Refugio County (re-FYOO-ri-o) is on the lower Gulf Coast in the Coastal Prairies region, bounded on the south by San Patricio County, on the west by Bee and Goliad counties, on the north by Victoria and Calhoun counties, and on the east by Aransas County and by Hynes and Copano bays. The county's center lies at 28°19' north latitude and 97°09' west longitude. The town of Refugio, the county's seat of government and largest urban center, is thirty-five miles north of Corpus Christi. The county was named for Nuestra Señora del Refugio Mission. Refugio County covers 771 square miles of generally flat land covered with tall prairie grasses and spotted in some areas with mesquite, live oak, prickly pear, and huisache. Elevations range from sea level at the shore to 100 feet in the northwest section. Sandy loam soils are found along the coast; waxy soils predominate in the upper portion of the county. The county is drained by the Aransas River, which forms its southern border, and by the converging Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers, which form its northern boundary. The Mission River, Copano Creek, and Willow Creek also flow through the area. The county has a humid subtropical climate and averages thirty-seven inches of rain annually. Temperatures range from an average low of 45° F in January to an average high of 93° F in July; the growing season lasts 309 days. The county harbors a wide variety of wildlife species, including deer, javelina, bobcat, quail, muskrat, beaver, mink, ring-tailed cat, badger, fox, turkey, duck, geese, jacksnipe, and sandhill crane. The endangered whooping crane nests under the protection of federal law in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. In 1982, 91 percent of the land in the county was being used for farms and ranches; about 18 percent of the farmland was under cultivation. About 54 percent of the area's agricultural income that year derived from livestock, particularly cattle and hogs; crops included sorghum, cotton, corn, wheat, and hay. Watermelons and pecans are also grown in the area. Natural resources include petroleum, natural gas, and industrial sand. In 1982, 56,470,457,000 cubic feet of gas-well gas, 39,920 barrels of condensate, 23,483,771 barrels of crude oil, and 50,934,814,000 cubic feet of casinghead gas were produced in the county. Refugio County is joined to the rest of Texas by U.S. Highway 77, which runs southwesterly across the western part of the county, and by State Highway 35, which runs north to south across the eastern section of the area. The Missouri Pacific Railroad also serves as a major transportation artery.
The region was originally inhabited by the Karankawa Indians, a nomadic tribe. The site of the modern town of Refugio was a favorite camping ground of the tribe, and in time a permanent village developed there. Comanche and Lipan Apache Indians occasionally raided the area in the nineteenth century. The first Europeans in the area were probably Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his companions; the coastline was charted by Alonso Álvarez de Pineda in 1520. In 1722 Spaniards established Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga Mission (often called La Bahía Mission) at the site of present Goliad to minister to the Karankawa Indians and to cement the Spanish claim to the Texas coast; the mission came to be surrounded by ranchos that supported a growing Spanish population. La Bahía was in territory that became part of the original Refugio County but is not within the present county limits. In 1793 Nuestra Señora del Refugio Mission was founded at the juncture of the San Antonio and Guadalupe rivers. After a destructive Indian raid in 1794, however, the mission was moved to another site; and in 1795 the mission was moved to a location on the Mission River, at the site of the present town of Refugio. Though the mission attracted few Indians, it was the last Spanish mission to be secularized after the Mexican War of Independence. The mission remained in continuous operation until February 7, 1830, when the last services were held. By then, the area was home to at least 100 Mexicans living on the ranchos they had established, and a small village may already have grown around the site of the old mission.
