San Augustine County is in extreme East Texas, twenty-three miles from the eastern state boundary. It is bordered by the Attoyac River on the west, Sabine County on the east, Shelby County to the north, and Sam Rayburn Reservoir to the south. San Augustine, the largest town and county seat, is just north of the county center, 31°28' north latitude and 94°08' west longitude, at the intersection of U.S. Highway 96, State highways 21 and 147, and Farm roads 711, 2213, and 353. The Timberrock Railroad enters the county from the north and bisects the county. The county comprises 524 square miles of the East Texas Timberlands region. It is covered in pines interspersed with hardwoods, particularly oaks, and some native grasses. The soil varies from light-colored sandy loams over red clay in the north to darker loam-covered clay in the south. Elevation ranges from 150 to 400 feet above mean sea level. Mineral resources include oil, gas, lignite coal, industrial sand, and ceramic clay. Between 21 and 30 percent of the soil is prime farmland. The climate is warm and moist, with annual rainfall averaging forty-eight inches. Temperatures range from an average low of 36° F in January to 94° in July. The first freeze is usually in mid-November and the last in mid-March, providing a 238-day growing season.
Some of the earliest inhabitants of San Augustine County were the Hasinai Indians, an agricultural Caddoan people with a stable society. Their tribes, particularly the Ais (or Ayish), occupied the area for centuries before the French and Spanish arrived. The first European visitors probably arrived with the Moscoso expedition early in the 1540s. Almost 150 years later they were followed by French traders based near the site of present Natchitoches, Louisiana. These adventurers found three Indian settlements-the main village near the site of present San Augustine, one just south on Ayish Bayou, and another on the Attoyac River-possibly with as many as 500 inhabitants. To counteract the French influence on local tribes and maintain their claim to the land, the Spaniards began activities in East Texas. In 1691 Domingo Terán de los Ríos traveled through the area, cutting a path that would become the Old San Antonio Road. But the threat of French invasion remained, and in 1717 Father Antonio Margil de Jesús established Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de los Ais Mission on Ayish Bayou in an attempt to secure a permanent Spanish presence on the eastern frontier. By 1719, however, the mission was abandoned because of drought, hunger, lack of supplies, and encroaching French forces. Three years later the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, governor of Coahuila and Texas, returned and rebuilt the wooden mission in the same vicinity on Mission Hill. The mission, however, ultimately failed; the Indians refused to be organized into a pueblo around the mission compound, and they never consented to be converted or baptized. In 1773 the government ordered the abandonment of all East Texas missions, and the Spanish settlers reluctantly removed themselves. The mission was probably destroyed after they left.
After 1779 both new and former residents, no longer fearful of French forces, moved into the area that they called the Ayish Bayou District. Their numbers greatly increased after disease and threats from other tribes forced the Caddo Indians to relocate late in the seventeenth century. After 1806, when the disputed strip of territory between the Spanish and United States boundaries was declared the Neutral Ground to avoid military contact, the governments refused to grant land in the area to settlers. This policy did little to discourage immigrants, however. Early inhabitants included Gertrudis and Antonio Leal, Richard and Concepción Sims, Susanna Horton, John Quinalty, Martha Lewes, Edmund Quirk, Chichester Chaplin, and Bailey Anderson, Sr. Most settlers, including scattered remnants of Cherokee, Kickapoo, Delaware, and Shawnee tribes, emigrated from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. In 1819 William Ward erected the first sawmill in Texas between the Ironosa and Attoyac rivers, and Lewis Holloway constructed the second one in the same area soon after. Cotton cultivation began in 1825, and the following year John Sprowl and John A. Williams built the first local gins. During the Fredonian Rebellion in 1827, the citizens of Ayish Bayou, invited to challenge the Mexican government with Haden Edwards, chose instead to abandon their little village and flee from his forces as well as those of the Mexican army. Only Alexander Horton, Stephen Prather, and Edward Teel stayed behind, raising a combined force of Anglos and Indians that drove the rebels from the vicinity. Also in 1827, municipal officials were elected for the first time. Nathan Davis served as alcalde for the Ayish Bayou District, and George English became the first sheriff. For several years these were the only local officials. With this type of municipal government established, the settlers devoted their time to the peaceful activities of herding and farming. Cotton and corn became the most important money crops. Sawmilling continued, with Wyatt Hanks and Donald McDonald recting a mill on the Ayish Bayou south of town. Pioneers began to move into areas further down the Ayish Bayou and the Attoyac River, but most remained in the Redlands, the original area of settlement, where stores and saloons had opened. In 1833 William McFarland became alcalde, and citizens began to contemplate constructing a centrally located town. A committee of fifteen men chose the banks of the Ayish Bayou and then purchased the land from Edmund Quirk. The following year, under alcalde Charles Stanfield Taylor, the municipality of San Augustine was established by Mexican law. The name was chosen by Mexican officials, supposedly to honor St. Augustine of Hippo. Since the new district had 2,500 inhabitants in 1834, it could then officially elect an alcalde, two councilmen, a clerk, a chief justice and a primary judge.
