Madison County is located in central East Texas. Madisonville, the county seat and largest town, is near interstate Highway 45 about 100 miles northwest of Houston; the town is at 30°57' north latitude and 95°55' west longitude, close to the center of the county. Madison County includes 473 square miles primarily of post oak savannah, a mixture of post oak woods and grasslands. The northeast and south central parts of the county are in the Blackland Prairies region; the southeast corner of the county lies in the Piney Woods. Today, about one-fifth of the area is timbered, but early reports describe it as two-thirds timber and one-third prairie. It supported oak, cedar, elm, walnut, hickory, gum, pecan, ash, cypress, and pine. The terrain is undulating, with an elevation ranging from 213 to 364 feet above sea level. The rolling prairies drain to the waterways that form the county's boundaries: the Trinity River in the east, the Navasota River in the west, and Bedias Creek in the south. Numerous other creeks run through the county, notably the Caney, which bisects it. Several soil types are found in the county, which lies principally in the Claypan area. They range from black waxy to light sandy loam around creeks and lower lands, with dark chocolate mixed with sand on the prairie uplands. Almost the entire county is made up of soils with sandy surface layers and mottled yellow, red, and gray loamy subsoils. The northwest portion is surfaced by noncalcareous and calcareous cracking clayey soils and slightly acid soils with loamy surface layers and cracking clayey subsoils. Oil and gas are found in the county, as are lignite, sand, and gravel. Madison County has a mild climate, with an average growing season of 272 days. Its average annual rainfall is 41.50 inches, and temperatures range from a January minimum average of 40° F to a July maximum average of 94°.
The territory in present-day Madison County was occupied by members of two Indian groups, the Caddoes and the Atakapans. The Caddoes were among the most advanced of the Texas Indians and were considered wealthy as well as friendly. They lived in large villages and constructed beehive-shaped houses. The Bidais, who were the principal residents of the area now known as Madison County, belonged to the Atakapan group. They, along with the Deadose Indians, themselves also Atakapans, occupied the Trinity River valley in the heart of the county. The main village of the Bidais was located at the confluence of the Trinity River and Bedias Creek. Closely associated with the Caddoes, the Bidais were agriculturalists, known for raising corn. They also depended largely on hunting, especially of deer. Though they were never a large group, they were decimated by epidemics and incursions by hostile tribes. The Kickapoos, migrants from the east who settled among the remnants of the Caddo confederacies, also resided in the area at one time; Kickapoo Creek still bears their name.
Settlement of the future Madison County began in Spanish Texas. The first European explorers known to have reached the area were Luis de Moscoso Alvarado and Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Moscoso, a member of Hernando De Soto's expedition who continued on in 1542 after De Soto's death, eventually reached the southeastern part of the future Madison County and traveled along what became the La Bahía Road. La Salle is thought to have crossed southeastern Madison County in 1687, and some believe he was killed in Madison County, at a site just south of Madisonville. The La Bahía Road and the Old San Antonio Road, originally Indian trails, passed through what is now Madison County. The former led southwest to Washington-on-the-Brazos, Gonzales, and Goliad, diverging from the Old San Antonio Road at a point not far from where the two crossed the Trinity. The Old San Antonio Road, which forms a major portion of the county's northern boundary, continued through Bastrop on its way from Nacogdoches to San Antonio. A Spanish settlement was established in Madison County in 1774, on the banks of the Trinity at the crossing of the two Spanish roads. The site, known as Paso Tomás, was near the main village of the Bidais. The settlement comprised a group of families resettled from Los Adaes by Governor Juan María de Ripperdá and led by Antonio Gil Ibarvo. The reasons given by Ripperdá for the selection of the site were its central location on the highway from Bexar to Natchitoches, the agricultural promise of the region, the fact that it was buffered from hostile Indians by the presence of friendly tribes, the opportunity to conduct missionary work among the local tribes, and its useful situation for the observation and interdiction of the French contraband trade, as well as the protection of the Gulf Coast from the English. The settlement was named Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Bucareli, and was called Bucareli. Fears of Comanche attack led many to abandon the settlement in January 1779; flooding of the Trinity in February dealt the final blow. The inhabitants returned eastward to the vicinity of the old mission at Nacogdoches. The site of Bucareli was later occupied by Robbins's Ferry. In 1805 the settlement of Trinidad, or Spanish Bluff, was established by Spanish soldiers sent by Governor Manuel Antonio Cordero y Bustamante to regain possession of territory claimed by the United States. This settlement was sacked by members of the Gutiérrez-Magee expedition in 1812. After the failure of the expedition, some of its members were captured at Spanish Bluff and executed by the Spanish commander, Ignacio Elizondo.