Because of the ten littoral league reservation made by Mexico (see MEXICAN COLONIZATION LAWS), Anglo-American immigration in the area that is now Refugio County was limited until after 1836. The exception was the Power and Hewetson contract, made in 1828 and supplemented in 1829 and 1831. Under the terms of the contract James Power and James Hewetson proposed to settle Irish Catholics and Mexican families in the ten coastal leagues from the Nueces River north to Coleto Creek and the Guadalupe River. Though bitterly opposed by some of the Mexicans residing in the Refugio area, the contract was approved, and in 1831 Power and Hewetson acquired all rights to the old mission building and the town that surrounded it. Colonization in the Power and Hewetson colony was slow; almost all of the native Mexicans who appear on the lists as Power and Hewetson colonists were already in the area in 1832, and while the empresarios did import a number of colonists directly from Ireland, others had to be brought in from New Orleans, New York, and other areas. Despite the original representations made by the empresarios to the Mexican government, many of the imported colonists were not Catholics. The villa of Refugio, officially established in 1831 around the old Refugio mission, became the center of the Refugio Municipality in 1834. Martin Power was elected the first alcalde. From its inception the Refugio Municipality was troubled by political disputes that were reflected in a controversy over what the area should be called. The name was briefly changed to Wexford (after the Irish county from which many of the new settlers had come), but that name was not accepted by many of the area's residents and was finally dropped. The dispute over the legal status of the Refugio Municipality was still unsettled when the Texas Revolution began in October 1835.
In general, although by no means always, the Irish tended to support the federalists in their war against the Mexican government, while most local Tejanos favored the centralists. The Mexican general Martín Perfecto de Cos landed at Copano on September 25, 1835, and was apparently satisfied with the loyalty of Refugio. A number of citizens, however, joined George M. Collinsworth in the October 10 assault on La Bahía Presidio. Shortly after Cos departed Refugio, James Power, John Malone, and Hugh McDonald Frazer were elected to represent Refugio at the Consultation. In January 1836 troops began to concentrate at Refugio in preparation for the proposed Matamoros expedition, but Gen. Sam Houston dissuaded most of the volunteers from following through with the ill-fated scheme (see MATAMOROS EXPEDITION OF 1835–36). Soon after he left Refugians elected Houston and James Power as delegates to the Convention of 1836. The area soldiers elected Edward Conrad and David Thomas to the convention, and all the delegates were seated. On March 14, 1836, at the battle of Refugio, a greatly outnumbered Texian force under Amon B. King and William Ward held off a division of the Mexican army led by Gen. José de Urrea. Although most of Ward's men escaped, all of King's contingent were either killed or captured. King, and the remnants of his force, were summarily executed in the Goliad Massacre on March 16. After the revolution the greatly depleted population of Refugio stood off petty raids from Mexico until the end of 1842, while bitterness and anti-Mexican feelings occasioned by the war lingered on in the minds of the Anglo-American settlers, causing conflicts with Mexicans in the area, whether or not they had supported the centralist cause. The Mexican town of La Bahía was wiped out, and its residents forced to flee; a few years later, only a few jacales marked the spot.
After independence Refugio was organized as one of the thirteen original counties of the Republic of Texas, with the town of Refugio as the county seat. Far larger than the current county, the original Refugio County included territory that was later incorporated into new neighboring counties. By the time of the Civil War the original Refugio County area had been reduced by Goliad County in 1841; Calhoun, San Patricio, and Victoria counties in 1846; and awards to Bee County in 1857 and to Nueces County in 1858. During this time the town at the Refugio mission was rebuilt, and several communities, including Lamar and Old St. Mary's, were settled on the coast. In 1845 Gen. Zachary Taylor's camp was temporarily established on Live Oak Point (later Rockport), and in the decade following the Mexican War the county slowly became repopulated. The coastal towns enjoyed a fairly lively prosperity, and Refugio became a center for hide and tallow factories. Several railroads were projected, the first being the Aransas Road Company in 1847, but the plans were never carried to fruition. By 1850 there were 288 people living in the county, including nineteen slaves. The economy revolved around cattle ranching. While 6,000 bushels of corn (the most important crop at the time) were produced in Refugio County in 1850, 9,000 cattle and 190 sheep were reported that year.
