Real County is in southwest Texas, bounded on the north and west by Edwards County, on the east by Kerr and Bandera counties, and on the south by Uvalde County. The center of the county lies at 29°50' north latitude and 99°50' west longitude, 100 miles northwest of San Antonio. The area was named for Julius Real, the only Republican in the Texas Senate when the county was formed in 1913. Real County encompasses 622 square miles of the Balcones Escarpment on the southern edge of the Edwards Plateau; its terrain is characterized by sharply dissected canyonlands crossed by numerous streams, which flow from perennial springs in the water-bearing strata of the Edwards and Glen Rose limestone formations and descend the escarpment over beds of limestone, gravel, and calcareous soils. Headwaters of both the Frio and the Nueces rivers lie within Real County; the Nueces forms the county's western boundary with Edwards County. Elevations range from 1,500 feet in the valleys to 2,400 feet in the northern part of the county at the edge of the plateau; the mountains and ridges in the western half of the county, the eastern edge of the Nueces Canyon, are steeper and more rugged than those along the Frio Canyon to the east. Rainfall averages 23.88 inches annually. Temperatures range from an average low of 35° F in January to an average high of 96° F in July; the growing season lasts about 235 days. Although agriculture has been of limited significance to the area since the earliest periods of human occupation, arable land is found in the valleys, where pecan trees are plentiful. It is believed that until the middle of the nineteenth century forestation in the area was confined to the bottoms, while the uplands were covered with rich grasslands, which, coupled with the abundance of water, ensured a constant supply of game animals, birds, and fish as well as berries, nuts, and roots. Today the area is heavily forested with live oak, Ashe juniper, and mesquite on the ridges and uplands as well as on the hills and escarpment. In the early 1980s much of Real County's economy revolved around ranching. In 1982, 83 percent of the county's land was in farms and ranches; about 2 percent of the land was irrigated, and 97 percent of the county's agricultural receipts derived from livestock, especially cattle, sheep, and angora goats. Only about 3 percent of the county's workforce was engaged in manufactures; tourism supported 117 workers, more than any other industry in the area.
Archaeological excavations in the region reveal Paleo-American occupation contemporaneous with the presence of now-extinct fauna. There have been numerous archaeological finds of materials from the Edwards Plateau and Central Texas aspects (the two most extensive known prehistorical culture complexes in Texas), which represent Archaic and Neo-American stages, respectively. The beginning of the Edwards Plateau aspect is dated around 5,000 B.C. Occupation sites, along stream terraces and limestone promontories or in caves and rock shelters, are extremely numerous throughout Real County; they are almost invariably marked by burnt-rock middens, the massive accumulations of cracked and discarded limestone hearthstones, and other cultural debris, which are a definitive feature of the Edwards Plateau aspect. Sometimes erroneously called "mounds," the middens reach several feet in thickness and sometimes extend over an acre, revealing generations or even centuries of habitation at individual sites. The people who occupied these sites had an economy based on hunting (primarily deer), and though it is virtually certain that no agriculture was practiced, there is evidence that vegetal products were of some importance to the inhabitants. Although the larger sites suggest a sedentary culture, the absence of agriculture indicates that small bands in the area probably roved in search of game and plants, returning periodically to a central location. The Neo-American stage began around A.D. 600. Occupation sites are situated similarly to those of the earlier Archaic period, but accumulations of cultural debris are far less extensive; these later inhabitants may have practiced some agriculture, and pottery, much of it tradeware, is common at the site. By the beginning of the historical period Tonkawas, probably the descendants of this indigenous population, inhabited most of Central Texas, including Real County. By the first decades of the eighteenth century Lipan Apaches had gained control of the Upper Nueces Valley. In 1762 El Gran Cabezón, a powerful Lipan band chief seeking protection from the Comanches and their allies to the north, persuaded Franciscans and elements of the Spanish military to establish San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz Mission on the Nueces River near the site of present Camp Wood. Later, a second mission, Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, was established downriver at the site of Montell in present Uvalde County. The Lipans, nomadic bison hunters, did not adjust to mission living, however, and the establishments were never officially sanctioned or given adequate support by Spain's colonial government. The Lipan bands that had settled there had departed by 1767, and San Lorenzo was finally abandoned in 1771. Numerous specimens of rock art in Central Texas have been discovered in the canyons along the headwaters of the Nueces and Frio rivers. While the origins of these paintings are unclear (some of them can definitely be dated to historical times), they were probably produced by the Tonkawas and their Neo-American ancestors, then added to by their Lipan and Comanche successors. The paintings constitute the eastern periphery of rock art in the state.
