Hunt County is located in northeastern Texas. Greenville, the county seat and largest town, is fifty-one miles northeast of Dallas on Interstate Highway 30. The county's center lies at approximately 36°06' north latitude and 96°05' west longitude. The county comprises 840 square miles of the Blackland Prairie region of the state, a vast plain. The stream valleys are shallow, and the drainage divides are well rounded. Elevation in the county ranges from a low of 450 feet above sea level in the southeastern part to a high of 700 feet in the northwestern part. The extreme northwestern portion of the county lies within the drainage basin of the Trinity River. The northeastern part of the county is drained by the Sulphur River, and the remainder is drained by the Sabine. The soil on the uplands in Hunt County is predominantly loamy or clayey and loamy. The soil on the bottomlands is clayey. The bottoms are not suited for cultivation in most parts of the county because they are subject to flooding. Mineral resources include gas, oil, and sand. Temperatures range from an average winter minimum of 33° F in January to an average summer maximum of 93° in July. Rainfall averages forty-three inches a year, and the growing season varies from 218 to 247 days.
Although the Mexican government made a few land grants in the area of Hunt County in 1835, settlement did not begin until 1839. When Anglo-American settlers first arrived, the area was inhabited by small bands of Kiowa Indians, who left shortly thereafter and posed few problems for the settlers. Settlement remained sparse during the years of the republic and early statehood. An estimated 350 people lived in the county when it was formed from Fannin and Nacogdoches counties in 1846 and named for Memucan Hunt, the first Texas minister to Washington. Greenville, established on land donated by McQuinney H. Wright and James G. Bourland, became the county seat. The original county boundaries were reduced by the establishment of Rains County in 1870, but afterward remained unchanged.
Although large portions of the county were ideally suited for the growth of cotton, a slaveholding–cotton plantation society did not develop in Hunt County during the years of antebellum Texas. The primary inhibiting factor was the lack of transportation. There were no navigable watercourses and no railroads. The nearest viable market was Jefferson, 120 miles to the east. Those supplies not produced locally were hauled in by ox cart. As a result, a self-sufficient, "yeoman-farmer" economy developed. Most of the 6,053 white residents in the county in 1860 were natives of Southern states. There were also 577 African Americans in the county, held as slaves by 142 whites. Although the numbers are small, slavery had a significant impact on the county's development, since slaveholders formed an economically elite group that dominated the county politically.
In 1861 Hunt County citizens were sharply divided over the issue of secession. Martin D. Hart and his brother Hardin were leaders of a very vocal antisecession minority. The vote in the county was close (416 to 339), but a majority supported secession. Once the war began, an overwhelming majority of residents supported the war effort, and hundreds of county men fought. During the last half of the war the number of Blacks in the county rose to more than 1,200, as slaveholders from other areas of the South moved their slaves to Texas in an effort to keep them from fleeing to or being confiscated by Union forces. When defeat brought the end of slavery, although the number of Blacks in the county was too small to allow them even a measure of political control, many white citizens bitterly resented both their freedom and their enfranchisement during Reconstruction. The county was plagued by violence against Blacks and by feuds between small bands of Unionists and former Confederates. The worst of these, the Lee-Peacock feud, became so violent that in January 1869 United States Army troops were called in to restore order. The troops were removed in June 1870.
Hunt County was returned to white control in January 1870 and remained loyal to the Democratic party for many years after Reconstruction; the county supported the Democratic candidate in every presidential election through 1948. After 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower carried the area easily, the area began to trend more Republican. Though the Democrats won majorities in the county in 1960 and 1964, Hubert Humphrey won only a plurality of the county's votes in 1968, and the Republicans took the county in 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988. Democrat Bill Clinton won a plurality of the county's voters in 1992, at least partly because independent candidate Ross Perot polled strongly in the area during that election. But Republican Bob Dole won a plurality in 1996, and George W. Bush carried the county by large margins in 2000 and 2004.
In the decades after the Civil War dramatic changes took place in Hunt County. By the mid-1870s railroad connections could be reached by traveling thirty miles in any direction from the county seat. In October 1880 the first train pulled into Greenville on tracks laid by the East Line and Red River Railroad. The next year the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad extended its line from Mineola to Greenville. By 1904 seven rail lines crossed some part of the county, and eleven railroad towns of varying sizes were providing farmers facilities for shipping their crops. The county remained primarily rural, with an economy that depended heavily on agriculture, but Hunt County was no longer a small, isolated, yeoman-farmer society. From a population of 6,630, with 412 farms and a cotton crop of twenty-two bales in 1860, Hunt County had grown to a population of 47,295, with 5,946 farms and a cotton crop in excess of 50,000 bales in 1900. Cotton provided the county with its principal cash crop through the first half of the twentieth century, as cotton production remained above 50,000 bales a year. It did not bring prosperity for most of the county's residents, however. In 1880, 31 percent of the county's farmers were either tenants or sharecroppers, and by 1900 more than 58 percent fell into one of these two categories. The trend continued until 1930, when almost 72 percent of the farmers tilled land they did not own.
Other changes were also taking place during this period. In 1887 a privately owned electricity-generating plant was opened in Greenville. When the town purchased the plant shortly thereafter, Greenville became the first community in Texas with municipally owned public utilities. During the early years of the twentieth century, Greenville extended its lines to farmers who lived in the central part of the county.
