Marshall is located on Interstate Highway 20 approximately thirty-nine miles west of Shreveport, Louisiana, in central Harrison County. At the time Harrison County was created in 1839, its county seat was located at Greensborough on the Sabine River. Marshall was established in early 1841 to serve as the seat of justice for Panola Judicial District. Two years later, as a result of a Supreme Court decision that invalidated judicial districts and in an effort to influence the commissioners who were choosing a site for the county seat of the newly-constituted Harrison County, Peter Whetstone offered land for a courthouse, a church, and a school. The offer was accepted, and the town, named by Isaac Van Zandt in honor of Chief Justice John Marshall, became the county seat in 1842. It was incorporated by the Texas legislature in 1844 and enlarged in 1850 to include an area of one square mile with the courthouse at the center. Marshall was the first town in Texas to have a telegraph; by 1854 the local paper had a telegraph link to New Orleans, which gave it quick access to national news. By 1860 Marshall was one of the largest and wealthiest towns in East Texas, with a population estimated at 2,000. The community had an outstanding group of lawyers and political leaders including the first and last governors of Confederate Texas, Edward Clark and Pendleton Murrah.
Marshall, encouraged by Robert W. Loughery's ultra-Southern newspaper, the Marshall Texas Republican, voted unanimously for secession in 1861. The Confederate government of Missouri located its capitol there during the war. After the fall of Vicksburg split the Confederacy in 1863, the town became a center of operations for Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith's Trans-Mississippi Department. A federal army advanced up the Red River toward the Shreveport-Marshall area in the spring of 1864, but an invasion was averted when Confederate forces won the battle of Mansfield, Louisiana, in April. During the spring of 1865, however, the army of the Trans-Mississippi Department disintegrated, and Marshall was occupied by United States troops on June 17. Reconstruction after the war was bitterly controversial, as the town became not only the base for occupying forces but the home for an office of the Freedmen's Bureau as well. White citizens angrily opposed federal authority and the influx of Blacks who came seeking government protection. The Whites were not satisfied until the Citizens party "redeemed" Marshall and all of Harrison County in 1878.
Though located in an overwhelmingly agricultural area, Marshall was fortunate to have a railroad to promote its commercial and industrial development during the nineteenth century. The Southern Pacific Railroad, built from Caddo Lake to Marshall before the Civil War, was absorbed by the Texas and Pacific system during the early 1870s. Harrison County offered the T&P a $300,000 bond subsidy, and the railroad located its shops and general offices for Texas in Marshall. The town received an immediate boost from an influx of railroad workers and became a major cotton-marketing center for East Texas, too. Marshall also benefited during its early years by becoming a regional education center. Marshall University, although more of a secondary school than an institution of higher learning, and Marshall Masonic Female Institute attracted hundreds of students from outlying areas during the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Higher education for African Americans began at Wiley College in 1873 and Bishop College in 1881. The latter moved to Dallas in 1961, but Wiley remained. East Texas Baptist College was founded in 1914 and became East Texas Baptist University in 1984.
The growth of Marshall has been steady but unspectacular since the mid-nineteenth century. In 1880 the town's population stood at 5,624. It reached 10,000 shortly after 1900 and 20,000 during the 1940s. As Harrison County's cotton economy declined after 1930, the town became increasingly important as a retail center and as the location of industries such as wood and metal working. After 1960, approximately one-half of the county's residents lived there, and retail sales was the most rapidly expanding occupation in the area. The location of Marshall on Interstate 20, the main route from Shreveport to Dallas, has contributed significantly to the town's growth and prosperity. Public library service began in Marshall in 1970. The citizens of Marshall have shown notable interest in preserving their city's past. The old courthouse on the square has housed a local museum since 1965. By 1983, fifteen homes and buildings were listed in the National Register for Historic Places, and scores of historical landmark medallions had been awarded in the city by the Texas Historical Commission. In 1976 the National Municipal League designated Marshall an All American City, one of the ten cities in the United States to receive this recognition. The population was 24,921 in 1980 and 23,682 in 1990. The population grew to 23,935 by 2000 and fell slightly in 2010 to 23,523.