The character of Anglo-American settlement in the area was largely determined by geography. The most prominent features within the county are the Frio and Nueces river canyons and the steep divide between them. To a great extent, settlement of these canyons proceeded separately. Anglo settlers arrived in the Frio Canyon in 1856 when John and Nancy Leakey, along with several others, settled near the town that now bears their name. Sometime between 1856 and 1860 a settlement was also established downriver at Rio Frio. In 1867 Theophilus Watkins arrived there, and the following year he began to construct a gravity flow irrigation canal that operated for a century. Anglo settlement in the Nueces Canyon began during the same period. In the spring of 1857 the United States military post of Camp Wood was established on the Nueces River near the site of the former San Lorenzo mission. The post was abandoned in 1861, when federal troops were withdrawn from Texas at the start of the Civil War and was subsequently occupied by Confederate forces; following the war it was periodically used by Texas Rangers and the United States Army. Edward D. Westfall moved to Camp Wood during the 1860s, as did Jerusha Sanchez, who later served as a midwife in the Nueces Canyon. The Hill family were other early settlers in the area. In the 1870s Henry Wells and others established Bullhead, a settlement later renamed Vance, at a site on the Nueces to the north of Camp Wood. Hostile encounters with Indians, primarily Lipans who still passed through the isolated region, were relatively common during the early period of Anglo settlement, and as late as the 1980s residents still recalled hearing first-hand accounts of such incidents. Particularly well-known were the stories of the Schwander, Coalson, and McLauren families. In 1864 Lipans attacked the family of George Schwander, who was living in the abandoned ruins of the San Lorenzo mission, during his absence, killing his wife and abducting their son, Albert, who a year later was ransomed from Mexico. In 1879 at Half Moon Prairie, also in the Nueces Canyon, Indians attacked and killed Jennie Coalson, wife of Nic Coalson, and two children. In 1881, in the last Indian raid in Southwest Texas, Lipans struck the McLauren home at Buzzard's Roost in the Frio Canyon while John McLauren was away, killing his wife, Kate McLauren, and teenaged Alan Lease, a neighbor who was living with the family.
In 1883 Edwards County, which included part of the area of present-day Real County, was organized. Bullhead served as the Edwards county seat from September of that year until 1884, when voters moved the seat to Leakey. The government of Edwards County remained at Leakey until April of 1891, when it was moved to Rocksprings after a disputed election. After Rocksprings was declared winner of the election, the results were contested by residents of Leakey (who themselves were accused of ballot-box stuffing). Judge Hunter, a local magistrate, organized a group of men, crossed the divide, and moved the county records from Leakey to Rocksprings during the night. Social activities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century included house parties, picnics and barbecues, baseball games, and religious services. Though ranching has always dominated the local economy, crop farming was of some importance until the early twentieth century. In the late nineteenth century cotton, corn, oats, tobacco, and wheat were grown in the Frio Canyon. Also in Frio Canyon lumber was produced from indigenous cypress trees, which were cut and processed at water-powered mills. Freighting products and materials in and out of the canyons was another important early economic activity. After 1910, however, crop farming declined in the area, partly because of a boll weevil infestation, and ranching emerged as the predominant enterprise. The raising and breeding of angora goats for mohair became particularly important to the local economy; by the early 1910s, when Real County was established, there were more angora goats in the area than in any other county in Texas. In the spring of 1913 the Texas state legislature established Real County from parts of Edwards, Bandera, and Kerr counties. The action was prompted by the isolation of the area and the difficulties residents experienced traveling long distances over bad roads to Rocksprings or Bandera (the seats of Edwards and Bandera counties, respectively) to conduct business. Leakey was elected county seat. In 1920 the United States Census counted 1,461 people living in Real County; 260 farms and ranches, encompassing 360,000 acres, had been established in the area by that time. The economy of the county centered on ranching. Over 103,000 goats, 18,300 sheep, and 6,000 cattle were reported in Real County that year, while only 2,800 acres were devoted to corn and 1,200 acres to sorghum, the county's most important crops; another 174 acres were planted in cotton.
