La Salle County, in South Texas, is bordered by Dimmit, Frio, Webb, and McMullen counties. Cotulla, the county's largest town and the county seat, is located in the northwestern part of the county at the intersection of Interstate highway 35 and State Highway 97. The center point of the county is at 28°20' north latitude and 99°05' west longitude. La Salle County was named for René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. It comprises 1,517 square miles of usually flat to rolling terrain vegetated with mesquite, small live oak, and post oak trees, scrub brush, cacti, and grasses. Elevation ranges from approximately 400 to 600 feet. Soils in the northwestern half of the county are deep to moderately deep, often light-colored loams that overlie clayey subsoils and, in places, limestone only forty inches beneath the surface. The cracking, clayey soils in the southeastern half of La Salle County vary from light to black in color. Most of the county is drained by the Nueces River, which flows across the county from the west toward the southeast; the northeastern quarter of La Salle County is drained by the Frio River. In 1982 more than 90 percent of the county was devoted to ranching and farming. Only 3 percent of the land was cultivated; livestock and livestock products accounted for 87 percent of the agricultural income. Temperatures in La Salle County range from an average high of 99° F in July to an average low of 42° in January; the average annual temperature is 71°. Rainfall averages twenty-two inches a year, and the growing season lasts for 288 days. Mineral resources include sand and gravel, oil, gas, and lignite coal. Oil production in 1982 totaled 505,645 barrels; gas production totaled 4,668,423,000 cubic feet of gas-well gas and 350,459,000 cubic feet of casinghead gas.
Before it was settled in the nineteenth century the future La Salle County was an area of grasslands punctuated by clumps of mesquite, oak, and ash trees. The abundant wildlife included deer, turkeys, wild horses, and mountain lions. Springs rising from a reservoir of underground water fed streams, lakes, and waterholes that harbored beavers, alligators, big fish, crawfish, and mussels. Artifacts dating from the Paleo-Indian period (9200 to 6000 B.C.) demonstrate that human beings have lived in the area for about 11,000 years. The Indian population seems to have increased during the Archaic period (6000 B.C. to A.D. 1000), when many groups of hunter-gatherers spent part or all of their time in the area. During this period the inhabitants subsisted mostly on game, wild fruits, seeds, and roots. They carved tools from wood and stone and wove baskets and rabbit-skin clothing. The hunting and gathering way of life persisted into the Late Prehistoric period (A.D. 1000 to the arrival of the Spanish), though during this time Indians in the area learned to make pottery and hunted with bows and arrows. During the eighteenth century the Coahuiltecan Indians were squeezed out by Apaches and other groups who were migrating into the area, and by the Spanish, who were moving up from the south. Some of the Coahuiltecans from the area that is now La Salle County entered San Juan Bautista del Rio Grande del Norte in Coahuila.
No permanent Spanish settlements seem to have been established in what is now La Salle County. Beginning in the late 1600s, however, Spaniards passed through on the Old Presidio Road (a camino real) to and from other Spanish settlements in Texas. In 1689 and 1690, for example, Alonso De León traveled across the area using the lower branch of the road, and noted the existence of good pasturage above the Nueces; in 1777 Friar Juan Agustín Morfi, also traveling on the lower road, crossed the Nueces and passed by Palo Alto. After Mexican independence, the Mexican government used land grants to encourage its citizens to settle in Texas. In 1834, for example, Jesús Cárdenas received 31,500 acres of land along the Nueces River, including about 10,000 acres in what is now La Salle County, and a large part of the county was included in a tract granted to John McMullen, an Irish empresario. Few if any grantees seem to have actually settled on their lands, however. In 1836 the area remained populated almost entirely by Indians.
Between the Texas Revolution and the Mexican War most of what is now La Salle County lay in the disputed area between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River. Since neither the Republic of Texas nor the Mexican government could establish control over this strip of land, it became a haven for desperados. Even after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo definitively assigned the Nueces Strip to Texas, outlaws and hostile Indians delayed the development of the area for years. When La Salle County was officially formed from the Bexar District on February 1, 1858, the county had only begun to be settled. Some of the earliest settlements in the county grew along the road from San Antonio to Laredo. In May 1852, to protect travelers on the road, the United States Army established an outpost, Fort Ewell, where the road crossed the Nueces. The site proved to be unhealthful, and the fort was abandoned in 1854; meanwhile a small town, Guajoco, also known as Fort Ewell, had developed 1½ miles from the fort. When the fort was decommissioned, its few remaining inhabitants moved to the settlement. By 1871 perhaps sixty people, most of them probably of Mexican descent, lived in or near Guajoco, which had a post office, a saloon, a general store, and a stagecoach stop.