Unrest still plagued the new district, however. Ayish Bayou settlers had been involved in the 1832 battle of Nacogdoches, in which they helped remove José de las Piedras, commandant of Nacogdoches. Subsequently, they sent prominent representatives, including Sam Houston in 1833, to the conventions of 1832 and 1833. Early in 1836 Houston was elected commander of the Texian forces at San Augustine-and then for all of Texas-which took an active part in the Texas Revolution. In April the town was abandoned when citizens fled toward the Louisiana border in the Runaway Scrape. They returned to their homes with news of the victory at the battle of San Jacinto. With the close of hostilities, Texans began establishing a government for the new Republic of Texas. San Augustine County was one of the first counties to be formed. In 1837 settlers chose county officials, including a chief justice, a county clerk, a sheriff, a district clerk, a surveyor, and a coroner. In most instances, war heroes were elected to those positions, replacing earlier settlers as community leaders.
Neither county organization nor the end of the war brought peace. In 1838 rumors circulated that a group of rebel Mexicans under Vicente Córdova would attack San Augustine and Nacogdoches. A force under San Augustine resident and war veteran Henry W. Augustine pursued the rebels from their camp on the Angelina River. While many were apprehended, the leaders escaped to Mexico. Problems with the Indians culminated in their forcible removal from East Texas in March 1839. The Neutral Ground had also become a source of conflict. The area had become a sanctuary for escaped outlaws and various legions of unsavory characters, because neither the American or Mexican governments had any jurisdiction over it. Horse theft, counterfeiting, and land fraud were not uncommon activities, especially in neighboring Sabine and Shelby counties. For years vigilantism had been the only form of justice, and in 1840 this lawlessness erupted into a feud over land titles that became known as the Regulator-Moderator War. The bloodshed spilled over into several East Texas counties and continued until President Sam Houston negotiated a peace treaty between the two parties in 1844. With peace restored, the area was once again open to permanent settlement, and other homesteaders began to arrive. Most were small farmers or herders from Alabama or Tennessee. In the 1840s these residents enjoyed an economic success that would not come again. Corn and cotton, the major crops, were transported to market in Louisiana by wagon. Without the restraint of Mexican law, Protestants built the first Methodist, Colored Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian churches for formal services. Enterprising entrepreneurs such as François and Border, Matthew Cartwright, and I. D. Thomas opened mercantile stores in town. Businessmen and farmers were able to avoid tax collectors with a minimum of effort. The San Augustine Red-Lander, established as the county's first newspaper in 1838, was widely read throughout East Texas. Education had also become an important concern, and both private and public schools opened. The University of San Augustine and Wesleyan College were founded to educate both young men and women. Augustus Phelps, a local architect, designed and built several small but impressive Greek Revival homes. In 1845 the county was divided into six precincts to accommodate the increase in voters, both in and out of town. McFarland Lodge, a Masonic order founded in 1837, was joined by a Royal Arch Masonry chapter and other organizations.
