Jefferson County, on Interstate Highway 10 in the Coastal Plain or Gulf Prairie region of extreme southeastern Texas, is bounded by Orange County on the northeast, by Hardin County on the north, by Liberty and Chambers counties on the west, and by the Gulf of Mexico on the south. To the east the county line is formed by the Neches River, Sabine Lake, and Sabine Pass, and to the north by Pine Island Bayou. A series of lakes extends across the southern part of the county, and beaches overlook the Gulf. The Port Arthur ship canal, on the west shore of Sabine Lake, connects with the Neches and Sabine rivers to provide deepwater ports at Beaumont, Port Arthur, Nederland, and Port Neches. Deepwater transportation and petrochemical industries are among the county's economic mainstays. Beef cattle and rice yield major farm income, and the majority of wage earners are employed in the petrochemical, shipbuilding, and rubber industries. The county comprises 937 square miles, mainly of grassy plains, though a dense forest belt crosses the northwest part. The southern third of the county consists of marshy saltgrass terrain good for cattle raising, the middle third is coastal prairie used for grazing and rice culture, and the northern third is heavily forested with hardwoods and southern yellow pine. The terrain is low and flat, with altitudes rising from sea level to about fifty feet. Beach sands and ocean sediments make up soils along the coast. The northern border is surfaced by light-colored, loamy soils over deep, reddish clayey or loamy subsoils with hardened calcium deposits, and the remainder of the county has light to dark loamy surfaces over clayey subsoils or gray to black, clayey soils. Geologically, the county is noted for its Beaumont Clay formation and the Spindletop and Big Hill salt domes, which contain sulfur and petroleum. The mean annual temperature is 69° F, and the average annual rainfall is fifty-three inches. The subtropical, humid climate features warm, moist summers tempered by Gulf breezes. The growing season averages 225 days a year. Vegetation includes pine, white oak, red oak, pin oak, ash, beech, magnolia, gum, cypress, bunchgrasses, marsh millet, seashore saltgrass and cordgrasses. Between 1 and 10 percent of the land is considered prime farmland. Among the principal streams are Taylor's, Hillebrandt, and Pine Island bayous. Lake B. A. Steinhagen and Sam Rayburn Reservoir provide water for municipal use and industry, and the bayous are used for irrigation by rice growers. Natural resources in the county include ceramic clays, industrial sand, oil and gas, sulfur, and pine and hardwood. Three railroads — the Kansas City Southern, the Southwest Electric Power Company, and the Union Pacific — serve the county, and the Neches River provides water transport. The county seat, Beaumont, an important shipping point, petrochemical producer, and hospital and nursing home center, is located on the Neches River at the county's approximate midpoint (at 30°05' N, 94°06' W). Incorporated towns include Beaumont, Bevil Oaks, China, Groves, Nederland, Nome, Port Arthur, and Port Neches. Beaumont, Port Arthur, and neighboring Orange, cities of the "Golden Triangle," have been the principal cities of the Sabine area and major manufacturing centers.
Prehistoric habitation in the future Jefferson County began with the arrival of Atakapa Indians roughly 2,000 years ago; an Atakapan vase from the Marksville Culture has been dated between the year one and A.D. 500. Atakapas lived on the Lower Neches and Sabine rivers. They occupied two villages on opposite sides of the Neches near the site of present Beaumont in 1746. Orcoquiza Indians occupied the area from the Neches River to halfway between the Trinity and the Brazos. Six burial mounds have been discovered at Joseph Grigsby's plantation at Port Neches on the west bank of the Neches twelve miles below Beaumont, and pottery shards have been found at Sabine Lake and in many places throughout the area. Disappearance of the Indians has been attributed to migration or smallpox epidemics; Most were gone by the 1820s, when the first White settlers arrived.
