Late Nineteenth-Century Texas

By: Alwyn Barr

Type: General Entry

Published: November 1, 1995

Updated: May 18, 2022

Between the end of Reconstruction (1876) and the beginning of the Progressive era (1900) Texas hardly shared the ostentatious wealth that gave the period the title Gilded Age in America. Yet the state did reflect a mixture of changes common to the developing western frontier and the New South. Population, economic production, and cities expanded, while society and culture began to mature. Partially separate Black and Hispanic communities emerged in the face of discrimination. Third parties challenged the political dominance of Democrats who struggled with issues of land policy, prohibition, and railroad regulation. New economic, social, and political organizations appeared as Texas joined other Americans in seeking more orderly approaches to major concerns.

The population of Texas grew rapidly from 1,591,749 in 1880 to 2,235,527 by 1890 and reached 3,048,710 in 1900. In addition to the natural growth of already resident population, a steady migration came from other states, primarily in the South. Immigration, especially from Mexico and Germany, contributed 179,357 foreign born to the population by the turn of the century. Most Texans lived and labored in rural areas—90.8 percent in 1880, still 82.9 percent in 1900. The expanding population spread westward to complete settlement of the state by establishing communities on the South Plains, in the Panhandle, and beyond the Pecos River.

The Texas economy of the late nineteenth century experienced tremendous growth, mixed with serious problems and major changes. Agriculture continued to dominate the state economy, with a majority of Texans engaged in farming or ranching. The number of farms and ranches grew from 174,184 with 12,650,314 improved acres and $256,084,364 in equipment and animals in 1880 to 352,190 farms and ranches with 19,576,076 improved acres and $962,476,273 in equipment and animals in 1900. Production of cotton, the primary crop grown for profit, leaped from 805,284 bales in 1880 to 2,506,212 in 1900—more than in any other state. Corn, the most significant food crop, increased from 29,065,172 bushels in 1880 to 109,970,350 in 1900 (see COTTON CULTURE, CORN CULTURE). In this context of growth, national depressions struck in the 1870s and in the 1890s to deepen the effect of other farm problems. Farm prices fluctuated through the period but declined overall. The value of Texas farms increased because they grew in size, but the value of land per acre fell in the 1890s. These problems produced greater debts, more mortgaged farms, and a rise in the percentage of tenants from 37.6 to 49.7 percent of all farmers during the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

These concerns led farmers to join the Patrons of Husbandry, or Grange, which spread from the North across the South in the 1870s. Texas membership peaked at about 40,000 in 1875. The organization promoted social gatherings, political lobbying, agricultural education, and cooperative buying and selling in a search for better prices. In the 1880s the Grange began to fade away as the Farmers' Alliance arose. The alliance developed in Lampasas County during the late 1870s and expanded to 50,000 supporters by 1885. Although it pursued goals similar to those of the Grange, the alliance grew to over 100,000 members and spread into other states. It emphasized cooperative business efforts based on credits instead of cash. After the state business exchange failed at the end of the 1880s, many alliance members turned to politics through the Populist party or People's party.

Ranching, like farming, experienced impressive growth, as Texans drove more than three million cattle north to the railroads in Kansas between 1875 and 1885, after the Indians had been forced from the plains and the buffalo almost destroyed. Major ranchers in West Texas joined those in South Texas in raising the largest herds in the nation, which grew from 4,894,698 cattle and 3,651,633 sheep in 1880 to 8,543,635 cattle and 4,264,187 sheep in 1890. Prices began to fall because supply outran demand, disease led to quarantines, harsh winters and drought killed animals, and new settlers began to fence the plains with barbed wire. Huge ranches, some supported by foreign investment, introduced improved breeds, but the total number of animals declined to 7,279,935 cattle and 1,439,940 sheep by 1900. In 1877, to cooperate in meeting their problems, ranchers formed the Northwest Texas Cattle Raisers' Association, which became a state organization by the 1890s (see TEXAS AND SOUTHWESTERN CATTLE RAISERS' ASSOCIATION).

