Live Oak County, in South Texas, is bordered by McMullen, Atascosa, Karnes, Bee, San Patricio, Jim Wells, and Duval counties. George West, the county's largest town and seat of government, is in south central Live Oak County at the intersection of U.S. highways 59 and 281. The center point of the county is at 28°20' north latitude and 98°07' west longitude. The county comprises 1,057 square miles of usually flat to rolling terrain vegetated with grasses, mesquite, blackbrush, prickly pear, post oak, and small live oak. The elevation ranges from approximately seventy to 400 feet. In the east, light and dark loamy soils overlie cracking, clayey subsoils; in some other areas, particularly in the northwest, gray to black clayey soils cover a layer of limestone that lies within forty inches of the surface. Other areas have light to dark loamy soils covering reddish subsoils over a similarly shallow layer of limestone. The northern third of Live Oak County is drained partly by the Atascosa River, which flows into the Frio River, and partly by the Frio, which is dammed to form the Choke Canyon Reservoir in the northwestern corner of the county. Just a few miles southeast, the Frio flows into the Nueces River, which traverses Live Oak County toward the southeast before emptying into Lake Corpus Christi in the county's southeastern corner. In 1982, 86 percent of the county was devoted to ranching and farming, with 15 percent of the land being cultivated and 3 percent under irrigation; 41 to 50 percent of the county's land is considered to be prime farmland. Mineral resources include uranium, caliche, clay, sand and gravel, oil, and natural gas. Crude oil production in 1982 totaled 778,00 barrels; 83,877,633,000 cubic feet of gas-well gas, 999,477,000 cubic feet of casinghead gas, and 1,659,362 barrels of condensate were also produced. Temperatures in Live Oak County range from an average high of 96° F in July to an average low of 42° in January, for an average annual temperature of 71°. Rainfall averages twenty-eight inches a year, and the growing season lasts 289 days. Before the area was settled and overgrazed in the nineteenth century, grasslands punctuated by clumps of mesquite and live oak trees covered much of what is now Live Oak County. A thick mat of vegetable material produced by the grasses helped to retain rainfall and to build a water table high enough to support a few running springs and creeks. In some areas, springs fed waterholes that harbored alligators and fish.
Artifacts dating from the Paleo-Indian period (9200–6000 B.C.) demonstrate that human beings have lived in the area of Live Oak County for perhaps 11,000 years. The local Indian population seems to have increased during the Archaic period (6000 B.C.–A.D. 1000), when many groups of hunter-gatherers spent part or all of their time in the area. During this period the county's inhabitants subsisted mostly on game, wild fruits, seeds, and roots. They carved tools from wood and stone, wove baskets, and made rabbit-skin clothing. The hunting and gathering 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.
By the early 1800s the Coahuiltecan Indians of the area had been squeezed out by Lipan Apaches and other Indians who were migrating in, and by the Spanish, who were moving up from the south. Some of the Coahuiltecans from the future Live Oak County might have been taken by the Spanish to San Juan Bautista in Coahuila. Though the major Spanish roads through South Texas bypassed the area now known as Live Oak County, Spaniards did travel across it at various times. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca may have passed through the area as early as 1535, and Alonso De León went through during his 1689 and 1690 expeditions. At least one ranch was established in the area in Spanish Texas. According to a petition later submitted to the Mexican government, two brothers, José Antonio and José Victoriano Ramírez, cleared land and built ranch buildings and corrals during the early 1800s on a parcel of land near Ramireña Creek. The ranch was abandoned in 1813 after Spanish troops were withdrawn from the area and left the settlers defenseless against Indian attack.
After the Mexican War of Independence the Mexican government used colonization contracts and land grants in what is now Live Oak County to promote the settlement of Texas. In 1825, the state of Coahuila and Texas granted a colonization contract to Benjamin Drake Lovell and John G. Purnell for a tract of land that included most of what is now Live Oak County. In 1828, at Lovell's request, the same land was assigned to John McMullen and James McGloin, who agreed to settle the area with 200 Irish Catholic immigrants. Between 1828 and 1834 shiploads of Irish immigrants were brought to Texas by McGloin and McMullen, and in 1835 the Coahuilan government issued at least thirty-five land grants along the banks of the Frio, Nueces, and Atascosa Rivers in what is now Live Oak County. Most of the newcomers preferred to remain in the Corpus Christi and San Patricio settlements rather than risk the hardships and dangers of the inland frontier. Nevertheless, some settlers began to move into the southeastern section of the future Live Oak County. Irish immigrants Thomas and Margaret Pugh, for example, established a home near the Nueces about 1835.
