San Jacinto County is in southeastern Texas on the Trinity River. Shepherd, the largest town, is fifty miles north of Houston on U.S. Highway 59. The county's center is at 30°41' north latitude and 95°00' west longitude. San Jacinto County comprises 628 square miles of the East Texas Timberlands and is heavily wooded with longleaf and loblolly pine, cedar, oak, walnut, hickory, gum, ash, and pecan. Sixty percent of the county is in the Sam Houston National Forest. Gently rolling hills characterize the area, and the soils are reddish with a loamy surface and mostly clayey subsoils that are high in iron. Along the Trinity River, there are dark loamy to cracking clayey subsoils. Between 20 and 30 percent of the land is considered prime farmland. The Trinity River serves as the eastern boundary of the county. The San Jacinto River, Big Creek, Winter Bayou, and Stephen Creek also flow through the county, and Peach Creek flows along the southwestern boundary. The elevation ranges from 374 to 386 feet. Average annual precipitation is forty-eight inches, and the temperature ranges from an average low of 36° F in January to an average high of 94° in July. The average growing season extends 261 days.
The original inhabitants of San Jacinto County probably belonged to either the Atakapa or the Patiri Indian tribes. Little is known about the latter group except the name. The Atakapans sparsely populated the area and hunted game such as deer and bear. Anglo-American settlement began in the lower Trinity River region during the 1820s. Numerous Mexican land grants were made in the area in the early 1830s. Among the largest grantees were José María de la Garza, J. Fernández de Rumayor, Vital Flores, Ralph McGee, and the Martínez family. The first post office in the area was established in 1847 in Coonskin, then in Polk County. The name was changed to Coldspring in 1850. The land on which Coldspring is located was originally granted by the Mexican government to Robert Rankin. The Texas legislature established San Jacinto County with Coldspring as the county seat on August 13, 1870, out of parts of Liberty, Montgomery, Polk, and Walker counties. The county was named in honor of the battle of San Jacinto, which ended the Texas Revolution. On March 12, 1877, the Commissioners' Court met to consider plans for building a courthouse and agreed to pay Thomas and Werner, builder and architects of Fort Worth, $8,000 to build the structure. A brick jail was also built for $1,500 by Thomas Ireland. The first census taken after the county was organized shows 6,186 residents by 1880. The county's first weekly newspaper began publication in 1897 in Coldspring under the name the San Jacinto Times.
Transportation was slow to develop in the area. Steamboats occasionally ascended the Trinity River for several hundred miles in the 1850s, and early settlers frequently made short trips downriver to reach other parts of the county. They depended on these steamboats and the cargo they brought from ports on the Gulf of Mexico. Residents were able to ship part of their cotton crop on the return voyages of the steamboats. In 1871 a $500 bond was posted to establish a ferry across the Trinity River at Swartwout. About the same time, a public ferry across Mussels Shoals Creek was established. Wagoning and freighting were also an early form of transportation. The cotton that was not shipped by steamer was taken to Lynchburg in ox wagons, a trip which usually lasted two to three weeks.
Schools appeared soon after settlements were established in the area. The early schools were conducted privately, and attendance was poor. Students often dropped out as soon as they were old enough to work or could no longer afford to attend. Next to be established were academies, which later became training schools for teachers. One of the earliest academies in the area was the Cold Springs Female Institute, which opened in 1854. Public schools were not in operation until several decades after the county was formally established. "County Institutes" were held in Coldspring to prepare teachers for the school year. As was the case in many schools throughout the state in the late 1800s, most teachers were poorly prepared and relied heavily on textbooks such as McGuffey's Readers and the Blue-Backed Speller. The county judge served as the ex-officio county school superintendent. The county's largest town, Shepherd, was named for B. A. Shepherd, a banker and landowner, who moved to San Jacinto County from Houston to locate a new town in 1875. The Houston East and West Texas Railway passed through this newly established town, eleven miles south of Coldspring. A post office was established in Shepherd in 1879 and discontinued for a brief period in 1881.
Religious organizations were also important in the county's history. A Methodist Episcopal church was established at Coldspring on June 27, 1847. The original frame building stood a quarter of a mile from Coldspring until it was relocated when the town moved in 1916. A Sunday school annex was added in 1938. Both Shepherd and Evergreen had a Methodist church serviced by the Coldspring minister. A Baptist church was established in Coldspring on August 11, 1855, and in Shepherd in 1939. The two congregations shared a pastor until the middle of the twentieth century. A Presbyterian congregation was established at Waverly in May 1860 and erected its own building in 1904. A Church of Christ was organized in Evergreen in 1888 and another in Shepherd in 1930. There were only a few Catholics in the county by 1940, and they had no organized church. There was one small Mormon congregation at Embryfield and a Pentecostal organization at Shepherd. Partly due to the lack of available churches, camp meetings were popular in the early days. They were usually held in the summer and attracted people from miles around. Local residents began building an enormous shed, called a "brush arbor," and preparing the campground months before the meeting was to take place. These meetings declined in number in the early 1900s as a result of improved transportation which made camping unnecessary.