The French and Spanish disputed ownership of the future county during the eighteenth century. Spanish claims were based on the 1528 expedition of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and French involvement began with La Salle in 1685. By 1730 French fur traders had crossed the lower Sabine to trade with Orcoquizas on the Trinity River, but because it was isolated on the east by unfordable rivers and bayous and on the north by the Big Thicket, the area that became Jefferson County was rarely visited by White traders. To prevent French penetration, the Spanish established San Agustín de Ahumada Presidio and Nuestra Señora de la Luz Mission near the mouth of the Trinity in 1756. In 1777 Antonio Gil Ibarvo conducted an expedition to investigate the English presence in Spanish territory, and in 1785 José de Evia camped at Sabine Pass and mapped Sabine Lake and the Sabine and Neches rivers. By 1803, when the United States acquired Louisiana, the area of Jefferson County was under Spanish control as part of the Atascosito District. In conjunction with filibustering efforts to discourage Spanish shipping after 1816, the area provided a path for slave smuggling between Louisiana, Point Bolivar, Jefferson County, and the Sabine River until the 1830s. Pirate Jean Laffite maintained a slave barracks on the Sabine River ten miles north of the site of present Orange to house enslaved Blacks in transit. In 1821 filibustering efforts ceased when the Treaty of Córdova ended Spanish ownership in the region and made it part of Mexico. Anglo-American colonization subsequently met both hostility and encouragement from the Mexican government, as settlement efforts brought new families to the area from 1821 to 1836. The first settlement within the confines of the present county, made at Tevis Bluff in 1824, became Beaumont. The area that became Jefferson County was included in the Mexican Department of Nacogdoches as part of Liberty Municipality in Lorenzo de Zavala's empresario grant of 1831. It later became part of Jefferson Municipality. The Cow Bayou settlement in this municipality, organized in 1835 and later known as Old Jefferson, became the first county seat and the place through which the county grew. Local volunteers took part in the Texas Revolution, and other residents provided troop support.
Jefferson County, formed in 1836 and organized in 1837, was one of the original counties in the Republic of Texas. It was named for the municipality that preceded it, which was in turn named for Thomas Jefferson. The county boundaries, as delineated on December 21, 1837, included all of the future Orange County, a part of what later became Hardin County, and the extreme eastern part of the future Chambers County. The first county seat, Jefferson, or Old Jefferson, on the east bank of Cow Bayou, was replaced by Beaumont in 1838 and had disappeared by 1845, when the site of Orange was surveyed. Orange was first called Jefferson or New Jefferson. In 1836, Claiborne West, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, served as first postmaster and merchant at Old Jefferson. Another chief town was Sabine Pass, laid out in 1839 with the backing of Sam Houston and Philip A. Sublett. Early settlers, primarily from the lower South, were joined by Cajuns in the 1840s and by immigrants from the North and from Europe in the 1850s. The area became an ethnic conglomerate. The Cajuns settled near Taylor's Bayou, the Germans at midcounty.
By the 1840s shingle manufacture and timber exports supplemented a domestic economy based on spinning, leatherwork, and soap and candle making. Shipbuildingwhich grew from the lumber industry before 1850, took place next to the lumber mills in Sabine Pass and Beaumont. Steam-driven industry developed in 1846, and the first steam sawmill in Beaumont operated in 1856. Jefferson County land was better suited to livestock than to a cotton-based plantation economy; livestock importing, in fact, had begun in the eighteenth century. By 1820 Louisiana cattlemen drove herds across the Sabine and Neches to graze on Gulf Coast saltgrasses, and a system of roads and ferries running from east to west across the county was slowly put in place to support movement of the herds. In the antebellum period some cattlemen settled permanently and pursued their livelihood alongside small farmers. By 1859 Jefferson County cattle numbered 55,639. Leather shops and tanneries developed in Beaumont in the 1840s, and shoe shops, saddleries, and exporters of hides and tallow followed in the 1850s. Cotton buying and ginning began by 1850 and increased with the arrival of the Eastern Texas Railroad, though production in 1859 was only eighty-four bales and not much of the potential agricultural land had been improved. Stephen L. Smith, the county's most diversified planter in the 1840s, raised corn, sweet potatoes, and rice. Early rice culture, the forerunner of the county's largest farm enterprise, produced 1,000 pounds in 1859. The Texas and New Orleans Railroad from Houston to Orange and the Eastern Texas Railroad from Sabine Pass to Beaumont were completed by 1861, but insufficient rail transportation and high freight rates limited antebellum growth. Sabine Pass became a boomtown, stimulated by the Morgan Lines, which established operations there before the Civil War. Four firms at Sabine shipped 20,000 bales of cotton annually, and 300 vessels cleared the Sabine customhouse in 1859.
