Orange County is in the Central Prairie region of southeastern Texas. The Sabine River on the east forms a natural border between it and the state of Louisiana, and the Neches River forms its south and west boundary. The county seat, Orange, is at 30°05' north latitude and 93°44' west longitude, twenty-four miles east of Beaumont and 288 miles southeast of Dallas. Orange County comprises 362 square miles of two ecological zones; the Gulf prairies and marshes in the southeastern half of the county and the Piney Woods in northwest half of county. The terrain is generally level and low, with elevations ranging from sea level to thirty feet, and is surfaced by loam over clayey subsoils. Both the Sabine and Neches rivers drain to Sabine Lake, which feeds into the Gulf of Mexico through the Sabine Pass. Sabine Lake, the largest lake in the region, is thirty miles long and twenty miles wide. There are seven additional streams in the county. The coastal region has many fish eating and migratory birds, including the white pelican, the heron, the egret, the heron, the wood stork, the white ibis, and sandhill crane. Shorebirds include gulls and terns, upland plover, sandpiper, dowitcher, snipe, and woodcock. Inland a variety of birds include the pheasant, quail, turkey, sandhill crane, duck, geese, woodcock, and jacksnipe. Larger game in the area include squirrel, opossum, muskrat, beaver, otter, mink, ring-tailed cat, badger, raccoon, skunk, civet cat, nutria, coyote, fox, deer, and bobcat. Reptiles and amphibians include toads and frogs, American alligator, turtles, diamond-backed terrapin, black-striped snake, speckled racer, Texas cat-eyed snake, Louisiana Pine snake, and the smooth green snake. The Piney Woods are characterized by pine and hardwood forests. Grassland areas as well as crops are found in concentrations. The Gulf prairies and marshes have similar grassland and crop areas concentrations, but the forests of bald cypress and water tupelo swamplands contrast markedly. The climate in Orange County is subtropical humid with the highest annual rainfall in the state. The annual precipitation average is fifty-six inches, and the average humidity is 89 percent at 6:00 A.M. and 69 percent at 6:00 P.M. The annual average temperature is 68° F, with average temperatures ranging in January from a low of 42° F to a high of 61° F and in July from 74° F to 91° F. The growing season averages 240 days per year, with the last freeze in mid March and the first freeze in early November. The area's plentiful supply of lumber encouraged the growth of early industries involved with ship building, paper manufacture, and wooden products. More recently, oil and gas production and refining have become the major source of economic growth and development. Salt domes, sand, and gravel are other natural resources of economic importance to the region.
Findings of Clovis points and spearheads provide evidence that the area was occupied 12,000–15,000 years ago. Native Americans in the area were Atakapan Indians (the "man eaters"). These early inhabitants left shell remains of houses and burial mounds. Much evidence has been gleaned from these sources indicating a hunting, gathering, and fishing culture. Little beside the mounds remain, and by 1908 the population had dwindled to nine known Atakapans in the area. The coastal area that includes Orange County was highly contested during the colonization period. Alonso Álvarez de Pineda, under the Spanish flag, came to the area in 1519 to map the coastline. He named the Sabine River (San Francisco de Sabenas) after the cypress trees he found. Louis Juchereau de St. Denis founded the French colony, Natchitoches, in 1713. To address incursions the Spanish established a number of missions throughout the region. By 1718 numerous French traders had crossed the Sabine and were freely operating. Relations were generally peaceful, and France ceded the area to Spain in 1763 at the Treaty of Paris. Louisiana returned to Napoleon in 1800, and he promptly resold it to the United States in 1803. Border disputes between Spain and the United States continued until the Adams-Onís Treaty was signed in 1819, fixing the western border of the United States at the mouth of the Sabine River. Seeking to populate the area, the newly established Republic of Mexico offered generous land grants, and Anglo settlement of the area began in earnest. Joseph Vehlein obtained colonization rights in 1826 for territory between the twenty-ninth and thirty-third parallels. The rights were transferred to the Galveston Bay and Texas Land Company between 1834 and 1835. The United States government mapped and attempted to remove snags and debris along Sabine Lake and the Sabine River in 1837. The first steamboat to navigate the Sabine River, the Velocipede, arrived shortly thereafter. Early settlers to the area included many Americans from bordering states. Census rolls of Jefferson County in 1850 indicate a number of early arrivals had been born in Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and South Carolina, among others. A large number were originally from diverse parts of Europe.
