Red River County is separated from Oklahoma by the Red River and from Arkansas by Bowie County. Clarksville, the county seat and largest town, is sixty miles northwest of Texarkana. The county's center lies at 33°37' north latitude and 95°01' west longitude. Red River County occupies 1,054 square miles of the East Texas timberlands. The terrain is gently rolling with an elevation ranging from 300 to 500 feet above sea level. The county is drained by the Red River and the Sulphur River, which form its northern and southern boundaries. Most of the soils in the county are either loamy with a clayey subsoil or clayey. Mineral resources include oil, gas, clay, industrial sand, and chalk. Temperatures range from an average high of 94° F in July to an average low of 30° in January. Rainfall averages forty-six inches a year, and the growing season averages 234 days annually.
Archeological evidence indicates that portions of the county lands were occupied by Indians as early as the Late Archaic Period, around 1500 B.C. At the time of first European contact, the area was occupied by the Caddo Indians, an agricultural people with a highly developed culture. During the last decade of the eighteenth century, due to epidemics that decimated the tribe and problems with the Osages, the Caddos abandoned the villages they had occupied for centuries. During the early 1820s bands of Shawnee, Delaware, and Kickapoo Indians immigrated into what is now Red River County, settling along the banks of the creeks that still bear their names. Although Anglo settlement of the county had already begun, relations between Indians and settlers were relatively peaceful. During the mid-1830s the Indians abandoned their settlements. It may be that the first Europeans to enter the county were Frenchmen under the command of Jean Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe during his expedition of 1718–19. Shortly thereafter, the French established Le Poste des Cadodaquious in the territory of present-day Bowie County. During the decades when small groups of French soldiers, hunters, trappers, and traders occupied the fort, they probably passed through Red River County on numerous occasions. An early account of the area stated that French hunters gave Pecan Point its name.
Just as the French had disputed Spain's claim to the area near the Red River, so also did American settlers. Claiming that the area was part of the Louisiana Purchase, American hunters and traders were active in the area by 1815, and by 1818 permanent settlement was underway at Jonesborough and Burkham's Settlement. After traveling for six months from Tennessee on his self-made keelboat, the Pioneer, Claiborne Wright , his family, and his two married slaves, Jin and Hardy Wright, settled near Pecan Point in 1816, joining George and Alex Wetmore and William Mabbitt, who had settled in the area earlier that year. By the mid-1820s settlers had begun to move out onto the prairies, and by 1833 James Clark had settled at the site of present-day Clarksville. Although the early settlers seem to have regarded the area as a part of the United States, when the United States government refused to issue them land titles, many of these settlers turned first to the Mexican government and then to Arthur G. Wavell's agent Benjamin Milam in an attempt to obtain valid land titles. Still, they continued to send representatives to the Arkansas legislature. When the Convention of 1836 met at Washington-on-the-Brazos, the Red River settlements were represented by Richard Ellis ,Samuel P. Carson ,Robert Hamilton,Collin McKinney, andAlbert H. Latimer. Three companies of riflemen were equipped and dispatched to South Texas to participate in the war, but they arrived after the battle of San Jacinto. With the successful conclusion of the Texas Revolution, the United States relinquished its disputed claim to the area south of the Red River.
During the First Congress of the Republic of Texas, the Red River district was little more than a vaguely defined area encompassing all or part of the land of thirty-nine present counties. Red River County was formally delineated by an act signed by President Sam Houston on December 14, 1837, which divided the Red River District into two counties, Fannin and Red River. Red River County, as defined by the 1837 act, included all or part of lands now belonging to Lamar, Hopkins, Delta, Franklin, Titus, Morris, Cass, Marion, and Bowie counties. The act called for the first county courts to be held at LaGrange (later Madras) until a commission to be appointed by the county court could ascertain the proper location for a county seat. When the commissioners chose Clarksville in 1838, some residents of LaGrange tried unsuccessfully to reverse the ruling. New counties established in 1840 and 1846 reduced Red River County to its current size. From its founding the county grew in population slowly but steadily. By 1860 residents numbered 8,535. As in many other parts of North Texas, problems with adequate transportation probably served to inhibit the county's growth. The Red River was generally navigable for a part of the year, but when the river was low, produce and supplies had to be hauled to and from Jefferson, 100 miles to the southeast. The population of the county was overwhelmingly rural.
