Milam County is in east central Texas 150 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico and is bordered by Robertson, Burleson, Lee, Williamson, Bell, and Falls counties. Cameron, the county seat, is at the intersection of U.S. highways 77 and 190 on the Burlington, Northern, Santa Fe Railway, sixty miles northeast of Austin and 140 miles south of Dallas. The county's center lies four miles south of Cameron at 30°47' north latitude and 96°59' west longitude. The present county covers 1,019 square miles of level to slightly rolling terrain at an elevation that ranges from 250 to 600 feet above sea level. The southern and eastern portions of the county lie in the post oak savannah region of the state, and the northern and western portions lie in the blackland prairie. The land is drained by the Brazos River, which forms the northeastern boundary of the county, by the Little River, which enters the county near the northwestern corner and winds to its mouth on the Brazos in the southeastern quadrant of the county, and by the San Gabriel River, which flows through the west central portion of the county to its mouth on the Little River. Wildlife in Milam County includes rabbits, wolves, foxes, raccoons, squirrels, opossums, wildcats, skunks, and armadillos, as well as a number of bird, fish, and reptile species. The climate is temperate; the average minimum temperature is 39° F in January, and the average high temperature is 96° in July. The growing season averages 256 days annually, and the rainfall averages thirty-five inches.
The Central Texas region, including Milam County, has supported human habitation for at least 10,000 years. The hunting and gathering peoples who had established themselves along the San Gabriel River by 4500 B.C. were probably ancestors of the Tonkawa Indians. The Lipan Apaches became neighbors of the Tonkawas sometime after 1300. By the eighteenth century the Caddo, the Tehuacana, and the Waco Indians and a composite group, which the Spanish called the Ranchería Grande, also frequented the area. European exploration of what would become Milam County began in the early eighteenth century. Fr. Isidro Felix de Espinosa and Domingo Ramón crossed the San Gabriel and Little rivers in 1716, when the Spanish sent expeditions to hold Texas against the possibility of French settlement. The Spanish also established several missions along the San Gabriel River, in an effort to Christianize the Indians in the region: San Francisco Xavier de Horcasitas, which was built in 1746, and San Ildefonso and Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, which were built in 1749. Disease and unfriendly Indians caused the Spanish to abandon the sites in the mid-1750s. The Tonkawa Indians were generally friendly toward missionaries in the eighteenth and settlers in the early nineteenth centuries, but the nearby Apaches and Comanches presented a constant threat.
Robert Leftwich, a representative for the Texas Association of Nashville, Tennessee, obtained a colonization grant from Mexico in 1825 that included the Milam County area. The grant's boundaries followed the Navasota River, turned southwest along the San Antonio road to the divide between the Brazos and the Colorado rivers, then northwest to the Comanche Trail, and east back to the Navasota. Sterling Robertson assumed leadership of the colonization effort in 1827, but in 1830, because the company had made no progress in settling the area, the contract was suspended. The following year Stephen F. Austin and his partner, Samuel May Williams, persuaded the Mexican government to transfer the grant to them. In 1834, with Austin out of favor with the Mexican government, Robertson regained control of the grant, and actual settlement of the region began. The colony was known to the Mexican government as the Municipality of Viesca, but in 1835 the legislative body of the Provisional Government of Texas renamed it the Municipality of Milam, in honor of Benjamin Rush Milam. It was during the first Congress of the Republic of Texas that the municipality came to be called Milam County. At that time the boundaries of the county were roughly the same as those of the colony granted to Leftwich, comprising one-sixth of the land area of Texas. In addition to the present Milam County, the counties of Bell, Bosque, Burleson, Coryell, Erath, Falls, Hamilton, Hood, Jones, McLennan, Robertson, Shackelford, Somervell, Stephens, and Williamson were eventually carved out of the original Milam County. Brazos, Brown, Burnet, Callahan, Comanche, Eastland, Haskell, Hill, Johnson, Lampasas, Lee, Limestone, Mills, Palo Pinto, Parker, Stonewall, Throckmorton, and Young counties also received land from Milam County. By 1850, with the exception of a small area between Williamson and Bell counties, Milam County had been reduced to its present size.
