Rusk County is on the Sabine Uplift of the Coastal Plains between the Sabine and Angelina rivers in the Piney Woods of East Texas. It is 120 miles southeast of Dallas and seventy-five miles west-southwest of Shreveport, Louisiana. The county is bounded on the north by Gregg and Harrison counties, on the east by Shelby and Panola counties, on the south by Nacogdoches County, and on the west by Smith and Cherokee counties. Henderson, the county seat, is the near to the geographic center of the county, which is at 32°10' north latitude and 94°45' west longitude. The county's transportation needs are served by U. S. highways 59, 79, 84, and 259, State highways 42, 43, 64, 135, 149, and 322, and the Missouri Pacific and Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroads. Rusk County comprises 932 square miles. The terrain is marked by sloping hills, narrow valleys, and glens. The altitude varies from 300 to 750 feet, with the highest elevations along the iron-capped ridges in the northern and northeastern and southern portions. The soil of the county is light-colored deep sandy loam with underlying clay and lignite, both of which are produced in the county. The clay is made into bricks by Boral-Henderson Clay Products, and the lignite is mined by Texas Utility Mining and Generating Company. Between 11 and 20 percent of the land in the county is considered prime farmland. The county is forested with more than twenty varieties of trees. Red and white pine, post oak, blackjack, and hickory are commonly found in the uplands, and white oak, red oak, ash, walnut, mulberry, ironwood, gum, elm, beech, and dogwood grow abundantly in the low-lying areas. Cypress trees are found along Cherokee Bayou, Tiawichi Creek, and other streams. Grasses include Bermuda, fescue, and Johnson, together with burr clover. Wildflowers abound in the spring: violets, blue daisies, cowslips, yellow jessamines, wild honeysuckle, standing cypress, wild onion, tigrida, and blackeyed susans. The climate is subtropical-humid, with mild winters and warm summers. Temperatures range in January from an average low of 35° F to an average high of 56°, and in July from 71° to 94°. The average annual rainfall is forty-five inches. The average relative humidity is 85 percent at 6:00 A.M. and 57 percent at 6:00 P.M. The average annual snowfall is two inches. The growing season averages 250 days a year, with the last freeze in mid-March and the first freeze in mid-November.
The area has been the site of human habitation for several thousand years. Archeological artifacts suggest that the earliest human inhabitants arrived during the Archaic Period, 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. Evidence of the prehistoric Caddo culture, which flourished between A.D. 1000 and 1600, has also been found in the area, and the earliest Spanish explorers encountered the remnants of that culture during their first forays into the region. Between 1761 and 1810 two Tejas villages are known to have existed in the area of the future county: Aynais, in the southwestern corner of the present county, and Nacogdoches Village, near the site of present Minden. As many as four early Spanish expeditions crossed what is now Rusk County between 1691 and 1788. Domingo Terán de los Ríos crossed the area on his way to the northeast in 1691, and Domingo Ramón led an expedition across the county around 1717. Fray José Calahorra y Saenz passed through the southwestern corner in September 1760, and in 1788 Pedro Vial traversed the northern portion of the future county. Although the area was part of the Department of Nacogdoches, the Spanish never built any permanent settlements in it, and today very little Spanish or Mexican influence can be seen in the county except for the names of a few streams. The first Anglo-American settlers came into Rusk County as early as 1829. The earliest land grant within the present-day borders of the county was issued to William Elliott on March 22, 1829; other early grantees included father and son Thomas and Leonard Williams, Joseph Durst, and Henry Stockman. By 1834 white settlers began to arrive in large numbers; between May 2 and November 23, 1834, the Mexican government issued forty-three land grants in the area, the majority of them to recent American immigrants. After the Texas Revolution, the population grew rapidly, as new settlers arrived by way of Trammel's Trace, the Nacogdoches Road, and the Green Grass Trail. Cherokee and Shawnee Indians under the leadership of Chief Bowl occupied the western part of the area during the 1820s and 1830s, but with their removal after the Cherokee War in 1839 the way was opened for white settlement. Most of the new colonists came from the Old South, particularly Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, attracted by the availability of abundant cheap land. Although most of the early settlers were of modest means, some were wealthy planters, among them James Smith, Julien Sidney Devereux, and Albert Tatum, who brought sizable numbers of slaves with them. After Texas independence the territory was originally a part of Nacogdoches County, but upon an act of the Congress of the Republic of Texas, Rusk County was formed on January 16, 1843, and was named for Thomas Jefferson Rusk, who had been secretary of war under President Sam Houston. The county seat was established as near the center of the county as possible by the five commissioners appointed to acquire land for the purpose. Gen. James Smith donated the original townsite of 65.5 acres, and he later sold 69.5 acres more to the town. Later, William B. Ochiltree donated five acres north of the town square and in the deed named the town for his friend James Pinckney Henderson.