In the 1850s considerable interest was shown in navigation, and Refugians fostered both the Corpus Christi Navigation Company (1852) and the San Antonio River Navigation Company (1856). Observer James Murray Doughty captured the prevailing spirit of fastidious progress as he described the county in the 1850s: "Refugio has 3 dry-goods stores, 2 public hotels, 1 private boarding house, 3 churches, 2 schools, 2 physicians, 1 dentist and 1 lawyer, and no drinking shops and no paupers." Indian raids had always been sporadic, and the last one, a Comanche incursion, took place in 1852. That same year the first known inhabitants of the Refugio area, the Karankawas, were decisively defeated by local Texians at the battle of Hynes Bay. Afterward, the surviving "Kronks" fled across the Rio Grande where Mexicans wiped out the remnants of the once proud tribe. By 1860 there were 1,748 people living in Refugio County, including 234 enslaved people and six free Blacks. Almost 386,000 acres in the county were in farms and ranches, and 29,000 bushels of corn and 230 bales of cotton were grown on the 5,120 acres reported to be improved. Almost 154,000 cattle and 4,000 sheep were reported that year. There were no large slaveholders in the county, but the Knights of the Golden Circle were nevertheless fairly strong in the area. Residents of Refugio County staunchly supported the Confederacy and voted 142 to 14 (91 percent) in favor of secession. During the Civil War saltworks of long standing were operated near Lamar, and others were opened along the coast. In 1862 the saltworks were raided and thereafter were periodically reraided. In retaliation for successful blockade-running into St. Mary's, the federal navy destroyed that port's wharf and warehouse and in 1862 burned Lamar. A number of Refugio County men served in Confederate gray, serving in all four companies of Col. Alfred M. Hobby's regiment, organized in May 1862. The unit successfully withstood the Union bombardment of Corpus Christi in August of that year. In February of 1863 it was organized into the Eighth Texas Infantry. In November 1863 the regiment fought off another federal attack on Corpus Christi while covering the Confederate withdrawal from the lower Rio Grande valley. Most members of the Eighth were deployed in the Red River campaign of 1864 to prevent the invasion of Texas. The soldiers of the Eighth finished the war committed to Texas coastal defense. After the war a few Union troops were stationed in the county.
The Civil War had a dramatic impact upon the county's economy. In 1856 the total property value of the county was $1,329,313; by 1866 the total had dropped to $481,630. The cattle industry, the mainstay of the economy, suffered during the war. Almost 154,000 cattle had been reported in 1860, but by 1866 only 32,503 animals, worth only $162,790, were reported in the area. Meanwhile, cotton farming had disappeared; as late as 1870 no cotton was grown in the county. By 1868 the town of Refugio had been reduced to a few private homes, a dilapidated concrete courthouse, a hotel, the McCambell Brothers store, and a wooden Masonic building. The old stone mission had been demolished, leaving only piles of rocks and debris. Meetings of the town council had been suspended in 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, and were not begun again until 1874. The cattle industry began to recover soon after the end of the war, however, and Refugio County, in the heart of good range country, was stimulated by the developing trade. The coastal area boomed for about fifteen years, particularly St. Mary's, Rockport, and Fulton. By 1870, 100,000 cattle were reported on the county's 176 farms and ranches, and the county population had increased to 2,324. Up until this time, the cattle industry in the area had been conducted primarily by stock ranchers, many of them Mexican Americans, who typically owned relatively small spreads and depended on free range to feed and water their herds. During the 1870s, however, land-holding patterns changed significantly. This happened partly because a few large landholders successfully fenced off their properties, and partly because, at about the same time, many of the Mexican Americans in the county were driven out through violence or through intimidating threats against their lives. After a local White rancher and his wife were murdered in 1874, White vigilante groups terrorized the Mexican-American population; according to Hobart Huson, Jr., "practically every Mexican of the laboring class was regarded as a suspect." Francisco and Marcello Moya, who belonged to a landholding Mexican-American family, were murdered along with their father by one group of vigilantes. Other Mexican Americans were taken to the Refugio jail for questioning, where at least three were lynched by mobs. As a result of this wave of violence, according to Judge W. L. Rea, "the roads of the county were lined with ox-carts and wagons headed west," as the Mexican-American population fled the area. The murder of another White rancher less than a year later further intensified racial hostilities. According to Huson, virtually all of the original colonial Mexican families in the county left the area in the aftermath of these events. By the early twentieth century, only a handful of Mexican Americans owned land in the county.