The development of commercial farming and ranching received important stimulation from the growth of railroads. Spurred on by state land grants of over thirty million acres, railroads grew from 1,650 miles of track in 1875 to 9,867 in 1900. The new track, more than half of which was laid between 1875 and 1885, crossed the state both east-west and north-south to provide faster and cheaper transportation for people and products. Yet in the 1880s control by Jay Gould and Collis P. Huntington of most railroads in Texas led to reduced competition and uniform rates. Farmers and small businessmen began to complain of monopolies and trusts, and political debates and government regulations followed. Business and manufacturing also received an important boost from improved transportation. The number of manufacturers advanced from 2,996 with about 12,000 employees producing over $20 million worth of products in 1880 to 12,289 with approximately 48,000 workers producing $119 million worth of goods by 1900. Major industries of the period included lumbering and flour milling (see LUMBER INDUSTRY, and MILLING). Meat packing, which ranked third in the 1870s, gave way to the manufacturing of cottonseed oil and cake, which stood second in 1900 (see COTTONSEED INDUSTRY). The Corsicana oilfield produced 65,955 barrels in 1897 and foreshadowed the twentieth-century economic development of Texas.

To improve wages, hours, and working conditions the laborers in these industries began to join unions. The Knights of Labor attracted perhaps 30,000 members in the late 1880s but declined after the Great Southwest Strike of railroad workers failed in 1886. Local craft union representatives met in state conventions during the 1890s, and some groups joined the American Federation of Labor. (see LABOR ORGANIZATIONS). Between 1880 and 1900 the number of women in the work force increased from 58,943 to 140,392, an advance from 11 percent to 13 percent of all employed persons. Women in agriculture, domestic service, and teaching roles formed 95 percent of those working in 1880 but declined to 90 percent by 1900 as the number of dressmakers and saleswomen increased.

Some economic growth proved short-sighted. Cattle replaced the buffalo on the plains, and hunting and fishing reduced several other species of wildlife. Lumbering steadily cut into the size of East Texas forests. In response the legislature inaugurated the office of state fish commissioner in 1879 and authorized the short-lived Texas Arbor Day and Forestry Association in 1890.

The development of industries, primarily in urban areas, stimulated the growth of Texas towns in the late nineteenth century. The number of Texans living in urban centers (towns with a population of more than 4,000) grew from 115,396 in 1880 to 454,926 in 1900, an increase from 7.2 percent to 14.9 percent of the population. The patterns of urban growth shifted, however, as newer interior towns expanded more rapidly with advancing settlement. San Antonio grew from 20,550 in 1880 to 53,321 in 1900, advancing from second largest to largest among the cities of the state as a result of South Texas railroads and cattle. Houston, a major rail center for East Texas agriculture, grew from third to second in size, as it more than doubled from 16,513 to 44,633. Dallas, the commercial center of North Texas, progressed from fifth to third with its growth from 10,358 to 42,638. The Gulf port of Galveston increased from 22,248 to 37,789 but fell from first to fourth in size. Fort Worth, with its 26,688 people in 1900, replaced Austin among the five largest Texas towns, as it became a railroad shipping point for West Texas cattle.

The emerging towns and cities also provided focal points for social and cultural developments. Religion influenced many aspects of life, with evangelical Protestants dominant in much of the state. In 1890 Baptists, with 248,523 members, and Methodists, with 218,890, led numerically. The 99,691 Catholics ranked third in the state and were most influential in South Texas. Disciples of Christ, Presbyterians, and Lutherans were the next most numerous Christian groups. Differences between religions emerged most clearly over the prohibition issue. Yet churches provided a degree of stability in a changing world. One major area of church activity continued to be support for education through several denominational colleges. The state also entered the field of higher education by opening the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A&M University) in 1876 and the University of Texas in 1883. These institutions received students from a public-education system that expanded from 176,245 students in 1880 to 515,544 in 1900. As a result literacy increased from 70.3 percent in 1880 to 85.5 percent in 1900. That advance resulted in part from the establishment in 1884 of the office of state superintendent of instruction and school districts, which could tax to fund public education.

Churches and schools also sponsored such social events as picnics and concerts. Fraternal organizations as well as local cultural and social clubs provided opportunities for relaxation. Women's groups began to appear, first missionary societies within the churches, then chapters of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, and finally the Texas Federation of Women's Clubs, which stressed education and social reform. Recreation became more organized in urban areas, as baseball, circuses, and theaters joined hunting and horse racing. Texas League professional baseball began in 1888 and was followed by college football; the first game in the state, between the University of Texas and Texas A&M, occurred in 1894.