Settlers continued to pour into the area during the late 1840s, and by 1850 Rusk County had a population of 8,148, the second largest county population in the state, surpassed only by Harrison County. The majority of the residents were farmers, with merchants, lawyers, and carpenters the most common other occupations. More than one-fourth of the inhabitants (2,136) were slaves, a reflection of the flourishing plantation economy that had already begun to develop. The 1850 census listed seventeen plantations of 10,000 acres or more; James Smith, owner of 53,000 acres, was the largest landowner. A number of noted plantations were located around Henderson, including those of John Graham, Richard B. Tutt, Milton M. Boggess, and William Wright Morris. Numerous new communities sprang up during the late 1840s and early 1850s, and by 1857 twenty-two localities had post offices, the largest of them being Henderson, Camden, Harmony Hill, Millville, Mount Enterprise, New Salem, and Pine Hill. The "Wire Road," so called because in the early 1850s it was flanked by one of the earliest Texas telegraph lines strung on brackets nailed to trees, was a busy thoroughfare with regular stagecoach lines carrying passengers and freight from Marshall and Jefferson to Crockett and points south and west. In contrast to much of the state, on the eve of the Civil War Rusk County was heavily farmed, with more than 80,000 acres in production in 1858. A sizable amount of the land—more than 37,500 acres—was given over to growing corn; 25,782 acres was planted with cotton, 4,741 with wheat, 50 with sugarcane, and 12,384 with miscellaneous crops. The population continued to grow rapidly during the late 1850s. In 1860 Rusk County, with a total population of 15,803, was the most populous county in Texas. It was fifth in total wealth, with the combined value of its land, slaves, livestock, and property worth $6,494,175. Twenty-one persons reported estates with an estimated value of more than $30,000. A considerable proportion of the county's wealth was invested in its 6,132 slaves, one of the largest slave populations in Texas. One indication of the county's wealth and importance is the fact that two proposed railroads, the Eastern Texas and the Galveston, Houston and Henderson, were chartered to link Henderson with the outside world in the late 1850s. The Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad was completed between Galveston and Houston by January 1860, but the Civil War prevented its extension to Henderson.
The year 1860 was perhaps the most tumultuous in the young county's history. An unprecedented drought and record high temperatures ruined crops across the county. The intense heat and growing discord over slavery and secession, which had been brewing throughout that summer, combined to yield disastrous results. When a huge fire destroyed the courthouse and nearly the entire business section of Henderson on August 5, most of the population blamed the calamity on pro-Union arsonists. A man named Green Herndon, a recent arrival from the North who was known to harbor abolitionist sentiments, was singled out as the alleged perpetrator after a Black woman reportedly confessed that Herndon had hired her to set fire to the town. On the strength of her testimony a mob gathered, lashed Herndon to a horse, and dragged him around the public square until he died. They then hung the body from a tree and fired repeated shots into it. Not surprisingly, given the prevailing sentiment, Rusk County citizens voted overwhelmingly for secession early the next year—1,376 for and only 135 against. The prosecession vote total was the second highest in the state, surpassed only by that in Smith County. The Civil War and its aftermath brought profound changes to the county. Although Rusk County made only a small material contribution to the war effort, it ranked first in the number of men contributed to the fighting forces, with more than twelve companies mustered at Henderson. Those who remained behind were forced to deal with the lack of markets and unstable Confederate currency, as well as concern for their relative and friends on the battlefield.
