Jackson County, on U.S. Highway 59 in the Coastal Prairies region southwest of Houston, borders both Lavaca Bay and Carancahua Bay and is bounded by Calhoun, Victoria, Lavaca, Colorado, Wharton, and Matagorda counties. Edna, the county's largest town, is the county seat. The county's center lies at 28°57' north latitude and 96°35' west longitude. Elevation ranges from sea level to 150 feet. Jackson County, one of the original counties of Texas, was formed in 1836 from the old Mexican municipality of Jackson. Both the municipality and the county were named after President Andrew Jackson and were settled predominantly by American colonists. Jackson County comprises 844 square miles. Most of the county has loamy surfaces with clayey subsoils or gray to black, cracking, clayey soils. In the northwestern third, the prairie is surfaced by light-colored and loamy soils with deep reddish subsoils. Marsh millet, salt grass, and cordgrass thrive in the marsh areas; mesquite covers much of the prairie. Between 41 and 50 percent of Jackson County land is deemed prime farmland. With an average annual temperature of 70°, the county has a subtropical, humid climate. Tropical storms and hurricanes are possible from June through October. Temperatures in January vary from an average low of 43° F to an average high of 63° and in July range from 75° to 94°. The average annual rainfall is forty inches. The growing season averages 285 days; the first freeze normally occurs in early December and the last in late February.
Karankawa Indians were the earliest occupants of the future county. Camping along a narrow strip of land along Matagorda Bay, they subsisted on a combination of hunting, gathering, and fishing. In 1528 Europeans made the first contact with Texas Indians when remnants of Pánfilo de Narváez's calamitous expedition washed ashore on an island they named Malhado. Local Indians held Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and a few other survivors in bondage for nearly six years. During his period of Indian captivity, Cabeza de Vaca probably spent some time in what is now Jackson County. In 1684 René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, explored the area and established a settlement called Fort St. Louis, which some claim, probably wrongly, was in the future Jackson County. After San Fernando de Béxar and La Bahía became the focus of Spanish mission activity, the rich coastal area around present Jackson County was largely abandoned. Indians continued to inhabit the region and raid the Spanish ranches to the south.
Six of Stephen F. Austin's Old Three Hundred families settled in the future county. So many of the early colonists came from Alabama that for a time the municipality became known as the "Alabama Settlement." During the early 1830s the area was also inhabited by Lipan Apache and Tonkawa Indians. Although they made no attacks upon the settlers, the Indians made numerous night raids to steal crucial supplies. In 1832 the thefts became so serious that the local militia mounted an offensive against the local Indians that culminated in a skirmish on Sandy Creek.
The year 1835 brought turbulent changes to the Alabama Settlement. On July 17, 1835, area settlers met for the Lavaca-Navidad Meeting, where they adopted resolutions protesting the actions of the Mexican government. On December 5, 1835, as American colonists and their Federalist Tejano allies fought to capture San Antonio de Béxar, the provisional government of Texas established Jackson Municipality. With the surrender and departure of Centralist forces in Bexar, citizens of Jackson Municipality mistakenly anticipated that 1836 would herald the beginning of a new prosperity. Texana was the port of entry and training camp for many volunteers from the United States in the Texas Revolution. Antonio López de Santa Anna was on the march at the head of a large army and had soon defeated the rebel garrisons at the Alamo and Goliad. One Jackson County man, William Sutherland, fell at the Alamo. News of the dual debacles and the advance of the Mexican army caused most citizens of Jackson Municipality to flee as part of the Runaway Scrape. Mexican troops under José de Urrea occupied portions of the municipality and burned many of the American settlements. After the Texan victory at the battle of San Jacinto, most returned to find their cabins in ashes, their livestock slaughtered, and their fields razed. They suffered remarkable hardships until they could plant and harvest another crop; many went without bread until the next year.