By 1850 the county population was 3,648, including 1,561 Black enslaved people. The county seat had several stores and remained the center of community activity, though other communities were developing. In 1854 thirteen school districts were established, each electing a board of trustees. That same year the first courthouse was erected. Public roads were maintained by order of the county court based on the recommendations of a review board. The court also established ferries over unfordable streams and creeks. In each precinct a patrol was appointed to police slave activities, but only the sheriff could capture and return runaways. As many as thirty-five people were employed in manufacturing establishments, and eight mercantile stores and one drugstore were opened. Red Land Lodge No. 24 founded a Masonic Institute to educate local children. The 1850 census reported 109,713 acres of farmland valued at fifty cents per acre. Of these, 91,810 (83 percent) were unimproved. The remaining 17,903 acres were used primarily to run livestock, particularly hogs, and to grow subsistence crops. Corn was the major crop, used for family consumption as well as livestock feed through the winter. The cotton crop for 1850 was 1,020 bales. Local residents also grew 265 bushels of wheat, 475 pounds of tobacco, and 780 pounds of rice. By 1860 the county population had increased to 4,094, including 1,717 slaves. While 144 residents owned slaves, only eight possessed more than forty. The agricultural census for that year reported 22,972 improved acres, while 103,254 farm acres remained unimproved. Cotton production had boomed; local farmers ginned 3,142 bales, delivering these to the Shreveport, Natchitoches, or New Orleans markets in ox-drawn wagons. The wheat crop, milled locally for home consumption, had increased to 5,122 bushels. But corn was still the staple crop, with a total of 141,206 bushels harvested. Manufacturing establishments numbered as many as thirteen. San Augustine was still the center of community activity and had the only post office in the county. Politically, San Augustine County remained traditionally Democratic in the 1860 presidential election. John C. Breckinridge, the Southern Democratic party candidate, won the majority of votes, while Constitutional Union party candidate John Bell and Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas received a few. In January 1861 citizens sent Calloway Deen, Sr., as their delegate to the Secession Convention, and, although he argued against leaving the Union, they heartily endorsed the secession ordinance in a county election. The following month they began to prepare for war, raising one infantry and two cavalry companies. During the summer these troops traveled to Missouri and Virginia to answer the Confederate call to arms. Other companies soon followed. On the home front women worked to provide needed clothing and supplies for the soldiers. In 1862 an independent battalion of the Third Texas Brigade was stationed in San Augustine to guard against invasion. Both corn and pork were plentiful until 1863, and when rations began to dwindle, the county court distributed money, corn, and cotton cards to dependent families of Confederate soldiers by order of the state legislature. Slaves continued to work with their owners and were not associated with occasional acts of violence.
The end of the Civil War, however, brought unrest to San Augustine County. In 1867, when authorities began to register African Americans to vote, many citizens objected, especially since former Confederates were still denied this right. White citizens were equally disconcerted when Harry Garrett, a schoolteacher and former slave, began holding meetings and organizing a Black militia company. Former planters charged Garrett and his followers with sending harassing letters. When Jesse Burnett, a local White farmer, was killed by a Black hired hand, the White population decided to act. They formed a Ku Klux Klan-like organization, which used flogging to force most of the Black activists to leave the county. In 1868 a mob drove the Black registrar out of the county seat and harassed the local Freedmen's Bureau agent. With the withdrawal of federal troops, the violence diminished, and the Klan eventually dissolved. The county voted Republican in the presidential election of 1872, and even though it went Democratic in the 1873 governor's election, the Republican party remained a large faction in San Augustine County, at least for a few years. In 1876 local voters chose Republican Rutherford B. Hayes by a narrow margin of only seven votes. By 1878, however, they supported East Texas Democrat Oran M. Roberts for governor. The People's party made a strong showing in the county and actually won in the 1892 presidential election. After the turn of the century measures taken to disenfranchise Black and some White voters took dramatic effect, as the electorate declined from 1,353 voters in 1900 to 528 in 1908. Democratic presidential candidates carried the county in every election from 1896 through 1964. The area’s sympathies began to change in 1968, however, when independent candidate George Wallace won a plurality of the county’s voters. In 1972, Republican Richard Nixon carried the county, as did 1984 Ronald Reagan in 1984. Though the Democratic presidential candidates won the county in 1976, 1980, 1988, 1992, and 1996, the elections of 1968, 1972, and 1984 marked the beginnings of a shift away from the area’s traditional leanings. Republican George W. Bush won solid majorities in the county in the 2000 and 2004 elections, and by the early twenty-first century Republican candidates were becoming competitive in the county in elections for state and local offices.
