Lavaca County is on U.S. highways 77 and Alternate 90 east of San Antonio in the Claypan area of southeast Central Texas. The center of the county is at approximately 29°25' north latitude and 96°55' west longitude, near the county seat, Hallettsville. The county is bounded on the north by Fayette County, on the east by Colorado and Jackson counties, on the south by Victoria County, and on the west by DeWitt and Gonzales counties. Lavaca County consists of 971 square miles of flat to undulating terrain, with elevations ranging from 150 to 350 feet. The eastern part is drained by the Navidad River, and the central and western parts are drained by the Lavaca River. In the southeast section the soils are light-colored and loamy with very deep reddish or mottled subsoils. The remainder of the county has deep, alkaline, clayey soils over a chalk underlayer with a high shrink-swell potential. The vegetation in the northwest is typical of the Blackland Prairies region, with tall grasses, mesquite, and oak predominating; pecan and elm trees are found along streams. The southeast is in the Post Oak Savannah vegetation area, characterized by tall grasses and post and blackjack oaks. Between 21 and 30 percent of the land is considered prime farmland. Natural resources include oil and natural gas. Among the animals commonly found in the county are white-tail deer, bobcats, coyotes, opossums, squirrels, foxes, armadillos, skunks, bats, cottontail rabbits, raccoons, and numerous reptile, fish, and bird species. The climate is subtropical-humid, with warm summers and mild winters. The average rainfall is thirty-seven inches. The average annual temperature is 70° F; temperatures in January range from an average low of 41° to an average high of 64° and in July from 73° to 96°. The growing season averages 278 days a year, with the last freeze in early March and the first freeze in early December.
The area of Lavaca County has long been the site of human habitation. Numerous artifacts from the Paleo-Indian (10,000–6,000 B.C.) and Archaic (6,000–200 B.C.) periods have been found in the area, which has been more or less continuously occupied for more than 10,000 years. During historic times the region was inhabited by various Coahuiltecan tribes, and Karankawas and Tonkawas were frequent visitors. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Lipan Apaches and Comanches occasionally made forays into the region. Most of these peoples eventually succumbed to European diseases, were killed by other Indian tribes, intermarried, or migrated elsewhere; by 1850 virtually no trace of them remained.
Some sources suggest that the earliest Europeans to set foot in the future Lavaca County may have been survivors of Pánfilo Narváez's expedition of 1528, most notably Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. The earliest documented exploration of the region, however, was led by the Frenchman René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who in 1685 landed on the coast and reportedly named the Lavaca River Les Veches ("the cattle") because of the number of buffalo he saw grazing on its banks. The name was retained by the Spanish, who translated it La Baca. Later Spanish explorers may have crossed the county, but there is no record of other Europeans in the area until 1820.
Lands in the future county were included in the empresario grants of both Stephen F. Austin and Green DeWitt with the Lavaca River marking the boundary of both. The first settlers were probably refugees from an Indian attack on the Mexican settlement of La Bahía in 1826. Their settlement, located somewhere along the Lavaca River, was soon abandoned, but by 1831 DeWitt had assigned homesteads to twenty-one and Austin to twelve American families who came to establish small farms and stock ranches. Settlements sprang up at Zumwalts Mill, Rocky Creek, Hallettsville, Petersburg, Turner's Crossing, and William Millican's gin, which became a center of revolutionary activity in 1835. Following the defeat of the garrison at the Alamo in 1836, both the Texas army under the command of Sam Houston and the Mexican army passed through the county from west to east.
Indian raids, particularly by the Comanches and Tonkawas, were common in the late 1830s, but several defeats forced the Indians to withdraw to the west, and after 1841 the attacks ceased. In 1842 the Republic of Texas Congress established a judicial county from portions of Fayette, Colorado, Jackson, Victoria, and Gonzales counties and named it La Baca County. In 1846 the area was renamed Lavaca County, and it became a regularly constituted county with 140 taxpayers. Petersburg and Hallettsville vied to be county seat, and after two hotly contested elections Hallettsville won the contest in 1852; only by force of arms, however, were the men of Hallettsville able to liberate the county records from Petersburg.