The old Alabama Settlement continued to grow during the period of the Republic of Texas. In 1836 the municipality was organized into Jackson County. Camp Independence, near Texana, served as campsite and training ground for the Army of the Republic of Texas. Texana, in addition to being a military post, a port of entry, and an important trading center, was also named the county seat in 1836. Throughout the period of the republic and early statehood, the land area of Jackson County was in a condition of flux. In 1844 officials subtracted a narrow strip now in Matagorda and Wharton counties, but added a wedge of what is now Wharton County and a western section between the Lavaca River and Arenosa Creek. Jackson County lost large sections on the north, south, and east to the newly formed Calhoun, Wharton, and Lavaca counties in 1846. The western boundary, however, was extended to Arenosa Creek. In 1848 more eastern acreage was ceded to Matagorda County. During early statehood Texana emerged as the county's chief town. As early as 1840 a weekly steamboat ran from Texana to the pass of Matagorda Bay. The population of the county, however, remained relatively small. In 1850 Jackson County had only 996 inhabitants, of whom 339 were slaves. Farming was still largely on a subsistence basis. Although there were more than 20,000 cattle on the county's farms, only 3,034 acres had been cleared for crops.
The decade between 1850 and 1860 saw a marked rise in population; by 1860 the number of residents had increased to 2,612. The largest growth was in the number of black slaves, who formed nearly half (1,194) of the total population. The rapid rise in the number of slaves was evidence of the growth of the plantation economy. By 1860, 25,240 acres was being cultivated, a more-than-eightfold increase over 1850. Although corn and wheat were grown in small quantities, the primary crops were cotton and sugarcane; in 1860, 2,278 bales of cotton and 11,000 pounds of sugar were produced on the county's plantations. Despite the growth of farming, however, cattle ranching remained the chief agricultural pursuit. The coastal plains proved well suited for maintaining large herds, and by the eve of the Civil War nearly 80,000 cattle were maintained in the county, including 3,500 milk cows. Hogs were also raised in sizable numbers; in 1860, 8,937 were reported. Many of the county's slaves worked as drovers or cowhands or were used to grow and cut silage.
As national events brought about the unraveling of the Union, a strong majority of Jackson County voters stood with the South; the county voted 147 to 77 for secession. Company K of the Second Texas Infantry was organized in Jackson County. The Second Texas saw action at Shiloh, Farmington, Iuka, Corinth, and Vicksburg. One Jackson County company served with the Twenty-seventh Texas Cavalry. Company D, First Texas Cavalry, was raised in Victoria but included many Jackson County men. Jackson County men also served in the Eighth Texas Cavalry (Terry's Texas Rangers). In all, more than 100 Jackson County soldiers served in Confederate gray. The end of the war brought wrenching changes in the county's economy. For many whites 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 total value of farms in the county in 1860 was $1,137,864; by 1870 it had fallen to $152,613. African Americans fared no better. Although most of the county's black inhabitants remained, many left the farms owned by their former masters to seek better working conditions. For the vast majority, the change brought only marginal improvements in living and working conditions. Most ended up working on the land on shares, retaining one-third or one-half of the crop for their labors.
Although Jackson County was spared a great deal of the violence that much of Texas suffered during Reconstruction, the county nonetheless suffered an extended period of lawlessness. Violence and crime became widespread, and law-abiding travelers soon learned to avoid the lightly settled range country. The town of Morales served as a haven for fugitive criminals from surrounding counties and was the site of more killings than any other settlement in the county. The notorious Dalton Gang reportedly took refuge in a Morales hideout while eluding a posse. By the mid-1870s, however, order had been largely restored, and the white political elite had reasserted its dominance. Through intimidation and fraud black voters were kept from having any real voice in local affairs, and with the establishment of the white primary around 1900 they were effectively disfranchised.
During the 1870s the economy began to recover slowly. Between 1870 and 1880 the number of farms more than tripled, and cultivated acres grew from 10,816 to 63,523. Although cotton and sugarcane were still grown in small quantities, the emphasis, as before the war, was on livestock, especially cattle. After a sharp decline during the war and Reconstruction, the number of cattle grew rapidly during the late 1870s. By 1880 the county was again a leading producer of beef. During the 1870s large herds were driven overland to Dodge City and other railheads in Kansas or sold for hide and tallow. But with the construction of the New York, Texas and Mexican Railway in the early 1880s the county became an important shipping point for cattle.