During the early years of Anglo settlement, cattle were the principal marketable commodity. By the early 1820s small herds were being driven south to the Austin colony. During the 1840s many farmers turned to the production of cotton, which became the principal cash crop of the county with a reported crop of 7,970 bales in 1860. Cattle remained important to the economy; farmers owned over 15,000 head in 1860. The early settlers of Red River County were for the most part southerners who brought with them their institutions such as slavery. In 1860, 3,044 (36 percent) of the county's 8,535 residents were Black. Almost all of these (3,039) were enslaved people. Like most other forms of wealth in antebellum Texas, ownership of slaves was unequally distributed among the county's White population. Only about one-quarter of White families owned slaves. Of these, only a quarter held ten or more, and this small group owned two-thirds of the slaves in the county. This meant that two-thirds of the African Americans lived in groups of ten or more. With most citizens involved in agriculture, the county had no large towns and few manufacturing establishments. The 1860 census of manufactures listed just thirteen establishments employing only eighty-five people. Following the decline of Jonesborough in the early 1840s, Clarksville became the county's largest town. In 1858 it had a reported population of only 400. Each antebellum community in the county—Robbinsville, Savannah, and Halesboro are examples—comprised little more than a general store, a gin, and perhaps a mill, with a few scattered houses. Most of the county's early educational institutions, such as McKenzie College, Clarksville Female Academy, and Clarksville Male and Female Academy, were located in or near Clarksville.
During the secession crisis, although some citizens such as Charles DeMorse, editor of the Northern Standard (later the Clarksville Standard), were clearly reluctant, most of the county's leaders supported withdrawing from the Union. One prominent exception was Albert H. Latimer, a Unionist and postbellum Republican. On February 23, 1861, the voters of Red River County narrowly approved the secession ordinance by a vote of 347 to 284. With the outbreak of the Civil War, county support for the Confederacy was nearly unanimous. At least six companies of troops were mustered for service in the Confederate Army. Because it was never invaded, Red River County escaped the physical destruction that devastated other parts of the South. Nonetheless, the war years were trying times. In addition to concern for loved ones on the battlefield, citizens were forced to deal with disruptions to the local economy caused by the unstable Confederate currency and the lack of a market for their cotton. During the last half of the war, as slaveholders from other areas of the South brought their slaves to Texas in an effort to keep them from fleeing or being confiscated by Union forces, the number of slaves in the county rose to over 4,600 by 1864.
The end of the Civil War brought changes in the county's economic foundation. While the end of slavery meant freedom for Blacks, to White slaveholders it was a serious loss of capital. The 2,513 enslaved people listed on the 1860 tax roll were evaluated at $1,577,909. This represented 49 percent of all taxable property in the county. This economic loss coupled with the widespread belief that free Blacks would not work and the uncertain status of the South in the nation, led to a loss of confidence that caused property values to plummet in 1865. On the 1865 tax roll total taxable property fell by the value of the enslaved people plus an additional $384,456. Many of the county's White citizens were discouraged and bitter. When it became clear that the Radical Republicans in Congress were intent on extending a measure of social and political equality to Blacks, some Whites in the county attempted to block these efforts by using violence and intimidation. Freedmen were driven off plantations after the harvest without being paid for their work, young Blacks were often apprenticed to Whites against their will, and some Blacks in the county were murdered. Finally, after Charles F. Rand, Freedmen's Bureau agent and winner of a Presidential Medal of Honor for bravery in action during the Civil War, fled from the county fearing for his life in August 1868, a detachment of federal troops under Maj. George Starkley was stationed in Clarksville. In the election of 1869 White Republicans supported by Black votes won control of the county. Despite the gloomy predictions to the contrary, Blacks did prove willing and able to work, and the changes the Republican party was willing to fight for proved to be quite limited. Gradually, confidence in the future and property values in the county began to rise. By 1871 the total taxable property had risen to $2,301,344, nearly double the 1865 total. The county was returned to White conservative control in the election of 1873. Since that time, with the exception of a brief period during the 1890s, when the People's party took control, Red River County was for many years solidly Democratic. Democratic presidential candidates carried the county in every election through 1992 with the exception of the 1972 and 1984 elections, when Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, respectively, carried the area. In the 1990s the area began to trend Republican. Democrat Bill Clinton won only a plurality in the county in 1992, and won by only a small margin in 1996; Republican George W. Bush won solid majorities in 2000 and 2004.