The Texas Revolution brought violence and instability to the area, as Mexican punitive expeditions passed through present-day Live Oak County; at least four men from the area died during the fighting. Afterward, between the Texas Revolution and the end of the Mexican War in 1848, much of what is now Live Oak County lay in the disputed area between the Rio Grande and the Nueces. Neither the Republic of Texas nor the Mexican government could establish firm control over this strip of contested land, and it became a haven for fugitives and scofflaws. When William Bollaert, an English land speculator, traveled through the area between the Nueces and Frio Rivers in 1844, for example, the only people he encountered were convicts who had escaped from a prison in Laredo. Asserting its claim to the disputed strip, the Republic of Texas sent John J. H. Grammont and a contingent of Texas Rangers to the area in 1839 to parcel out land grants along the Nueces; and during the late 1830s and early 1840s Irish immigrants attracted to Texas by the McMullen-McGloin colonization project continued to filter into the inner frontier. A crude road called the San Patricio Trail was cut northeast from Corpus Christi along the Nueces to the vicinity of modern Oakville, where the road turned north to San Antonio. This road, developed further by American troops during the Mexican War, became a conduit for settlement in the area after the war was over. By the late 1840s it was being used by Henry L. Kinney, a Corpus Christi businessman, to carry freight and passengers between Corpus Christi and San Antonio; as early as 1846 a stagecoach stop was established on the road at Sulfur Creek. By 1852 Irish immigrants had opened another stage stop known as Fox's Nation (later called Gussettville) in central Live Oak County; and by the late 1850s, perhaps earlier, the stage also stopped at Echo, about twenty miles southeast of Fox's Nation. Settlement particularly picked up after 1850, when the United States Army established Fort Merrill to help against Indian attacks. The outpost, situated on the Nueces between Echo and Fox's Nation, was abandoned in 1855, but by that time the number of settlers had grown enough that they needed their own government.
Much of the area had been designated part of San Patricio County since 1836, but in 1855 a group of frontiersmen gathered under a huge live oak tree at Gussettville and drew up a petition asking that a new jurisdiction be instituted for their settlements. Acceding to their request, the state legislature formed Live Oak County from San Patricio and Nueces counties on February 2, 1856. Later that year county officials accepted a donation of 640 acres for the townsite of Oakville, near the old settlement on Sulfur Creek, and designated it the county seat. By 1858, three settlements in the county—Oakville, Gussettville, and Echo—were considered large enough to be granted post offices by the federal government; in 1860 the census counted 593 people in Live Oak County, most of them in the eastern part. In the early years of settlement, residents usually lived on a subsistence level, raising only small patches of crops, if any, and killing wild game for meat. For money to buy necessary supplies, they relied on the large herds of wild cattle, hogs, and mustangs that grazed in the area. The market for cattle and mustangs was limited in the early years of the county, but some cattle were driven to coastal towns, and mustangs, once broken, could be sold in San Antonio and East Texas. There was greater demand for the meat, hides, and tallow taken from the many wild hogs in the area. A single family could capture and slaughter as many as a hundred hogs in a year and sell the products in San Antonio, Tilden, or Oakville. Eighty-five slaves were counted in Live Oak County in 1860, but since there was virtually no commercial agriculture in the area at the time, it is not clear how they were employed.
