Leon County is east of Waco on Interstate 45 in the Claypan area of eastern Central Texas. It is bounded on the north by Limestone and Freestone counties, on the east by Anderson and Houston counties, on the south by Madison County, and on the west by Robertson County. Buffalo, located near the Freestone county line, is the largest community. Centerville, the county seat, is near the geographical center of the county at 31°15 north latitude and 96°00' west longitude. Interstate Highway 45, connecting Dallas to Houston, crosses north to south, and U.S. Highway 79 traverses the county east to west. The Union Pacific tracks parallel Highway 79, entering near Marquez and exiting at Oakwood. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad crosses from Normangee to Jewett, where the two rail lines intersect. Leon County embraces 1,078 square miles of rolling plains. Elevations range from 150 to 500 feet. Most of the county has light-colored soils with loamy or sandy surfaces and mottled, clayey subsoils. In the northwest corner and near the southeastern and southern borders, the soils are light-colored and sandy with mottled, clayey subsoils, and in the east the soils have very dark loamy surfaces and mottled gray, cracking, clayey subsoils. The eastern two-thirds of the county is drained by the Trinity River, which forms the eastern boundary, and the remainder is drained by the Navasota River, the western county line. In addition to the Navasota and Trinity rivers, Leon County is crossed by numerous creeks, including Boggy, Keechi, Clear, Birch, and Upper Keechi. Lake Limestone, shared with neighboring Limestone County, is located in the northwestern corner of Leon County and provides recreational opportunities. Vegetation is typical of the Post Oak Savannah area, with mesquite, oak, elm, and grasses predominating. Other native trees include hickories, sweetgums, and redbuds; pecan trees are also found along streams. Between 1 and 10 percent of the county is considered prime farmland. Natural resources include lignite coal and oil. The climate is subtropical-humid, with mild winters and warm summers. Average temperatures in January range from 37° F to 58° and in July from 72° to 95°. The average annual precipitation is forty inches, and the average annual snowfall is less than one inch. The growing season lasts 270 days a year, with the last freeze in early March and the first freeze in early December.
Archeological finds suggest that Leon County was home to human beings as early as 4000 B.C. Padilla points, dating from this early period, have been unearthed in archeological excavations within the region. During the seventeenth century, when the first Europeans arrived, the present-day Leon County area was inhabited by the Deadose Indians, a band of the Bidais that spoke a Caddoan language. These Indians built dome-shaped huts, congregated in villages largely determined by ties of kinship, and sustained themselves by farming and hunting.
The first European to explore the region was probably Domingo Terán de los Ríos, who traversed the county on his way to inspect Spanish claims in East Texas. In 1718 Martín de Alarcón crossed the southeastern tip of the future county. Though the main route of the Old San Antonio Road passed along what is now the southern boundary of the county, the Spanish failed to establish permanent settlements there; Bucareli, on the Trinity River in neighboring Madison County, founded in 1774, was the nearest the Spanish came to settling Leon County. A smallpox epidemic swept through the Indian villages of the region in 1777, wiping out entire communities, including many of the Deadose families; those who survived were absorbed into neighboring groups, among them the Keechis, Kickapoos, and Kichais. In 1809 Peter Samuel Davenport reported that the principal village of the Kichais, with sixty warriors and their families, was six leagues west of the Trinity and ten leagues above the Old San Antonio Road, in the vicinity of the site of present Leona. Other early settlers recorded a Kichai village 2½ miles north of the site of present-day Centerville and found Kickapoos living on the west bank of the Trinity.
The Mexican government made the first land grant in what is now Leon County to Ramón de la Garza in 1831. Additional grants were given before Texas independence, but few people settled permanently. After the attack on Fort Parker in neighboring Limestone County in 1833, White settlers abandoned the region, not to return until after the Texas Revolution. In 1837 they constructed a blockhouse on Boggy Creek and named it Fort Boggy. It offered protection to settlers who located nearby, and soon a small community developed adjacent to the fort. The first store was owned by Moses Campbell, who operated a gristmill as well. Thomas Garner built a sawmill nearby to take advantage of the abundant timber in the area. The growing number of settlers occasioned increased friction between Whites and Indians. In 1841 a band of Keechis killed the son of Stephen Rogers as he swam in the Trinity River. Settlers responded with a retaliatory raid in which Texas Ranger captain Thomas N. B. Greer lost his life. During the 1840s the Indians and settlers continued their rivalry, but by the end of the decade both the Keechis and Kickapoos had been driven from the future county. Except for the occasional Comanche war parties that descended upon the area, the county remained free of Indians after that time. In the decade that followed, large numbers of settlers established farms in the county, attracted by fertile lands and relative safety from Indian attack.