Though the county was prosperous in the 1850s, and resolution of the (Orange County) Regulator-Moderator War in Jefferson County courts stabilized growth in that decade, by 1858 Beaumont had only four commission and forwarding houses, four dry-goods stores, two groceries, two hotels, and a population of 400. Between 1847 and 1850 the population had grown from 1,121 free men and 178 slaves to a total of 1,836, of which 269 were slaves. In 1850 the county's sixty-two free mulattoes included some of its wealthiest individuals; the largest slaveholder had only thirteen slaves. By 1860 a single slaveholder had twenty-six slaves out of 309 in a county population of 1,995, and by 1860 David R. Wingate had real property valued at $25,000, personal property totaling $83,000 and thirteen slaves. Slaves were used chiefly to grow corn and sweet potatoes, to work on the railroads and sawmills, and to ride herd on the cattle. (see SLAVERY; see ANTEBELLUM TEXAS)
Jefferson County residents voted 256 for and 15 against secession. During the Civil War, the county court voted to garrison a fort at Sabine Pass, Beaumont became a concentration point for Confederate troops, a cantonment was established at Spindletop Springs, and the county courthouse served as a hospital. Among the county's several volunteer groups, the Sabine Pass Guard was organized at Sabine Pass in April 1861, under the Texas legislative act of 1858 that authorized the state militia. Beginning in 1862 federal troops burned cavalry barracks near Sabine Pass, along with a railroad depot, sawmills, a planing mill, a sash and door factory, and the palatial homes of D. R. Wingate and John Stamps. They also shelled Sabine City, then suffering an epidemic of yellow fever. The Confederates reoccupied Sabine Pass in January 1863, and the battle of Sabine Pass in September of that year ended federal efforts to penetrate the interior via the Sabine. The war caused considerable losses, as farm acreage and value declined, cotton exports fell, and the number of cattle in the county dropped from 51,600 in 1862 to 40,000 in 1865.
After the war the county population declined to 1,906 by 1870. Although African Americans held a few government offices and Blacks and Whites were both politically active as voters during the federal election of 1888, Blacks were all but totally disfranchised in the federal election of 1892. Recovery from the war was slow. Jefferson County exports in 1867 of cotton, cattle, beef hides, lumber, cypress shingles, and lumber products including resin and turpentine constituted only about one-fourth of their prewar total. Sugar production between 1860 and 1880 was limited, and significant agriculture did not develop again until after 1890. By 1876, however, the county was once again a lumber and shipping center, as loggers used the Neches and Sabine rivers to float logs to mills at Orange and Beaumont, where mills manufactured 82,000,000 shingles and 75,000,000 board feet of timber by 1880. Exports, including pine for cross-ties and bridges, made these towns major lumber centers by 1900. Four canal systems for irrigating rice were built between 1898 and 1902, including the Port Arthur Rice and Irrigation Company, McFaddin Canal Company, Jefferson County Irrigation Company (later renamed Beaumont Irrigation Company), and Treadaway Canal Company (later renamed Neches Canal Company). By 1904, land totaling 50,000 acres was under cultivation as mule power replaced ox teams. Between 1870 and 1890 the value of manufactured products increased from $32,000 to more than $1.3 million. Though rice production increased to 11,300 pounds by 1869, large-scale rice culture did not begin until 1892. Farmers raised seventy-eight bales of cotton in 1869 and seventy-seven in 1879, although as late as 1900 Jefferson County did not have a cotton gin. Large-scale cotton culture occurred chiefly between 1902 and 1935.
After 1880 rail transportation increased significantly. The Texas and New Orleans built from Houston to Orange in 1860, abandoned its Orange County track in 1863 and the line in 1867, and then rebuilt in 1876. This railroad was linked to the Louisiana and Western and through service to New Orleans in 1881. By 1881 service had also been reestablished by the East Texas Railway, which was renamed the Sabine and East Texas and later became part of the Texas and New Orleans. The Gulf, Beaumont and Kansas City Railway, constructed between 1893 and 1896, ran at first neither to the Gulf nor to Kansas City, but only from Kirbyville to Beaumont. The Gulf and Interstate developed in 1895, and the Beaumont, Sour Lake and Western Railway between 1903 and 1904. Port Arthur, founded in 1895 by Arthur Edward Stilwell, was linked in 1895 by the Kansas City Southern to Beaumont. Through service to Kansas City came in 1897, when the Sabine River bridge was completed.
The Sabine-Neches or Port Arthur Ship Canal was dug in 1897 and 1898 from Sabine Pass to Port Arthur. It opened in 1899 and was gradually extended to the mouths of the Neches and Sabine Rivers by around 1905 (see SABINE-NECHES WATERWAY AND SABINE PASS SHIP CHANNEL). The first oceangoing vessel to call at Beaumont and Orange was the Nicaragua, which arrived in 1906. River depths were increased to around twenty-five feet by 1920, by which time the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway had crossed the southern part of the county. Interurban service from Nederland to Beaumont and Port Arthur in 1913 linked those communities, and by 1916 completion of the channel to Beaumont from Port Arthur and the mouth of the Neches had further increased lumber exports.