Meanwhile, other settlers were beginning to find their way to La Salle County. In 1856 William A. Waugh, a native of Ohio who had spent some time in the California gold fields, established a ranch where the San Antonio-Laredo road crossed Cibolo Creek. He abandoned the site in 1858, but returned in 1861. By the 1870s Waugh maintained a large herd of cattle in the area, and his ranch headquarters became a stopping point for travelers. A store was established on the spot, and the place became a center of activity in the area; in 1879 it was granted a post office under the name Waugh's Rancho. Iuka, another early settlement, was established by a group of families in 1868 about eight miles west of the site of present-day Cotulla. Iuka served as a stage stop and a meetingplace for cattle buyers; according to one source, most of the inhabitants of the town were of Mexican descent. The settlement was granted a post office in 1880. More than twenty-five ranches were established in the county during the 1870s, including the La Mota Ranch, run by William and Amanda Burks. In 1870 the census taker found only sixty-nine people residing in La Salle County; in 1880 the population was 789.
La Salle County was formally organized in 1880 with Stuart's Rancho, near Guajoco, designated its first seat of government. The political organization of the county closely coincided with other developments that helped to change La Salle County from a collection of isolated frontier settlements and ranches into a more stable environment for economic and social development. The last Indian raid in the county occurred in 1878. In the early 1880s the International-Great Northern Railroad extended its tracks into the county. These developments, along with the gradual elimination of outlaws, helped to make ranching a more predictable and profitable enterprise, and no doubt helped to attract out-of-state capital. In the late 1870s and early 1880s, for example, James J. and Andrew J. Dull, two wealthy brothers from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, purchased large tracts of La Salle County land, including much of W. A. Waugh's property, to put together a vast ranch.
The arrival of the railroads marked a turning point in county history. Places like Iuka and Guajoco disappeared as their inhabitants moved to new towns along the tracks. The railroads also encouraged landowners to undertake development projects. Joseph Cotulla, a Polish immigrant, arrived in LaSalle County in 1868 and gradually established a large ranching operation. After learning in the early 1880s that the I-GN intended to run tracks into La Salle County, Cotulla worked to bring the railroad to a townsite he was developing. In 1881 he donated 120 acres of land to the railroad to encourage it to come his way, and by 1882 a railroad depot had been built and town lots had begun to be sold. While Cotulla continued to develop his town, a competing project was underway just across the tracks, where Jesse Laxton (Laxson, Laxon), the postmaster of Iuka, was establishing the town of La Salle. In 1881 La Salle was granted a post office, and in 1882 Laxton seemed to have won an important victory when his town was designated the temporary county seat. In a special county election held in 1883, however, voters chose to make Cotulla the county seat, and La Salle began to fade away. Though saloons and gunfights gave Cotulla a reputation as a tough frontier town for many years, domestic institutions also evolved. By 1886 the town had a school and a debating society, and by 1892 it was described as a "prosperous town" with a hotel, four general stores, three saloons, a meat market, and two grocery stores.
The growth of Cotulla was in some ways an index to the development of the county as a whole in the late nineteenth century. Cattle ranchers firmly established themselves in the county during this period, especially after the 1880s, when barbed wire fencing was introduced. According to the United States census, only six farms or ranches existed in La Salle County in 1870. By 1890 there were ninety-eight farms or ranches reported in the county, and of these only twelve measured ten acres or smaller; twenty-eight were larger than a thousand acres, and some were considerably larger. The average size of all farms and ranches in La Salle County that year was 7,221 acres. The number of cattle reported on La Salle County ranches during this period jumped from 11,000 in 1870 to almost 73,000 in 1890. Sheep ranching was also an important part of the economy for a time. In 1870, 5,000 sheep were counted in the county; by 1880 36,714 were reported, and by 1890 sheep numbered 50,560. Because of a sharp drop in wool prices, a severe drought, and the depletion of grasslands, however, sheep raising began to decline in La Salle County, as it did in most of South Texas in the late nineteenth century. According to the United States census, the number of sheep in the county had dropped to 13,100 by 1900 and to only forty by 1910.