The end of the war brought disaster to the county's economy. For many of Rusk County's white residents, the abolition of slavery meant devastating economic loss. Before the Civil War slaves had constituted nearly half of all taxable property in the county, and their loss, coupled with a sharp decline in property values, caused a profound disruption for most planters. The 1870 census showed a marked decline in personal wealth compared with 1860. The twenty-one people with incomes of more than $30,000 just before the war shrank to two by 1870. The Black population was no better off. Although most resident African Americans remained in the county, many Black farmers left the farms owned by their former masters to seek better working conditions. For the vast majority, the change brought only slight improvement in living and working conditions. Most ended up working on the land on shares, receiving one-third or one-half of the crop for their labors. During Reconstruction Rusk County received little attention from federal political or military authorities. There was little of the violence that many other counties underwent, so federal troops were only briefly stationed in the county. One reason the county remained placid was the influence of James Winwright Flanagan and his son, David Webster Flanagan, who allied themselves with the moderate wing of the Republican party rather than the Radical Republicans and were able to use their influence to prevent harsher governmental measures.
During the early 1870s the county began to show signs of recovery. Several new schools opened, including Henderson Male and Female College, incorporated in Henderson in 1871, and Alexander Institute (see LON MORRIS COLLEGE), established at Kilgore in 1873. In 1872 the first railroad, the Illinois and Great Northern, reached the northwest corner of the county, and Overton became the principal shipping point. Two years later a branch line was built to Henderson. The arrival of the railroad opened new access to markets. Henderson in particular benefitted from the railroad link, and during the 1870s and early 1880s the town became one of the leading commercial centers of the region. During the early 1870s residents in the northern part of the county moved to separate and form a new county. On April 30, 1874, the legislature approved the proposal, and Gregg County was formed. Rusk County lost 284 square miles of territory and with it several thousand residents. The loss was partially offset by a modest growth in the population during the decade of the 1870s. But in the 1880s the population actually declined slightly, falling from 18,986 in 1880 to 18,559 in 1890, as some farmers moved farther west in search of more inexpensive land. Although the population of Henderson reached the 2,000 mark in the early 1890s, there was virtually no manufacturing in the town, and the county as a whole remained predominantly rural and agricultural, with cotton and corn as the leading crops. In 1890 Rusk County's farmers harvested 367,766 bushels of corn and 4,145 bales of cotton. In 1894 the Caro Northern Railway was built from Caro in Nacogdoches County to Mount Enterprise, and in 1909 the Timpson and Northwestern Railway was completed between Timpson, Shelby County, and Henderson. The addition of the two railroads helped to ensure access to markets for some the county's farmers, although, as one guidebook noted, much of the best land was not near any of the three lines.
The period around the turn of the century showed a gradual decline in prosperity for many of the county's farmers, especially those of African-American descent. A 1907 report on conditions in the county noted that "slightly less than one-half of the farms in the Henderson area [were] operated by owners," and that the average-sized farm was only about seventy-five acres, with only one-half of that total in cultivation, "or about what can be cultivated with one mule." By 1910 2,351 of the county's 4,894 farms were worked by sharecroppers, the overwhelming majority of them Black (see FARM TENANCY). Nevertheless, during the first three decades of the twentieth century, the county population gradually grew, to 26,946 in 1910 and 31,689 in 1920. The number of farms also grew during the same period, from 4,894 in 1910 to 6,059 in 1920. Just before 1920 and during the succeeding decade, numerous new roads were built and many already existing roads were upgraded. The 1925 Texas Almanac reported that Rusk County had "one of the best systems of good roads in Texas," with "180 miles of improved highways." By the late 1920s Henderson residents numbered nearly 4,000. The town had 5½ miles of paved streets, a sewer system, and an electricity-generating plant. A new courthouse was built in 1928, and several new school buildings were constructed after 1900. Overton, the second-largest town in the county, had a population of 600, two banks, and a new high school.
