Morris County is located in northeastern Texas, one county removed from the state's northern boundary and one county removed from the state's eastern boundary. Daingerfield, the county seat and largest town, is fifty miles southwest of Texarkana and 125 miles northeast of Dallas. The county's center lies at 33°07' north latitude and 94°44' west longitude. U.S. Highway 67 traverses the northern part of the county from east to west, U.S. Highway 30 crosses the northwestern part of the county, and U.S. Highway 259 crosses north and south. The county's transportation needs are also served by two railroads, the St. Louis and Southwestern and the Louisiana and Arkansas, originally constructed in the late 1870s as the Texas and St. Louis and the East Line and Red River, respectively.
Morris County comprises 256 square miles of the East Texas timberlands, an area that is heavily forested with a great variety of softwoods and hardwoods, especially pine, cypress, and oak. The terrain ranges from gently rolling in the north to hilly in the south, with an elevation ranging from 250 to 600 feet above sea level. The northern one-third of the county is drained by the Sulphur River, and the remainder is drained by Cypress Creek. The soil is predominantly light colored, acidic, and sandy to loamy, generally with a deep reddish subsoil. Between 21 and 30 percent of the land in the county is considered prime farmland. Mineral resources include clay, lignite coal, industrial sand, and iron ore. Pine and hardwood production in 1989 totaled 21,836,928 cubic feet. Temperatures range from an average high of 95°F in July to an average low of 30° in January. Rainfall averages slightly more than forty-six inches a year, and the growing season averages 236 days.
Caddo Indians occupied the area for centuries before the arrival of Europeans, but disease and threats from other tribes forced them to leave in the final years of the eighteenth century. During the 1820s bands of Shawnee, Delaware, and Kickapoo Indians inhabited the future county for a few years, but they abandoned their settlements in the mid-1830s. While this area of Northeast Texas was considered a part of Arkansas, a pitched battle is said to have taken place around the site of present Daingerfield between Capt. London Daingerfield's forces and a group of Indians.
The time of first European exploration of the county can not be conclusively determined. If, as is sometimes hypothesized, Luis de Moscoso Alvarado crossed the area of Morris County in 1542, this territory is the among the earliest explored areas in the state. The first European contact with the area, however, might not have occurred until after the founding of Le Poste des Cadodaquious in what later became Bowie County by the French in 1719. Although the French occupied the fort for more than fifty years, little is known about their activities. It seems probable, however, that they did explore as far to the south as Morris County. A county legend has it that a group of Acadians lived near the site of Daingerfield in the mid-eighteenth century, after their expulsion from British territory, before they joined other Acadians in southern Louisiana. Anglo settlement of the area that was to become Morris County began in the mid-1830s. One of the earliest settlements was probably started by Mansell W. Matthews, who led his entire church congregation from Kentucky to Texas late in 1835. They settled along the banks of Boggy Creek in the western part of the county.
Before the existence of Morris County, five counties included all or part of its territory. In 1820 the area was organized as Miller County, Arkansas. In 1836 the tract became Red River County of the Republic of Texas. In January 1841 the Congress of the republic established Paschal County for judicial and other purposes and designated Daingerfield county seat. The act establishing Paschal County was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court the next year because it did not provide the county with representation in the legislature. Subsequently, part of what was to become Morris County became part of Red River County, and the rest of the area was part of Bowie County. In 1846 the First Legislature of the state of Texas established Titus County, which included all of the territory in present Morris County. Morris County was demarked from Titus County on March 13, 1875, and probably named for William W. Morris. The county was organized on May 12, 1875, with Daingerfield as the county seat. Periodic unsuccessful attempts have been made to make another town county seat.
Democratic presidential candidates carried the county in every election from 1872 through 1968. The area's sympathies began to shift in 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon carried the county. Though Democrats carried almost every election in the county from 1976 through 2000, when Al Gore won most of the local votes, Nixon's win in 1972 and Ronald Reagan's in 1984 marked a gradual trend away from the area's traditional leanings. By 2004, when George W. Bush won the county with a solid majority, the Republicans were in ascendance.
During its early years the county was rural, agricultural, and sparsely settled. The 1880 census records the total population of the county as 5,032. Most of the residents lived on the county's 710 farms. As in the rest of East Texas, the two principal crops were corn and cotton. Almost 75 percent of the 29,160 improved acres was devoted in roughly equal portions to these two crops in 1879. Most of the county's farmers owned some livestock. The census of 1880 recorded 1,738 milk cows, 2,842 other cattle, 13,555 hogs, and 882 sheep in the county. But the county had no large livestock operations. According to Ashley W. Spaight, commissioner of statistics in 1882, the county was not "well adapted to livestock." According to the 1880 census 2,043 of the county's 5,032 inhabitants were Black, for a total of 40 percent. From 1880 to 1900 the number of Blacks in the county increased at the same rate as the county's overall population, so that in 1900 the 3,342 Blacks in the county were also 40 percent of the county's total population of 8,220. Since 1900 the number of Blacks in the county has fluctuated only slightly, while the overall population has changed much more dramatically. In 1980, the 3,189 Blacks present accounted for just under 22 percent of the county's total population of 14,629; in 2000 Blacks comprised about 24 percent of the 13,048 people living in the area.