By the time of the Texas Revolution, the only settlements in present-day Milam County were the very thinly populated community of Nashville-on-the-Brazos at the eastern edge of the county and a few families scattered along the upper Brazos and the Little River. The families above Nashville were forced to leave their homes during the revolution, and when they returned after the battle of San Jacinto, their hold on the area was tenuous at best. Families continued to trickle into the area, but roaming bands of Kickapoo, Lipan, Kiowa, and other Indians forced them to flee the area frequently. A fort was established in Milam County at Bryant's Station in 1840 to help protect settlers from Indian raids. Gradually, the frontier was pushed to the north and west of Milam County, and no Indian raids occurred within the present limits of the county after 1846. From 1836 to 1846 Nashville, and briefly Caldwell in present Burleson County, served as the temporary location of the Milam county government. In 1846 the site for a permanent county seat was selected, and Cameron was established. Milam County had a total population of 2,907 in 1850.
Agriculture formed the basis of the county's economy in the 1850s and 1860s. In 1850 farmers engaged mostly in subsistence agriculture, raising cattle and hogs and growing corn as a food crop. By 1860 they had begun to raise livestock and crops for sale; the number of cattle and hogs more than tripled, and the amount of improved land had increased from 3,146 acres to 19,512 acres. In 1860 alone farmers produced 112,430 bushels of corn and 2,238 bales of cotton. Many of the people who settled Milam County were southerners who brought slaves with them to their new homes. In 1847 154, or about 14 percent of the people listed on the state census, were slaves. By 1850 the number of slaves had grown, but the proportion was about the same; the 436 slaves made up 15 percent of the total population. As farmers began growing more cotton, however, the number of slaves began to rise at a faster rate than the number of free inhabitants. By 1860 the free population had increased by 47 percent to 3,633, and the slave population had more than tripled to 1,542. Thus, by the time of the Civil War slaves comprised 30 percent of Milam County's total population, equaling the percentage for the state as a whole. Milam County voters enthusiastically supported the secession movement in 1861. The vote, while not unanimous, was lopsided, with 468 of the county's voters approving secession and only 135 opposing. Once the war began support of the Confederacy was nearly unanimous, and a large majority of the county's males volunteered for active duty. Precise participation figures are not available, but one Confederate officer estimated that 700 men from Milam County served in Confederate military units. The Milam County Grays became Company G, Fifth Texas Regiment, Hood's Texas Brigade, and saw action in Tennessee and Virginia. Two other Milam County companies fought in the New Mexico campaign.
Milam County suffered a severe economic decline immediately following the Civil War and throughout the Reconstruction period. Although the number of residents and farms increased sharply during this period, the total value of farms in the county fell by more than 50 percent, from $1,142,767 in 1860 to $505,584 ten years later. Recovery was slow because transportation was poor and the economy was so dependent on agriculture. At that time the county had no industrial resources on which to draw, and the majority of Milam County residents made their living from the land. Complete economic recovery was not achieved until the railroads came in the 1870s. When the Civil War was over, Milam County residents elected new county officials in accordance with Presidential reconstruction, but when the Congressional plan went into effect in 1868, several of the new officials were disqualified and removed from office. The county was returned to conservative rule by 1869, and several of the men who had taken part in the interim government stayed in the county when the Reconstruction process was over, becoming respected members of their communities.
Milam County residents voted Democratic in presidential elections from the end of Reconstruction through 1968. The area’s sympathies began to change, however, in 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon carried the area. Nixon’s win in 1972 and Ronald Reagan’s in 1984 marked a shift away from the area’s traditional leanings. Nevertheless, the Democrats continued to dominate area politics for some time and won majorities in the county in the presidential elections of 1976, 1980, and 1988. Democrat Bill Clinton won a plurality of the county’s votes in 1992 and carried the county in 1996, but Republican George W. Bush won solid majorities in the 2000 and 2004 elections. Occasionally, third parties, such as Greenbacks, Populists, Prohibitionists, Progressives, or Independents, drew off a sizable portion of the vote, but never enough to swing the county's overall results.
