Huntsville, seat of Walker County, is at the junction of Interstate highways 45 and 75, U.S. Highway 190, and Texas highways 19 and 30 at the approximate center of the county (at 30°43' N, 95°33' W). It was founded in 1835 or 1836 by Pleasant and Ephraim Gray as an Indian trading post and was named for Huntsville, Alabama, former home of the Gray family. The city originally lay within the northeast section of Montgomery County, which was organized in 1837. It was designated the seat of Walker County when the county was organized in 1846. Huntsville acquired a post office on June 9, 1837, with Ephraim Gray as the first postmaster. The Grays' trading post was well situated to trade with the Bidai, Alabama, and Coushatta Indians. Relations between these groups and the early settlers around Huntsville appear to have been peaceful. As trade along the Trinity River grew and as colonists arrived to exploit timber and rich alluvial bottomlands, Huntsville became the center of increasing activity. The 1840s and 1850s saw the arrival of a few relatively well-to-do families from the Carolinas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, along with larger numbers of yeomen. Visitors such as Gustav Dresel, N. Adolphus Sterne (a business associate of Alexander McDonald, who built the first brick building in the community), and William Bollaert recorded their impressions of early Huntsville, as did Melinda Rankin, an early resident. Huntsville was also the home of many prominent early Texans, including Sam Houston, Henderson King Yoakum, Samuel McKinney, Robert Goodloe Smither, and Anthony Martin Branch.
A number of newspapers made an appearance in Huntsville before the Civil War. They included the Montgomery Patriot (1845–46), the Texas Banner (1846–50), the Texas Medium (1852–56), and the Texas Presbyterian (1850–56). Three papers associated with the American (Know-Nothing) party appeared in quick succession in the mid-1850s: the Invincible Sun (1855?-56?), the Union Advocate (1856–57), and the Huntsville Recorder (1857). The Huntsville Item, which succeeded the Texas Banner in 1850, was still being published in 1991. During Reconstruction Huntsville was also the home of the Union Republican (1867–73).
A Methodist congregation seems to have been organized by 1842; it erected its first church in 1857. A Baptist congregation was organized on September 16, 1844 (church built in 1851); Cumberland Presbyterian in 1847 (church, 1847); Old School Presbyterian, 1848 (church, 1855–56); and Disciples of Christ and Episcopalian, both by 1854 (churches, 1866 and 1870–73, respectively). The Brick Academy, also known as the Huntsville Male and Female Academy, was in operation by 1844. It seems to have been the school that received a charter on April 11, 1846, under the name of Huntsville Academy. By the fall of 1845 the Brick Academy had been joined by Stovall's Male and Female Academy. After the latter restricted its enrollment to males and was chartered as Huntsville Male Institute on March 16, 1848, the Brick Academy became an exclusively female institution. Among its teachers in the late 1840s was Melinda Rankin. The school fell into decline after the Methodist Church established Andrew Female College in Huntsville in the early 1850s. Andrew was itself abandoned in 1879, when Sam Houston Normal Institute (later Sam Houston State University), the first teacher-training institution in Texas, opened in Huntsville. Although Huntsville failed to become the site of Baylor University in the mid-1840s, the town succeeded in attracting Austin College, which opened there in the early 1850s. While the main building of Austin College was under construction, the school's first classes were taught in the Huntsville Male Academy. In 1877, when Austin College was moved to Sherman, the Methodist Church bought its building in Huntsville for the use of Mitchell College, a short-lived boys' school. This property was subsequently offered to the state in exchange for a normal school and became the site of Sam Houston Normal.
Bishop Ward Normal and Collegiate Institute for Negroes, a coeducational school founded by the Methodist Church, opened in Huntsville in 1883 and operated for seven years. It was the fifth college established for Blacks in Texas. Primary education was organized for Black children in Huntsville by 1867. Later the Andrew Female College building was moved to a new site and used as a school for Black students. Sam Houston Industrial and Training School, located five miles west of Huntsville in Galilee, was a noted East Texas school for Black youths. It was named for Samuel W. Houston, whose father, Joshua Houston, had been a slave to Sam Houston before emancipation. Samuel Houston, who had studied at Hampton Institute, Atlanta University, and Howard University, began teaching in Galilee in 1906. Although he emphasized an industrial program modeled on that of Hampton Institute, he slowly added liberal arts courses to the curriculum. By 1928 the school had over 400 students, drawn from a number of different counties. In 1930 it was incorporated into the Huntsville school system.
At the end of its first decade, Huntsville also became the site of the new Texas State Penitentiary, established by the legislature in 1847 (see TEXAS STATE PENITENTIARY AT HUNTSVILLE). The prison received its first convict on October 1, 1849. The following year Huntsville lost out to Austin in an election to choose the state capital.