In the future Madison County three empresario grants of the Mexican government (Austin, Vehlein, and Burnet) joined. José Miguel Músquiz received the first grant, which was situated partially in the Vehlein colony, in 1831. Major W. C. Young is generally agreed to have been the first Anglo-American to settle permanently in the area. He left South Carolina in 1829 and moved to Texas, where he participated in the battle of San Jacinto. Prominent among other early settlers and instrumental in settlement and development were James Mitchell, Job Starks Collard, and Dr. Pleasant W. Kittrell. Mitchell kept a well-regarded hostelry at the parting of the San Antonio and La Bahía roads and established the first post office in Madison County. Collard, a member of the Austin colony, was granted a league of land by the Mexican government on May 28, 1835. In 1853 he donated 200 acres for the establishment of a townsite, on which the county seat, Madisonville, was founded. Kittrell was the impetus behind the organization of Madison County.
The judicial Madison County was formed on February 2, 1842, from Montgomery County. (Judicial counties were later declared unconstitutional because they had no legislative representation.) Because residents of the northern parts of Walker and Grimes counties lived forty to fifty miles from their county seats, they petitioned the legislature for the establishment of a new county. The formation of Madison County from Grimes, Walker, and Leon counties was approved on January 27, 1853, and organization followed on August 7, 1854. Kittrell was instrumental in this effort, and became the county's first representative in the legislature. He selected the site for the county seat, which was preferred because of its central location; he named the county and its seat for the nation's fourth president, James Madison. Dr. Kittrell was also Sam Houston's physician and was in attendance at the general's death.
Of numerous early settlements, only three flourished. Midway, the oldest town in Madison County, was settled in 1829 by J. H. Young. It was located in the eastern end of the county approximately three miles from the Trinity River and named Midway in 1855, when Professor Joseph A. Clark arrived from Midway, Kentucky. North Zulch, in the west end of the county, was named for Julius Zulch, who emigrated from Germany in 1848 and founded the settlement named Zulch. Around 1906, the community moved to the railroad and became North Zulch. Madisonville, the county seat, was established upon the formation of the county, in compliance with the legislature's ruling that county seats be no more than five miles removed from the centers of the counties. By 1854 Elwood, one of the largest communities in the county, was a rival to Madisonville for designation as the county seat. But after being passed over, it did not continue to prosper. Rogers Prairie, on the Old San Antonio Road, was settled in 1835 by Robert Rogers, who had received a land grant from the Mexican government. When bypassed by the Trinity and Brazos Valley Railway in 1906, the settlement moved 1.6 miles westward; it eventually became Normangee.
Settlers in the future Madison County witnessed the Runaway Scrape in 1836, as citizens of Texas rushed toward the Trinity in an effort to escape the advance of Santa Anna. News of the victory at San Jacinto caused them to turn back before many had crossed the river. Madison County, reported to have been "wild and wooly" before and after the Civil War, was referred to as the "Free State of Madison." Between 1854 and 1873 the county lost three courthouses to fire, and in 1967 yet another courthouse burned to the ground. The present building was completed in 1970.
Madison County has always been primarily agricultural and rural. Crop production, once the primary means of subsistence, dropped off sharply after 1959 in almost every category. In 1987 the number of farms operating was 756, only 32 percent of the total of 2,355 reported in the peak year of 1930. The former staple crops, corn, cotton, and sweet potatoes, no longer contribute significantly to agricultural income. Cotton production was 12,196 bales in the peak year, 1900, but yields diminished gradually to 2,435 bales in 1959 before dropping to zero in 1982. Corn harvests increased dramatically, from 65,225 bushels in 1860 to 589,202 bushels in 1920, then dropped to 189,364 bushels in 1930. Although production of corn recovered to 336,326 bushels in 1940, it decreased steadily until reaching an insignificant level in 1987. Sweet potato cultivation, which yielded 5,512 bushels in 1860, exhibited erratic levels of production. The yield was 2,933 bushels in 1880, 37,283 bushels in 1890, 8,583 bushels in 1910, and 24,959 bushels in 1920. After remaining stable from 1930 through the 1950s, the sweet potato yield fell to zero in 1969. Wool, also an important agricultural product in Madison County before 1900, yielded 11,676 tons in 1890, but was no longer produced by 1969. Until the 1950s, poultry production and the dairy industry contributed substantially to agricultural production in the county, but subsequently lost importance. Madison County had 6,806 milk cows in 1920, but only 277 in 1987. Reported fowl numbered 90,602 in 1920 and 642 in 1987.
The raising of beef cattle, long a major activity in Madison County, remains the primary source of agricultural income. The county had 16,110 head in 1860 and maintained similar numbers through the 1920s; cattle declined by 1930 to 9,876. The 1940s saw the beginning of a recovery in the industry; 54,288 cattle were enumerated in the county in 1950 and 31,919 in 1987. An increase in the cultivation of hay and forage crops accompanied the growing numbers of cattle, rising from 1,348 tons in 1940 to 73,445 tons in 1987. Horse raising also grew in importance. Swine raising, which dropped from 11,021 in 1920 to 5,124 in 1930, remained steady afterward; 4,640 head were reported in 1987.