In 1881 Count Joseph Telfener, representing the railroad, approached the businessmen of Texana for a $30,000 bonus to construct the line through their town. The citizens declined, thinking that a railroad would be detrimental to the existing shipping trade. Telfener therefore selected another route and named one of the main stations on it Edna, after his daughter. A settlement developed around the station, and soon Edna grew into a town. Meanwhile, large numbers of Texana residents moved to Edna; in January 1883 county voters chose by a margin of 272 to 17 to make Edna the county seat. Within two years Texana had become a virtual ghost town. The coming of the railroad brought new growth to Jackson County. Like Edna, Ganado, the county's second largest town, also grew up on the New York, Texas and Mexican. Railways also brought an influx of Scandinavians from northern states. In addition, most cattle ranchers left the hide and tallow trade, as the railway now provided a means by which they could ship live cattle.
With the dawning of the twentieth century, Jackson County remained predominantly agricultural. Cotton was the leading crop, although sugarcane was also produced in sizable quantities. The mainstay of the economy, however, continued to be beef cattle. Between 1890 and 1900 the number of cattle on Jackson County farms and ranches grew from 53,927 to 69,273, and by 1910 it reached a peak of 104,937. Toward 1920, however, the agricultural emphasis began to shift. Because of slumping prices and overgrazing, the number of beef cattle fell to 43,154 head, less than half of what it had been only a decade before. Many farmers turned their attention to growing cotton. Between 1910 and 1920 the number of acres devoted to cotton grew nearly fivefold, from 7,817 to 35,606, and cotton production nearly tripled, from 1,208 bales to 3,442. In 1926, at the peak of the cotton boom, production was 12,239 bales. Sugar production also increased dramatically during the same period, from 80 to 136 tons. The population grew between 1910 and 1920 from 6,471 to 11,244, the largest increase in the county's history. Fueling the population surge was a large movement of farmers from the Old South, who were lured to the Coastal Plains region by its abundant fertile land. Many had previously grown cotton and sugar, and they introduced large-scale farming to the area.
The decade of the 1920s was a prosperous period in Jackson County's history, as farmers enjoyed high commodity prices, easy credit, and relative financial stability. The period also witnessed civic improvements. Roads were paved and straightened, new bridges were built, utilities were introduced and expanded in the towns. But the 1920s also saw a dramatic growth in sharecropping, a practice that brought severe hardship to many in the coming years. In the 1880s fewer than a fifth of the farmers in the county, 53 of 288, were tenants. In 1910 the figure was slightly more than half, 389 of 789; and by 1930 nearly two out of every three farmers, 1,062 of 1,799, were working someone else's land. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when all farmers were hard pressed, tenants were particularly affected. As a result of poor yields and the reluctance of banks to extend credit to broke farmers, many of those who made a living from the land, particularly tenants, found themselves in a precarious position. Many were forced to leave. Although the population of the county grew slightly between 1930 and 1940, rising from 10,980 to 11,720, the number of farmers declined markedly, falling from 1,799 to 1,251. Not surprisingly, the number of tenant farmers showed the largest drop, declining from 1,062 to 748. During the early 1930s cotton remained the leading cash crop, but droughts, boll weevil infestations, and shrinking prices drove down cotton production. Although the amount of land planted in cotton continued to be quite high, both yields and profits dropped significantly. In 1936 Jackson County farmers produced only 4,023 bales, slightly more than a quarter of the peak figure for the mid-1920s. While many county residents suffered during the depression, the discovery of oil in 1934 served to mitigate some of its worst affects. Oil helped some cashless farmers to settle long-standing debts and made a few landowners rich. Yet not all of the county's residents benefited. Poor whites and many in the county's large black population actually fared worse, as land and housing prices increased. Some found jobs in the oilfields, but many were left to toil on the land in the face of slumping agricultural prices. Many others found themselves on the unemployment rolls.