Transportation and commerce developed slowly in Milam County. Among the early business and supply centers were Bryant's Station, which was located on the Marlin-to-Austin stage line, and Nashville and Port Sullivan, which were located on the Brazos River. Until the first railroad arrived in the 1870s, the county was without a cheap and reliable way to ship or receive products. With the railroads came a tremendous increase in the number of people moving to Milam County. The International and Great Northern Railroad was built from the Brazos River to Rockdale in 1874 and from Rockdale to Austin in 1876; the towns of Gause, Milano, Rockdale, and Thorndale were soon thriving communities. The Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe arrived in 1881, serving the towns of Buckholts, Cameron, and Milano. The San Antonio and Aransas Pass followed in 1891, linking Burlington, Ben Arnold, Cameron, Minerva, and Rockdale. The number of residents in the county more than doubled between 1870 and 1880, rising from 8,984 to 18,659. By 1900 the population had more than doubled again, reaching a peak of 39,666 residents. Milam County's population remained overwhelmingly rural in spite of the growth of such vibrant commercial centers as Rockdale, Thorndale, Gause, and Cameron. In the mid-1880s 85 percent of the county's residents lived outside these towns; by the 1930s the proportion had decreased only slightly-rural areas still accounted for 77 percent of the population.
Cotton and corn were the dominant cash crops as the county recovered from the Civil War and Reconstruction. The 1870 harvest yielded 5,143 bales of cotton and 201,117 bushels of corn. In 1880 farmers planted 37,473 acres in cotton and 32,725 acres in corn, devoting nearly 65 percent of the county's improved acreage to the two crops. In 1900 farmers planted 147,683 acres in cotton and 71,151 acres in corn, totaling 75 percent of the improved land. Cotton production rose from 10,844 bales in 1880 to 66,555 bales in 1900. Soil in marginal areas quickly became depleted, however, resulting in fewer bales per acre. By 1930 213,257 acres yielded only 43,037 bales. The low yields combined with the onset of the Great Depression encouraged farmers to plant more corn or to devote more of their resource to livestock. The cattle industry more than doubled in size between 1930 and 1950 and continued to grow through the 1980s.
When the slaves were freed, landowners lost their primary labor force. As cotton production increased in importance, tenant farming and sharecropping became the alternate method of working large tracts of land. In 1880 tenants accounted for the operation of nearly a third of the county's 2,219 farms; by the turn of the century they were working 60 percent of the 5,337 farms in the county. The percentage of tenants in Milam County peaked at 73 percent in 1930, representing 3,996 of the 5,469 farm operators. The depression and the lure of more profitable employment in industrial centers led to a steady decline in the number of tenant farmers from the 1930s to the 1980s. By 1982 only 180 of the 1,583 farm operators in Milam County were tenants. Many former slaves remained in the county and established the communities of Liberty Hill, Lick Skillet, Oklahoma, and Sneed Chapel. The number of Black residents in the county increased steadily, rising from 2,977 in 1870 to a high of 10,473 in 1900; however, because the volume of White immigrants was so great, the percentage of Blacks with respect to the total population fell from 33 percent to 25 percent in 1890.
After the turn of the century the county's total population began to decline. The number of Blacks fell steadily, but at a faster rate than the population of the county as a whole; by 1980 Blacks numbered 3,061, or less than 14 percent of the population. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several hundred people of German, Austrian, Bohemian, Mexican, and other nationalities immigrated to the county, bringing their own customs and languages and making the county more ethnically diverse. Lutheran, Catholic, Moravian, and Jewish congregations were established, joining the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches already in the county. In the 1980s Milam County had seventy-five churches with an estimated combined membership of 14,295; Southern Baptist, Catholic, and United Methodist were the largest denominations.
