Kinney County is west of San Antonio on U.S. Highway 90 in the Rio Grande Plain region. Roughly square in shape, it is bordered by Edwards County in the north, Uvalde County on the east, Maverick County on the south, and Val Verde County and Mexico on the west. The center of the county lies at 29°21' north latitude and 100°25' west longitude. The county seat and largest town is Brackettville. In addition to U.S. Highway 90, the county is served by State Highway 131 and Farm roads 334, 674, 693, 1572, 1908, 2523, and 3008. The county's transportation needs are also served by the Union Pacific Railroad. The county embraces 1,359 square miles, partly on the Edwards Plateau and partly on the plain of the Rio Grande, which forms the southwestern boundary. The northeastern corner of the county is drained by the West Nueces River. The land is level to rolling in the south and rugged in the north along the Balcones Escarpment and the breaks of the Nueces River. Anacacho Mountain is in the southeast. The altitude ranges from 1,000 to 2,000 feet. The northern half of the county is rocky and hilly with some loamy soils. In the northeastern corner are areas with dark, loamy soils over limestone. The vegetation in the northern portion of the county is characteristic of the Edwards Plateau region, with short grasses, mesquite, and cacti predominating. The southern half of the county has gray to black, cracking, clayey soils over limestone with light-colored loamy soils in some areas. The vegetation in this area, typical of the South Texas plains, includes short to mid-height grasses, thorny shrubs, cacti, and mesquite. Minerals include brick clay and metallic ores. Less than 1 percent of the land in the county is considered prime farmland. Small tracts of land are irrigated, but the principal industry is livestock, chiefly sheep and goats. The climate is subtropical, with dry and mild winters and hot summers. Temperatures range in January from an average low of 36° F to an average high of 63°, and in July from 74° to 96°. The average annual rainfall is twenty-two inches; the average relative humidity is 76 percent at 6 A.M. and 42 percent at 6 P.M. Snow is rare. The growing season averages 272 days per year, with the last freeze in early March and the first in late November.
Kinney County is located in an area that has been the site of human habitation for several thousand years. Artifacts recovered in the region suggest that the earliest human inhabitants arrived around 6,000 to 10,000 years ago and settled in rockshelters in the river and creek valleys. They left behind caches of seeds, implements, burial sites, and petroglyphs. Following these earliest inhabitants, Lipan Apaches, Coahuiltecans, Jumanos, Tamaulipans, and Tonkawas inhabited the region; later, Comanches and Mescaleros also drifted in.
The first European explorers in the future county were the Spanish. It is possible that Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca traversed the county from east to west in 1535. In 1665 Fernando de Azcué crossed the Rio Grande on a punitive expedition and cut across the southeast corner of the county as he advanced twenty-four leagues beyond the river. Brother Manuel de la Cruz explored the region of present Kinney, Maverick, and Val Verde counties in 1674, and the Bosque-Larios expedition crossed the river in May 1675 and traversed the region from south to north. The third expedition of Alonso De León in 1688 discovered Jean Henri among the Indians near the site of present Brackettville. During the latter eighteenth century several Franciscans established a settlement on Las Moras Creek near the center of the county, and a small village and mill were still in evidence in 1834, when English empresarios John Charles Beales and James Grant attempted to establish an English-speaking colony called Dolores at the site. Streets were laid off and fifty-nine colonists were brought in, but the project was abandoned, and no other American settlement was attempted for another twenty years.
Despite the region's sparse population, the state legislature authorized the formation of the county from Bexar County in 1850 and named it for early settler and adventurer Henry Lawrence Kinney. In June 1852 the United States Army established a fort on Las Moras Creek, which it named Fort Riley; the name was changed a month later to Fort Clark, after John B. Clark, who had died in the Mexican War. Brackett (now Brackettville) was established nearby the same year and named for Oscar B. Brackett, who came to set up a stage stop and opened the town's first dry-goods store. Brackett became a stop on a stage line from San Antonio to El Paso, but the settlement grew very slowly because of continuous Indian attacks. Between 1850 and 1860 most Kinney County settlers were persons of Mexican descent or families of men stationed at Fort Clark. In 1860 the total population of the county was only sixty-one-forty-six Whites and fifteen free Blacks. As was typical on the frontier, men outnumbered women, thirty-seven to twenty-four.
