Karnes County is southeast of San Antonio in the Rio Grande plain region. It is bounded on the north by Wilson County, on the east by Gonzales and DeWitt counties, on the south by Goliad and Bee counties, and on the west by Atascosa and Live Oak counties. The county seat is Karnes City, which is fifty-two miles southeast of San Antonio. Other important communities include Kenedy, Runge, Panna Maria, Helena, Czestochowa, Pawelekville, Falls City, Hobson, Ecleto, Gillett, Coy City, and Lenz. Several major highways serve the county, including U.S. Highway 181, and State highways 72, 80, and 123. Karnes County covers 758 square miles of the Rio Grande plain region. The rolling to hilly land has an elevation range of 180 to 400 feet. The northwestern half of the county has nearly level to undulating terrain with deep soils composed of light-colored loamy surfaces and clayey subsoils. The remainder of the county has light to dark, loamy surfaces over reddish, clayey subsoils with limestone within forty inches of the surface, and gray to black, cracking, clayey soils with a high shrink-swell potential. Vegetation includes grasslands, mesquite, post oak, live oak, pecan, and some brush and cacti. Between 71 and 80 percent of the land in the county is considered prime farmland. The central and southern portions of the county are drained by the San Antonio River, the northern portion by Cibolo and Ecleto creeks. The climate is subtropical humid with warm summers. Temperatures in January range from an average low of 41° F to an average high of 65° and in July range from 74° to 96°. The growing season averages 280 days per year, with the last freeze in late February and the first freeze in early December. Diversified farming of grain sorghum, corn, hay, and vegetables is a major industry. Livestock raising includes beef cattle, dairy cattle, and poultry. Minerals include oil, gas, and uranium.
The area which now comprises Karnes County has been the site of human habitation for several millennia. Archeological evidence reveals that hunter-gatherer Indians of the Coahuiltecan linguistic family occupied the region for several thousand years prior to the arrival of Europeans. The area of Karnes County was also in the hunting range of Comanche, Tonkawa, Karankawa, and Lipan Apache Indians. When the Spanish explorers first reached south central Texas the region was also inhabited by the Pataguilla Indians, who lived in the San Antonio River valley between the sites of present-day Panna Maria and Falls City, and the Pitaias Indians, who lived near the site of present Conquista Crossing. The earliest Spanish explorers probably crossed the area in the early eighteenth century, but permanent settlement did not occur until the middle of the century, when the region became the nucleus of ranching activity between San Antonio de Béxar and La Bahía (now Goliad). The first land grants issued in the area of present Karnes County were on April 12, 1758, to Andrés Hernández and Luis Antonio Menchaca, who established ranches in the wedge of land between the San Antonio River and Cibolo Creek. Around 1770 the Spanish established a fort called Fuerte de Santa Cruz del Cíbolo on Cibolo Creek near the site of present Czestochowa to protect the ranches in the area from raids by Comanches and other Indian tribes. In 1783, after repeated Comanche attacks, the fort and some twenty-five neighboring ranches were abandoned, and by the mid-1780s only six ranches and eighty-five Spanish settlers remained.
During the early nineteenth century the area was gradually repopulated. The original Hernández and Menchaca ranches were divided up by heirs of the families, and some of the land sold to other families, including the Veramendi, Cassiano, Flores, Navarro, and Carillo clans. By the 1840s the first Anglo-American settlers began arriving in the region. The first Anglo-American settlement in the county was made in 1852 at Helena at the site of an earlier Mexican settlement called Alamita. Located on a bend of the San Antonio River at the intersection of the Chihuahua Trail and the wagon road from Gonzales to San Patricio, the town quickly developed as the focal point of Anglo settlement in the region. When a stage line began operation from San Antonio to the coast, Helena became the most important stop between San Antonio and Goliad. By 1853 Anglo settlers, led by Thomas Ruckman and Lewis S. Owings who had founded Helena, petitioned the state legislature to form a new county from portions of Bexar, Gonzales, DeWitt, Goliad, and San Patricio counties. On February 4, 1854, the legislature complied, passing a measure to establish a new county, named Karnes for Texas revolutionary leader Henry Wax Karnes, with Helena as county seat. The first elections for county offices were held on February 27, 1854, and a wood frame courthouse was erected soon thereafter. Despite the establishment of a county legal structure, Karnes gained a reputation as a hideout for rustlers and outlaws. It was one of the chief sites of the so-called Cart War of 1857, which pitted Mexican cart drivers against their Anglo competitors. Several of the attacks by Texans on Mexican drivers took place within Karnes county itself. A public meeting was held in Helena on December 4, 1857. The citizens of the county adopted eight resolutions, including one that stated that Mexican teamsters were "an intolerable nuisance," and calling upon the citizens of San Antonio to hire only Texans. On orders from Governor Elisha M. Pease the Texas Rangers interceded and quickly put an end to the Cart War, but lynchings and others forms of frontier justice remained a common feature of Karnes life until after the Civil War. During the mid-1850s new immigrants arrived in the county. A large group of Poles from Upper Silesia, led by Franciscan priest Leopold Moczygemba, settled at Panna Maria in 1854, near the junction of the San Antonio River and Cibolo Creek, establishing the first Polish colony in the United States. Subsequent groups of Polish immigrants formed communities at Czestochowa and Falls City. The Poles planted a widely diverse range of crops, including corn, melons, potatoes, cucumbers, and pumpkins. The mainstay of the Karnes economy, however, as in the prerevolutionary period, remained livestock ranching. In 1858 tax assessment rolls listed 50,000 cattle, valued at $6 per head, and 2,000 horses worth $2.50 per head.