Refugio County lost much of its coastland during the 1870s when the county was divided after a political dispute between coastal and inland residents. Refugio had served as the county seat since 1836, but the Constitution of 1869 officially designated St. Mary's the county seat. The records, however, stayed in Refugio. Partly because most of the county's population increase since the Civil War had been along the coast, on March 15, 1871, the legislature changed the county seat to Rockport. The records were temporarily moved, but the older settlers in the region objected so strongly that on April 18, 1871, the legislature established Aransas County with its county seat at Rockport and fixed the seat of government for Refugio County at "the mission." Partly because of the Mexican-American exodus and the consolidation of ranchlands and partly because of the physical division of the county, the number of farms in the county fell from 176 in 1870 to 123 in 1880; the population also declined significantly during that period, dropping to 1,733 by 1880. The loss of a considerable part of its coastal area and the absence of a railroad hampered the growth of Refugio County in the late nineteenth century. Though the number of farms grew slowly, rising to 159 by 1900, the number of cattle declined from 77,300 in 1880 to less than 36,000 by 1900; the number of sheep declined from 7,400 in 1880 to less than 2,000. Meanwhile the population of the county dropped to only 1,239 in 1890 before rising slightly to 1,641 by the end of the century. In 1900, operating under strict segregation guidelines, White schools were found in Refugio, St. Mary's, Westville, Morrowville, Tivoli, and Hynes Bay; Black schools were in Refugio, St. Mary's, Medio, and Hynes Bay. That year 269 students, both Black and White, were enrolled in Refugio county schools.
The new century brought rapid and dramatic changes to Refugio County. In 1905 the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway was built through the county, opening the area to development. Beginning in 1906 promoters subdivided the Bonnie View, Hynes, Gullett, and Rosborough ranches into farmlands, and the communities of Tivoli, Bonnie View, Austwell, Woodsboro, and Bayside were soon begun. The number of farms in the county jumped to 236 by 1910 and to 310 by 1920; by 1930 there were 507 farms in the area. Many of the new farmers planted cotton. As late as 1900 only 674 acres in the county were devoted to cotton, but production of the fiber expanded to 4,000 acres by 1910 and to 25,000 acres by 1920; by 1924 more than 34,000 acres were planted in cotton, which had become by far the county's most important crop. Of the 33,000 acres of cropland harvested in 1930, more than 25,000 were devoted to cotton. Meanwhile, though rangeland was being diverted to crop farming, cattle ranching remained an important part of the local economy and culture; in 1930, 36,000 cattle were reported in the county. The economy was also stimulated after 1920 by discoveries of natural gas and petroleum. According to local lore, oil was first discovered in the county around 1870 near St. Mary's during the digging of a water well, but serious explorations did not begin until the 1910s. Significant gas production began about 1926, when a gas pipeline owned by the Houston Gulf Company was completed, and by that time several minor oilfields were being exploited. The opening of the Greta oilfield in 1928 demonstrated the tremendous potential for oil production in the area; in 1936 almost 9,756,000 barrels of crude were taken from wells in Refugio County. The expansion of farming and the oil and gas industry during the first three decades of the twentieth century were reflected in the area's growing population, which rose to 2,814 by 1910, to 4,050 by 1920, and to 7,691 by 1930. Cotton production in the area dropped significantly during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and by 1940 only 18,000 acres were devoted to the crop. The county lost more than 20 percent of its farms during that period; by 1940 only 396 remained. The effects of the depression were offset to some extent, however, by continuing development of petroleum and gas resources, and the population rose during the 1930s; by 1940, 10,383 people lived in the area. By 1943 at least eleven distinct oilfields had been discovered in Refugio County, and production continued to increase well into the 1940s. Almost 25,000,000 barrels of petroleum were produced in the area in 1944, and almost 30,240,000 barrels in 1948.