Artists and writers also contributed to the leisure enjoyments of Texans. Several volumes of reminiscences appeared, such as Early Times in Texas (1892) by John C. Duval, as well as popular histories including Indian Depredations in Texas (1889) by J. W. Wilbarger. The Texas State Historical Association was formed in 1897 and soon initiated a journal later entitled Southwestern Historical Quarterly. Charles Siringo became the forerunner of a literary field with A Texas Cowboy; Or Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony (1886). In 1895 novelist Mollie E. Moore Davis published Under the Man-Fig. Some of the most famous paintings by Texans reflected the historical style of this period-Dawn at the Alamo (1876–83) by Henry Arthur McArdle and The Surrender of Santa Anna (1886) by William H. Huddle. Frank Reaugh began to sketch West Texas landscapes and longhorn cattle in the 1880s for oils and pastels that were displayed during 1893 as part of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Elisabet Ney produced statues of such historical subjects as Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin, as well as pieces drawn from other sources. Texas music included analogues of Southern Anglo-American folk songs and religious spirituals and also reflected Black, German, and Mexican influences. Cowboy trail songs grew in popularity. Town bands appeared, as did opera houses, and in 1886 the Texas Music Teachers' Association was founded.

The two largest racial minorities in Texas, Blacks and Hispanics, developed partially separate social communities during the late nineteenth century, partly because of Anglo-American discrimination, which produced segregation in some activities and lack of opportunity in others. The number of Black Texans increased from 393,384 in 1880 to 620,722 in 1900 but declined from 24.7 to 20.4 percent of the state's population because other ethnic groups grew even more rapidly through immigration. Most Blacks labored as sharecroppers, but some herded cattle, and others worked on railroads, in lumber camps, on seaport docks, or as skilled craftsmen. A small but growing number acquired their own land or opened small businesses. To meet economic problems Black farmers organized the Colored Farmers' Alliance in the 1880s. Some urban workers joined local unions or the Knights of Labor, yet racial discrimination limited their opportunities. Black Texans formed their own churches, primarily Baptist and Methodist, to acquire leadership roles and control over their religious activities. They attended segregated public schools that generally received less funding than those for Whites. Nevertheless, the Black literacy level rose from 24.6 percent in 1880 to 61.8 percent in 1900. The churches established several Black colleges, and the state established Prairie View A&M College (now Prairie View A&M University). Black Texans formed their own fraternal and social groups and continued to celebrate emancipation each June 19 (Juneteenth) with parades, picnics, and games. Sutton Griggs, a native of Texas, became one of the better known Black novelists in the 1890s, the same decade in which Scott Joplin of Texarkana moved north to gain fame as a ragtime musician. Segregation existed in most railroads, ships, and theaters, and Blacks faced exclusion from most hotels and restaurants. They also received uneven justice as exclusion from juries became common, and they fell victim to 81 percent of the 132 lynchings reported for the 1890s (see LYNCHING).

Hispanic Texans increased in number, partially through immigration, to 165,000 in 1900. The population of Mexican birth in Texas grew from 43,161 in 1880 to 71,062 in 1900—about two-thirds of the Mexican-born population in the United States. Mexican Texans formed a majority in the region below San Antonio and along the Rio Grande, where they had some political power. They maintained their culture through Spanish-language newspapers, observance of Mexican holidays, and the formation of sociedades mutualistas (mutual-aid societies). Some owned ranches or operated small businesses, though most herded cattle or sheep and did manual labor in towns or on railroads. Conflicts with Anglos arose over land, cattle, and the salt lakes near El Paso (see SALT WAR OF SAN ELIZARIO). Some Mexican Americans were lynched, while Gregorio Cortez Lira and Catarino Erasmo Garza became folk heroes by avoiding prosecution under Texas law, which many Mexican Americans considered unfair.

The economic, social, and racial issues of late nineteenth-century Texas shaped state politics in conjunction with political parties. The Democratic party dominated Texas politics after Reconstruction, under leaders who generally had been Confederate soldiers or their sons. Party members were primarily Protestant, White (usually Anglo) farmers, as well as ranchers and businessmen. Most Hispanic Catholics also supported the party, some under the guidance of South Texas patrones who provided paternalistic aid (see BOSS RULE). Perhaps half of the German Lutherans and Catholics also favored the party. The Democratic constituency was therefore more varied than in most Southern states. In the 1870s Democrats stood for retrenchment, White supremacy, and states' rights on racial issues—but not in the case of federal aid to river development, railroads, and frontier defense. They generally supported low tariffs in national politics.

The Republican party provided the Democrats' most lasting opposition with a membership that included Blacks, former Unionists, sheep raisers, and some businessmen. The party favored expanding the civil rights of minorities, improving education, and developing economically, and survived with the aid of patronage from national Republican administrations and the hope of coalitions with third parties that arose at times. In the late 1870s and early 1880s former governor Edmund J. Davis led the larger wing of the party, which included most Black Texans. A smaller group of White businessmen, such as former governor and banker E. M. Pease, struggled with limited success for control of the party.