At the end of the decade Rusk County remained chiefly agricultural, with cotton still the leading crop. But in October of that year Columbus M. (Dad) Joiner discovered oil on the Daisy Bradford lease. Attempts to locate oil in the county had started as early as 1911, when O. P. Boynton drilled a well near Millville. Boynton, however, failed to reach oil, and the search was taken up by Dad Joiner, who defied the "expert" opinion that there was little or no oil in the area and drilled his first well, Daisy Bradford No. 1, in 1927. On his third attempt, three years later, his discovery opened the East Texas oilfield, which proved to be one of the richest oil finds in the United States. The promise of quick riches immediately set off an oil frenzy. Farmers neglected to harvest their cotton crops, too busy trying to negotiate better leases or high royalties, and men and equipment poured into the county to look for new gushers. The First National Bank and Citizens National Bank in Henderson reported that within a week of Joiner's find, deposits increased nearly $150,000, and estimates put the amount received by Rusk County residents in the first seven days after oil was struck at nearly $500,000. In the first year of the find (1931) production was only 27,000 barrels, but the following year the volume reached 109,561,000 barrels, and by 1933 the amount of oil produced had nearly doubled to 204,954,000 barrels. Between 1930 and 1936 Rusk County's population mushroomed from 32,000 to 65,000, as oilfield workers, wildcatters, speculators, lawyers, and other opportunists arrived to take advantage of the find. The discovery of oil not only changed the composition of the population but altered the very appearance of the area. New towns such as Joinerville, Carlisle, New London, and Turnertown sprang up; established settlements changed from rural communities to bustling boomtowns. Numerous new hotels, offices, and oil-related businesses were built in and around Henderson. Oil derricks and pumps soon dotted the countryside. Henderson, formerly a sleepy county seat, was transformed into a busy center of activity. Between 1930 and 1940 the town's population grew from 2,932 to 6,437. Though once something of an agricultural backwater, Rusk County overnight became a scene of conspicuous wealth, where the average household income far exceeded the statewide average. Yet not all of the county's residents benefitted. Poor white tenant farmers and many of the county's numerous Blacks actually fared worse as land and housing prices increased. Some found jobs in the oilfields, but many were left to toil on the land in the face of slumping agricultural prices. Many others found themselves on the unemployment rolls. Oil money, however, helped to offset the worst effects of the Great Depression for the county in general, and the inhabitants got through the hard times considerably better than their counterparts in most other Texas counties.
Although oil brought new riches, it also brought disaster. In March 1937 a powerful explosion caused by a natural gas leak blew up the New London School, killing nearly 300 children and teachers (see NEW LONDON SCHOOL EXPLOSION). Moralists saw the disaster as a result of excesses brought by so much new wealth and wondered whether the oil money was worth such a catastrophe. Oil also brought the beginning of the end of Rusk County's status as a leading cotton-producing area. During the mid-1920s the county's farmers had been producing 25,000 bales a year, with peak production in 1926 exceeding 44,000 bales; during the 1930s the figure gradually declined, and in 1945 the county agent reported that only 1,541 bales had been ginned. Production amounts increased again in the late 1940s, but the levels never again approached what they had been in the 1920s.
Although oil production has dropped off since the peak days of the boom, Rusk County continues to be a leader in the industry. In 1990 crude production was 7,690,643 barrels; between 1930 and January 1, 1991, 1,766,118,575 barrels were pumped from Rusk County wells, making it one of the state's all-time leading oil-producing counties. Despite falling oil prices in the 1980s, oil and natural gas extraction remain the leading industries, followed by metal-plate fabricating, agribusiness, heavy construction, sawmills, the manufacture of clay and brick tile, and lignite mining. Lumbering has at various times been an important industry. The county is nearly 50 percent forested, and as late as 1968 there were five lumbermills operating there. Subsequently, however, the industry declined, though it still remains among the leaders in the county's payroll.