At the turn of the century ranching completely dominated La Salle County's economy and set the tone for its culture. There were 107 farms and ranches in the county in 1900, covering 1,121,228 acres, but little land was devoted to crops; only 4,039 acres was reported "improved." No manufacturing took place in the county. The population had grown to 2,303 by 1900, but many of the residents lived on scattered ranches. During the first decades of the twentieth century, however, the introduction of commercial agriculture made possible by the railroads and the exploitation of underground water resources brought an infusion of immigrants to the area and ushered in a new period of economic development. Commercial cool-season farming, now a staple of the South Texas economy, originated in La Salle County during the late 1890s. Early efforts focused on the Bermuda onion, a proven cash crop in high demand during the early twentieth century. The first onions were planted by George Copp on his farm near Cotulla in 1896, and commercial onion culture in Texas began in 1898, when T. C. Nye began growing onions for profit near Cotulla. Nye's patch of Bermuda onions reportedly brought him more than a thousand dollars an acre. At almost the same time, experiments in neighboring Dimmit County demonstrated that artesian wells and dams could provide the water necessary for commercial farming in the area. In La Salle County, as in other parts of South Texas, a number of developers attempted to change dry rangeland into productive, lucrative farmland, thus setting off a remarkable land boom.
From 1900 to 1910 twenty-three new towns were surveyed in La Salle County. Not all of them were actually built, but several were: Artesia Wells, Gardendale, Farmington, Fowlerton, Woodward, and other towns were established in the county during this period, often by developers from other areas of the state. New immigrants moved in as national advertising campaigns attracted settlers from states across the country. By 1910 La Salle County's population had more than doubled, to 4,744; and with its early start the county had become the leading producer of vegetables in the Winter Garden Region. In 1909 vegetables planted on 655 acres produced a harvest worth almost $129,000, more than the value of all other crops in the county combined. By 1920 there were 280 farms in La Salle County, almost three times as many as in 1900, and 40,401 acres of La Salle County farmland was improved, a figure ten times higher than it had been in 1900. Though the number of acres planted with vegetables that year dropped to 504, farmers were establishing or harvesting orchards of peaches, pears, plums, and figs (see FRUITS OTHER THAN CITRUS). Cotton had also become an important crop for the county. In 1900 it was planted on only forty-three acres; in 1920, 17,753 acres of land in La Salle County produced 4,263 bales.
Newcomers who bought parcels of arid land expecting that irrigation would transform their plots into lucrative farmland were often disappointed, however. Water from artesian wells drilled in Fowlerton, for example, was found to be unsuitable for farming. A sharp drop in the price of onions and marketing problems, coinciding with an extended drought from 1916 to 1918, also helped to eliminate many of the inexperienced or undercapitalized small farmers who came to the area between 1900 and 1916, thus crippling Fowlerton and some of the other towns that had mushroomed during the boom. But development boomed again during the 1920s, when at least four different towns were surveyed in La Salle County. Though apparently only one of these towns, Los Angeles, was actually built, the county's population almost doubled again during the 1920s, rising to 8,228 by 1930. Much of this increase can be attributed to the growth of Cotulla, which doubled in population during the twenties. But during this same period the number of farms more than doubled, rising from 280 in 1920 to 476 in 1925 and 627 in 1930. Meanwhile, the number of acres in production increased to 52,647 by 1930. A dramatic increase in cotton culture was responsible for much of this growth. By 1930 cotton was grown on more than 39,000 acres-or about 75 percent of the county's cropland harvested.
As one wave of immigrants moved in from the north to establish farms, Mexicans moved into La Salle County in large numbers to clear land, to help build the railroads and towns, and to work on the new commercial farms. People of Mexican descent had been a significant part of La Salle County's population since its earliest days; according to an 1887 state census about half of the county population was of Mexican descent. That year some had owned stores and land in the county, but subsequently, excluded from political power and from White schools, the Mexican Americans had been relegated to second-class status. During the first three decades of the twentieth century, the demographic profile of the county changed. While the new commercial farmers came to outnumber the ranchers, the Mexican-American population grew even more rapidly. By 1910 people of Mexican descent constituted about 38 percent of La Salle County's population; by 1930, there were 5,492 people of Mexican descent living in the county, or fully two-thirds of the population. Nevertheless, until the 1960s and 1970s, social and political realities in the county were quite similar to those in neighboring Dimmit County, where, as one writer noted, "segregation and discrimination" prevailed in virtually every aspect of local life.
