Johnson County is located in north central Texas on the southwestern edge of the Dallas–Fort Worth area. Cleburne, the county seat, is fifty-five miles southwest of downtown Dallas and twenty-nine miles south of downtown Fort Worth. The center of the county is at approximately 97°23' west longitude and 32°24' north latitude. Johnson County comprises 740 square miles with three geographical areas. The western half is a part of the Grand Prairie, where the predominant soil type is alkaline loam over limestone. About one-third of the county is in the Eastern Cross Timbers, with acid soils that are both loamy with clay subsoil and sandy with loamy subsoils. The rest of the area to the east is Blackland Prairie, with deep clayey, alkaline soils. The Grand Prairie area supports grasses with cedar and mesquite and is inhabited by white-tailed deer, coyotes, rabbits, and squirrels. The Eastern Cross Timbers is a post oak savannah with some acreage of improved Bermuda grass and kleingrass. Cash crops of cotton, grain sorghum, and small grains are grown in the Blackland areas. In addition, pastures of kleingrass and Bermuda grass have been established. The primary natural resources in the county are sand and gravel. The topography is level to gently sloping in the east and changes gradually to steep in some western parts of the county. Elevation ranges between 600 feet and 1,000 feet above sea level. The primary water sources are the Brazos and Nolan rivers. The Brazos flows along the southwestern border of Johnson County, and the Nolan runs north to south through the center of the county to join the Brazos. Secondary streams include Chambers, Buffalo, Mountain, Village, Mustang, Valley, and Walnut creeks. The upper portion of Lake Whitney, on the Brazos, and Lake Pat Cleburne, on the Nolan, are the principal reservoirs. The average annual precipitation is thirty-three inches, and temperature averages range between a winter low of 35° F and a summer high of 96°. The growing season averages 233 days.
No permanent Indian villages existed in what is now Johnson County, though Indians, including Tonkawas, Kickapoos, Anadarkos, Caddos, and Wacos, hunted in the area. In 1851 the Caddo Indians led an uprising that forced many of the early settlers to abandon their homes, most of which were subsequently burned. No other serious Indian conflicts occurred.
The earliest European and Anglo-American explorers did not establish permanent settlements in Johnson County. The Moscoso expedition may have passed through in 1542. Pedro Vial apparently traveled through the area in 1788 on his way from Santa Fe to Natchitoches, Louisiana. It is claimed that Philip Nolan, the soldier of fortune associated with Gen. James Wilkinson, was attacked and killed with some of his party in the 1820s on the river that bears his name. Under Mexican rule the area was successively a part of the Department of Bexar, the Department of the Brazos, and Viesca Municipality. Settlement began under the auspices of Robertson's colony. In the 1840s the northern half of the county was included in the Peters colony and the southern half in the Mercer colony.
The initial permanent settlements came in the mid-1840s. Charles and George Barnard established a trading post near Comanche Peak in an area no longer in Johnson County. The earliest known resident of what is now Johnson County was Henry Briden, who settled on the Nolan River in 1849. The county was marked off in 1854 from Ellis, Navarro, and Hill counties. Its population was then 700. Its name came from Middleton T. Johnson, who had served in the Mexican War, on the Texas frontier, and later in the Civil War, and also served as a legislator. The first county seat was Wardville, named for Thomas William Ward, second commissioner of the General Land Office of Texas. In 1856 Buchanan, named after the newly elected president of the United States, became the county seat. After the western portion of the county was severed in 1867 to form Hood County, Cleburne, which was named after Gen. Patrick Cleburne, was chosen county seat. In 1881 a section of Ellis County was added to Johnson County, thus completing its current boundaries.
The federal census of 1860 was the first to include Johnson County. That year the population totaled 4,305. Slaves numbered 513, or 11.9 percent. Livestock was the primary industry, and Indian corn was the largest crop. In 1861 Johnson County overwhelmingly supported secession; the county commissioners declared war on the United States. Almost all able-bodied White adult males participated in the war, and the slave population nearly doubled during the war as refugees entered with their slaves. After the war the black population dwindled. By 1900 approximately 1 percent of the population was black, and, although the percentage increased slightly in the early twentieth century, by 1990 African Americans made up only 2.6 percent of county residents.
After Reconstruction Johnson County began to develop more rapidly. Between 1870 and 1880 the population increased from 4,923 to 17,911. During this same period the county exercised considerable political influence, especially among farmers' groups. Barzillai J. Chambers, who acquired land in the area as a surveyor in the 1840s and who, with W. F. Henderson, donated the land for the current county seat, was the vice-presidential nominee on the Greenback party ticket with James B. Weaver in 1880. In 1886 the state Farmers' Alliance met at Lee's Academy and adopted a set of resolutions commonly called the Cleburne Demands. These precedent-setting resolutions included a call for restrictions on corporations, support for a national interstate-commerce law, expansion of the money supply through issuance of treasury notes, payoff of the national debt through the coining of specie, and provisions supporting labor. Some of these ideas were later incorporated into the People's (Populist) party platform. James Stephen Hogg, who later became governor, was on the staff of Johnson County's first newspaper, the Cleburne Chronicle, established in 1868. Another prominent state leader and contemporary of Hogg, Martin M. Crane, lived in Johnson County.
The Democratic party dominated politics in the county after the Civil War and into the twentieth century, but since World War II Johnson County has often voted Republican in national elections. Truman carried the county overwhelmingly in 1948, and Adlai Stevenson won by 511 votes in 1952. In 1956, however, the county voted for Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, and in 1960 Richard Nixon took the county. Though Democrats carried the county in 1964 and 1968, the area voted Republican in almost every presidential election from 1972 through 2004. The only exception was in 1976 when Democrat Jimmy Carter won a majority of the county's votes.