In 1876 the Texas and Pacific Railway was completed through the county, and for the first time residents had relatively quick and dependable transportation to larger market centers. Adequate transportation may have led to the dramatic increase in population from 10,653 in 1870 to 17,194 in 1880. The coming of the railroad also meant the decline and eventual demise of communities such as Starkesville, Stephensboro, and Savannah, while the towns of Annona, Avery, Bagwell, and Detroit sprang up as railway shipping points. In 1913 another railroad, the Paris and Mount Pleasant, was built through the southwestern corner of the county with Bogata and Johntown as shipping points; the road was abandoned in 1956. The years from 1880 to 1900 brought steady growth, as the county population increased to 29,893 in 1900 and to 35,829 in 1920. The Black population grew more slowly than the White population between 1870 and 1910. In 1870 the 4,148 Blacks comprised 39 percent of the population, while the 8,673 Blacks present in 1910 accounted for 30 percent. From 1910 to 1920, while the White population registered a dramatic increase, the Black population dropped to 8,452. By 1920 Blacks comprised just under 24 percent of the population. Most of the population growth registered during this period came from the agricultural sector, as total acres under cultivation rose from 83,005 in 1880 to 261,996 in 1920. Cotton dominated the local economy, with 17,669 bales reported in 1880 and 46,263 bales reported in 1920. For most residents, however, increases in population and cotton production did not necessarily mean increased prosperity. In fact, each census reported a smaller percentage of farmers who owned all or part of the land they farmed. By 1930 fewer than 30 percent of the county's farmers owned all or a part of their farms (see FARM TENANCY).
Like most areas in the country, Red River County was hit hard by the Great Depression of the 1930s. By 1935 there were 2,585 county workers on federal relief programs. Most of these (1,852) were White. As late as 1940, 13.7 percent of the labor force was either unemployed or working on public works projects. Both the value and the number of the farms in the county fell sharply from 1930 to 1940. Hard times, increasing mechanization, and opportunities for employment elsewhere brought a reversal in the long-term trend of increasing farm tenancy. The number of farmers who owned all or part of their land had risen 41 percent by 1940. By 1969 over 90 percent of farmers owned all or part of the land they farmed. During this period farmers also began to move gradually away from a heavy dependence on cotton as a cash crop. The 46,263 bales of cotton produced in 1920 was the highest ever recorded in a census year. From that point the amount of cotton produced in the county has fallen steadily; in 1982 only 845 bales were grown. By 1982 livestock sales accounted for 65 percent of all farm income, and major crops included hay, sorghum, and soybeans.
The census of 1930 also recorded the beginning of a long-term population decline as the number of residents dropped from a high of 35,829 in 1920 to 14,298 by 1970. Although the trend was reversed slightly in 1980, when the population rose to 16,101, it fell back to 14,317 in 1990. In 1980, 78 percent of the population was White and 20 percent was Black. At a median age of thirty-six, the county's citizens were older than average, and only 43.6 percent of those twenty-five and over had graduated from high school. Agriculture remained dominant in the local economy, with an average yearly income estimated at $28 million, but manufacturing had become increasingly important after the 1940s. By 1982 Red River County had twenty-four manufacturing establishments that employed 1,300 people and had a payroll of $12.6 million. Hard times for most farmers generally meant hard times for many in Red River County. In 1979 an estimated 20.5 percent of all families in the county lived below the poverty line. By then the county had 225 businesses. During the 1980s 13 percent of the residents were self-employed, 21 percent employed in professional and related services, 31 percent in manufacturing, 15 percent in wholesale and retail, 9 percent in agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and mining, and 24 percent employed in other counties. There were more than 2,000 retired residents. In terms of per capita income Red River County ranked number 233 out of the state's 254 counties in 1981. The county remained essentially rural; almost 70 percent of the population lived in rural communities or on farms or ranches; 4,917 people, about a quarter of the county's population, lived in Clarksville.
In 2014 the census counted 12,446 people living in Red River County. About 73.4 percent were Anglo, 17.4 percent were African American, and 7 percent were Hispanic. Almost 66 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had completed four years of high school, and 9 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agribusinesses, lumbering, and some manufacturing were the key elements of the area's economy. In 2002 the county had 1,217 farms and ranches covering 422,645 acres, 47 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 33 percent to crops, and 18 percent to woodlands. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $30,854,000; livestock sales accounted for $26,517,000 of the total. Beef cattle, hay, soybeans, and cotton were the chief agricultural products. Almost 3,568,000 cubic feet of pinewood and more than 5,222,000 cubic feet of hardwood were harvested in the county in 2003. Clarksville (population, 3,096) is the county's seat of government and its largest town. Other towns include Bogata (1,094), Detroit (687), Annona (300), and Avery (463). The Red River County Historical Society holds a bazaar in Clarksville in October.