Leon County was officially formed from Robertson County by the First Texas Legislature in 1846. The first meeting of the county court was held on October 16, 1846, with R. E. B. Baylor as presiding judge. The naming of the county is the subject of much controversy. Some maintain that it was named for Martín De León, founder of Victoria. However, many residents insist that the name ("lion" in Spanish) came from the nickname of a yellow wolf of the region commonly called the león. The first county seat, Leona, on the southern boundary near the Old San Antonio Road, was picked in 1846. The first chief justice was David M. Brown; William B. Middleton served as sheriff for the first term in 1846. Centerville became county seat in 1851, as a result of a state requirement that county offices be as close to the geographical center of a county as possible. The first newspaper was published there in 1851, the Leona Signal, under the ownership of Judge W. D. Wood.
During its early years most of the county's population was distributed along such Trinity steamer landings as Cairo, Commerce, and Brookfield's Bluff, all of which later disappeared. During the end of the 1840s and early 1850s the population began to move away from the river valley, toward the higher land in the county's center. The decade preceding the Civil War was a period of rapid population growth; between 1850 and 1860 the number of settlers grew from 1,946 to 6,781. Most of them came from states of the Old South, following the Old San Antonio Road westward from Nacogdoches or journeying up the Trinity River from the coast. Census data indicates that by 1860 the overwhelming majority of Leon County residents were native Texans or immigrants from sister Southern states. Only fifty-three residents were born in Northern states, and only forty hailed from foreign countries. Many of the early settlers brought their slaves with them, especially those arriving after 1850. In the ten years from 1850 to 1860 the number of slaves enumerated increased from 621 to 2,620. Like most other counties of the region, Leon County generally had small farms rather than large plantations. Of more than 700 families in 1860, 320 owned at least one slave. However, most slaveowners owned fewer than ten slaves, and only twenty-seven reported owning more than twenty. About half of the farmers cultivated fewer than fifty acres; these corresponded roughly to the percentage of nonslaveowners in the county. Only three farmers planted more than 500 acres, while nearly 200 farmed between 50 and 500 acres. Despite the preponderance of small farmers, however, on the eve of the Civil War Leon County was, like most Texas counties, Southern in both culture and loyalty.
In the early years most Leon County residents engaged in subsistence farming, raising corn, cattle, and hogs. As elsewhere in the state, the county turned increasingly to cotton culture in the 1850s; the yield increased from 913 bales to about 6,700 by 1860. Corn culture also made similar strides, jumping from 66,000 bushels in 1850 to more than 200,000 bushels in the year before the Civil War began. The citizens of Leon County fervently supported secession; 87 percent of county voters (534 of 616) cast their ballots for it. John D. Stell, a Leon County representative to the Secession Convention, was chosen to help prepare an address to the people of Texas about the convention's vote to secede. County residents responded enthusiastically to the call to arms. W. D. Wood, who wrote an account of Leon County during the war, estimated that more than 800 county men enlisted in the Confederate Army. Several units were recruited from the county: Company C of Hood's Texas Brigade, Companies D and E of Robert S. Gould's battalion, Captain Black's Company A of John H. Burnett's Thirteenth Texas Cavalry, and Company D of Xavier B. DeBray's Twenty-sixth Texas Cavalry.