Growth slowed significantly in the early twentieth century. By 1910 the population had leveled off at 9,542, probably due to mill developments in adjacent counties and to poor transportation facilities within the county. There were over 1,600 farms in the county in 1920. That year the Black population reached a high of 5,487. That number may have declined later as a result of operations of the Ku Klux Klan, which experienced a revival after World War I. A chapter of the organization was organized at Coldspring, and several meetings were held outside of town. Meetings were discontinued before World War II. Just after the turn of the century there were 2,500 students in thirty-one White and twenty-eight Black schools. A graded high school in Coldspring had 100 students. School consolidation began in San Jacinto County in 1928. Three high schools were organized-at Coldspring, Oakhurst, and Shepherd. The common school districts were Pine Valley, Waverly, Byspot, and Gibbs. The first county superintendent was elected in 1928.
San Jacinto State Bank was chartered in the county and opened in Coldspring on October 11, 1907. Sixteen years later the Guaranty State Bank assumed ownership of the bank, which in 1927 became known as the Coldspring State Bank. In 1932 it merged with the Peoples State Bank in Shepherd, and there was no longer a bank in Coldspring. Oakhurst Bank opened in 1916. It was organized to handle Liberty Bonds for the employees of the Palmetto Lumber Company and operated for three years. After the original county courthouse burned down in 1915, the town of Coldspring moved to a more elevated site, and a new $15,000 courthouse was built. Other businesses followed the county seat to its new site.
The lumber industry has been instrumental in the economic development of San Jacinto County. Most of the land lies within the East Texas pine timber area. The rainfall, soil, and long growing season have all contributed to the county's timber growth. Several large lumber mills were established along the Houston East and West Texas Railway. The Gibbs brothers made their first purchases of lands in San Jacinto County between 1869 and 1874 and began operation of the Palmetto Lumber Company in 1874. Between 1900 and 1939 they acquired another 32,000 acres of timberland. The Foster Lumber Company also owned thousands of acres along the East San Jacinto River. In 1935 the company sold 30,000 acres to the federal government; this land became part of Sam Houston National Forest when it was established that year. During the Great Depression the Civilian Conservation Corps established camps in San Jacinto County. A White camp was organized in Oakhurst in April 1933, and a Black camp was established a short time later. Both camps were discontinued in 1940, the same year the Rural Electrification Administration's efforts reached San Jacinto County. Oil was first discovered in San Jacinto County in 1940. At that time Coldspring had five general stores, three filling stations, two garages, two cafes, two drugstores, a meat market, a pressing shop, a barbershop, and a food store. In 1950 the county had 1,100 farms and the population had fallen to 6,153. Until then African Americans had outnumbered Whites. In 1970, however, there were almost three Whites for every two Blacks. Between 1970 and 1980 the county population jumped from 6,702 to 11,434. This reflected the general pattern throughout the state, as the oil boom rushed the economy forward.
County voters have supported the Democratic party in most presidential elections through 1992, although the majority voted for Republican candidates in 1972 and 1984. In 1990 intercity bus service was available, and four motor freight carriers operated in San Jacinto County. The Southern Pacific Railroad, which had taken over the Houston East and West Texas Railway, carried 10 to 20 million tons of freight annually. While the economy was based on timber and oil, natural resources in also included industrial sand, sand and gravel, and gas. The number of farms in the county in 1987 was 350. Crop production has always been relatively poor compared to the rest of Texas. Primary crops include Indian corn, hay, sweet potatoes, peaches, and pecans. Livestock have mostly played a subsistence role in the economic life of the county. In 1990 livestock and livestock production earned 50 percent of agricultural receipts, primarily from cattle, milk, and hogs. Agribusiness employs most of the people in the county. Retail trade and service industries provided most of the other jobs. At least 70 percent of the population was employed outside the county, many in Houston or at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville.
In 1990 there was one weekly newspaper in San Jacinto County, the San Jacinto News-Times, published in Shepherd. Coldspring's San Jacinto County Jail was on the National Register of Historic Places. Recreation areas include Lake Livingston State Recreation Area and Wolf Creek Park, and hunting is plentiful in the county. The Texas Forest Trail is a scenic drive through the farming, ranching, and oilfield areas of the East Texas Pineywoods. Raven Hill, the plantation home of Sam Houston built in 1844, is a local historic site. Pioneer Days are held each April in Coldspring, and the County Fair is held every September. The population of San Jacinto County in 2014 was 27,099; about 75.4 percent were Anglo, 10.5 percent were African American, and 12 percent were Hispanic. Most residents lived in rural areas. Shepherd was the largest town (population, 2,444). Other towns included Coldspring (922), Pointblank (733), and Oakhurst (245). San Jacinto County had two elementary, two middle, and two high schools. There was one public library in Shepherd. There were a county ambulance service and a county health services clinic, three physicians, and four dentists. Twenty-nine churches met in San Jacinto County with a combined membership of 4,000; the largest denominations were Southern Baptist, United Methodist, and Baptist Missionary. San Jacinto County is known for the beauty of the Sam Houston National Forest and its timberland amid rolling hills.