Refugio County was one of the first areas in the United States to raise an entire regiment of volunteers before America entered World War II. In May 1940 as Adolf Hitler's Wermacht rolled through the Low Countries, American Legionnaires in Refugio County took action intended to alert Americans to the Nazi threat. In a public statement announcing the formation of a home guard unit, the Legionnaires declared: "If the United States will not put itself in a state of preparedness, then Refugio County will as a protest and as an example." Responding to the call, the men of the county enlisted in such large numbers that a regimental structure was required. Allen Driscoll Rooke was appointed "colonel and commander-in-chief." Reflecting the Irish roots of many of the men, the unit was named the Royal Irish Regiment of Refugio County. The group adopted a uniform that included khaki trousers and shirt, a khaki overseas cap piped in "shamrock" green, a web belt, and a black tie. Each man paid for his own uniform. The companies met each week on Tuesday and Thursday nights for drills until December 1940, when the unit was incorporated into the Texas Defense Guard.
Though petroleum production in the area periodically rose and fell between 1945 and 1990, the industry remained a central part of the local economy into the 1990s. About 19,777,000 barrels were produced in the county in 1956, 13,963,000 barrels in 1960, 18,534,000 barrels in 1965, 37,505,000 barrels in 1974, 34,788,000 barrels in 1978, and 23,524,000 barrels in 1982. In 1990, 9,066,016 barrels were produced; by January 1, 1995, over 1,273,409,931 barrels of crude had been taken from Refugio County since discovery in 1928. Partly in response to developments in the oil and gas industry and partly because of agricultural mechanization and consolidation, the number of people living in the county fluctuated in the years just after World War II. The county lost 30 percent of its farms in the 1940s, so that only 279 remained in 1950; in 1960 there were 260 farms in the area. The population declined to 10,113 by 1950, then rose to 10,975 in 1960. Between 1960 and 1990 the population steadily declined, falling to 9,474 in 1970, 9,289 in 1980, and to 7,967 in 1990. As of 2014, 7,302 people lived in the county. About 43.5 percent were Anglo, 6.8 percent African American, and 48.7 percent Hispanic. The voters of Refugio County supported the Democratic candidates in virtually every presidential election between 1852 and 1948; the only exceptions occurred in 1908, when a majority voted for Republican William Howard Taft, and in 1920, when the county backed Republican Warren G. Harding. Voters became less predictable between 1952 and 1992, however, and were more likely to vote Republican. A majority supported Republican candidates in 1952 and 1956, when they backed Dwight D. Eisenhower; in 1972, when they supported Richard Nixon; in 1984, when they voted for Ronald Reagan; and in 1988, when the county swung to George Bush. In the 1992 election, a plurality of the county's voters supported Democrat Bill Clinton over Republican George Bush and Ross Perot, the independent candidate.
By 1989 reductions in oil prices had depressed the economy of Refugio County, and as in the early days, agriculture had become the leading source of income. That year the agricultural sector of the economy earned $23.5 million from sorghum, cotton, corn, wheat, and beef cattle. Hunters hoping to harvest the county's game animals also contributed to the local economy. In 2014 the town of Refugio, with 2,812 inhabitants, was still the county's largest population center and seat of government. Other communities included Woodsboro (1,469), Austwell (147), Tivoli (482), Bayside (329), Vidauri, and Bonnie View. In July the town of Refugio celebrates an "Old-Fashioned Fourth" and hosts the State Frog-Jumping Contest. The County Fair is held there every October.