Robertson County is ninety miles northeast of Austin in the Claypan area of east central Texas. The center of the county is at 31°00' north latitude and 96°30' west longitude, near the county seat of Franklin. The county is bounded on the north by Limestone and Leon counties, on the east by Brazos and Madison counties, on the south by Burleson County, and on the west by Milam and Falls counties. State Highway 6 crosses the county north to south, and U.S. Highway 79 runs from east to west. In addition, the Union Pacific Railroad follows Highway 79 across the county, and another branch of the Union Pacific (formerly the Southern Pacific) parallels State Highway 6. These two lines intersect at Hearne,and yet another branch of the Union Pacific runs along the western boundary of the county. Robertson County covers 854 square miles of flat to gently rolling terrain, with elevations ranging from 250 to 500 feet. The county is bounded by the Brazos River in the west, the Navasota River in the east, and the Old San Antonio Road in the south. The region is characterized by rich river bottoms, upland prairies, and timberland that supports post oak, black jack oak, cottonwood, elm, pecan, and mesquite trees. Drainage flows in two directions; from a ridge near mid-county, creeks run toward either the Brazos or the Navasota rivers. The Brazos Bottom, located between the Brazos and Little Brazos River, contains 150,000 acres of fertile delta land. Along the Trinity River are undulating to rolling soils with very dark, loamy surfaces over mottled, cracking, clayey subsoils. Most of the remainder of the county has level to undulating soils with light colored, loamy or sandy surfaces over clayey or loamy subsoils. Between 1 and 10 percent of the county land is considered prime farmland. Natural resources include lignite coal and oil. Wildlife in the county includes squirrels, various species of bats and skunks, and small herbivores such as gophers, mice, rabbits, and armadillos, as well as raccoons, white-tailed deer, opossums, bobcats, coyotes, and red and grey foxes. Frogs, toads, and numerous snake species, including the poisonous copperhead, cottonmouth, coral snake, and rattlesnake are found. A wide variety of birds-mockingbirds, cardinals, doves, quail, and bluejays, to name a few-are also native to the area. The climate is subtropical humid, with warm summers and mild winters. The average annual relative humidity is 83 percent at 6 A. M., and the average rainfall is thirty-eight inches. The average annual temperature is 68° F. Temperatures in January range from an average low of 38° to an average high of 59° F and in July range from 73° to 96° F. The growing season averages 265 days per year, with the last freeze in early March and the first freeze in early December.
The area which now comprises Robertson County has long been the site of human habitation. Numerous artifacts from the Paleo-Indian (10,000–6,000 B.C.) and Archaic (6,000–200 B.C.) cultures have been found in the area, suggesting that it has been continuously occupied for more than 10,000 years. When the first Europeans arrived in the region it was dominated by Tawakoni, Tonkawa, and Waco Indians. Occasionally, Comanches, Kiowas, and Lipan-Apaches made forays into the area, hunting buffalo on the open upland prairies and raiding enemy Indian villages. Large buffalo herds grazed upon the open prairies between the Trinity and Brazos rivers, attracting these nomadic tribes of the Great Plains. The first European to set foot on the area of future Robertson County was probably Domingo Terán de los Ríos, who passed through the region on his way to Northeast Texas in 1690. In 1716 Domingo Ramón traversed the area as he traveled across Texas to found Spanish missions in East Texas. Although occasional groups of priests or soldiers stopped in the area on their trek to resupply the missions of East Texas, no permanent settlements were made during the Spanish period. Following the Mexican War of Independence Anglo-American interest in the area grew. In 1822 a group of buffalo hunters camped at the Brazos crossing of the Old San Antonio Road, and in 1823 six families from Kentucky built a temporary settlement at the mouth of the Little River. The same year Sterling C. Robertson, his cousin Felix Robertson, and several other Tennesseeans representing the Texas Association of Nashville explored the area with the view of eventually colonizing it. On April 15, 1825, Robert Leftwich, acting as agent for the Texas Association, received a contract from the Mexican government to settle 800 families in an area bounded on the south by the Old San Antonio Road, on the north by the Comanche Trace, on the east by the Navasota River, and on the west by the watershed separating the Brazos and Colorado rivers. Leftwich, however, received the grant in his own name and upon his return to Nashville was forced to resign and sell his interest to the investment group. In 1826 Felix Robertson, who served as president of the group, led a party of thirty Tennesseeans to Texas, establishing a camp at the mouth of the Little Brazos. But attempts to colonize the area were stalled by the outbreak of the Fredonian Rebellion and by land claims made by squatters who had moved into the area between 1824 and 1826. In 1827 the Mexican government approved the transfer of Leftwich's grant to the Texas Association and substituted another member of the group, Hosea H. League, as empresario. Under the new contract the grant boundaries were expanded to include an area second in size only to Stephen F. Austin's League subsequently established an office at San Felipe de Austin and awaited the arrival of families recruited to settle in the colony but was implicated as an accomplice in a local murder and jailed. Sterling C. Robertson replaced League, officially assuming authority as the company's agent on October 10, 1830. Robertson's attempts to bring settlers into the area, however, were hampered by the Law of April 6, 1830, which suspended the operation of the colony's contract for four years.