By the eve of the Civil War Karnes County had a population of 2,170; some 450 or 21 percent were foreign-born. Because of the emphasis on cattle-raising rather than a plantation economy and the relatively high number of foreign-born settlers, the number of slaves remained small; in 1860 there were only 327 slaves in the county, 15 percent, of the total population. Nevertheless, Karnes County residents voted overwhelmingly for secession, 153 for to one against. One apparent reason for the lopsided result was the activity of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret, prosouthern organization, which had a "castle" in Helena. Moreover, although most of Polish residents were opposed to slavery, they could not vote because they had not resided in the state long enough to acquire citizenship. When the Civil War began, the majority of the county's residents actively supported the Confederate cause. Several companies of militia were organized in the county, including the Helena Guards and Escondido Rifles. Poles joined a unit known as the Panna Maria Grays. But many of the Silesian settlers remained indifferent to the Confederate government or, in some cases, openly opposed to it. Most Silesians resented being forced to serve in the army and tried to avoid Confederate officials. Relations between the Poles and other residents became even more strained after it was discovered that several Silesians had deserted to the North. With so many of its men serving in the army, Karnes County increasingly fell prey to bandits and deserters. In 1863 the citizens petitioned the governor to form a company to protect the county, but order was not fully restored until Union forces established a post in Helena after the war. Shortages and wartime inflation caused hardships for those who remained. Further compounding problems was a protracted period of drought lasting from 1862 to 1865. Because of the relatively small number of slaves, however, abolition did not affect the fortunes of Karnes County residents as severely as in other counties, and the county's economy rebounded more quickly than that of many other parts of the state. In the years after the Civil War livestock raising once again became the pillar of the economy. Beginning in 1866 large numbers of cattle were driven to nearby DeWitt County and from there up the Chisholm Trial to railroads and markets in Kansas. Around the time of the war sheep were also introduced, and by 1882 county tax rolls recorded 7,961 horse and mules, 37,115 cattle, 21,461 sheep, 1,273 goats, and 2,898 hogs, worth a combined $511,099.