The war and its aftermath brought sweeping changes to the county. Although Leon County residents made only a small material contribution to the war effort, they were forced to deal with the lack of markets and dizzying fluctuations in the value of Confederate currency, as well as concern for their relatives and friends on the battlefield. The end of the war brought dislocations in the county's economy. For many Whites, the abolition of slavery meant devastating economic loss. Before the war slaves had constituted nearly half of all taxable property in the county, and their loss, coupled with a sharp decline in property values, devastated most planters. Farm values, which had risen rapidly before the war, fell dramatically in its aftermath and did not regain prewar values until 1880. Because of declining land values and the loss of their slaves, many families were forced into debt and had to sell their land. But the Black population did even worse. Although most African Americans remained in the county after the war, many of them left the farms owned by their former masters to seek better working conditions. For the vast majority, the change brought only marginal improvement in living and working conditions. Most ended up working on the land on shares, receiving one-third or one-half of the crop for their labors. Reconstruction did not end in Leon County without incident. Two companies of Black federal soldiers stationed just outside of Centerville to assist the Freedmen's Bureau representative were the target of several violent attacks. One Black soldier, who boasted that he had fooled the "rebels" and voted for the Union candidate, was killed by local vigilantes, and another soldier was slain and thrown down a well.
The economy began to recover during the 1870s, but not until the early 1880s did production levels for most crops met or exceeded prewar levels. In the years just after the war, corn was the county's leading cash crop, but as the century wore on, cotton gradually replaced it as the largest source of agricultural receipts. Between 1870 and 1880 the number of farms in the county rose from 702 to 1,718. This increase was due in part to the growth of sharecropping. But it was also a reflection of the rapidly growing population. In 1872 the International-Great Northern Railroad was built through the county and brought a marked increase in the population. Between 1870 and 1880 the number of residents more than doubled, rising from 6,523 in 1870 to 12,817 in 1880; by 1900 it had nearly tripled, reaching 18,072. The majority of the new residents, as before, came from the Old South, but the 1870s also saw a surge of Germans into Leon County, and by 1880 the census reported slightly more than 900 German-born residents, about 7 percent of the population. The railroad not only boosted the local farming economy, but changed the face of the county. Previously, farmers had relied on oxcarts and riverboats to move their crops to market. The Trinity River offered the cheapest means of transporting crops to market. The railroad, however, proved for most to be both less expensive and faster than the riverboats, and as a result most of the old river towns, including Cairo, Commerce, Navarro, and Brookfield's Bluff, quickly declined. In their place a host of new communities sprang up along the railroad's course, among them Jewett, Buffalo, and Oakwood.
Cotton and corn production continued to form the twin pillars of the economy from the end of the nineteenth century to the early 1930s. Although many farmers raised cattle, hogs, poultry and other livestock to ensure a steady supplemental income, the largest share of agricultural receipts came from the two crops. In 1890 county farmers harvested 11,601 bales of cotton and 413,833 bushels of corn; in 1930 they produced 14,904 bales of cotton and 309,384 bushels of corn. After the turn of the century the amount of acreage given over to cotton gradually increased, and in 1930 more than half of the cropland harvested in the county (82,570 of 126,696 acres) was devoted to cotton.
The overreliance on cotton, however, had disastrous results during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Despite the growth of the farm economy between 1880 and 1930, hard times persisted for many farmers. Low agricultural prices and heavy debt took the land from many farmers. In 1880, 70 percent of the farms in the county were owner-operated. Twenty years later that figure had fallen to only 43 percent. The peak years of the cotton boom, 1910 to 1929, saw a marked increase in sharecropping, and by 1930 nearly two-thirds of the farmers in Leon County (2,832 of 4,319) were working someone else's land. During the early 1930s falling prices, droughts, and the boll weevil plague combined to reduce cotton production, and many farmers faced hard times. Particularly hard-hit were tenants, who found it especially difficult to borrow from the banks. As a result, many farmers were forced off the land—the number of tenants dropped from 2,832 in 1930 to 1,495 in 1940—and large numbers left the county to seek work elsewhere. Between 1930 and 1940 the population of the county fell from 19,898 to 17,733. Federal relief programs and the discovery of oil in the county in 1936 helped some broke farmers to make ends meet, but not until the beginning of World War II did the economy begin to recover fully.
