Liberty County, bisected by the Trinity River, is on U.S. Highway 90 halfway between Beaumont and Houston. This part of Southeast Texas is in the Coastal Prairie. The center point of the county, which comprises 1,174 square miles, is at 30°11' north latitude and 94°50' west longitude, near the Trinity River and the Hardin oilfield. The altitude varies from twenty to 200 feet. The climate is subtropical and humid, the annual rainfall averages 51.15 inches, and the temperature ranges from a minimum of 40° F in January to a maximum of 94° in July. The northern fourth of the county is part of the Big Thicket, a once-impenetrable wilderness wooded with pine, oak, ash, hickory, cypress, and walnut. Today, this area is covered with loblolly, shortleaf, longleaf, and slash pines, hardwoods including oak, hickory, and maple, shrubs, Indian grass, and native legumes. The county's southern section consists of Gulf prairies and marshes vegetated with tall prairie grasses, oak, mesquite, and prickly pear. The soil types include sandy, sandy loam, black sandy, and black waxy. Between 41 and 50 percent of the land is considered prime farmland. Drainage and irrigation systems provide for diversified crops-rice, cotton, grains, potatoes, corn, vegetables, and fruits. Hogs, beef cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry are raised, and honey is produced commercially. Natural resources include deposits of lignite, iron ore, sulfur, brick clay, salt, lime, and glass sand, as well as oil and gas. The county is served by the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroads.
The future Liberty County was first inhabited by prehistoric Indians, whose artifacts can be found at various sites including those of Orcoquisac Indian villages. The Jamison and Daniel sites, located opposite each other on the margins of the Trinity about three miles north of Liberty, have revealed mass burials, arrow points, pottery, and other artifacts dating to 1000 B.C. or earlier, as has a site near Dayton. During most of the eighteenth century, the area was contested by French interests seeking to expand from Louisiana, and Spanish interests from the west and south. Though the Spanish crown granted Pánfilo de Narváez the privilege to colonize the lands between the Rio Grande and the cape of Florida in 1526, Karankawa Indians, including Coapites and related groups, were the sole occupants of the future Liberty County until the 1740s. Rumors of French exploration on the Texas coast by Joseph Blancpain and others prompted the Spanish to send Joaquín de Orobio y Basterra on an exploratory expedition in 1748, and fears of French intrusion continued. The Spanish established Nuestra Señora de la Luz Mission and San Agustín de Ahumada Presidio in 1756; the mission was for the Akokisa and Bidai Indians. Spanish maps in 1757 showed the Atascosito settlement and a Spanish military road known as the Atascosito Road, which crossed the Trinity near the present site of Liberty. Ten years later the Marqués de Rubí included the area in his tour of inspection, but parts of the mission were destroyed by a storm in 1766 and the presidio was abandoned in 1772. According to some sources, a trading-post settlement named Arkokisa or Arkosisa (variants of Akokisa) existed from roughly 1770 to 1790 near what later became the townsite of Liberty.