On February 18, 1861, on orders from Gen. David E. Twiggs, Fort Clark was surrendered to the Texas Commission. The fort was evacuated by federal troops on March 19 and occupied by Confederate troops under the command of Col. John R. Baylor. It remained in the hands of the Confederates until the end of the war, but was not garrisoned. In December 1866 it was reestablished as a federal fort. Because of its distance from the battlefields and its lack of slave-dependent plantations, Kinney County was spared the trauma of Reconstruction and began to grow quickly after the war. In 1870 the population grew to 1,204, mostly as a result of the rapid build-up of the fort's garrison. A small trickle of settlers also moved to the area, including a small number from the states of the Old South, but the largest influx was made up of new immigrants from Mexico. Some 425 people, more than a third of the county's total population, listed Mexico as their place of birth in the 1870 census.
In the early 1870s a number of Black Seminole Indians living along the border were organized into a company of scouts and brought to Fort Clark. Others joined them, and by the mid-1870s they numbered some 400 or 500. For the next quarter century they lived on a reservation along Las Moras Creek. In 1914 the Black Seminoles were removed from the Fort Clark reservation, but some of their descendants still live in the county. By 1874 the population was large enough for the county to be formally organized, and by 1875 the first county government was in place. In 1876 Brackettville was designated county seat after the final boundaries of the county were set by the legislature. The 1870s brought numerous signs that the county was slowly losing its frontier character. The first school, started by Margaret Martin Ballantyne, began operating around 1870, and a post office was opened in 1873. The first church, St. Mary Magalene's, was organized in 1875, and the Gilead Church, a Black Seminole church, was established in the late 1870s.
Much of the county's economy in the early postwar period was dependent on cattle ranching. In 1870 the county had 14,846 cattle, and large numbers of cattle were driven north during the great drives of the middle 1870s. Sheep ranching, however, gradually replaced cattle ranching during the 1870s; by 1880 sheep outnumbered cattle 55,597 to 7,966, and Kinney County became an important source of wool. In 1880, the county produced 179,600 pounds of wool, which accounted for its most important export product. Angora goats also began to be raised in large numbers in this period, and mohair began to be shipped in significant quantities during the 1880s.
The construction of the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway (later the Southern Pacific) in 1883 gave the wool and mohair industry access to markets. At the same time it also helped to bring in numerous new settlers. By 1884 Brackettville had an estimated population of 1,400, Catholic and Methodist churches, three schools, a bank, a weekly newspaper, the Brackett News, Masonic and Odd Fellows lodges, and a daily stage to Spofford. The county as a whole also continued to grow. By 1890 its population had risen to 3,781. Mexican Americans still formed the largest group of foreign-born residents (896), but for the first time the county also had sizable numbers of recent European immigrants, including 122 from Germany. Around the turn of the century commercial farming also began in the county. Irrigation was introduced in the early 1900s, and by 1910 there were ten irrigation plants in the county, which was shipping cotton, alfalfa, and vegetables. The amount of cropland harvested, however, remained small, and sheep, goat, and cattle ranching, together with the large army garrison at Fort Clark, continued to form the main props of the county's prosperity. The population fell to 2,447 by 1900, but it quickly rebounded, to 3,401 by 1910. In 1925 a branch line of the Texas and New Orleans was built from near Spofford to connect with the Mexican National Railroad at the Rio Grande, thus making it easier for ranchers in the southern portion of the county to ship their products. The population continued to grow, though more slowly, reaching 3,746 in 1920 and 3,980 in 1930.