After the state Secession Convention voted in 1861 to leave the Union, Live Oak County citizens approved the measure; of 150 voters, only 9 opposed secession, and at least 114 residents subsequently swore their allegiance to the Confederate cause. The federal blockade of the Texas coast and a lingering drought combined to make the years of the Civil War difficult for county residents. Wartime conditions did help to regularize the cattle business in the county, however, and made it more profitable. Local ranchers drove their herds south to Mexico, gaining valuable experience that served them well during postwar drives to northern markets. From the years immediately following the war to the 1890s, ranching continued at the center of the county's economy. In 1867, Rep. Samuel T. Foster boasted that Live Oak County was "one of the finest stock raising areas in the state," and reported that ranchers sold most of their cattle in Matamoros. In 1870 almost 63,000 cattle were counted in Live Oak County, a figure almost triple the count in 1860. During the 1870s a number of ranchers established operations in the county and accumulated large landholdings. In 1870 the county had only 31 ranches and farms, and only one of these was larger than 1,000 acres. By 1880 there were 171 ranches in the area, and 37 were larger than 1,000 acres. During the 1880s, when barbed wire was introduced, some of the smaller ranchers were squeezed out of business. Some of the ranchers accustomed to free use of the range resorted to fence-cutting to give their herds access to water and forage; one group, after cutting a fence, also dug a grave, hung a noose over it, and left a sign that read: "This will be your end if you rebuild this fence." After 1884, when the state legislature passed a law making fence-cutting a felony, however, the practice gradually ended, and within a few years the era of the free range was over. Census figures for 1890 demonstrate that smaller ranches were disappearing and larger operations becoming the norm. In 1890 only 16 of the county's 161 ranches and farms were smaller than 100 acres; 57 were larger than 1,000 acres, and some were considerably larger.
A good deal of the county's growth during this period can be attributed to sheep ranching, which for a time was an important part of the Live Oak County economy. A few sheep had been introduced into the area before the Civil War; in 1860 there were about 1,200 in the county. By 1870 their number had increased to about 5,200. As the demand for wool increased during the 1870s, sheep actually came to outnumber cattle; in 1880 more than 58,000 sheep, but only 16,105 cattle, were counted in Live Oak County. Ranchers sold wool in San Antonio and sometimes herded sheep to buyers in Galveston and Indianola. For a number of reasons, however, including a sharp drop in wool prices, a severe drought, and the depletion of grasslands, sheep raising rather quickly declined in Live Oak County, as it did in most other parts of South Texas during the late nineteenth century. By 1887 there were only 13,809 sheep in the county, and by 1900 the number had dropped to only 543. As sheep ranching declined, local ranchers built up their cattle herds. In 1887 county ranchers owned more than 50,000 cattle, and about 45,000 were counted in 1900. Despite its ultimate demise, the county's sheep industry had helped to shape the social composition of Live Oak County. Though people of Mexican descent had lived in the area since at least 1835, the development of sheep ranching on a large scale encouraged many more to move into the area to work as shearers or shepherds. In 1870, eighty-three native Mexicans lived in Live Oak County; by 1880, their number had increased to 273, or almost 14 percent of the 1,994 people in the county that year. As the sheep industry declined, so did the Mexican immigrant population. By 1890, only 151 native Mexicans were counted in Live Oak County. Nevertheless, the rise of sheep ranching had accentuated an important ethnic dimension of the county's social and economic life.
Small plots of corn and vegetables had been planted in Live Oak County since the early days of settlement, but farming did not begin to become a significant part of the county's economy until the 1880s, when a few farmers began the serious cultivation of corn and cotton. As late as 1887 only 2,424 acres went under the plow in Live Oak County, while almost 465,000 acres was devoted to grazing. By 1890, however, corn was planted on more than 8,000 acres and cotton on more than 9,000. By 1900 there were 278 farms and ranches in Live Oak County, with about 18,500 acres considered to be "improved." The 3,800 acres planted in cotton, almost four times the figure for 1890, set the stage for even greater growth in the future. Though by 1890 farms were being opened up in the northwestern part of the county, in 1900 most of Live Oak County's 2,268 residents lived in the southern and eastern parts of the county. Oakville and Lagarto remained the most significant towns, but new settlements such as Ramireña, LaPara, Lebanon, and Dinero had also appeared since the 1870s. By this time, in addition, a number of school communities were beginning to take shape—Pleasant Hill, Votaw, and Bell Kidd, for instance. Though private community schools and "academies" had existed in Live Oak County since the 1860s, the first public school was established in Oakville in 1881. By 1894 twenty-one licensed teachers were at work in the county, and by 1898, 665 children were enrolled in the scattered schools. Some areas set up separate schools for White children, children of Mexican descent, and Black children. In Oakville in 1900, after the town's "colored" school was closed, the four remaining Black children had to travel to neighboring Bee County for their lessons.