In 1831 Stephen F. Austin petitioned the Mexican government for a grant covering the land previously awarded the Texas Association. A new contract issued by Mexican authorities conveyed to Austin and his new partner, Samuel May Williams, the right to colonize the area previously granted to Robertson and his group. Robertson challenged Austin's action, first in the local courts and later in the Texas legislature. Both the court and legislature sustained Robertson claims, and the government voided the Austin-Williams contract, recognizing the land titles of the Nashville company. Nevertheless the episode began a legal battle to clear land titles in Robertson County that continued until it was finally settled by the Texas Supreme Court in 1847. During the early 1830s Sterling Robertson worked tirelessly to make the project a reality. He made numerous trips to and from Texas, recruiting and escorting settlers to the area. In many instances Robertson put up his own money to finance the venture, which came to be called Robertson's colony. Despite continued legal battles and other obstacles, small groups of colonists began to gradually settle in the area. In 1832 James Dunn constructed a fort at a site later known as Old Cobb Prairie, and the following year the settlement of Wheelock was established. During the Runaway Scrape in 1836 much of the area was abandoned, but after the Texan victory at the battle of San Jacinto it was quickly reoccupied.
On December 14, 1837, the First Texas Congress passed a measure establishing Robertson County from portions of Milam, Bexar, and Nacogdoches counties and naming it in honor of Sterling Robertson. When the county was organized the following year, the settlement of Franklin (usually referred to as Old Franklin today to differentiate it from the present county seat also named Franklin), which served as headquarters for surveyors of a land district including present Leon, Freestone, Limestone, Navarro, and other counties, became the county seat. Over the next nine years sixteen counties were carved from its original jurisdiction, and the county only assumed its present limits in 1846. In 1850 the county residents voted to move the county seat from Old Franklin to Wheelock because the town was closer to the most heavily populated areas of the area. Six years later the county seat was once again moved, this time to a new town, Owensville, near the geographical center of the county, where it remained until after the Civil War. During the mid-1830s Robertson County was the scene of numerous battles between Anglo-American settlers and Indians. Among the most famous was the May 19, 1836, attack on Fort Parker during which Cynthia Ann Parker, mother of Chief Quanah Parker, was taken captive. The Indian raids, however, began to abate after 1838, when a company of Texas Rangers commanded by Eli Chandler was stationed at Old Franklin. By the time Texas joined the United States in 1846, the frontier had pushed farther west, and Indian raids in Robertson County had become infrequent.