The onset of the Great Depression brought a marked downturn in prices for wool and mohair, and by the early 1930s many ranchers and other residents of Kinney County found themselves economically strapped. A large Civilian Conservation Corps camp constructed adjacent to Fort Clark helped to employ some people, but the economy did not completely recover until the onset of World War II, when wool and mohair were once again in demand for the defense industries. The population of the county increased to 4,533 in 1940, but fell markedly after Fort Clark was closed in 1946; by 1950 the number of residents had declined to 2,648. During the 1960s and early 1970s the number of residents continued to drop, falling to 2,452 in 1960 and 2,006 in 1970. Subsequently, however, came slow but steady growth. In 1980 the number of inhabitants was 2,279, and in 1990 it reached 3,119. Kinney County nonetheless remains one of the most sparsely populated counties in the state, and in 1982 ranked thirty-first among all United States counties in percentage of Hispanic population. In 1990, 46.3 percent of the population was White, 50.8 percent Hispanic, 1.8 percent Black, 0.3 percent Asian, and 0.8 percent American Indian. The largest towns were Brackettville, with a population of 1,740, and Spofford, with a population of sixty-eight.
In the early 1990s Kinney County had one school district with one elementary, one middle, and one high school. The average daily attendance in 1993–94 was 540. Expenditures per pupil were $2,890. In 1994, 32 percent of the school graduates were White, 64 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Black, and 1 percent American Indian.
Politically, Kinney County has changed its party stripes repeatedly over the years. In the nineteenth century, county voters often preferred Democratic candidates in presidential elections, though Republican Ulysses S. Grant won the majority of county ballots in 1872, Republican Benjamin Harrison outpolled Democrat Grover Cleveland in the 1888 election, and Republican William McKinley carried the county in 1896 and 1900. Republican presidential candidates also fared well in the 1920s; both Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge received a majority of the county's votes in the 1920 and 1924 elections, respectively. Democrats, however, prevailed in every other election through 1948. After Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower carried the county in 1952 and 1956, the Democratic candidates took the area in the 1960, 1964, and 1968 elections. Republican presidential candidates became more competitive in Kinney County after 1972, when Richard Nixon carried the area. Though Democrat Jimmy Carter won most of the county’s votes in 1976, the Republican presidential candidates carried the county in virtually every election from 1980 through 2004. The only exception occurred in 1984, when Democrat Walter Mondale took most of the county’s votes. In local elections, on the other hand, Kinney County voters were staunchly Democratic into the late twentieth century, and Democratic officials had a virtual monopoly on countywide offices. In the 1994 primary, for example, 100 percent of 1,332 voters cast Democratic votes. By 2000, however, Republican candidates for state and local offices were fully competitive in many races.
In the mid-1980s Kinney County had seven churches with a combined estimated membership of 1,509. The largest communion was Catholic, a reflection of the county's large Hispanic population. The county had thirty businesses in the early 1980s. In 1980, 16 percent of laborers were self-employed, 14 percent were employed in professional or related services, 2 percent worked in manufacturing, 15 percent were engaged in wholesale and retail trade, and 30 percent were in agriculture, forestry, fishing, and mining; 8 percent were employed in other counties, and 236 retired workers lived in the county. Leading industries included agribusiness and tourism. Nonfarm earnings in 1981 totaled $15,237,000. In 1982, 91 percent of the land in the county was in farms and ranches, with 1 percent of the farmland under cultivation, most of which was irrigated. Kinney County ranked 219th among Texas counties in agricultural receipts, with 88 percent coming from livestock and livestock products, primarily from sheep and goats. Intensive farming became possible in the 1960s with the irrigation of 10,000 acres planted mainly with feed grains, wheat, onions, cantaloupes, and winter vegetables.
The U.S. census counted 3,526 people living in Kinney County in 2014. About 57 were Hispanic, 40 percent were Anglo, and 2 percent African American. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 67 percent had completed high school and 18 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agriculture, tourism, and hunting leases were important elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 148 farms and ranches covering 613,634 acres, 93 percent of which were devoted to pasture. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $4,749,000; livestock sales accounted for $4,068,000 of the total. Cattle, meat goats, Angora goats, hay, pecans, wheat and cotton were the chief agricultural products.
Bracketville (population, 1,683) is the county’s seat of government and largest town; other communities include Fort Clark Springs (1,260) and Spofford (103). Tourist attractions, of increasing importance economically, include Kickapoo Cavern State Park, Alamo Village, Las Moras Park, the Nueces River Canyon, Anacacho Game Preserve, the Seminole Indian Scout Burial Ground, and Fort Clark, as well as numerous dude ranches. The county's large deer population attracts numerous hunters.