In spite of its continued dependence on agriculture, Milam County began to develop industrial concerns. Among the first of these was lignite mining. Coal deposits had been surveyed in Milam County as early as the 1860s, but the first mine was not established until 1890. By the mid-1890s the county had six mining operations, producing a total of twenty railcars of coal per day. At its peak between 1910 and 1920 the mines shipped as many as forty-five to fifty cars each day. Most of the mine workers were immigrants from Mexico. The discovery of oil in neighboring Williamson County in 1915 encouraged residents in Milam County to look for oil of their own, and the discovery of the Minerva-Rockdale field in 1921 provided new opportunities for investment. As a result, the population rose from 36,780 in 1910 to 38,104 in 1920. The economic boom was short-lived, however, because the rapid growth of the oil and gas industry in Texas undercut lignite in the energy market. Mines in the Milam County were forced to close until lignite became a more viable energy source. Because Milam County was unable to match the job opportunities available in more industrial areas, its population began to decline again, falling from 38,104 in 1920 to 33,120 by 1940. The sharpest drop in population came between 1940 and 1950, when nearly 10,000 people left the county; the growth of war industries offered people the possibility of a better life in other areas. In the early 1950s the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) discovered an inexpensive method of converting lignite into electricity and decided to locate a new aluminum plant near Rockdale and the lignite mine at Sandow. The success of the new industry gave Milam County residents a way to lessen their dependence on agriculture as the mainstay of their economy.
The new jobs required a higher level of formal education than did the traditional agricultural work in the county, and as a result, residents began to place more emphasis on their children's schooling. The earliest schools in Milam County had been somewhat primitive, with materials usually consisting only of spelling books, readers, and geographies; very few schools had the luxury of blackboards and libraries, and many had only the Bible to read. Although schools in general were rare during the republic period, Milam County developed a good foundation for public schools in the years between annexation and the Civil War. By the 1870s nearly every community in Milam County either had its own school or was near a community that did. These community schools provided the basic educational structure of the county until a district system was set up in the early 1890s. The consolidation of school districts began in the 1930s. Many children had responsibilities on their families' farms, however; few of them were able to complete their schooling. In 1940 only 6 percent of Milam county residents were high school graduates. As the job market expanded during the next forty years, so did the percentage of residents who finished school. By 1960 15 percent of the population were high school graduates, and by 1980 the number was 45 percent.
In the 1980s more than 80 percent of the land in Milam County was used for farming and ranching. Among the primary crops were sorghum, wheat, hay, cotton, oats, and corn; watermelon, peaches, and pecans were also popular. More than 70 percent of the county's agricultural receipts in 1982 came from livestock and livestock products, mainly cattle, hogs, poultry, and milk. Although agriculture continued to be a important aspect of the economy, farm receipts represented less than 19 percent of the county's annual income in 1980. Professional and related services, manufacturing, and wholesale and retail trade involved more than 50 percent of the work force in the 1980s; an additional 15 percent of the work force was employed outside the county. The population of the county continued to fall throughout the 1970s, but at a considerably slower rate. The downward trend seemed to reverse itself in the 1980s, with the number of residents rising slightly from 22,732 in 1980 to 22,946 in 1990.
In 2014 the census counted 24,256 people living in Milam County. About 64.1 percent were Anglo, 24.8 percent were Hispanic, and 10.1 percent were African American. Almost 71 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of college, and almost 12 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century aluminum production, agribusiness, and lignite mining were central elements of the area’s economy. In 2002 the county had 1,991 farms and ranches covering 576,809 acres, 45 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 42 percent to crops, and 10 percent to woodlands. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $72,350,000, with livestock sales accounting for $54,695,000 of that total. Cattle, poultry, hay, corn, and cotton were the chief agricultural products. More than 565,800 barrels of oil were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 20,670,316 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1921. Cameron (population, 5,349) is the county’s seat of government; other towns include Rockdale (5,325), Thorndale (1,331, partly in Williamson County), Milano (409), Gause (425), Buckholts (508), Davilla (191), and Burlington (100). Rockdale hosts a Jubilee Days festival in June .