After the war, the economy changed dramatically. Cotton production declined during the 1940s; in 1950 the crop was only 3,616 bales. In place of cotton, most farmers turned toward raising hogs and cattle. Lumbering also saw a gradual increase as many fields, left to lie fallow, were gradually reforested. By 1972 Leon County, 42 percent forested, reported a farm income of $12 million, nine-tenths of which was derived from livestock. Though more than 3,000 bales of cotton was still grown annually, watermelons were the main crop. Subsequently, the emphasis fell increasingly on cattle raising. In the early 1990s Leon County was among the state's leaders in cow and calf production. Hogs were also raised in sizable numbers. The leading crops included hay, watermelons, vegetables, small grains, and Christmas trees. The most important source of nonfarm revenue in the early 1990s was oil. New reserves discovered in the 1980s increased county production to more than 2.7 million barrels in 1990. The total petroleum production reported by the Railroad Commission for Leon County between 1936 and 1990 was more than 36 million barrels. More than 896,000 barrels of oil, and 21,749,843 cubic feet of gas- well gas, were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 133,853,281 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1936.
The first churches in Leon County were founded shortly after the county was established. In 1990 more than fifty churches, with an estimated combined membership of more than 5,000, were functioning. The largest communions were Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic. In the early 1990s Leon County had five school districts, with five elementary, two middle, and five high schools. Approximately half of all high school graduates attended college. Education levels in the county, however, remained low because young educated people left the county in large numbers. Leon County has generally been staunchly Democratic at the polls, with Democratic presidential candidates winning the majority of the elections over time. At the end of the nineteenth century, however, the county was a fertile field for Populism. In 1894 and 1896 Populist gubernatorial candidates carried the county, and for many years the county ranked among the top of all Texas counties in supporting People's party candidates. Democratic presidential candidates carried in the county in every election through 1968. Democratic officials also controlled most county offices, and as late as the 1982 primary 96 percent of those who went to the polls voted Democratic. Toward the end of the twentieth century, however, Republicans began to win consistently among county voters, particularly in presidential and statewide races. Republican presidential candidates received a majority of votes in the 1972 and 1988, elections, and in 1992 George H. W. Bush won a plurality of the county’s votes. Republican Bob Dole took the county in 1996, and George W. Bush won comfortable majorities there in 2000 and 2004. By the mid-1990s Republican candidates for state and local offices had become much more competitive in county elections.
The population of the county, which peaked in the early 1930s at about 20,000, entered a long and steady decline in the mid-1930s. It was 17,733 in 1940, 12,024 in 1950, 9,951 in 1960, and 8,738 in 1970. After that, it began to grow again—in large part due to the oil industry—but gains were modest. In 1980 the population was 9,594, and in 1990 it was 12,665. Blacks represented 40 percent of the county's citizens from 1870 until 1960. Subsequently, the percentage of Black inhabitants dropped steadily, falling to approximately 20 percent in 1980, as many moved to urban areas seeking better economic opportunity. In 1990 African Americans (12.8 percent) were still the largest minority group, followed by Hispanics (4.0 percent) and American Indians (0.3 percent).
Like many other Texas counties that lacked major industries and large urban centers, Leon County saw many of its young leave to seek opportunity elsewhere, and as a result the percentage of residents older than sixty-five steadily grew for much of the late twentieth century. In the early 1990s more than one in three of Leon County's residents was over sixty-five, and the population as a whole was older than average, with a median age of over forty.
By the early twenty-first century this trend had begun to turn as the area’s demographic mix changed. In 2014 the census counted 16,861 people living in Leon County. About 76.7 percent were Anglo, 7.5 percent were African American, and 14 percent were Hispanic, and only 20 percent of the population was sixty-five or older. Almost 73 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and more than 12 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century oil and gas production, agribusiness, and lumber were key elements of the area’s economy. In 2002 the county had 1,908 farms and ranches covering 562,615 acres, 43 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 32 percent to crops, and 21 percent to woodlands. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $51,293,000, with livestock sales accounting for $48,301,000 of that total. Cow-calf production, hogs, poultry, hay, watermelons, vegetables, and small grains were the chief agricultural products. Almost 1,710,000 cubic feet of pinewood and 999,000 cubic feet of hardwood were harvested in the county in 2003. Most residents still lived in rural areas. Buffalo, with 1,869 residents, was the largest community in 2014, followed by Centerville (889), the county seat. Other communities included Normangee (668), Jewett (1,147), Oakwood (501), Marquez (259), and Leona (171). Area recreation opportunities include fishing, hunting, and historic Fort Boggy.