Before 1845, education in Jefferson County was exclusively private. Between 1855 and 1860, minutes of the county commissioners' court indicate that the Corn Street School and Pine Street School operated in Beaumont. Other early schools opened at Green's Bluff, Sabine Pass, Cow Bayou, and Pine Island. Five school districts had been established by 1854, but the Civil War reduced facilities to only three church schools and several common schools in 1867. Though outside the jurisdiction of the Freedmen's Bureau in 1865, the county was made a subdistrict of the agency by 1868 to help Blacks learn to read and write. Beaumont Academy opened in 1879 with 150 students, the public school system was first established in 1881, and by 1882 the county had seventeen tax-supported schools.
Between 1900 and 1910 the population grew from 14,329 to 38,182. A major influx followed the Spindletop oilfield opening in 1901, and the growth in the decade came almost exclusively from the White population of Hardin, Tyler, Jasper, and Newton counties. Significant Cajun French movement to Jefferson County began in 1910, when the boll weevil destroyed cotton crops in parishes adjacent to Lafayette, Louisiana. In addition, a small influx of Mexicans reached Jefferson County beginning in 1917 and 1918 as refinery workers were drafted in World War I. By 1920 the county population reached 73,120, nearly double the 1910 figure.
Spindletop transformed Beaumont into a major industrial center. Refineries, including the Texas Company (Texaco) refinery of Joseph S. Cullinan and Arnold Schlaet (1902) and the Gulf Oil Corporation (now Chevron) refinery, were built at Port Arthur, Port Neches, and Beaumont. During World War I shipbuilding increased, and the Magnolia Petroleum Company (now Mobil) refinery on the Neches at Beaumont played an active role as a supplier for the war. Between 1955 and 1960 the Texaco and Gulf refineries employed 5,000 to 6,000 workers, and by World War II the Gulf refinery was the fourteenth largest refinery in the world. Farm tenancy, which increased significantly in Jefferson County in the first decade of the twentieth century, declined briefly, but increased so much during the Great Depression that owners and tenant farmers achieved almost equal numbers. By 1930 the average farm size had fallen to roughly 250 acres.
In the 1930s, however, despite the hardships many places experienced, Jefferson County was one among several Texas counties that continued to prosper. The county shipped 29,022,201 tons of materials through Beaumont, Sabine Pass, and Port Arthur in 1934 and in the next year produced 1,304,495 barrels of crude petroleum, crops valued at $1,866,873, and livestock valued at $1,511,061. In 1930 the county had 141 manufacturing establishments with products valued at more than $297 million. In 1938 the county produced clay and shells and raised 2.2 million bushels of rice on 40,000 acres of irrigated land, 1,000 bales of cotton, corn, other feed crops, figs, and truck crops. Much land was still in grass. Livestock totals included 100,000 beef cattle, as well as dairy cattle, hogs, poultry, sheep, and goats. In a large foreign and coastwise trade, Beaumont and Port Arthur shipped oil, cotton, lumber, and other products. Industries included oil refining, ship building, rice milling, food processing, and the manufacture of machinery, chemicals, garments, and crates. The Rainbow Bridge over the Neches River from Port Arthur to Orange bridge was completed in 1938; with a vertical clearance of 176 feet over the water, it was the South's tallest highway bridge.
In the 1940s tenants comprised 26 percent of county farmers. From 50,000 to 75,000 acres was planted in rice annually, with an average yield of thirteen barrels an acre, making the county the leading rice-producing county of Texas. The coastal prairies supported 80,000 range cattle, mostly Brahman, while others raised dairy cattle, hogs, and poultry. Because of the importance of the rice and beef crops, the Texas Rice Improvement Association, Texas A&M College, and the United States Department of Agriculture established an experiment station for the improvement of rice and pasture cultivation as a joint project at Pine Island. The world's largest synthetic rubber plant, Neches Butane Products Company (now Texaco Chemical), was built at Port Neches in 1942. By 1949 the county had become highly industrialized and urbanized, with six oil refineries producing total daily capacities of more than a half million barrels, three rice mills, eleven tank farms, and fourteen producing oilfields. New industry arrived as plants including Dupont were established for the production of chemicals and petrochemicals. During World War II the growth of shipbuilding in the Sabine-Neches Waterway brought in such firms as Bethlehem Steel, Gulfport, Weaver, Burton, and Jones and Laughlin.