During the late 1930s agricultural prices began to rebound, but the economy did not fully recover until after World War II. Afterward, Jackson County was a leading producer of rice and cattle. In the early 1990s rice culture was the number-one agricultural activity, with some 30,000 acres under production. Other leading crops included corn, grain sorghums, and beef cattle. Cotton was also still produced, although it never again equalled its peak during the boom years of the 1920s. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, and watermelons were the chief vegetables; other important products included peaches and pecans. In the early 1990s, 90 percent of the county was used for farming and ranching. Approximately 30 percent of the farmland was under cultivation, and of that, 35 percent was irrigated. Despite falling oil prices in the 1980s, oil and gas extraction remained the leading nonagricultural county industry. Although oil production had dropped off, Jackson County continued to be a leader in 1990, when crude production was 3,599,439 barrels; between 1934 and January 1, 1991, the county produced 656,164,692 barrels. Other important businesses included concrete production, heavy construction, metal fabrication and tooling, and sheet-metal manufacture.
The first schools in the county began operating before the Civil War. In the early 1980s Jackson County had three school districts, with seven elementary, two middle, and three high schools. The average daily attendance in 1981–82 was 2,866, with expenditures per pupil of $2,822. Forty-four percent of the 212 high school graduates planned to attend college. In 1983, 64 percent of the school graduates were white, 11 percent black, 24 percent Hispanic, and .2 percent Asian. The first church in the county, the Texana Methodist Church, was organized in 1838. In the mid-1980s the county had thirty-four churches, with a combined membership of 8,599. The largest denominations were Baptist, Catholic, and Methodist.
For decades after the Civil War, Jackson County voters tended to favor Republican candidates in presidential elections; the Republican candidate won most of the county’s votes in almost every presidential election from 1872 through 1896. The only exception occurred in 1888, when Democrat Grover Cleveland won there. After 1900, when Democrat William Jennings Bryan defeated Republican William McKinley in the county, the area began to strongly support Democratic presidential candidates, who carried the county in almost every presidential election from 1904 through 1968; the only exceptions occurred in 1928, when Herbert Hoover took Harris County, and in 1952 and 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower did. After 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon won a decisive victory in Harris County, the area’s sympathies began to shift. Though Democrat Jimmy Carter carried the county in 1976, the Republican candidates took Harris County in every presidential election from 1980 to 2004. Democrats continued to dominate local elections until the 1990s, but by the early 21st century Republicans were winning many local races by comfortable margins. After World War II the population of Jackson County remained fairly stable. It was 12,916 in 1950, 14,046 in 1960, 12,973 in 1970, 13,353 in 1980, and 13,039 in 1990. In 1990 the largest minority groups were Hispanic (21.3 percent) and African American (9.3 percent). In 1990 the largest towns were Edna, with a population of 5,343, and Ganado, with a population of 1,701.
In 2014 the U.S. Census counted 14,739 people living in Jackson County; about 60.4 percent were Anglo, 31 percent Hispanic, and 7.5 percent African American. Of residents twenty-five years and older, 73 percent had graduated from high school and 13 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century petroleum operations, sheet metal, metal fabrication and tooling companies, plastics, and agriculture were important elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 917 farms and ranches covering 470,000 acres, 39 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 53 percent to crops, and 6 percent to woodlands. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $41,860,000; crop sales accounted for $30,598,000 of the total. Cotton, cattle, corn, and rice were the chief agricultural products. More than 1,030,000 barrels of oil, and 20,928,565 thousand cubic feet of gas well gas, were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 681,128,930 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1934.
Edna (population, 5,725) remains the county’s largest town and is the seat of government; other communities include Ganado (2,050), Lolita (564), Vanderbilt (401), and La Ward (224). Leading attractions in the county include hunting and fishing, the Texana Museum, Brackenridge Plantation campground, and Lake Texana State Park.