With a surface area of 164,000 acres, Morris County is one of the smallest counties in the state. Still, in 1880 the county's agricultural resources were largely untapped. Less than 18 percent of the county's land was actually in cultivation in 1880. For the next forty years the agricultural economy expanded steadily. By 1920 the number of farms had grown from 710 to 1,745. The number of improved acres grew from 29,160 to 71,688. Cotton and corn remained the two major crops, accounting for just over 75 percent of all lands in cultivation. Of the two, cotton had the largest acreage, with 34,499 acres or 48 percent of all cropland. Morris County was hard hit by the Great Depression, which began for agriculture in the 1920s and continued through the 1930s. By 1930 the value of farms in the county had dropped from its 1920 high of more than $5.4 million to $2,631,977. The number of farms in the county had dropped slightly, from 1,745 to 1,572. Cultivated land had fallen to 57,167 acres. Most of that land, 36,686 acres, was devoted to cotton. In 1890, 59 percent of the county's farmers had owned all or part of the land they farmed. By 1930 only 30 percent owned all or part of their land. By 1940 the number of farms in the county had fallen from 1,572 to 1,210, and their total value from $2,631,977 to $1,966,555. However, for the first time since 1890 the rate of farm tenancy in the county decreased, as the percentage of owner-occupied farms rose to 40. Although corn and cotton were still the principal crops, acreage in corn rose from its 1930 figure of 12,601 to 14,210, and the amount of land in cotton fell to 15,055 acres. County farmers reported $85,000 in sales of growing flowers and plants, mostly to a large seedling operation near Omaha. Agriculture in the county was becoming more diversified as county farmers began to use cropland as pasture for livestock operations.
World War II brought changes in the county's economy. The existence of sizable deposits of iron ore in the area had been noted as early as 1819, and crude mining operations had been carried out in the area before the Civil War. The war effort demanded massive amounts of iron, and the federal government moved to tap these deposits through the United States Defense Plant Corporation with the construction of a blast furnace in 1943. The plant, which had been constructed at an estimated cost of $30 million, had a tremendous impact on the county's economy. In 1940 sixty-three people had been employed in manufacturing at wages totaling $24,667 annually. Seven years later 568 people were employed at wages totalling $1,295,000. The Lone Star Steel Company leased the plant from the government in 1947 and in July 1948 assumed full ownership. The plant was employing 1,100 workers by 1949, and with completion of a steel mill in the early 1950s, the number of workers employed exceeded 3,000. During the years after World War II opportunities elsewhere, increasing mechanization, and diversified operations caused a decline in the number of farms in the county, from 1,210 in 1940 to 379 in 1982. During this period the size of the average farm increased from just under 100 acres to 195 acres. Farm tenancy had all but disappeared, as more than 90 percent of farm operators owned all or part of the land they farmed. During this period livestock production became the principal economic basis for agriculture in the county. In 1945 livestock accounted for 28 percent of all products sold or used. In 1982 livestock accounted for 83 percent of all products sold. No cotton was grown in the county in 1982.
The combination of diversified agriculture and manufacturing provided a more broadly based prosperity than the county previously had. Around the steel mill and the town of Lone Star the change was particularly pronounced. As one national news magazine described it: "tidy brick homes replaced ramshackle farmsteads and worn cropland was replanted as forest." In 1981 Morris County ranked twenty-ninth among the state's 254 counties in per capita income—the highest among the sixteen counties in the northeastern corner of the state. In the early 1980s financial problems for the county's largest employer, Lone Star Steel Company, caused serious economic problems for many residents. In August 1982 the company suspended operations indefinitely, and in 1983 the county had an unemployment rate of 24.2 percent. Although Lone Star resumed operations in November 1983 it never returned to production at pre-1982 levels. In 1990 the county's unemployment rate was 13.6 percent, still above the national average, but by 2000 it had dropped to 5.7 percent.
Changes in the county's economic foundations over the years have led to other changes in the lives of the county's residents. In 1884 the county's four largest towns, Daingerfield, Station Belden (Naples), Gavett (Omaha), and Cason, had a combined estimated population of 1,150, or 22 percent of the county's total 1880 population. By 1980 the county's four largest towns, Daingerfield, Lone Star, Naples, and Omaha had a combined population of 7,934, or 54 percent of the county's total population. In 2000, those four towns held about 50 percent of all the people living in the county. In 1940 fewer than 15 percent of the county's residents twenty-five years of age or older had completed high school. By 1980 the percentage of those twenty-five or over who had completed high school had risen to 54 percent; by 2000, almost 74 percent had completed high school, and almost 12 percent had college degrees.
The census counted 13,200 people living in Morris County in 1990, 13,048 in 2000, and 12,743 in 2014. In the latter year about 65.8 percent of the area's residents were Anglo, 22.8 percent were African American, and 8.8 percent were Hispanic. In the early twenty-first century steel manufacturing, agriculture, and timber were the key elements of the area's economy. Lone Star Steel, operating on a 600-acre site near Lone Star, manufactured a wide variety of steel products and employed about 2,000 workers. In 2002 the county had 403 farms and ranches covering 99,674 acres, 39 percent of which were devoted to crops, 39 percent to pasture, and 19 percent to woodlands. In that year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $20,136,000; livestock sales accounted for $19,731,000 of the total. Beef cattle and broilers were the chief agricultural products. Over 2,692,000 cubic feet of pinewood and over 1,095,000 cubic feet of hardwood were harvested in the county in 2003. Daingerfield (population, 2,608) is the seat of government and the county's largest town. It hosts a Captain Daingerfield Day in October. Other communities include Lone Star (1,657), Naples (1,431), and Omaha (1,054).