Perhaps the oldest continuous business in the state is the Huntsville firm of Gibbs Brothers and Company, begun as Gibbs and Coffin in 1841. According to one account, most of the manufacturing in Huntsville before the Civil War was carried on by slaves, who made shoes and other leather goods and cigars. During the war cloth produced at the penitentiary was made into uniforms for Confederate soldiers. For transportation, early residents had access to the Trinity River through the port of Cincinnati, fifteen miles to the north, and stage lines. As early as 1856 Huntsville citizens planned a line called the Huntsville Railroad to connect at Cypress (Harris County) with the Houston and Texas Central Railway, but the road was never built.
During the Mexican War volunteers from Huntsville served in Capt. James Gillaspie's company of mounted riflemen. In the Civil War another Gillaspie company from the Huntsville area saw duty in Galveston with the Fifth Regiment, Texas Infantry Volunteers. In addition, the Fourth and Fifth Regiments of Hood's Texas Brigade each had a company raised around Huntsville.
During Reconstruction Walker County was one of three Texas counties put under martial law. Incidents in Huntsville-the murder of a freedman nearby in January 1871; a gun battle at the subsequent trial of the four suspects, during which Leander H. McNelly and another member of the Texas State Police were wounded and two of the prisoners escaped; willingness of only two citizens to join in pursuit; and the attempted assassination of the trial judge-led to the imposition of martial law on February 15. It was lifted sixty days later.
Prominent Black residents of Huntsville during those years included Joshua Houston, Memphis Allen, and Joseph M. Mettawer, all of whom were elected county commissioners, and C. W. Luckie, who served on the school board. Mettawer was a freeman born in Indiana in 1837 who came to Texas before the Civil War. He was a barber and banjo player and in 1868 organized the Negro Brass Band, the first band in Walker County. His real estate holdings in Huntsville included a brick building on the square. A number of Black residents held membership in predominantly White churches, while others established independent congregations. In 1867 Black Methodists and Baptists built a union church. In 1869 the denominations that had maintained this church went their separate ways. The Baptists established the First Baptist Church in a section of town known as Rogersville, and the African Methodists also built a church of their own, later known as Allen Chapel. The Methodist Episcopal congregation remained at the site of the original union church and took the name St. James Methodist Episcopal Church. Friendship Baptist Church, also known as Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, was organized by members of the First Baptist Church in 1890 or 1891. Antioch Baptist Church was established in the late 1890s and held services for several years. The celebration of Juneteenth was initially held at the union church. After the several Black denominations separated, Juneteenth was organized for many years by Jane Ward, who ran a hotel in Huntsville for Black travelers and was renowned for her ministrations to the poor and sick. In 1931 the Band and Park Association was established to purchase Sims Grove, where Juneteenth had been held since about 1914, and to maintain a brass band. In 1933, with the help of Robert A. Josey, the association completed its purchase of the land and dedicated it as Emancipation Park.
Economic development suffered considerably from a yellow fever epidemic in 1867, which reportedly killed 10 percent of the town's population. In 1872 the Houston and Great Northern Railroad bypassed Huntsville to the east. The town acquired a rail connection that same year, however, when the eight-mile Huntsville Branch linked it to the H&GN at Phelps. In 1875 Huntsville was also a stop on four stage routes: Cypress (Harris County) to Cincinnati, Nacogdoches to Brenham, Huntsville to Waxahachie, and Huntsville to Chaneyville, Louisiana. On the whole the Huntsville economy remained fairly stable from the Civil War through the Great Depression. Highway development in the late 1920s and early 1930s enhanced Huntsville's position as a trade center for a significant rural area of East Texas. The population rose from 939 in 1860 to 2,485 in 1904, 5,028 in 1931, 11,999 in 1960, 23,936 in 1980, and 27,925 in 1990. By 2000 the population was 35,078. Lumbering, farming, livestock raising, and tourism have constituted the economic base of the city. In recent years substantial lignite deposits have been found in the county. The growth of the penitentiary system and of Sam Houston State University, the expansion of metropolitan Houston, and the development of Lake Livingston and similar attractive living areas revitalized the local economy in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1991 the city had two newspapers, the Huntsville Item and the Houstonian (the student paper at SHSU), and two radio stations. The Joe G. Davis School of Vocational of Nursing, at Huntsville Memorial Hospital, opened in September 1966 and was still in operation in 1991.
In 1936 the Texas Centennial Commission erected markers in Huntsville for Austin Hall, the original building of Austin College, and for the Steamboat House, the house in which Sam Houston died. The commission also authorized the construction of the James Gillaspie Monument and the Sam Houston Memorial Museum. The homes of Sam Houston and John W. Thomason, Jr., are both on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Houston law office has also been preserved. Other tourist attractions include the nearby Huntsville State Park and Sam Houston National Forest. The Texas Prison Rodeo, formerly held each Sunday in October, was discontinued after the 1986 season.