The 1870s proved to be difficult times for the county. Future metropolitan areas, particularly Houston and Dallas, and the West Texas plains were attracting more pioneers, and soon San Augustine was no longer the gateway for immigration. Newer trade centers and methods of transportation had decreased the importance of the Old San Antonio Road as well. Settlers no longer flocked to the area, but those already established seldom moved away. Some farmers had lost their land holdings because of high taxes, and fencing sometimes made herding more difficult. In other parts of the state, the lumber industry was booming, and while the county had a huge timber resource, only small sawmills could function without the railroad. Some managed by felling trees and then floating them downriver to the huge mills at Orange and Beaumont. While the number of manufacturing establishment increased to eighteen, wages dropped from $8,484 in 1860 to $2,973 in 1870. The value of products decreased considerably as well, falling to $26,032 from $50,510. Almost 2,000 former slaves had chosen to remain in the area, providing a cheap labor force. Land values declined from a total of $472,662 in 1860 to $131,363 in 1870. The value of county livestock, which totaled $207,253 before the war, fell to $173,804. Attempts to stabilize the education system failed miserably, and officials complained that neither Whites nor Blacks would cooperate in reorganizing schools. By 1880 there were 5,084 county residents. Although the number of farms had increased, the number of acres used for farming had declined, indicating that such units were becoming smaller. Of 681 farmers, 27 percent (181) were sharecroppers. Twenty-six were on a fixed income, probably Confederate pensioners or their widows. While 138,335 acres were farmed, only 7,219 acres were in cotton, and because of soil exhaustion only 2,757 ginned bales were produced. Farmers grew huge amounts of corn, but no wheat. Sugar cane, which flourished in the mild, humid weather, had become a popular crop, with 6,752 tons reported in 1880. The cane was then processed in local syrup mills for sale and home consumption. The number of hogs had almost doubled to 14,042. Pork remained a staple of the diet, and many of these animals were driven to markets in larger towns in Texas and Louisiana. By 1890 the county population had reached 6,688, including 2,131 Black citizens. Industry had declined drastically, with only three manufacturers that employed six workers. The number of smaller farms continued to grow, and 326 farmers were sharecroppers. Cotton and corn remained the most important crops and hogs the most abundant livestock. Although fire destroyed much of San Augustine that year, the little town remained the most populous in the county. Villages like Benina, Caddell, and Ironosa had acquired post offices.
In 1901 the Gulf, Beaumont and Great Northern Railroad built a line through the county, with a rail stop in the county seat. The St. Louis and Southwestern Railway also extended a line into the southern part of the county, and rail towns like Warsaw, Veach, and Broaddus developed. This new form of transportation also made large sawmill operations feasible for the first time. Sawmill camps and towns sprang up, bringing more people and money into the area. By 1920 the county population had increased to 13,737, including 4,152 Black citizens. The number of industries had risen slightly to nine; many of these were railroad and lumber related services and employed a total of 214 workers. The Nacogdoches and Northeastern Railroad extended a rail line into the county, as did some lumber companies. Later in the decade some companies exhausted the timberlands and left the county, but this failed to cause massive hardship. The widescale clearing of land, new transportation to markets, and more local consumers led to an increase in farming. In 1920, 1,606 county residents farmed; 1,130, or 56 percent, were sharecroppers, and of these 476 were Black. That year San Augustine County produced 205,500 bushels of corn, 2,401 tons of sugar cane, and 1,043 bales of hay. Many farmers also grew truck crops such as tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, cabbage, and peas. Local nurseryman W. F. McDonald developed a blight-proof pear and a watermelon with yellow meat. The number of milk cows had almost doubled to 7,563, and growers reported 47,185 chickens. Cattle and corn were shipped to market. Dairy products, syrup, fruit, eggs, and much of the corn was sold to lumber camps for supplemental income.
As both the population and economy developed, county residents realized the need for better, more modern facilities. The old courthouse, constructed in 1890, was torn down and replaced in 1927 with a $100,000 stone structure. Many of the roads were graveled. In San Augustine citizens had access to city-owned water, light, and sewage utilities, as well as an ice plant and natural-gas services. Children attended new schools, including a one-story high school. The county was hard hit by the weak agricultural economy of the 1920s, followed by the Great Depression. Each year San Augustine County, along with other southern counties, had produced larger crops until overabundance resulted in a depressed economy. As prices fell, farmers produced more to increase their income, but the boll weevil often destroyed a field before it could be harvested. In addition to these difficulties the large lumber companies had exhausted most of the timberlands of East Texas and began to move out of the area. As a result an important source of livelihood was lost. This disturbed the county economy, removing an important market and many consumers. Even the small sawmills that managed to remain open could not operate at full capacity, so many workers were laid off. The lumber boom was never again as successful as before the depression, and residents returned to farming. By 1930 the number of sharecroppers increased to 1,038. Federally funded aid came in the form of local Work Projects Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps projects, as well as governmental loans. However, the number of sharecroppers continued to rise, reaching 1,101 in 1940.