The population grew rapidly during the late 1840s; by 1850 the number of inhabitants reached 1,571. The majority of the new settlers were from the Old South, and many brought slaves with them. Already in 1850 there were 379 slaves in the county, and the number grew steadily over the next decade. Despite the presence of a growing labor force, ranching remained the dominant occupation during the antebellum period. In 1846 tax rolls listed 3,581 cattle in the county; two stockmen had more than 200, seven had herds ranging from 100 to 150, and fifteen had 50 to 100. By 1851 the total number of cattle had risen to 13,505, and seventeen ranchers were listed with more than 200 head. Despite the emphasis on cattle ranching, however, by the late 1850s a small plantation economy, based primarily on cotton, also began to develop. The number of acres under cultivation increased markedly between 1855 and 1860, and by 1860 the cotton harvest neared 6,000 bales annually. Because of the lack of navigable streams, most of the county's large cotton crop had to be hauled overland to Port Lavaca and from there to markets and mills elsewhere.
The population increased rapidly during the 1850s as large numbers of settlers, lured by the abundant land, moved in. By 1860 the county had 5,945 residents, a nearly fourfold increase over 1850. The number of slaves increased to 1,606 (or more than a quarter of the entire population) by the eve of the Civil War. As many as half of the white families owned one or more slaves, and one of the state's largest slaveholders, W. G. L. Foley, who owned 124 slaves, lived in Lavaca County.
On the eve of the war Lavaca County was in most ways typical of the counties of the region, decidedly Southern in character and outlook, with a rapidly developing plantation economy. Not surprisingly, given its large number of slaveholders, the citizenry overwhelmingly supported the Southern cause. Nearly 95 percent (592 of 628) of those who went to the polls voted for secession. Lavaca County men volunteered for the Confederate Army in large numbers, many of them serving in Whitfield's Legion, the Eighth Texas Cavalry (Terry's Texas Rangers), and other volunteer units. Some of the early volunteers saw considerable action during the conflict, and a sizable number of them were killed or injured. Although no fighting took place in Lavaca County, for those who remained at home there were other problems: lack of markets for goods, shortages, and unstable Confederate currency. Nevertheless, the county remained fairly prosperous during the war years. Large cotton crops were raised and harvested by ever-growing numbers of slaves, brought to the county by masters fleeing the fighting farther east. At the height of this influx in 1864, the tax rolls recorded 2,713 slaves in the county, a nearly twofold increase over 1860. During the later war years, the La Bahía Road, which crossed the county, became one of the main supply routes, feeding into what became known as the "Cotton Road" because of the continuous stream of wagons loaded with cotton moving south to bypass the Union blockade of the Texas coast.
The end of the war brought great changes. For many Lavaca County whites, the abolition of slavery meant economic disaster. Before the war slaves had constituted nearly half of all taxable property in the county, and their loss, coupled with a precipitous lapse in property values, caused a profound disruption for most planters. The Black population of Lavaca County did even worse. Most African Americans left the farms owned by their former masters to seek better lives, but they generally found little improvement. Most ended up working as agricultural laborers or as sharecroppers, receiving one-third or one-half of the crop for their labors.
Lavaca County escaped much of the strife that many other Texas counties experienced during Reconstruction. Although a detachment of federal troops and a Freedmen's Bureau agent were stationed in Hallettsville, relations between local whites and the soldiers and governmental officials were generally peaceful, and most of the county's citizens occupied themselves with rebuilding their lives. Isolated acts of violence and intimidation directed at Blacks did occur, however, and when the white elite regained control of the county's affairs in the 1870s they worked quickly to disfranchise the Black population. In the years immediately after the Civil War cotton production declined and cattle ranching again took center stage. The county's large expanses of open range and inexpensive land attracted cattlemen from more populated areas of the state; by 1870 the county was maintaining 56,309 cattle. Large trail drives to the railroads in Kansas began just after the war and continued until the mid-1880s, making some ranchers considerable fortunes. By 1870 sheep ranching had also become an important industry, and during the 1880s the number of sheep exceeded 25,000.