Democrat Richard Coke won reelection as governor in 1876 with three-fourths of the votes, while his party held 80 percent of the legislative seats and elected all six congressmen. The legislature then sent Coke on to the United States Senate. Yet the depression of the 1870s, linked to limited credit and falling farm prices, stirred up a lively factional fight for the gubernatorial nomination in 1878 and gave rise to third-party opposition. Democrats broke their deadlock between Lieutenant Governor Richard B. Hubbard, who replaced Coke as governor, and former governor James W. Throckmorton, who were both criticized for their railroad connections, by nominating Oran M. Roberts, a state Supreme Court justice and former secession leader. Roberts won by a small margin over William H. Hamman, nominee of the Greenback party, which favored increasing the money in circulation to ease debt problems. Greenbackers formed a coalition with Republicans and elected a dozen legislators as well as a congressman, G. W. (Wash) Jones, from south central Texas. In 1880 Texas provided the Greenback party vice-presidential nominee, Barzillai J. Chambers, an able organizer, but the party faded away after another election defeat.

To replace Roberts, who cut taxes and sold state lands cheaply to reduce the state debts, in 1882 Democrats nominated John Ireland, who promised to raise land prices to help pay for improved public schools. Ireland defeated Wash Jones, who was running as an independent candidate for governor; Democrats controlled all but one of the congressional seats, now increased to eleven as a result of population growth. The governor and legislature struggled with conflicts between ranchers fencing public land and opponents cutting fences by making both acts illegal (see FENCE CUTTING). Texas Democrats retained control of state government in 1884 and helped elect President Grover Cleveland, who then appointed them to a wide range of federal offices from local postmaster to minister to Japan (Richard B. Hubbard).

The temperance issue had arisen nationally before the Civil War. Support in Texas led to a local option clause in the Constitution of 1876 and to lobbying for complete prohibition, led by Baptist and Methodist ministers, who helped form a Prohibition party briefly in the 1880s. In 1887 the legislature placed before the voters a constitutional amendment to ban liquor sales, which led to a heated campaign including fistfights and the ringing of church bells. The Democrats were divided, and Republicans generally opposed the amendment, which former Greenbackers usually favored. Many White Protestants supported it, but most other ethnic groups joined the opposition, which was victorious. The stage was set, however, for the prohibition conflicts ahead.

The Farmers' Alliance and the Knights of Labor, formed in the 1880s as a result of farm and labor problems, also supported candidates and legislation. Lawrence Sullivan (Sul) Ross, a former Confederate general and Democrat, won the governor's race in 1886, despite some Union Labor party opposition. During his administration he supervised the completion and dedication of the new Capitol, helped to strengthen the state's educational and eleemosynary institutions, and worked to promote industrial, agricultural, and commercial growth for the state.

In Congress Texans led two efforts aimed at economic reform. John H. Reagan, former Confederate postmaster general, became a major advocate of the federal railroad regulation that resulted in establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887. Roger Q. Mills, a former Confederate colonel, became chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a leading spokesman for tariff reduction. The Mills tariff bill became an issue in the presidential election of 1888 but went down to defeat with the Democratic party.

James Stephen Hogg, state attorney general and son of a Confederate general, began a new era of more active state government with his election as governor in 1890. An impressive figure because of his size and speaking ability, Hogg overcame lobbying and pushed through the legislature a Railroad Commission bill backed by farmers and small businessmen. Reagan headed the new state agency, but its impact proved less sweeping than hoped or feared. Opponents of the commission supported railroad attorney George Clark for governor in 1892, while Hogg's failure to appoint a Farmers' Alliance leader to the commission helped push many farmers into the new Populist or People's party behind Thomas Nugent. Yet Hogg won reelection in the lively three-way race.

The Populists also broke away from the Democratic party, which opposed the subtreasury plan. This proposal, supported by the Populists, was for federal loans to farmers based on crops stored in government warehouses until sold. In the heated campaigns of 1894 and 1896 Populists offered the strongest challenges to Democratic dominance since Reconstruction. Yet their efforts foundered on issues of race and culture. As they attracted more Black votes through a coalition with Republicans they lost some White support, while the prohibitionists among the Populists caused Germans and Mexican Texans to shun the party. Although the People's party declined in the late 1890s and some of its members turned to Socialism, it had pushed Democrats toward reform measures; some of its leaders reappeared as progressive Democrats in the early twentieth century.