Following the explosive growth in population during the last forty years of the nineteenth century, the population of the county remained relatively stable during the first forty years of the twentieth century. It rose slightly between 1900 and 1920, when the census reported a population of 50,350, then fell slightly over the next twenty years to a figure of 48,793 in 1940. During this forty-year period the county's Black population increased slightly in both real numbers and proportionally. In 1900 there were 4,300 Blacks in the county (9 percent of the population). By 1940 the number had risen to 6,288 (12.9 percent of the population).
Like most areas of the country, Hunt County was hit hard by the Great Depression. The value of the county's farms plummeted to about half of the 1920 total. By 1935 some 2,259 heads of families were on government relief. As late as 1940 the unemployment rate stood at 16.7 percent, and the number of farms in the county had dropped by almost 1,500. The bulk of this drop represented tenant farmers and sharecroppers who had been forced to leave the land. Still, cotton production remained high in 1940, with 53,444 bales reported, and those who farmed land they did not own constituted 62 percent of all farmers.
During the 1940s and 1950s the economy of the county began to change perceptibly. Cotton continued to be vital. In fact, the 66,117 bales reported in 1950 was the highest total ever recorded in a census year. But increasing mechanization led to larger farms, and tenants and sharecroppers continued to leave the land. The total number of farms in 1950 had dropped by more than 1,000 from the 1940 census figure. For the first time in the twentieth century, a majority of the farmers in the county owned their farms. Farmers also began to diversify their operations, as livestock, particularly cattle, became a major component in the economy. During the 1950s the number of farms in the county continued to fall, and cotton production began to decline also. By 1959 there were 1,200 fewer farms in the county, and the cotton crop was reported at 31,819 bales.
Industrial development was slow immediately after the Civil War, but by 1904 Hunt County had numerous industrial operations, including sawmills, cotton-spinning mills, cotton compresses, a cottonseed-oil refinery, and a shoe factory. Industries such as these employed a small minority of the county's work force (only 685 wage earners in 1940) before World War II. During the war an Air Corps training facility, Majors Field, was opened just outside Greenville. After it closed in 1945 it was converted to an industrial site, and a successful effort was made to attract industry. By 1953 more than 2,100 of the county's citizens were employed in manufacturing.
Changes in agriculture and economy were reflected in population shifts. In 1940, 38 percent of county residents lived in Greenville and Commerce, the two largest towns. By 1960 the figure had risen to 63 percent. Despite diversification, the economy was not strong enough to offset advantages offered elsewhere. County population declined from 48,793 in 1940 to 39,399 in 1960. The drop was due to diminution of the county's white population, which declined from 42,503 in 1940 to 32,934 in 1960. During this same period the number of Blacks in the county rose slightly, from 6,288 to 6,408.
The trends in agriculture that began after World War II continued between 1959 and the 1980s. The rate of decrease in the number of farms had slowed noticeably. The county had 2,245 farms in 1959 and 1,864 in 1982. By 1982 almost all farms (91 percent) were owner-operated. The production of cotton fell to 4,409 bales in 1982. Farming operations were much more diversified, as the county's farmers produced 1,346,284 bushels of wheat and 602,193 bushels of sorghum. Livestock, primarily beef cattle and dairy products, accounted for more than half of the $20,070,000 worth of agricultural products sold.
Though agriculture continued to be a significant aspect of the county's economy, by 1982 its role was a small one compared to that of industry. Between 1960 and 1980 the earlier efforts to attract industry to the county began to bear fruit. In 1965 manufacturing establishments provided more than 4,500 jobs. By 1980, with clothing and aeronautics manufacturers leading the way, sixty-two manufacturing firms employed 6,575 people (47.5 percent of all workers) with an annual payroll of more than $95 million. During the 1960s the population of the county began to grow again, rising to 47,948 by 1970 and to 55,248 (its highest point to that time) by 1980. Much of this growth is attributable to an influx of whites. Between 1960 and 1980 the white population rose by 43 percent, reaching 47,105. During the same period the Black population increased by only 9 percent, to 7,006. This growth continued in the 1980s; the population of Hunt County was 64,343 in 1990. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the county's population was largely rural, and mere literacy was the measure of educational achievement. By 1980 the population was largely urban, and, for the first time in the county's history, a majority (56.5 percent) of its citizens over the age of twenty-five had graduated from high school. By the late twentieth century the county was crisscrossed by highways, and some of its citizens commuted to jobs in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
In 2014 the census counted 88,493 people living in Hunt County. About 73.9 percent were Anglo, about 8.4 percent were African American, and 14.6 percent were Hispanic. More than 69 percent were high school graduates, and almost 16 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century education, manufacturing, and agribusiness were the key elements of the area's economy. In 2002 the county had 2,784 farms and ranches covering 400,272 acres, 56 percent of which were devoted to crops, 35 percent to pasture, and 6 percent to woodlands. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $28,066,000; livestock sales accounted for $16,351,000 of the total. Cattle, forage, and greenhouse crops were the chief agricultural products. Hunt County has several notable recreational facilities, including Lake Tawakoni, and educational facilities, including Texas A&M University–Commerce. Major communities include Greenville (population, 26,643), Commerce (8,359), Caddo Mills (1,436), Quinlan (1,414), and Wolfe City (1.430). The Audie Murphy/American Cotton Museum is in Greenville.