The settlement and development boom of the 1920s died with the onset of the Great Depression. Many of the county's vegetable farmers were forced to cut back their once-lucrative agriculture, and cotton production plummeted; by 1939 only 3,351 acres was planted in cotton, less than 10 percent of the figure for 1930. Many farms failed or were abandoned; by 1940, there were only 453 farms reported in the county. Less than 43,000 acres of cropland was harvested in 1939, or about 81 percent of the 52,647 acres harvested in 1924. By 1940, the county's population had dropped to 8,003.
Though some La Salle County farmers continued to produce cotton into the 1980s, after the Great Depression the crop was never again a vital part of the county's economy; and though agriculture in the county revived to some extent during and after World War II, crop raising never attained its previous level. Still, during the early 1940s the production of vegetables expanded to fill part of the gap left by the decline of cotton production. Onions, green peppers, spinach, tomatoes, cabbage, beans, and watermelons were the most important crops. In 1942, 23 railroad cars of onions and 47 of spinach were shipped out of the county; in 1946, 96 carloads of onions, 62 carloads of spinach, and 263 carloads of watermelons were shipped (see SPINACH CULTURE, and AGRICULTURE). As before the depression, however, vegetable farming was generally confined to the western and northern parts of the county, particularly around Cotulla, Encinal, Fowlerton, and Los Angeles. Though a few areas in the county could claim to be part of the vegetable-growing Winter Garden district, most of the county was devoted to other pursuits. Some farmers grew other crops, such as broomcorn, peanuts, and grain sorghums, but in the years after World War II cattle ranching continued to be the primary economic activity in the county. In 1964 and 1984 cattle ranching produced an estimated 90 percent of the county's income.
Since the Great Depression, and particularly since World War II, farmland in La Salle County has been consolidated into ever larger units. Between 1940 and 1954, 171 farms were lost, as the total number of farms in the county declined to only 282 by the middle of the 1950s; by 1964 only 207 farms remained. At the same time, many of the small towns established in the county before the depression shrank or disappeared, and the population dropped accordingly. In 1950 the census counted only 5,972 people in the county, and by 1970 the number had dropped to 5014.
Meanwhile, oil and gas production had become an important source of revenue. Although the Mission Oil Company had conducted explorations in the area around Fowlerton as early as 1925, the first producing well in the county was not drilled until 1940. Production was only 607 barrels in 1942 but almost 265,000 barrels in 1944. After a brief decline in the early 1950s, production began to rise again. It was 332,000 barrels in 1956, 233,000 in 1968, and 515,000 in 1978. Though production declined during the 1980s, oil and gas remained a significant part of the county's economy and rose substantially in the early 1990s; the county produced 1,983,446 barrels of crude oil in 1990.
Political competition in La Salle County before 1900 was contentious and sometimes violent; "Vote right or fight" was an early election-day slogan. Democrats and Republicans alternately took large majorities in presidential contests. In 1884, for example, Democrat Grover Cleveland polled 300 votes to James G. Blaine's 72, but in 1888 Republican William Henry Harrison beat Cleveland 283 to 147. In 1904 no vote totals were reported. Since 1908, however, La Salle County voters have regularly cast their ballots for the Democratic party, which won twenty-one of the twenty-two presidential elections between 1908 and 1992. The only Republican winner in the county since 1900 was Richard Nixon, who outpolled George McGovern in 1972. In presidential elections since 1976, the Democrats have won large majorities in La Salle County; in 1988, Michael Dukakis received 1,615 votes, to George H. W. Bush's 693. In local politics, significant changes resulted from the political mobilization of Hispanics in the county during the 1960s and 1970s. In Cotulla, for example, Mexican Americans had been elected to the mayor's office and several seats on the city council by 1974; and in 1983 the county's first Hispanic judge was elected.
In 2014, La Salle County had a population of 7,747. About 13.8 percent were Anglo, 1 percent African American, and 84.8 percent Hispanic. Most of the towns that had appeared during the agricultural boom of the early twentieth century had severely declined or disappeared altogether, however, and the people of La Salle County were increasingly concentrated in the towns of Cotulla (4,138) and Encinal (592). Reflecting this trend, school districts had regularly consolidated. In 1955, La Salle County had four school districts; by the early 1980s the county had only one school district, with a total of four elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. Cotulla continued to be the principal town and county seat, and was home to the county's airport and its newspaper, the Cotulla Record.