Hogg Democrats from Texas helped nominate William Jennings Bryan for president in 1896, on a platform of free coinage of silver to expand money and ease debt pressures, but in the aftermath of his defeat the state party shifted in a more conservative direction. Charles Culberson, attorney general under Hogg, won the gubernatorial elections of 1894 and 1896 with businessman Edward M. House as his campaign manager. Through his success in organizing campaigns, House grew in political influence and formed a coalition with Joseph W. Bailey, a North Texas congressman with exceptional oratorical ability and increasing business connections, including ties with the new oil industry. Together they successfully supported the election of Culberson to the United States Senate in 1898, Joseph Sayers as governor the same year, and Bailey as the other United States senator in 1900. By supporting limited reforms they avoided more sweeping efforts to regulate economic activities.

The Republican party remained active throughout the period, especially through coalitions with third parties. After the death of E. J. Davis in 1883, leadership shifted to Norris Wright Cuney, a Black labor and political organizer. He served as national committeeman from 1886 to 1896 and as customs collector at Galveston from 1889 to 1893. White Republicans who opposed Black leadership formed a "lily-white" movement that generally proved unsuccessful in the 1890s. Supporters of winning presidential candidate William McKinley ousted Cuney in 1896 because he backed another contender. Republican congressman Robert B. Hawley of Galveston influenced patronage and became national committeeman in the late 1890s.

Black Republicans faced growing opposition to their participation in the voting process, despite the declining Black percentage of state population. As early as 1878 a White men's club was formed in Harrison County to help seize control of local offices from the Black majority. The Jaybirds of Fort Bend County followed a similar path in 1889, as did several organizations that opposed Populism during the 1890s. These activities foreshadowed the White primary adopted early in the twentieth century to exclude Blacks from the Democratic party.

South Texas political patrones such as James B. Wells had Mexicans declared immigrants and thus legal voters as a means of adding support for the Democrats they favored. This practice led to controversy and a new law in 1895 requiring six months' residency before a person could vote. Unsuccessful efforts to institute a poll tax in this period foreshadowed the imposition of the tax in 1902, despite opposition from Blacks, Hispanics, labor groups, and former Populists. These limitations on political participation led to a major decline in voter turnout, from over 80 percent in the 1890s to less than 50 percent by Whites and no more than 15 percent by Blacks after the turn of the century. The Republican party thus declined from a substantial force with 100,000 voters representing 25 percent of the electorate to a handful of leaders with a tiny following and no influence.

An increasing number of women sought the right to vote in the 1890s. Rebecca Hayes of Galveston organized the Texas Equal Rights Association in 1893. Local clubs were formed, and members pressured political parties or lobbied the legislature for woman suffrage. Disagreement over a tour by Susan B. Anthony caused the group to split and die out.

During the late nineteenth century, Texas politics evolved from preoccupation with the sectional and racial issues of Reconstruction and agricultural problems toward concern with more diverse rural and urban economic and ethnic matters, and this diversity limited its ability to focus on specific solutions, except for establishment of the Railroad Commission. Through Reagan, Mills, and the national Democratic convention of 1896, Texas also had influenced national politics. Progressive and conservative factions of 1900 foreshadowed twentieth-century divisions among Texas Democrats.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century Texas had emerged as the leading producer of cotton and cattle, yet its agricultural economy continued to struggle with a variety of problems, while industry made limited advances, including the opening of the first Texas oilfield. The beginnings of a more complex urban society and culture had appeared, but they hardly dominated the state. Blacks and Mexican Americans achieved some progress in education and economic status, offset by more rigid discrimination in public accommodations and treatment under the law. While most women remained in family roles, an increasing number entered the work force or joined church and reform societies. The Democratic party retained control of politics and government in the face of Republican and third-party challenges, by facing major issues of land policy, prohibition, and railroad regulation. In every area of activity Texans joined the national trend toward organization as a means of meeting problems and shaping their society.

Alwyn Barr, Black Texans: A History of Negroes in Texas, 1528–1971 (Austin: Jenkins, 1973). Alwyn Barr, Reconstruction to Reform: Texas Politics, 1876–1906 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971). Arnoldo De León, The Tejano Community, 1836–-1900 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982). Billy M. Jones, The Search for Maturity: The Saga of Texas, 1875–1900 (Austin: Steck-Vaughn, 1965). Lawrence D. Rice, The Negro in Texas, 1874–1900 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971). John S. Spratt, The Road to Spindletop (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1955; rpt., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970).

Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Alwyn Barr, “Late Nineteenth-Century Texas,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 27, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1995
May 18, 2022