Orange County was carved from Jefferson County on January 5, 1852, and its county seat was located at Madison. Confusion with Madisonville prompted the name change to Orange in 1858 at the time of the town's incorporation. Orange had been known by a variety of names; Strong's Bluff, Huntley, Green's Bluff, Jefferson, and Madison. Most sources cite the orange grove planted by early settlers at the mouth of the Sabine River for explanation of the town's name. County growth centered around Orange. Because of its proximity to the Gulf and serving as gateway to Texas and the West, the city quickly developed as both a maritime and cultural center. Although only a small percentage of land was devoted to cotton farming, by 1861 over 20,000 bales of cotton were shipped from this growing port city. In 1857 the population was 1,277, including 282 enslaved people and twenty-six freed Blacks. True to its predominantly southern majority, Orange County voters supported the Democratic party in the elections just prior to the Civil War.
Orange mustered several military units during the Civil War, including the Orange Greys and the Orange Light Guard. A nearby naval encounter in 1863, the battle of Sabine Pass, successfully halted the Union army's advance into Texas. Orange survived the war intact but was decimated only five months after the armistice, when a major hurricane hit the town on September 13, 1865. The county population in 1870 dropped to 1,255. The Texas and New Orleans Railroad, which had arrived in Orange in 1861 and then closed during the war, began operating again in 1876. Also that year Henry Jacob Lutcher and G. Bedell Moore visited Orange from Pennsylvania and decided to open a sawmill and lumber plant. Lutcher moved to Orange the following year and began operations. The opening of Lutcher-Moore Lumber Company began the slow, but steady rebirth of the area. County population grew to 2,938 by 1880 as jobs became available in lumber and related areas, including building construction and ship building. In 1881 C. P. Huntington brought the Southern Pacific to Orange, forming a direct route from San Francisco to New Orleans. Orange became a major rail and port center. The Opelousas or Old Spanish Trail crossed the Sabine only ten miles north of the city. Cattle drives frequently ended at the Orange terminals. Manufacturing became a major contributor to the local economy as establishments increased from eight in 1880 to twenty-seven in 1890, the largest percentage increase on record. The Orange Rice Mill was formed in 1901. The Yell Mill (Equitable Bag), the only mill in the world that used yellow pine shavings as a raw product, followed in 1904. That year county population was 5,905, and expectations for the future remained high, despite the knowledge that the once abundant surrounding forests were becoming depleted. By 1900 most religious groups were represented in the county. Catholics were there during the Spanish colonial period, and Mexico required a pledge of Catholicism to obtain land grants, although most of the early American arrivals to the area were at least nominally Protestant. According to a state census of 1887, Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian and Catholic were all represented.
The discovery of oil at the Bland well in 1913 and the Oscar Chesson well in 1922 ushered in a new era and a new economy. The county grew to a record population high of 15,379 in 1920. That year thirty-two manufacturers processed and refined oil in the county for a product total of $17,154,779, compared with the 1900 value of $1,762,161. The number of employees at local plants increased during this period from 894 in 1900 to 4,130. The Lutcher-Moore Lumber Company donated land to the city of Orange in 1916 for port expansion. Both public and private wharf space was improved and expanded. That year the Sabine-Neches Waterway was dredged through Sabine Lake past Sabine Pass to the Gulf of Mexico, and the Port of Orange attained deep water operations and invited the further expansion of oil operations and chemical industries.
The Great Depression marked a very difficult period for Orange County. The population remained relatively stable (15,149 in 1930 to 17,382 in 1940), but industrial establishments declined to twenty-five by 1930 and employed only 938 workers. By 1940 the figure had fallen further to sixteen manufacturers and 527 employees. World War II and its defense needs led Orange County to a recovery. Shipbuilding, long a local staple, but moribund since 1918, reached new heights. The population more than doubled to a record 40,567 in 1950, and manufacturing activity grew to thirty-three establishments employing 3,835 by 1947. DuPont moved to Orange in 1944 followed by Allied, Spencer, Firestone, and Goodrich-Gulf, among other chemical and petrochemical manufacturers. Farming and ranching played a diminishing role in the county's economy. Farms produced oranges and fruits, rice, Indian corn, oats, grass, cotton wool, peas and beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, soy beans, nursery stock, vegetables and cattle. Crayfish, also raised commercially, were featured during the annual Gumbo Cookoff held each May. Unlike many of its neighbors in Texas and Louisiana, Orange County remained a bastion of Democratic strength throughout its history. Presidential returns from 1968 to 1992 indicated a strong Democratic plurality, with only the 1972 Nixon-McGovern election showing a GOP selection. The population of the county grew from 40,567 in 1950 to 71,170 in 1970 and 83,838 in 1980 before declining slightly to 80,509 in 1990. As of 2014, 83,433 people lived in the county. Of those, 82 percent were Anglo, 8.6 percent African American, and 6.7 percent Hispanic. County population centers include Orange (population, 18,911), Vidor (10,746), Bridge City (7,941), West Orange (3,454), and Pinehurst (2,079). Recreational facilities include boating and fishing on Lake Sabine and the museums and historic homes of the city of Orange.