By the beginning of World War II the local economy was fairly stable. Farming remained the prevalent occupation, and in unsuccessful years farmers sold timber to offset their losses. Corn, cotton, lumber, and poultry were the most abundant productions. Only three industries, which employed thirty-three people, had survived the depression. Some of the roads were now hard-surfaced, so truck farming was even more feasible. But overall, things were much as they had been before the economic boom of the early 1900s. Many of the young people who left the area during the war chose not to return, and others moved to more metropolitan areas, especially Houston and Dallas, in search of jobs. By 1950 the county population had decreased to 8,837, which included 3,425 African-American residents. The number of farms fell from 2,162 in 1940 to 1,064 in 1950, and corn output was down to 77,178 bushels, a decline of 50 percent. As farming became less prevalent, so did farm tenancy. Only 283 declared themselves as sharecroppers and forty-three as tenants in the 1950 census. Dairy farming had become virtually nonexistent, with the number of milk cows decreasing by 97 percent. The size of cattle herds had, however, increased, as ranching began to replace farming as a major source of income. Former cotton fields became pasturelands.
Farming continued to decline through the 1960s. By 1969 there were only 468 farms in the county; 137 of these operated under the share system. They produced 1,000 bales of cotton, as well as large amounts of corn and hay. The number of cattle had risen to 13,000. Lumber companies began the practice of reseeding cut-over acreage, and timber again became a source of supplemental income. There were a few sawmills in the county, but the business was dominated by large corporations, which usually bought rights to the trees or to the property itself. The median income for families living in the county seat was $2,750. Desegregation was accomplished, though late in the decade, without incident. While the majority of people attended elementary school, only 11 percent completed high school or college. In 1965 the United States Army Corps of Engineers completed Sam Rayburn Dam, thus forming Sam Rayburn Reservoir and inundating the Angelina and Attoyac rivers. The following year Toledo Bend Reservoir was constructed on the Sabine River twenty-three miles east of San Augustine County. The county contained 9,000,000 acre-feet of fresh water, as well as the 154,916-acre Angelina National Forest and the 188,220-acre Sabine National Forest. Recreational facilities in the woodlands and along the lakes attracted large numbers of visitors, and tourism became a new and important source of income. Operation White Tail, a 10,000-acre deer preserve, was also established.
In the 1970s the population stabilized at 8,000. Of these, 343 were farmers who produced fruit and vegetables for home consumption or local markets. Many other residents preferred to raise cattle or poultry. In 1982 nine million broilers, or meat chickens, were sold in San Augustine County. While poultry production provided the major source of income, herders raised 13,956 cattle and produced 5,782 acres of hay to feed them. Sawmills and tourist facilities, such as marinas, bait shops, convenience stores, and hotels, employed large numbers of people. Two convalescent centers, three libraries, the fifty-bed San Augustine Memorial Hospital, and 139 retail businesses also provided jobs. Residents could attended any of twenty-two churches, the Baptists and Methodists having the largest congregations. By 1990 San Augustine County had a population of 7,999.
In 2014 the census counted 8,610 people living in San Augustine County. About 68.8 percent were Anglo, 22.6 percent were African American, and 7 percent were Hispanic. Over 57 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and more than 8 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century lumbering, shipping, and some manufacturers were important elements of the area’s economy. In 2002 the county had 308 farms and ranches covering 58,723 acres, 37 percent of which were devoted to woodlands, 33 percent to crops, and 29 percent to pastures. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $24,980,000, with crop sales accounting for $23,977,000 of that total. Poultry, cattle, horses, watermelons, peas, and truck crops were the chief agricultural products. Almost 22,556,000 cubic feet of pinewood and more than 1,771,700 cubic feet of hardwood were harvested in the county in 2003. San Augustine (population, 2,089) is the county’s seat of government and largest town; other communities include Broaddus (208), Macune, Denning, Blandlake, Fords Corner, Norwood, White Rock, and Goodwin. A spring crafts fair, Fairway Farms Country Club, and the annual Tour of Medallion Homes and Historic Places were popular attractions.