Most major Christian denominations established themselves early in Johnson County. The first minister, Simeon Odem, was a Methodist who moved into the area before the county was organized. Other denominations followed soon thereafter. The Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter was started in 1871. The church building, completed within the next two years, was still in use in the late 1980s. In 1877 Seventh-day Adventists began work in Johnson County. In 1893 a site was chosen five miles east of Cleburne for an Adventist school. Eventually the Keene Industrial Academy evolved into a junior college and then a full four-year institution, Southwestern Adventist College, which was renamed Southwestern Adventist University around 1996.
The oldest settlements in Johnson County were in the east. The site of Alvarado was settled in 1851, and the town was platted in 1853. Grandview (originally two words), founded around 1860, was the second community established. In 1890 the population of the two was 1,342 and 713. The early county seats, Wardville and Buchanan, no longer exist. Both Joshua and Burleson were established as depots in 1882. The town of Keene grew up around the college. Other communities in the county include Rio Vista, south of Cleburne, and Godley, to the northwest.
Until the late twentieth century the economy of Johnson County was mainly tied to agriculture. The total value of farm production in 1870 was $192,716. Twenty years later the total was $1,554,960. Although corn remained a major crop, cotton production increased from 1,212 bales in 1870 to 18,826 bales in 1890. The vicinity of Venus, on the eastern edge of the county, was considered a major cotton-growing area. Livestock production also increased over this same twenty-year span. Land ownership in the county was concentrated in the hands of relatively few people; of the 2,829 farms listed in the 1890 census, 1,232 (43.55 percent) were involved in some type of sharecropping system. By 1900 sharecroppers had increased to 48.8 percent. Of the forty-nine black farmers that year, only ten owned their own land. Although the local economic benefits may have been negligible, the Chisholm Trail crossed the Brazos and extended north through the county.
An important change in the economic climate came with the railroads. The first railroad to be constructed in the county passed through Venus in 1854. In 1881 Cleburne was connected by rail with Dallas. That same year the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe was completed through Johnson County. This line was eventually extended to connect the Texas coast with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe line in the north. In 1898 Santa Fe repair shops were opened in Cleburne. They constituted a vital part of the local economy and included maintenance and construction facilities and a switchyard. Other early railroads in the county included the Missouri, Kansas and Texas (Katy) and the Texas and Brazos Valley, commonly known as the Boll Weevil.
Johnson County entered the twentieth century as a rural county. The total population in 1900 was 33,819, with only 22.2 percent urban. The only major town was Cleburne, which had a population of 7,493. Between 1900 and 1960 the population remained fairly stable; it reached a peak of 37,286 in 1920, only to decline for the next twenty years. For many years Johnson County's proximity to Fort Worth did not affect its growth, even though an interurban railroad did operate between Cleburne and Fort Worth from 1912 through the 1920s. Burleson, the closest community to Fort Worth, did not appear on the census rolls at all until 1920; in that year it had only 241 residents. The influence of Dallas and Fort Worth began to be felt in the second half of the twentieth century. Johnson County was designated first as a part of the Fort Worth Standard Metropolitan Statistical area and later as part of the Dallas-Fort Worth SMSA, an indication of its economic ties to the area. Although the 1960 county population was still only 34,720, the population of Burleson in the north had reached 2,345, a 196 percent increase since 1950. The next decade saw an increase of 224 percent as Burleson became a bedroom community to the expanding Fort Worth area. The growth resulted in the establishment of an ancillary courthouse in Burleson. The county's rapid development in the late twentieth century was reflected in the overall county population, which rose to 45,769 in 1970, showing an increase of 33 percent. The number of people living in the area reached 67,649 by 1980 and 97,165 by 1990.
In 2000, the census counted 126,811 people living in the county. About 84 percent were Anglo, 3 percent were black, and 12 percent were Hispanic. Almost 77 percent of the residents age twenty-five and older were high school graduates, and almost 14 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agribusiness, the railroad shops, and some manufacturing and distribution activities were the central elements of the area's economy, though many residents commuted to Fort Worth to work. In 2002 the county had 2,579 farms and ranches covering 362,004 acres, 47 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 46 percent to crops. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $43,601,000; livestock sales accounted for $36,847,000 of the total. Dairy cattle, beef cattle, hay, horses, cotton, sorghum, wheat, oats, and hogs were the chief agricultural products. In 2014, the total population of the county was 157, 456. Of those, 74.8 percent were Anglo, 3.1 percent African American, and 19.4 percent Hispanic. Cleburne (population, 29,569) remained the county's largest town and the seat of government. Other communities include Burleson (41,828, partly in Tarrant County), Keene (6,176), Joshua (6,090), Alvarado (3,934), Grandview (1,603), Venus (3,174), Godley (1,038), Rio Vista (944), Briaroaks (592), and Cross Timber (278).
Texas Highway 174, a four-lane divided highway , connects Cleburne, Joshua, and Burleson to Fort Worth. U.S. Highway 67 connects the county seat with Dallas. Interstate Highway 35 cuts across the eastern part of Johnson County, connecting Dallas and Fort Worth with the high-growth areas to the south. In addition to these, Cleburne is served by the Fort Worth and Western Railroad, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, and Amtrak. Lake Pat Cleburne and Cleburne State Recreational Park provide recreational facilities. Lakes Whitney and Granbury border the county. The Layland Museum in Cleburne occupies the bottom level of the original Carnegie Library building (see CARNEGIE LIBRARIES), completed in 1904. The top floor, a refurbished auditorium, is home to a theatrical group, the Carnegie Players. In addition to Southwestern Adventist University, Hill Junior College in Hillsboro offers extension work in Cleburne and several other Johnson County communities.