Large-scale agriculture was not introduced until the arrival of the railroads in the mid-1880s. Improved access to markets and numbers of new settlers gradually brought the beginnings of the diversified farming economy, which has been the staple of the county's economy since the early 1900s. Cotton was introduced after the Civil War; by the turn of the century the principal crops included cotton, sorghum, and potatoes. The arrival of the railroads also changed the face of the county in other ways. After the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway, which built through the area in 1886, missed Helena, the county seat was moved in 1894 six miles west to a new railroad town named Karnes City. Kenedy, established as a roundup station for cattle grazing on the open range, became a town in 1887, and several other new towns, including Falls City and Hobson (known at the time as Castine) grew up along the route of the railroad. The population of the county also began to grow. As late as 1890 Karnes County was still sparsely settled, with a total population of 3,637. In 1900 the number of inhabitants had nearly doubled to 8,681, and by 1910 the county had a population of 14,942. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also witnessed a dramatic growth in the number of farms. In 1870 the county had only 265 farms; by 1900 the number had increased to 1,047, and by 1920 Karnes County had 2,710 farms. The growth of farming brought with it the rise of tenant farming. Prior to 1900 most Karnes County farmers and ranchers had owned their own land, but by 1930 more than half of the county's 2,400 farms were worked by tenants. The hardships of the Great Depression of the 1930s forced many to abandon the land, and the period since 1950 has seen a shift toward larger farms and ranches worked by agricultural laborers. During the early decades of the twentieth century cotton farming became an increasingly important part of the county's economy. In 1906 Karnes County farmers produced 24,282 bales of cotton, in 1916 30,688 bales, and in 1926 42,400 bales. The arrival of the boll weevil and falling cotton prices during the early 1930s combined to sharply decrease the cotton crop, and in 1939 only 6,988 bales were produced. During the 1940s and 1950s the county's agriculture became increasingly diversified, and by 1950 flax was the leading crop, with 65,000 acres planted, followed in second place by corn, with 37,000 acres, cotton, with 33,000 acres, and grain sorghums, with 28,000 acres. In the years after World War II livestock continued to furnish the chief source of livelihood. The leading crops in the early 1990s included peanuts, peas, broom corn, onions, small grains, guar, and winter legumes. Most income, however, was from ranching; approximately 80 percent of the county's agricultural receipts came from livestock and livestock products, principally cattle and hogs. Oil, discovered in the county in 1930, also formed an important part of the county's economy over the last half of the century. Oil production in 1990 was 738,399 barrels. Total oil production from 1930 to January 1, 1991, was 101,005,251 barrels. The first commercial deposits of uranium in Texas were discovered in Karnes County in 1954, and uranium mining in Karnes and neighboring counties was sufficient to keep a uranium-ore-processing mill near Falls City in operation in the early 1990s.
In 1856, the first year Karnes County participated in a national election, most of the county’s voters supported the American (“Know-Nothing”) Party candidate; in 1860 John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party carried the county. In 1872, the first year after Reconstruction that Texas voters could participate in a presidential election, most of the area’s voters supported Democrat Horace Greeley. Thereafter, Karnes residents voted for Democrats in every national election through 1948. Republican presidential candidates began to be more competitive in the area after 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower won by a wide margin. Thereafter Democratic presidential candidates carried the area in 1960, 1964, 1968, 1976, 1988, and 1996, but the Republicans prevailed in 1956, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1992, 2000, and 2004.
From 1900 to 1930 the population of Karnes County grew steadily, from 8,681 to 23,316. Since that time, however, the population of the county has declined slowly, falling to 17,139 in 1950, 13,462 in 1960, and 12,455 in 1990. In 1990 5,916, or 47.5 percent, were Hispanic, and 362, or 2.9 percent, black. The largest ancestry groups were Hispanic, persons of German descent (19 percent), English descent (11 percent), and Irish descent (10 percent). In the early 1980s the county had four school districts with seven elementary, two middle, and four high schools. The average daily attendance in 1981–82 was 2,631. Thirty-five percent of the 218 high school graduates planned to attend college. In 1982 86 percent of the land was in farms and ranches, with 23 percent of the farmland under cultivation and 1 percent irrigated. Karnes County ranked 116th in the state in agricultural receipts. The total number of businesses in the county in the early 1980s was 337. In 1980 12 percent of the labor force were self-employed, 18 percent employed in professional or related services, 10 percent in manufacturing, 20 percent in wholesale or retail trade, 23 percent in agriculture, forestry, fisheries, or mining, and 15 percent were employed in other counties; there were 1,341 retired workers. Leading industries included farming, ranching, oil and gas production, uranium mining and milling, guar processing, and fiberglass products.
The U.S. census counted 14,906 people living in Karnes County in 2014. About 51.2 percent were Hispanic, 39.1 percent were Anglo, and 9.3 percent African American. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 59 percent had completed high school, and 9 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agriculture and oil and gas production were important elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 1,157 farms and ranches covering 474,806 acres, 56 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 35 percent to crops. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $18,244,000; livestock sales accounted for $15,563,000 of the total. Beef cattle, hay, wheat, corn, and sorghum were the chief agricultural products. More than 363,773 barrels of oil, and 8,527,920 thousand cubic feet of gas well gas, were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 108,228,299 barrels of petroleum had been taken from county lands since 1930, when oil was discovered in the area.
Karnes City (population, 3,183) remains the county’s seat of government; other communities include Kenedy (3,285), Runge (1,005), Falls City (657), Hobson (135), Gillett (120), Cestohowa, and Panna Maria. Major tourist attractions are Kenedy’s Bluebonnet Days in April, the church of Cestohowa, the church and museum at Panna Maria, and the courthouse museum complex at Old Helena.