Between 1900 and 1930 Live Oak County experienced a period of energetic growth and development. The number of farms regularly increased, growing from 278 in 1900 to 487 in 1909 and 572 in 1920; by 1930 the county had more than 1,140 farms. During this same period, the population almost quadrupled, from 2,268 in 1900 to 8,956 in 1930. A primary reason for this growth was the rapid spread of cotton culture. Though the number of cattle in Live Oak County dropped by almost 35 percent between 1900 and 1910, land planted in cotton jumped from about 3,800 acres in 1900 to almost 56,000 acres in 1930. The cotton boom came to play an important role, as eventually it extended into most parts of the county, raised land prices, encouraged ranchers to subdivide their lands, and brought new wealth and residents to the area.
Real estate projects and railroad construction encouraged by the cotton boom and the development of nearby "Winter Garden" counties also helped to foster growth in Live Oak County during the early twentieth century. In 1906 Dr. Charles F. Simmons launched one of the county's first land-development projects when he subdivided his 60,000-acre ranch in western Live Oak County into about 4,200 small farming tracts. Earlier in his career Simmons had owned a patent medicine company in St. Louis that sold Simmons Liver Regulator. Now he employed his considerable talents for salesmanship in an extensive advertising campaign to market his land across the country. Claiming that only ten acres of his Live Oak County land would produce enough vegetables to provide a good living, and promising buyers a railroad into the area, Simmons convinced several hundred people from Texas and twenty-nine other states to move to the county. By 1910 about 550 people lived in the vicinity of the new townsite, called Simmons. Partly because the developer never delivered on his promise of a railroad, however, the town never became well established. Other projects, however, were more successful. Shortly after Simmons died in 1910, a wealthy county rancher and businessman named George W. West began another ambitious development in central Live Oak County. He divided 75,000 acres of land and laid out a townsite with a hotel and a school. He also established a $100,000 bonus fund to attract a railroad and arranged for miles of right-of-way to his townsite. West's efforts paid off in 1912, when the San Antonio, Uvalde and Gulf Railroad became the first line to build into the county and constructed its tracks into his new town (which he named George West).
The railroad tied the county more closely to state and national markets, but in bypassing every town that had been established in Live Oak County up to that time, it also helped to shift the population. After the arrival of the railroad, the older towns—Ramireña, Lagarto, and Oakville—began to decline, while new townsites—such as George West, Kitty West, Ike West, Three Rivers, and Mikeska—began to appear along the tracks. George West and Three Rivers especially prospered, and after an election in 1918, the county government was moved from Oakville to George West. Mineral resources also contributed to the county's development during this period. The discovery of oil in neighboring McMullen County during the early 1920s benefited northwestern Live Oak County, as the newly developed town of Three Rivers became the chief trading center for the Calliham oilfield. Natural gas fields were discovered near Three Rivers and Mount Lucas in 1921 and 1922, and in 1926 a gas pipeline was built from Live Oak County to Houston. New school construction reflected the county's rapid development between 1900 and 1930. By 1934 five independent school districts, and almost thirty common-school districts, had been established in Live Oak County, providing instruction for more than 3,000 students. New western districts included the Mountain View, Mapes, Lyne, and Spring Creek schools; in the eastern and northern parts of the county, schools appeared in such new communities as Argenta, Ray Point, Toms, and Fant City.