The settlement of Camp Wood, occupied since the 1850s, was formally founded as a town in 1920, when it became the northern terminus of the Uvalde and Northern Railway built by the Uvalde Cedar Company. The town and the railroad were established as part of an effort to harvest and transport heart cedar (to be used mainly for fence posts and telephone poles), and in hopes of exploiting a deposit of a rare type of kaolin clay found in the county. Though the railroad was closed in 1942, after the area's cedar resources were exhausted, for a time the project helped to tie the area to national markets and encouraged immigration into the area; by 1925 there were 317 farms and ranches in the county, and by 1930 the population had increased to 2,197. Ranching, especially the raising of sheep and angora goats, continued at the center of the local economy. The agricultural census for 1920 reported 6,777 cattle, 18,326 sheep, and 103,075 goats in the area. In 1930 there were 2,862 cattle, 39,550 sheep, and almost 137,000 goats in the area; over 580,000 pounds of mohair were produced in the county that year. Though local farmers planted some wheat, cotton, corn, and sorghum, crop farming did not really take hold in the area; in 1930 only 6,000 acres in the county were devoted to crops. Cropland harvested in the area declined slightly during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but the number of farms and ranches in the county rose to 300 by 1940. The county's population also rose to 2,420 by 1940.
Angora goats remained an important part of the local economy but the number of goats steadily declined after the mid-1950s, when there were more registered angora goats in Real County than any other county in the United States. Thereafter the number of goats in the county dropped to 90,000 in 1959, to 60,000 in 1960, and to 18,000 in 1982. While ranching continues to dominate the local economy, some of the abundant local crop of pecans is marketed, and in recent years tourism and hunting have assumed increasing importance for the county. In the latter half of the twentieth century a great deal of local real estate has been purchased by outsiders, who use the land for vacation homes and hunting; at the same time, large numbers of young people have left the area in search of greater opportunities. After reaching 2,470 in 1940, the county's population declined to 2,079 by 1960 and to 2,013 by 1970. The number of people in the area rose during the 1970s, however, reaching 2,469 by 1980. In 1990 there were 2,412 people living in Real County. The voters of Real County supported the Democratic candidates in virtually every election between 1916 and 1952; the only exceptions occurred in 1924, when they supported Republican Calvin Coolidge, and in 1928, when most of the county's vote went to Republican Herbert Hoover. In elections between 1952 and 1992, however, the county's voters swung to the Republicans in every election but two: in 1964 most Real County voters backed Lyndon B. Johnson, and in 1976 the county supported Jimmy Carter.
Prior to 1948, when Farm Road 337 was completed, most travel between Camp Wood and Leakey was accomplished by way of Uvalde on the Nueces River to the south, a trip of ninety miles; as a result, people living in the county's two canyons developed different identifications and loyalties. In the 1980s people in Real County were still inclined to differentiate between themselves on the basis of residence in one or the other canyon rather than identifying with one another as residents of a common county: the canyons, rather than the county, serve as the primary basis for group identity and organization. Though the propertied population of Real County has been overwhelmingly of European descent, the labor of Mexican-American tenants and Mexican migrants has been essential to the local economy; almost 24 percent of the county's population is of Mexican descent. Retail establishments, fraternal lodges, and VFW halls have continued to function as centers of social life in the county. There are a number of legends concerning lost or abandoned mines and buried treasure in the area. Some evidence indicates that a smelter once operated at the San Lorenzo Mission, and John Bell Hood, who prior to the Civil War commanded the military outpost at Camp Wood, reported signs of silver extraction (presumably by Spaniards), at the "Pepper Mine," a shaft to the south of Meridian Mountain in the western part of the county. A. J. Sowell identified an abandoned shaft and stone fortification on the divide separating the Main and Dry branches of the Frio as the site of James (Jim) Bowie 's 1831 prospecting endeavors, though this is far from certain. Following the Civil War John R. Baylor moved into the Nueces Canyon, drawn by reports of gold; one of his sources may have been Henry Castro, who is said to have examined accounts of the smelter at San Lorenzo in Mexico City. Baylor was unsuccessful in his search for mineral wealth. Though county residents generally seem skeptical regarding stories of buried treasure, they will confirm the persistence of the treasure hunters (some equipped with way bills or maps) who have combed the area for rumored Spanish or ill-gotten hoards. As of 2014, 3,371 people lived in the county. About 69.6 percent were Anglo, 1 percent African American, and 26.9 percent Hispanic. Communities in the county include Leakey (population, 430), the seat of government; Camp Wood (703); and Rio Frio (50). Leakey hosts a July Jubilee in the summer.