The construction of Interstate Highway 45 through Madison County, which began in 1962, brought a short period of prosperity to the county. A substantial decline occurred after its completion in 1965, however, as jobs and trade that had been generated by the construction were lost. Between 1960 and 1970 employment in every category declined drastically; construction jobs dropped from 568 to 69, jobs associated with transportation dropped from 326 to 32, and employment in service industries and retail and wholesale trade declined from 2,745 in 1960 to 547 in 1970. But the oil boom of the 1980s again brought temporary prosperity to the county. Oil was discovered in 1946, and the county has generally ranked in the middle range of producing counties in Texas. In the early 1980s the county ranked in the top third of Texas counties in oil production, yet still substantially below the largest producers. As the market fell off, however, Madison County's petroleum-related activities shared the decline of the rest of the Texas oil industry. Almost 416,000 barrels of oil and 8,683,569 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 32,985,267 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1946.
In 1980 more than 48 percent of Madison County residents held high school diplomas, more than triple the percentage in 1950. Of Madison County's 1989 workforce of 3,138 persons, 23 percent were employed in trade, 24.9 percent in service industries, 25.6 percent in state government (the Ferguson Unit of the prison system employed more than 700 people), and 17.5 percent in local government. The total number of employees in these areas increased during the 1980s. The remaining 9 percent worked as follows: 2.8 percent in finance, insurance, and real estate, 2.7 percent in mining, 2.3 percent in construction, .6 percent in city services, and .5 percent in manufacturing. Types of business in the county included oilfield service, natural gas distribution, newspaper and printing, and agricultural supply. Madison County has the nation's largest mushroom production and processing facility, established in 1975. It distributed nationwide and employed 538 people in 1991.
Between 1860 and the late twentieth century, Madison County's population consistently averaged about 70 percent white and 30 percent black. The 1990 census yielded figures of 73 percent white (including Hispanics, who accounted for 11 percent of the total population), 24 percent black, and 3 percent other. Madisonville, the county seat, was the largest population center in 1990, with 3,569 of the county's 10,391 inhabitants. Other towns include Normangee (1990 population, 689, partly in Leon County) and Midway (274). The population of the county grew steadily from 1860, when it was 2,238, to 1940, when it crested at 12,029. After two decades of decline, the population was 7,996 in 1950; it fell further to 6,749 in 1960 before beginning to recover. It was 10,649 in 1980 and 10,931 in 1990. The black population declined between 1980 and 1990, from 2,639 to 2,575, while the white population increased slightly, from 7,349 to 7,984.
The largest religious communions in the county are Baptist and Methodist. Madison County has nearly 5,000 registered voters, and historically has demonstrated a high voter turnout. The county supported American (Know-Nothing) party candidate Millard Fillmore in 1856 and the Southern Democrats in 1860; it afterward championed the Confederacy. The county's voters favored the Democratic candidate in every presidential election from 1872 through 1968. After 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon carried the county over Democrat George McGovern, the area began to trend more Republican. Though Democrat Jimmy Carter carried the county in 1976 and 1980, the area went Republican in 1984 and 1988. In 1992 Democrat Bill Clinton won a plurality of the county's votes, partly because independent candidate Ross Perot drew strong local support; but Republican Bob Dole won a plurality in 1996 and George W. Bush won comfortable majorities in 2000 and 2004.
The railroad reached Madison County in 1903, when the International-Great Northern Railway Company extended a branch line from Navasota to Madisonville. In the 1980s the county was served by the Joint Texas Division main line running between Dallas and Houston, operated by a partnership of the Burlington Northern and Chicago, Rock Island Pacific lines. By the early twenty-first century the line was operated by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
In 2014 the census counted 13,861 people living in Madison County. About 56.5 percent were Anglo, 20.3 percent were African American, and 21.8 percent were Hispanic. Almost 73 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and almost 12 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agribusiness, oil production, and a state prison were key elements of the area's economy. In 2002 the county had 890 farms and ranches covering 244,524 acres, 52 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 38 percent to crops, and 8 percent to woodlands. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $15,829,000. Nursery crops, cattle, horses, and poultry were the chief agricultural products.
Madison County is crossed by Interstate Highway 45 and has a road network that in 2002 totaled 507 lane miles. One public airport provides service to the county. Madisonville (population, 4,708) is the county's seat of government and largest town; other communities include Midway (236), North Zulch (600), and Normangee (668, mostly in Leon County). The scenic Texas Brazos Trail runs through Madison County, and Madisonville hosts the Texas Mushroom Festival in October.