In the 1950s the Spindletop field was still active, Gulf Oil laid pipelines, oilmen developed a new field at Hillebrandt Bayou, and sulfur mining began. The nickname applied to Orange, Port Arthur, and Beaumont, "Golden Triangle," symbolized the close relationship that had grown up among the cities. Gulf State Utilities Company supplied electric power for much of Southeast Texas and southern Louisiana. In 1956 roughly 26,000,000 tons of materials was shipped from the county's inland ports, including rice, cotton, rubber products, steel, sugar, flour, oil, and oil products. In 1960 the economy continued to be based on significant agricultural production, but was dominated by Beaumont and Port Arthur, which together had become a commercial banking center and major chemical and petroleum products manufacturer. Port Neches was the site of Atlantic, Gulf, and Texaco refineries. Gambling and prostitution, which had expanded in the area, were cleaned up in 1961, when the county population was estimated at more than 200,000. By the 1970s rice and cattle were the chief agricultural products, soybeans had been introduced, and residents were employed in the petrochemical, shipbuilding, and rubber industries.
In the 1980s the county was one of the most densely populated in the state. Ninety-four percent of its roughly 250,900 residents lived in urban areas. Manufacturing establishments, numbering 235, made products valued at more than $2 billion dollars in a single year, and a total of 5,318 business establishments operated countywide. In an estimated 1982 population of 257,400, African Americans made up 28 percent and Mexican Americans 4 percent, and the remainder consisted of persons of English (22 percent), Irish (17 percent), German (12 percent), and French descent (16 percent). Whereas in 1950 only 11 percent of county residents over age twenty-five had completed high school and 3 percent had completed college, by 1980 more than 63 percent of county residents had completed high school and almost 14 percent had completed college.
By the 1980s, though only 502 farms remained in the county, both farm acreage and value had increased as agribusiness redefined agriculture. Principal products in the 1980s were rice, soybeans, fruits and nuts (principally peaches and pecans), forest products, and cattle; businesses numbered 5,318. Almost 76,663,975,000 cubic feet of gas-well gas, 3,296,208 barrels of crude oil, 4,686,683,000 cubic feet of casinghead gas, and more than 1,000,000 barrels of condensate were produced in 1982, while county ports shipped domestic and foreign goods measured in millions of short tons. Nederland Air National Guard Station employed 102 people at a nine-acre site. In 1990 the county population was 239,397. In the early 1990s, Lamar University and Lamar University—Port Arthur provided higher education in Jefferson County. A new county jail and a new state prison, the Mark Stiles Unit, opened, and a new unit of the federal prison system was under construction.
Jefferson County voters supported the Democratic candidate in almost every presidential election from 1848 through 2004; the only three exceptions occurred in 1928, when Herbert Hoover in 1928 carried the county, in 1956, when Dwight D. Eisenhower took the area, and in 1972, when Richard M. Nixon did.
In 2014 the U.S. Census counted 252,235 people living in Jefferson County; about 42.9 percent were Anglo, 34.4 percent African American, and 18.5 percent Hispanic. Of residents twenty-five and older, 79 percent had graduated from high school and 16 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century, petrochemical and other chemical plants, shipbuilding and port activities, a steel mill, and oilfield supply operations were important elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 775 farms and ranches covering 388,239 acres, 46 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 47 percent to crops. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $26,873,000; livestock sales accounted for $9,241,000 of the total. Rice, soybeans, crawfish, beef cattle, and hay were the chief agricultural products. Over 2,623,000 cubic feet of pinewood, and over 1,614,000 cubic feet of hardwood, were harvested in the county in 2003.
Jefferson County’s major cities are Beaumont (population, 118,180), Port Arthur (54,597), Groves (15,800), Nederland (17,483), and Port Neches (12,919). Other incorporated communities include Bevil Oaks (1,289), China (1,160) and Nome (587). The South Texas State Fair is held annually in Beaumont in October. Duck hunting and saltwater fishing attract sportsmen to the area, along with the J. D. Murphree Wildlife Refuge. Tourists visited a restored boomtown at Spindletop (Gladys City), a monument commemorating Richard Dowling's Confederate victory during the Civil War in Sabine Pass Battleground State Historical Park, and the Tex Ritter park and memorial at Nederland (see RITTER, WOODWARD MAURICE). Conventions and events centered around the Beaumont Civic Center Complex, Speedway 90 Stadium, Julie Rogers Theatre, Fairpark Coliseum, Harvest Club, and Port Arthur Civic Center. Other museums included the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur and several museums in Beaumont, among them the McFaddin-Ward House, the Mildred (Babe) Zaharias Museum, and the Edison, Texas Energy, Fire Department, John J. French, and art museums. Annual events included the Heritage Festival at Nederland (March), the Neches River Festival in Beaumont (April), the Beaumont Jazz Festival (July), Spindletop Boom Days at Beaumont (September), the South Texas Fair at Beaumont (October), the Saltwater Anglers Fishing Tourney at Port Arthur (May), and CavOILcade at Port Arthur.