The Louisiana Purchase altered the balance of power between the Spanish and the French in 1803, and Spanish efforts to discourage American immigration to Texas increased. Nonetheless, the open land attracted numerous immigrants from Louisiana, Mississippi, and the adjoining states. In 1818 Charles F. A. Lallemand and Antoine Rigaud made an unsuccessful attempt to colonize Bonapartist refugees at Champ d'Asile, near the site of present Liberty. Coushatta Indians, who arrived in Texas from Alabama around 1807 and were later placed on an East Texas reservation, inhabited the east bank of the Trinity during this period (see ALABAMA-COUSHATTA INDIANS). After Mexico won her independence from Spain, more American settlers came in response to promised grants of land, and much of what later became Liberty County and adjacent counties soon were part of an empresario grant made to Joseph B. Vehlein in 1826 and transferred to the Galveston Bay and Texas Land Company in 1830. A new Atascosito District developed in Mexican Texas when settlers established an independent colony in 1826. Local administration of the area was conducted at Atascosito until 1831. In the battle for allegiance, some residents of the Liberty area supported the Mexican government and participated in quelling the Fredonian Rebellion. But the Law of April 6, 1830, which prohibited further American immigration, pushed settlers too far. When the Mexican government failed to recognize titles given by the Galveston Bay and Texas Land Company, settlers and squatters in the coastal area petitioned the commander-in-chief of Coahuila and Texas for land titles and organization of a local government. In 1831 land commissioner José Francisco Madero organized a municipality known as Villa de la Santísima Trinidad de la Libertad, which embraced most of Southeast Texas; it was bounded on the east by the Sabine River, on the west by the San Jacinto, by Nacogdoches Municipality on the north, and by the Gulf of Mexico to the south. Hugh B. Johnston served as alcalde. The new seat of government, called Liberty by the Anglo-Americans, was located about three miles southwest of old Atascosito. In activities that led to the Anahuac disturbances of 1832, John Davis Bradburn, commander of the fort at Anahuac, attempted to annul the act, arrested Madero and the land commissioners who had given titles in the Liberty area, and attempted to dissolve the municipality. Some settlers pledged loyalty to Antonio López de Santa Anna in the Turtle Bayou Resolutions. Nonetheless, the territory between the San Jacinto and Sabine rivers continued to be known thereafter as Liberty and functioned as a municipality.
As events began to foreshadow the Texas Revolution, Augustine B. Hardin, Pierre J. Menard, Henry W. Millard, Claiborne West and Hugh B. Johnston represented the area at the Consultation. By 1835, despite governmental difficulties and a lack of land titles, the municipality's population increased to more than 1,000. Andrew Briscoe's Liberty Volunteers were organized in 1835 and later fought at the battle of Concepción and the siege of Bexar. Soldiers from Liberty County formed the Third Infantry Company, Second Regiment, under William M. Logan; this unit fought along with other men from the county at the battle of San Jacinto. Mexican prisoners captured at San Jacinto were sent to Liberty before release. Liberty County, formed and organized in 1836 in the new Republic of Texas, originally included all of the future Tyler County and parts of what later became Hardin, Chambers, San Jacinto, and Polk counties. Liberty was named county seat and incorporated in 1837. Sam Houston maintained two homes in the area and purchased more than 20,000 acres of land within the county's original boundaries.
Antebellum Liberty County was characterized by plantations along the Trinity that raised cotton, sugarcane, tobacco, indigo, grains, and vegetables. Lumber mills were in operation, and Liberty shipped cotton, hides, Indian corn, cattle, and lumber down the Trinity. The county economy received a further boost in 1840 when James Taylor White established the cattle industry with an extensive ranch at Turtle Bayou in what is now Chambers County. Cattle drives began moving eastward to Louisiana, and some cattlemen sold their animals to a meatpacking plant at Liberty Landing, operated by the English firm Jones and Company. Cattle numbered 14,058 in 1840 and 45,670 in 1850. Wealthy aristocratic Creole planters from Louisiana arrived in Liberty County with their slaves in 1845, and by 1850 the county population had grown to 2,522. Sawmills made the lumber industry the county's first major industry. River travel by steamboat flourished from 1838 to 1878. Early attempts to build a railroad from Liberty to Livingston were interrupted by the Civil War. Efforts to extend the navigable portion of the Trinity began in 1852 and continued spasmodically thereafter. Only the Texas and New Orleans Railroad (later the Southern Pacific) from Houston via Liberty and Beaumont to Orange was in place by 1860.
Liberty County residents voted 422 to 10 for secession and contributed to several Confederate units in the Civil War. The Liberty Invincibles, organized in 1861, were later Company F of the Fifth Regiment of Texas Volunteers. The Moss Bluff Rebels, also organized in 1861, served mostly as cavalry Company F of Maj. J. B. Likens's battalion. Captains W. D. Davis and Edward Bradford Pickett commanded companies, while other groups served under S. G. Cleveland and Thomas Dudley Wooten. A militia company was organized to guard the home front.