In the 1980s Rusk County also remained a significant producer of livestock and poultry. In 1982 it ranked 140th among Texas counties in agricultural receipts, with 90 percent coming from livestock and livestock products. Approximately 50 percent of the land in the county was in farms and ranches, with 12 percent of the farmland under cultivation. The primary crops were oats, hay, and wheat; watermelons, peaches, and pecans were also grown in significant quantities. The total number of businesses in the county in the early 1980s was 696. In 1980 9 percent of workers were self-employed, 17 percent were employed in professional or related services, 20 percent in manufacturing, 19 percent in wholesale and retail trade, and 10 percent in agriculture, forestry, fishing, and mining; 35 percent were employed in other counties, and 4,102 retired workers lived in the county. Nonfarm earnings in 1981 totaled $399,266,000.
Schools in operation before the Civil War included the Rusk County Academy, Henderson Female College, Fowler Institute, and Mount Enterprise Male and Female Academy. In the early 1980s Rusk County had eight school districts, with twelve elementary, three middle, and eight high schools. The average daily attendance in 1981–82 was 6,781, with expenditures per pupil of $2,984. Forty-three percent of the 441 high school graduates planned to attend college. In 1983 70 percent of the school graduates were White, 27 percent Black, 3 percent Hispanic, 0.1 percent American Indian, and 0.1 percent Asian. The first churches in the county were organized shortly after the influx of Americans in the 1840s. In the mid-1980s the county had 111 churches, with an estimated combined membership of 22,864. The largest communions were Southern Baptist, United Methodist, and American Baptist.
Politically, Rusk County has followed statewide voting trends. Its voters favored the Democratic candidate in every presidential election from 1848 through 1948. After 1952, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower carried the county over Democrat Adlai Stevenson, the area began to trend Republican. Though Lyndon Johnson beat Republican Barry Goldwater among the county's voters in 1964, and independent candidate George Wallace won a plurality in Rusk County in 1968, Republicans dominated the area during the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Republican presidential candidates won most of the votes in the county in virtually every election from 1972 through 2004. The only exception was 1992, when George H. W. Bush won only a plurality of the county's votes, partly because independent candidate Ross Perot had strong local support. Republican senatorial and gubernatorial candidates also fared well in late-twentieth-century elections. Democrats, on the other hand, continued to dominate local elections; as late as 1982, 94 percent of the county's voters voted in the Democratic primary. Not until very late in the twentieth century did Republican candidates for county offices find it possible to win.
After World War II the population of Rusk County declined, as many left to seek jobs in the growing cities. The census counted 42,234 people in the area in 1950 (down more than 20,000 from its peak at the beginning of the oil boom); thereafter the population dropped to 36,421 in 1960 and to only 34,102 in 1970. During the late twentieth century the county's population began to increase again, rising to 41,382 in 1980 and to 43,735 in 1990. In the latter year about 77 percent of the population was Anglo, 21 percent was Black, and 4 percent was Hispanic.
By 2014 there were 53,923 people living in the county. About 64.9 percent were Anglo, 17.6 percent were African American, and 15.7 percent were Hispanic. More than 74 percent of the residents age twenty-five or older had high school diplomas; almost 13 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century oil and gas production, lumbering, and agribusinesses were the key elements of the area's economy. More than 2,823,000 barrels of oil and 75,642,595 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 1,828,535,077 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1930. Almost 15,356,000 cubic feet of pinewood and almost 5,018,000 cubic feet of hardwood were harvested in the county in 2003. In 2002 the county had 1,391 farms and ranches covering 272,436 acres, 43 percent of which were devoted to crops, 29 percent to pasture, and 21 percent to woodlands. In that year Rusk County farmers and ranchers earned $39,348,000, with livestock sales accounting for $25,374,000 of that total. Beef cattle, nursery plants, and hay were the chief agricultural products. Henderson (population, 13,637) is the county's seat of government and largest town; other communities include Overton (2,557), Tatum (1,412, partly in Panola County), Kilgore (14,793, partly in Gregg County), Selman City (271), Laneville (169), New London (996), Mount Enterprise (449), Laird Hill (300), and Minden (150). Lake Cherokee, Martin Creek Lake State Recreation Area, and Lake Striker provide recreation for the area, while Harmony Hill Ghost Town, historic homes, and other sites attract many other visitors.