During the 1840s the number of settlers increased slowly; as late as 1850 the population was only 934. But during the next decade numerous new settlers arrived to take advantage of the fertile bottom land along the Brazos and Navasota rivers. In just ten years, from 1850 to 1860, the population grew more than five-fold, surging to 4,997. Most of new residents were from the Old South, and many of them brought their slaves with them. During the same decade the slave population grew from 264 to 2,258. By 1860 40 percent of the county's families owned one or more slaves, and two of the state's largest slaveholders, B. F. Hammond and Reuben Anderson, each of whom owned 100 or more slaves, lived in the county. The first farms in the county were on the upland prairies, but as the population increased and the Indian threat abated growing numbers of settlers moved into the bottomlands. Between 1835 and 1840 a number of large land owners, including Andrew Cavitt, Liston Purdy, Joseph Webb, and James R. Robertson, established plantations in the Brazos valley. Although cotton was grown as early as 1840, during the decade of 1840s subsistence farming continued to be the rule. But by the early 1850s a thriving plantation economy, based largely on cotton, had begun to emerge. Between 1850 and 1860 the cotton crop increased from 429 to 6,467 bales. The last antebellum decade also witnessed a tripling in corn production, and a five-fold increase in the value of livestock. On the eve of the Civil War Robertson County was in most ways typical of the counties of the region, decidedly Southern in character and outlook, with an rapidly developing plantation economy. Not surprisingly given the large number of slaveholders, the county residents staunchly supported the Southern cause, and nearly 85 percent (391 of 467) of those who went to the polls cast their votes in favor of secession. Robertson County's men also volunteered for the Confederate army in large numbers. Company C, Fourth Texas Regiment, Hood's Texas Brigade, which fought at Gaines Mill, Second Manassas, the Wilderness, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga, was largely recruited in Robertson County. To further support the Confederate cause, Robertson County residents supplied beef and grains to the rebel army, and a number of planters raised the necessary funds to begin construction of a textile and flour mill near the site of present Hearne. Ironically, the war years brought the county unprecedented prosperity. The number of slaves more than doubled (from 1,955 to 4,392), as planters from Arkansas and Louisiana relocated there to protect their slaves from confiscation and prevent them from escaping to the Union lines. This growing labor pool helped to open new land for cotton and boosted production, feeding the growing wartime cotton trade with Mexico. The war's aftermath, however, brought profound changes. Although spared the wartime devastation seen in much of the rest of the Confederacy, Robertson County, like most other Texas counties, felt the stinging effects of the postwar depression. For many of the Whites the abolition of slavery meant tremendous economic loss. Prior to the Civil War slaves had constituted nearly a half of all taxable property in the county, and their loss coupled with a general decline in property values caused a profound disruption for most planters. The African-American population of the county fared even worse. Most Blacks left the farms owned by their former masters to seek better working and living conditions, but for the vast majority, the change brought only marginal improvement. Most ended up working as agricultural laborers or as share croppers, receiving one-third or one-half of the crop for their labors. The economic conditions forced Blacks into dismal living conditions, and in many instances they became objects of violence by White vigilantes.
During Reconstruction Blacks, supported by White Republican allies, managed to briefly exercise political power. On July 12, 1870, the Republican-controlled Twelfth Legislature, in a political move to retain Republican political control of local government in Robertson County, voted to relocate the county seat from Owensville to Calvert. But Whites gradually regained the upper hand in the early 1870s and over the course of the next decade, using intimidation and occasional force, managed to effectively disenfranchise most of the African-American population. Nevertheless in several areas, such as Hearne and Calvert, where there were substantial black majorities, African Americans continued to resist White political domination well into the 1890s. The 1896 elections signaled the return to White supremacy in Robertson County. Whites stood guard at the various polling places throughout the county with rifles, pistols, and sticks, turning away Blacks who ventured forth to vote. Following this election Black voters failed to return to the polls. Besides intimidation and harassment, the poll tax and White Primary effectively disfranchised the county's Black population. County voting totals plummeted; 5,500 citizens cast their votes in 1896, but less than 1,500 returned to the polls in 1904. Despite the havoc wrought by the war and Reconstruction, the county began to recover by the late 1860s, in large part due to a rapid increase in population. Between the 1860 and 1870 the number of inhabitants doubled, increasing from 4,997 to 9,990, and in the following decade it more than doubled again, rising to 22,383 in 1880. One reason for the rapid increase in population was a steady influx of White farmers from the states of the Old South, attracted to the county by its abundance of rich and relatively inexpensive land. But even more significant for the rapid growth was a steady rise in the number of Black residents. Because of shortage of labor that followed the Civil War, Brazos valley farmers traveled to parts of the Old South to recruit Black farm hands, who arrived in large numbers over the next decade and a half. As a result by the 1880s Blacks accounted for a majority of the population (53 percent), a position they would continue to occupy until the turn of the century.