After the war, many freedmen worked for their former masters or settled in the county and started small farms. The black population was 1,079 in 1860 and 1,975 in 1870. The Freedmen's Bureau operated in Liberty from 1866 until 1868, with Dr. J. Orville Shelby and A. H. Mayer serving as the bureau representatives for most of the period. Suffrage caused conflict during Reconstruction. Officials arrested and tried a Republican organizer for "exciting Negroes to acts of hostility to whites," and Republican voters in the county dropped from 255 in 1869 to 0 in 1873. The black population approached parity with the white in 1880, but declined thereafter to about a third of the county population in the early decades of the twentieth century. In 1871 steamboat travel resumed when the Trinity River Navigation Company, with headquarters at Liberty, incorporated to run steamboats from that city to Galveston. United States government assistance for making the Trinity more navigable came after 1880, and by 1940 a total of 236 miles of waterway had been constructed. Nonetheless, railroad construction, which began largely after Reconstruction, caused a severe blow to the port of Liberty. The Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe (later the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe) crossed the northern part of the county through Cleveland, Romayor, Fuqua, and other former timber towns by 1900, and by 1907 ten miles of the proposed Trinity Valley and Northern line from Dayton to Cleveland had been completed. The Beaumont, Sour Lake and Western Railway (later the Missouri Pacific) built across the central part of the county through Eastgate, Kenefick, Sandune Station, Hardin, and Hull parallel to the Texas and New Orleans, and Ross S. Sterling's Dayton-Goose Creek line reached Dayton in 1917. Liberty County had twenty-two white schools in operation by 1880. The population remained nearly constant from 1870, when the figure of 4,414 included some residents of what became San Jacinto County that year, to 1890, when it numbered 4,230. In the next decade, however, it nearly doubled in size, reaching 8,102 in 1900 in an expansion that reflected important growth in the county's agriculture and industry. Much as they had become a center for Texas cattle production, Liberty County and the Atascosito District became a center of the Texas rice industry around 1900, when irrigation plants were developed at Stilton and White's Bayou and the Raywood Rice Company began promotion of rice culture. E. W. Boyt, for example, combined rice growing and cattle raising on a large spread in Liberty and Chambers counties.
Prospecting for oil began about 1901, chiefly in the southern part of the county. Daisetta and Hull became oil towns after a nearby field was discovered in 1918. Wells were brought in at Old River Lake by 1904. Others were opened at North Dayton, Esperson Dome, Moss Bluff, Davis Hill, and South Liberty in 1925 and Hankamer in 1929. Pipelines crossed the county. By 1990, oilfields in Liberty County had cumulatively produced almost 496 million barrels of oil, as well as significant amounts of natural gas. The county population increased steadily in the first half of the twentieth century, reaching 14,637 by 1920 and 24,541 by 1940. The number of farms increased from 1,001 in 1900 to an all-time high of 1,961 in 1940. Corn, rice, and cotton, the major crops, though fluctuating somewhat in relative importance, accounted for 85 to 92 percent of Liberty County agricultural revenue in the 1920s and 1930s. Livestock raising was also important. In 1930 swine raising peaked at 31,242 hogs, and in 1936 Liberty County was the leading hog county in the state. Hog production declined in the 1930s and recovered somewhat by 1940. Cattle raising held steady at some 30,000 head through 1950. Lumbering also remained an important county industry.
With its varied agriculture and resource industries, Liberty County was spared some of the worst effects of the agricultural fluctuations of the 1920s and the Great Depression. The number of tenant farmers increased from 294 in 1920 to 709 (46 percent of county farmers) in 1930, and remained high through the 1930s. The value of farms actually increased by almost 30 percent during the 1930s. During World War II a camp for German prisoners of war operated at the fairgrounds in Liberty. Manufacturing in the county, which had been minimal, expanded as a result of the war, from twenty-two establishments employing 370 workers in 1940 to fifty-two firms employing 744 workers by 1948. In that year Texas Gulf Sulphur Company (later Texasgulf mined sulfur at Moss Bluff, south of Liberty. Forty manufacturing plants operated in 1958, along with 165 mineral companies, and a Central Chemical Corporation plant was completed by 1962. Cotton and corn declined after the war, and soybeans joined rice as the most important crops. More than two-thirds of the county's farms had electricity by 1945, and farm tenancy declined dramatically during the 1940s. Further improvement in transportation came in the 1960s, when U.S. Highway 59 was built through the county. Cleveland became a lumber and oilfield supply center, Dayton a rice and oilfield center, and Hull and Daisetta oil and lumber markets. Liberty, remaining a key port on the barge canal, shipped sulfur, chemicals, and steel. Agribusiness and tourism expanded in this period, and many residents found work in the Houston metropolitan area.