Despite the increased attention given to stock-raising, the decade from 1870 to 1880 also saw a resurgence of cotton culture. The introduction of barbed wire, which enabled farmers to fence their fields inexpensively and protect them from free-ranging herds of cattle and sheep, was one reason for the growth of cotton production. But even more important was the changing demographic face of the county. After 1870 increasing numbers of Central European immigrants began to settle in the county, displacing many of the original American planters. Over the course of the next two decades many of the county's large land grants were divided into smaller, self-sustaining units; between 1870 and 1880 the number of farms grew from 905 to 1,925, and by 1890 the figure had risen to 3,062. The new immigrants worked without hired labor, relying on the aid of their families, which made production of cotton-and farming in general-much more profitable than it had been previously. As a result, cotton production increased steadily, from 3,528 bales in 1870 to 9,976 bales in 1880; by 1890 the number had risen to 26,842 bales, and in 1900, 38,349 bales came from the gins. During these years production of many other crops increased similarly, including corn, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, honey, sugarcane, and molasses.
Fueled by the influx of new immigrants, the population also rose markedly during the second half of the nineteenth century. It was 9,158 in 1870, 13,641 in 1880, 21,887 in 1890, and 28,121 in 1900. The majority of the new settlers were Germans and Czechs (in this case, Czech-speaking Bohemians). The 1890 census listed 4,402 foreign-born residents, with the largest contingents from Germany (1,884) and Austria (1,748). The German, Moravian, and Czech immigrants founded numerous new ethnic farm communities, including Glecker, Breslau, Witting, Moravia, and Vienna. As a result the once decidedly Anglo-American county took on something of a Central European character. By the turn of the century a wide range of German and Czech newspapers were being published, among them Obzor, Treue Zeuge, Novy Domov, Prozor, Vestnik, and Buditel, and many of the county's towns had Czech social organizations, such the National Sokol Society and the Slavonic Benevolent Order.
The arrival of the first railroad, a branch of the San Antonio and Aransas Pass that passed through Hallettsville in 1887, helped to accelerate the growth of the county by providing better access to outside markets and giving rise to a number of new towns, including Shiner and Yoakum. The steady growth in new residents continued until around 1900. For the next three decades, however, the population stagnated; it was 26,418 in 1910, 28,964 in 1920, and 27,550 in 1930. The period after 1900 saw a marked increase in the dairy industry and swine raising; after 1910 poultry production also became a leading industry, and by the early 1930s Lavaca County ranked among the top Texas counties in poultry and egg production. After 1900 attempts were made to introduce tobacco farming. A stock company was organized in Hallettsville in 1904 that maintained a thirty-four-acre farm. But the quality of the tobacco raised was poor, and the project was abandoned after a few years. More successful was the introduction of truck farming, which proved to be well-suited to the area's sandy soil. After 1910 cucumbers, Irish potatoes, onions, garlic, beans, and sweet potatoes were grown in commercial quantities. But the most successful crop turned out to be tomatoes, which thrived in the warm, humid climate. In 1932, 431 railroad carloads, averaging 18,000 pounds each, went to markets in the North. Cotton continued to occupy a central place in the economy. As late as 1930 more than half of county's cropland (97,022 of 178,742 acres) was devoted to cotton. But as a result of the combined effects of the boll weevil and soil depletion, production of cotton declined, from 40,171 bales in 1906 to 34,186 in 1916 and 27,789 in 1926.