Also spurring the postwar recovery was construction of the Houston and Texas Central Railway, which built through the county in the late 1860s. Although a number of towns declined or were abandoned after being bypassed by the railroad, including Wheelock, Owensville, Nashville, Sterling, Staggers Point, Mount Vernon, Little Mississippi, and Port Sullivan, many other communities were founded or began to flourish. In 1878 residents voted to move the county seat to Morgan, on the railroad near the geographical center of the county. When application was made for a post office, the town was renamed Franklin in honor of the original county seat. In 1880 the International-Great Northern was linked with the Houston and Texas Central at Hearne, making it an important rail center. The coming of the railroads and the steady growth in population led to a resurgence of the county's agricultural economy. Over the next three decades both the amount of acreage under cultivation and overall production steadily increased. Cotton, corn, and cattle, which had formed the mainstays of the economy after 1850, continued to be the leading products through the second half of the nineteenth century. But, while agricultural output steadily increased, Robertson County did not escape the hard times experienced by Southern farmers in later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Falling cotton prices and depleted soils reduced profits. To compensate for their shrinking income, large planters increased the acreage allotted to cotton production, and sharecroppers and tenants were forced to do likewise. Acreage in the county devoted to cotton cultivation rose steadily from 50,000 acres in 1880 to 150,000 acres in 1925. Yet despite this three-fold increase in acreage, production barely doubled. Nevertheless, Robertson County farmers annually ginned 30,000 bales from the 1890s until the Great Depression. Corn production ran a poor second. Farmers allocated 34,000 acres to corn production in 1880 and 50,000 in 1910. Production increased, but at a much slower rate. Stock raising, on the other hand, continued to dominate the upland prairies of the county. As in much of the South, sharecropping replaced slavery as the dominant labor system on Robertson County plantations following the Civil War. Large tracts were divided into small parcels that were let to former slaves, poor Whites, or immigrants on a sharecrop basis. By 1910 only 29 percent of all farmers owned the land they worked, while over 60 percent were tenant farmers. By 1930 three out every four farmers (2,936 of 4,065) were tenants. The combination of declining yields and tenancy kept many farmers in permanent debt and brought widespread misery. The harsh conditions led to a decline in population after 1900, as a sizeable number of families left to seek better opportunities elsewhere. Between 1900 and 1910 the population of the county fell by more than 4,000, from 31,480 to 27,454. Contributing most to this decline was the flight of many of the large rural Black population, who left to find work in the cities of the North. The Black exodus combined with a small influx of Whites-mostly recent European immigrants-after 1900 brought an end to the period of Black majority; by 1920 Blacks made up only 40 percent of the population, and by 1950 that figure fell below 30 percent. Like most of the state, Robertson County was hit hard by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Particularly affected were the county's farmers, who were forced to endure the combined effects of falling prices, soil depletion, and boll weevil infestations. Those with large landholdings were able to weather the hard times, but many of the county's legions of tenant farmers and share croppers were forced off the land. Between 1930 and 1940 the number of farms in the county fell sharply, from 4,065 to 2,834, and the number of tenants fell by more than half, from 2,936 to 1,693.
Prosperity began to return by the eve of World War II, when both demand and prices for agricultural products increased. Oil was discovered in the county in 1944, providing additional income for some landowners. Since World War II the agricultural scene has seen marked changes. During the late 1940s and 1950s many farmers continued to emphasize cotton farming, but in the 1960s farming was increasingly replaced by ranching. By the 1970s livestock raising-particularly of beef and dairy cattle, hogs, horses, and poultry-had taken center stage, and for the next two decades the majority of the county's agricultural income was from livestock and livestock products. In the years after World War II the population of Robertson County continued to decline. Between 1940 and 1970 the number of inhabitants fell steadily, from 25,710 in 1940 to 14,389 in 1970. After that, however, the population increased slightly to 14,653 in 1980 and 15,511 in 1990. Hearne, with a population of 5,132, was the largest community in 1990, followed by Calvert (1,536), Franklin (1,336), and Bremond (1,110). The majority of the population was White (64.8 percent), with Blacks (27.5 percent) and Hispanics (12.3 percent) forming the largest minorities.