By the 1980s, 52 percent of the land was in farms and ranches and 36 percent was under cultivation. Nevertheless, the county continued to be known primarily for forest products. Primary crops included rice and soybeans, wheat, hay, and some watermelons, peaches, and pecans. Business establishments numbered 954. Oil and gas, sulfur, veneer and plywood, concrete, steel, and metal goods were other major industrial products. The Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center opened in Liberty in 1977, and the Geraldine D. Humphreys Museum in Liberty drew visitors from 1969 until it closed in 1984. Farmers planted 4,800 acres of hay, 34,100 acres of rice, and 89,300 acres of sorghum in 1982, when cattle numbered 22,000. A total of 858 farms, or roughly half the number of 1940, continued in operation. Their average size was 418 acres. In the postwar period, the population in rural Liberty County grew approximately twice as fast as that in urban areas. The aggregate population continued to grow steadily, reaching 26,729 in 1950, 33,014 in 1970, 47,088 in 1980, and 52,716 in 1990. In contrast to the 30 percent growth in the 1970s, the increase in the 1980s was a more sedate 11 percent. The proportion of African Americans fell to 25 percent in 1940, 20 percent in 1970, and 13 percent in 1990. A small Hispanic population grew from some 2 percent of county residents in 1980 to 5.5 percent in 1990.
Liberty County residents have voted consistently for Democratic candidates, with several important exceptions. Only one Republican, Ulysses S. Grant (1872), won support before the turn of the century. Thereafter, Herbert Hoover won a majority in 1928, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, Richard M. Nixon for a second term in 1972, Ronald Reagan for a second term in 1984, and George H. W. Bush in 1988. won a plurality of the county’s votes in 1992, partly because independent candidate Ross Perot ran strong in the area that year; but the Republican candidates carried the area in 1996, 2000, and 2004.
In 1994 Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge in northern Liberty County was established with the purchase of 4,400 acres. The purpose of the refuge, which continued to grow to 25,000 acres, is to protect part of the bottomland hardwood forest ecosystem along the Trinity River. The refuge is also a habitat for diverse waterfowl species, more than 620 plant species and 400 vertebrate species.
In 2014 the U.S. Census counted 78,117people living in Liberty County; about 67.5 percent were Anglo, 10.9 percent African American, and 19.7 percent Hispanic. Of those twenty-five and older, 70 percent had graduated from high school and 8 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agriculture, chemical plants, various manufacturing businesses, forest industries, and a prison were important elements of the area’s economy. In 2002 the county had 1,596 farms and ranches covering 304,574 acres, 51 percent of which were devoted to crops, 34 percent to crops, and 13 percent to woodlands. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $20,938,000; crop sales accounted for $11,255,000 of the total. Beef cattle, rice, nursery plants, corn, hay, and sorghum were the chief agricultural products. Over 10,599,000 cubic feet of pinewood, and over 3,917,000 cubic feet of hardwood, were harvested in the county in 2003.
Liberty (population 9,028) is the county’s largest town and its seat of government; other communities include, Cleveland (8,010), Dayton (7,642), Ames (1,078), Daisetta (1,008), Hardin (869), Plum Grove (628), Kenefick (605), North Cleveland (249), and Devers (466). The Big Thicket National Preserve, in the northern part of the county, provides recreation with its several lakesThe county celebrates the Mayhaw Festival at Hull and Daisetta in April and May, andthe Trinity Valley Exposition and County Fair at Liberty in October. Historical markers in the county are placed at the La Bahía Road crossing on the Trinity, at the site of Old Atascosito three miles northeast of Liberty, and at the site of Champ d'Asile.