The onset of the Great Depression and a sharp drop in the price of cotton helped to reverse these trends. Cotton sold for thirty cents a pound in 1922 and almost twenty cents a pound in 1927, when cotton production in Live Oak County was still growing. Partly because of the worldwide depression, and partly because of increased foreign competition, however, prices for American cotton plummeted during the early 1930s, dropping to less than six cents a pound in 1932. Though prices rose somewhat in subsequent years, cotton never regained its previous importance to Live Oak county farmers. In 1930, before the depression arrived in full force, the county ginned more than 12,250 bales of cotton; the number dropped to 5,331 in 1941 and 216 in 1955. Cotton had become only a minor crop in Live Oak County. The depression and the decline of cotton shook out many farmers. Between 1930 and 1940 Live Oak County lost 131, or about 11 percent, of its farms, and hundreds of farmers became tenants or were forced to sell some of their land to stay afloat. In 1935, 679 of the county's farmers had owned their land in full, but by 1940 only 351 did. By 1945 there were only 735 farms left. The discovery and rapid development of oil resources during the 1930s helped to sustain the area's economy, even as its farmers suffered through the depression. Oil was first found in Live Oak County in 1930, and though production was only twelve barrels in 1931, it quickly expanded, particularly in the southeastern sections of the county near Mount Lucas. The county pumped 43,000 barrels in 1934, 254,711 in 1938, and 396,886 in 1940, when the population reached a new high of 9,799.
By 1950, however, the population was 9,054. During and after World War II, cattle herds steadily increased, and ranching again came to dominate the county's economy. Farmers shifted away from cotton and turned to such new crops as grain sorghums, peanuts, and truck vegetables. By 1954 about a third of the county was cultivated, but the farms were larger than before and supported fewer farmers. By 1960 only 7,846 people lived in the county, and by 1970 the population had dropped to 6,697. At the same time, most of the small towns and communities established in the county before the depression shrank or disappeared. During the 1940s many of these places lost their schools through a series of district consolidations, especially in 1943 and 1947. In 1943, for example, the schools in Fant City, Mountain View, Nell, Simmons, and a few other small communities were consolidated into the Three Rivers Independent School District, while ten other common-school districts—including those of Lagarto and Oakville, two of the county's oldest towns—were consolidated into the George West Independent School District. By the 1970s, when much of the county's old farmland had reverted to pasture, many of the old communities no longer existed.
By 1930 Mexican Americans made up almost 42 percent of the county population. Though the school consolidations of the 1940s did away with some of the separate "Mexican" schools, separate facilities were maintained in at least one part of the county into the 1950s. In 1949 Live Oak County became the center of a national scandal, the Felix Longoria affair, when a Three Rivers funeral director refused to make his facilities available for the funeral of a Mexican-American serviceman who had died in World War II. Though the director belatedly attempted to correct his mistake, the Longoria affair became for many a symbol of South Texas ethnic injustice.
From the end of the Civil War to the 1950s, Live Oak County voters voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential tickets in every election but one. Only in 1928, when county voters supported Republican Herbert Hoover over Al Smith, did the county turn against the Democrats during this period. In 1952, however, Live Oak County voters favored Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower over Democrat Adlai Stevenson by a huge margin—1,443 to 573—thus beginning a new trend. From 1952 to 1992 the county almost always voted Republican in presidential elections. The only exceptions occurred in 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson outpolled Barry Goldwater, and in 1976, when James E. Carter was chosen over Gerald R. Ford.
Between the late 1960s and the early 1980s the economy became more diversified. After 1967 Live Oak County became an important source of uranium, which is mined in several parts of the county, particularly near Ray Point. Oil and gas production also increased during this period; in 1984 crude oil production reached almost 2,986,000 barrels. Tourism in the county increased in the early 1980s after the completion of Choke Canyon Dam. During the 1970s the county population began to increase again after decades of decline, and by 1982 an estimated 9,900 people lived in the county. Reflecting the origins of the county, 24 percent of county residents that year were of Irish descent and 32 percent were of Mexican descent. The dramatic drop in oil prices that afflicted Texas producers during the mid-1980s, along with declining uranium production, created serious economic difficulties for the county's residents, however. Though the opening of Choke Canyon State Park in 1987 helped to bring in new tourist dollars and a new federal prison was constructed near Three Rivers, the county continued to feel the effects of the economic downturn begun in the 1980s. By 1990 the population had declined somewhat, to 9,581. As of 2014, 12,091 people lived in the county. Of those, 57 percent were Anglo, 4,8 percent African American, and 36.9 percent Hispanic. The largest towns were George West (2,459) and Three Rivers (1,939). Attractions include Lake Corpus Christi, Mathis Lake, Choke Canyon Reservoir, and Tips State Recreation Area.