Religion has been important to the citizens of Robertson County since the earliest settlers arrived. Methodist circuit riding ministers traveled the frontier as early as 1835; the reverends Isaac Addison and Robert Alexander were among the first to visit the area. In 1840 a formal circuit ministry, the Nashville Mission, was established and Robert Crawford, a San Jacinto veteran and later a Mier Expedition participant, served in the area. Z. N. Morrell, Baptist missionary and author of Flowers and Fruits from the Wilderness (1872), arrived just prior to Texas's move for independence. Morrell headed the Baptist missionary effort in the region throughout the 1840s. The first Union Church was founded at Wheelock just before the Civil War. Union churches accept ministers from almost any denomination in their pulpits. The county was the scene of frequent camp meetings both before and after the Civil War. Following the war an Episcopal church was established in Calvert headed by the Reverend J. Wilkins Tray. Catholic churches arrived with the railroad in the 1870s to serve the Irish workmen who built and operated the railroads and, later, to minister to the Polish immigrants who settled at Bremond. St. Mary's Catholic Church was located in Hearne during the 1870s, and another church by the same name was established in Bremond in 1888. Methodist and Baptist churches continue to be the predominate Protestant groups in the county today, although a number of other denominations also maintain congregations.
The county's first school, Franklin Academy, was organized in Old Franklin in 1838, and in the years prior to the Civil War several churches operated private schools. The first public schools opened in the late 1850s. During the Civil War public education was suspended, but in 1867 eight public schools reopened, and in 1868 the county court passed a measure establishing the first school districts. Since that time the county education system has seen various changes and consolidations. In the early 1990s there were five school districts, with six elementary, one middle, and four high schools. Average daily attendance was 2,800. Education levels have traditionally been quite low in the county but have seen some improvement during the second half of the twentieth century. However, many of the county's best educated young people continue to leave to seek better opportunities elsewhere.
In the early 1990s Robertson County's economy was still closely tied to agriculture, and ranching and farming were the leading industries. Beef and dairy cattle were the largest source of income. Leading crops included cotton, sorghums, small grains, watermelons, and corn. Leading industries were agribusinesses, brick manufacturing, and a power-generating plant. Other important sources of revenue included oil and natural gas and lignite mining.
Politically Robertson County has staunchly in the Democratic camp for most of its history. Since the end of Reconstruction Democratic presidential candidates have won nearly every election. From 1960 through 2000 the only Republican presidential candidate to win a majority of votes was Richard Nixon, who outpolled George McGovern by a single ballot in 1972. Democrats also maintained control of the local offices and have generally fared well in statewide races. In the early twenty-first century, however, Republicans began to be more competitive in local elections. George W. Bush took the county in the 2004 presidential election with about 55 percent of the vote.
In 2014 the census counted 16,500 people living in Robertson County. About 58.3 percent were Anglo, 21.3 percent were African American, and 19.2 percent were Hispanic. Seventy percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and more than 25 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agribusiness, oil and gas production, and small manufacturing were important elements of the area’s economy. In 2002 the county had 1,555 farms and ranches covering 515,311 acres, 46 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 33 percent to crops, and 18 percent to woodlands. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $515,311,000, with crop sales accounting for $63,218,000 of that total. Beef cattle, cotton, and hay were the chief agricultural products. More than 2,295,000 barrels of oil and 71,256,092 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 25,984,999 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1944. Franklin (population, 1,617) is the county’s seat of government and Hearne (4,486) its largest town. Other communities include Calvert (1,149), Bremond (915), Wheelock (225), Mumford (170), and New Baden (150). Tourist attractions include hunting, fishing, historic sites, the County Music Jamboree, and the county fair held in Hearne in March.