock products. In 1982, 55 percent of the land in the county was in farms and ranches, with 14 percent of the land under cultivation and 3 percent irrigated; that year Houston County ranked ninety-first of the 254 Texas counties in agricultural receipts. The primary crops were rye, hay, cotton, oats, wheat, sorghum, and peanuts; watermelons, peaches, and pecans were also grown in sizable quantities. The leading livestock products were cattle, milk, and hogs.
Businesses in the county in the early 1980s numbered 368. In 1980, 14 percent of workers were self-employed, 20 percent were employed in professional or related services, 19 percent in manufacturing, 18 percent in wholesale and retail trade, and 11 percent in agriculture, forestry, fishing, and mining; 11 percent were employed in other counties, and 2,641 workers were retired. Nonfarm earnings in 1981 totaled $183,021,000. Logging remained an important industry, and the county continued to produce lumber, chiefly pine and ash, in commercial quantities, as well as pulpwood. Though Houston County was once heavily deforested, the Civilian Conservation Corps replanted the area in the 1930s, and much of the eastern part of the county is now in Davy Crockett National Forest, which was established in 1935. Lignite coal, fuller's earth, and brick clay were also commercially extracted. Oil and natural gas continued to be produced in sizable amounts; in 1990, 809,916 barrels of petroleum were taken from land in the county. Tourism also became an increasingly important industry in Houston County in the late twentieh century.
The earliest schools in the county were established in the late 1830s. Trinity College, in Alabama, chartered in 1841, was the first college established in the Republic of Texas. In the early 1980s Houston County had five school districts, with six elementary, two middle, and five high schools. The average daily attendance in 1981–82 was 3,428, with expenditures per pupil of $2,681. Fifty percent of the 211 high school graduates planned to attend college. In 1983, 55 percent of the school graduates were White, 41 percent Black, 1 percent Hispanic, 0.3 percent Asian, and 0.1 percent American Indian. The first churches were established shortly after the organization of the county. In the mid-1980s the county had seventy churches, with an estimated combined membership of 10,833. The largest denominations were Baptist and Methodist.
Democratic presidential candidates carried Houston County in every election through 1968. In 1972, however, Republican Richard Nixon carried the area. Though the Democrats carried almost every election in the county from 1976 to 1992, Nixon's win in 1972 and Ronald Reagan's in 1984 marked a shift away from the area's traditional leanings. Nevertheless, Democrats continued to dominate local politics for some time, and won majorities in the county in 1976, 1980, and 1988. In 1982, 98 percent of the county's electorate voted in the Democratic primary, and Democratic officials maintained control of county offices. This began to change in the 1990s, however, as the area continued to trend more Republican; in 1995 there was a Republican county judge for the first time in 100 years. Democrat Bill Clinton won only a plurality of the county's votes in 1992, and in 1996 Republican Bob Dole won a plurality. Republican George W. Bush won solid majorities in the 2000 and 2004 elections.
The population of Houston County fell steadily between 1940 and 1970, as residents moved away to find jobs. There had been 31,137 people living in the county in 1940 (the all-time high) but the population dropped to 22,825 by 1950, to 19,376 by 1960, and to 17,855 by 1970. Subsequently the number of residents grew modestly, rising to 22,299 by 1980.
The census counted 21,375 people living in Houston County in 1990, 23,185 in 2000, and 22,741 in 2014. In that year about 61.7 percent of the population was Anglo, 26.1 percent was African American, and 10.9 percent wasHispanic. Seventy percent of residents age twenty-five and older had completed four years of high school, and more than 12 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century livestock, timber, and tourism were some of the key elements of the county's economy; local manufacturers produced steel and plastic products, clothing, and other goods. Over 15,115,000 cubic feet of pinewood and over 3,530,000 cubic feet of hardwood were harvested in the county in 2003. In 2002 the county had 1,514 farms and ranches covering 464,706 acres, 45 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 35 percent to crops, and 17 percent to woodlands. In that year Houston County farmers and ranchers earned $34,483,000; livestock sales accounted for $28,136,000 of the total. Cattle, hay, watermelons, and cotton were the chief agricultural products. Crockett (population, 6,766) is the county's largest town and seat of government. Other communities include Grapeland (1,489), Kennard (334), Latexo (334), Lovelady (652), and Ratcliff (106). Some 200 Texas Historical Commission markers identify historical sites and events. Leading attractions in the county include the site of the San Francisco de los Tejas Mission, Davy Crockett National Forest, a visitor's center and museum in the 1909 Crockett Depot, Houston County Lake, and Lake Ratcliff. The area also offers numerous venues for fishing, swimming, hiking, and other outdoor activities.