The falling cotton harvests brought hardship for many farmers in Lavaca County, particularly the growing legion of tenant farmers and sharecroppers. By 1920 nearly half of the farmers in the county (1,958 of 4,149) were working someone else's land. During the Great Depression of the 1930s many of these tenants were hit hard. But in contrast to the tenant farmers of many other counties in the state, the majority of them were able to stay afloat by switching to truck farming or livestock raising. Between 1930 and 1940 the number of tenant farmers in the county actually increased (from 2,075 to 2,179), even while the population as a whole was declining. The trend toward diversification continued after World War II, enabling many smaller farmers to survive. Although some farms were consolidated in the 1950s, as late as 1964 the county still had 2,685 farms and therefore ranked third among Texas counties in this category. During the 1970s and 1980s, however, the pace of consolidation quickened as greater emphasis was placed on livestock raising; by the 1980s truck farming had been largely abandoned and little cotton was being grown. Nevertheless, in the early 1990s Lavaca County remained among the leading Texas counties in beef cattle, poultry, and hog production. Leading crops included hay, milo, and corn. Nonfarm revenues toward the end of the twentieth century came largely from light manufacturing, leather goods, and the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner. Oil and gas, discovered in 1941, also contributed to the economy. In 1990 oil production was 736,258 barrels; total production from 1941 to 1990 exceeded 21,000,000 barrels.
The population was 25,485 in 1940, 22,159 in 1950, 20,174 in 1960, and 17,903 in 1970. The number of residents rose slightly in the late 1970s, to 19,004 in 1980, but declined afterward, to 18,690 in 1990. Most of the population (88.5 percent) in 1990 was white; the largest ancestry groups were German, Czech, and English. A continuous exodus of Blacks to the cities had reduced the African-American population to 1,342, or 7.2 percent of the population. Hispanics (1,596), many of whom moved to the area in the late twentieth century, made up 8.5 percent of the population. The largest communions were Catholic and Baptist. The first schools in the county were private academies founded in the Republic of Texas, many of them associated with early churches. Father Edward Clark, who established St. Mary's Church in 1841, also established the first school; a log cabin served for both. Other early private schools were located in Petersburg and Hallettsville. By 1858 twenty-three teachers were listed in the county, though little is known about many of the early schools. The first public school was established at Hallettsville just after the Civil War, and by the turn of the century there were more than 100 public schools in operation. In the early 1990s Lavaca County had six school districts, with six elementary, one middle, and three high schools; in addition there were three private elementary and two private high schools. The county also had about forty churches, with a combined membership of more than 15,000.
Politically, Lavaca County has often followed statewide voting trends. Democrats dominated the county for more than a hundred years, and Democratic presidential candidates carried the area in nearly every election from 1848 through 1948; the only exception occurred in 1920, when James E. Ferguson, running as the presidential candidate of the American Party, won a solid majority of the area’s votes.. Though Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower took the county in the elections of 1952 and 1956, the Democratic presidential candidates won there in 1960 and 1964; in 1968, Democrat Hubert Humphrey won only a plurality of the area’s votes, partly because independent candidate George Wallace ran strongly in the county that year. After 1972, when Richard Nixon won a solid majority of the county’s votes, the area began to lean Republican. Though Democrat Jimmy Carter took the county in 1976,the Republican presidential candidates carried the area in almost every election from 1980 to 2004 with the margins of victory growing steadily larger. Republican candidates in statewide races also did increasingly well, sometimes outpolling their Democratic opponents by nearly twofold.
In 2014 the U.S. Census counted 19,721 people living in Lavaca County; about 74.5 percent were Anglo, 17.4 percent Hispanic, and 7.2 percent African American. Of residents twenty-five and older, 69 percent had graduated from high school and 11 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agriculture, oil and gas production, tourism and various manufacturing operations were important elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 2,861 farms and ranches covering 601,698 acres, 52 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 34 percent to crops, and 13 percent to woodlands. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $45,660,000; livestock sales accounted for $42,122,000 of the total. Cattle, forage, poultry, rice, corn, and sorghum were the chief agricultural products. More than 590,000 barrels of oil, and 86,673,031 thousand cubic feet of gas well gas, were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 30,805,165 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1941.
Lavaca County’s largest towns in 2014 were Hallettsville (2,605), Yoakum (5,928 in Lavaca County, partly in DeWitt County), Shiner (2,061), and Moulton (877). The attractions in Lavaca County include hunting, fishing, spring wildflower trails, the Kolache Fest in Hallettsville in September, the Shiner Bocktoberfest, the annual rodeo, and the Spoeztl Brewery in Shiner.