Smith County is located in northeastern Texas fifty-eight miles from the eastern state boundary. It is bordered by the Neches River and Henderson and Van Zandt counties on the west, Cherokee County on the south, Rusk and Upshur counties on the east, and the Sabine River and Upshur and Wood counties on the north. Tyler, the largest town and county seat, is at the intersection of U.S. Highway 69/271 with State highways 155, 110, 31, and 64, near the center of the county (at 32°20' N, 95°15' W). Interstate Highway 20 runs east and west through the northern part of the county. The St. Louis Southwestern Railway (or Cotton Belt), constructed in the 1870s as the Tyler Tap Railroad, crosses Smith County from east to northwest. The Missouri Pacific, constructed in the late 1870s as the International & Great Northern Railroad, crosses the southeast corner of the county. Lake Tyler and Lake Tyler East are major bodies of water in the southeast part of the county, and a third major reservoir, Lake Palestine, is located on the southwestern county line. The county comprises 932 square miles of the East Texas Timberlands region. Two-thirds of this environment is covered in post oak, blackjack oak, and tall grasses, and one-third is heavily forested with pine and hardwoods. The soil varies from sandy prairie loams in the northwest and east to loam-covered clay through the remainder of the county. The elevation ranges from 300 to 600 feet above mean sea level. Mineral resources include petroleum, gas, iron ore, clay, limestone, lignite, and salt. Only 1 to 10 percent of the county is prime farm land. The climate is warm and moist; the annual rainfall averages forty-four inches, and temperatures range from an average low of 33° F in January to an average high of 95° in July. The first freeze is usually late in November and the last early in March; the growing season thus lasts 259 days.
The first known inhabitants of the area were the Caddo Indians, an agricultural people with a highly developed culture. Their tribes, particularly the Anadarkos, occupied the area for centuries before Europeans arrived. The first European visitor was a Spanish missionary named José Francisco Calahorra y Saenz, who traveled through the area in 1765 and mentioned the Neches Saline, saline plains in what later became the southwestern corner of the county (see NECHES SALINE, TEXAS), in his account of the journey. No other European entered the vicinity until 1788, when Pedro Vial and Francisco Xavier Fragoso, two Frenchmen, passed through on a journey from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Natchitoches, Louisiana. Late in the eighteenth century, disease and threats from other Indians forced the Caddos to move. By 1820, however, the Cherokees, led by Chief Bowl, had settled at the Neches Saline after being driven from North Texas by hostile tribes. While these and other Indians occupied the area, the Mexican government issued grants for parcels of land now in Smith County. These included grants to David G. Burnet in 1826, Peter Ellis Bean in 1828, and Vicente Filisola in 1831. George W. Bays, who arrived on the Neches Saline in 1823, became the first non-Indian settler. Though he left after the Fredonian Rebellion and later returned only briefly, others were moving into the area. Still, unrest prevented the development of any sizable White settlement. In 1836 there were forty people, three trading posts, and a salt works on the Neches Saline, but after the fall of the Alamo the settlers retreated for a while to Lacy's Fort, located nearby in what is now Cherokee County. Deteriorating relations with the Cherokees retarded settlement of the area until the Cherokee War of 1839 led to the removal of the tribe.
With the area open to permanent settlement, pioneers began to homestead. Most were small farmers who came from the South, particularly Alabama and Tennessee. In July 1846 Smith County was marked off from the Nacogdoches District and named for Gen. James Smith, a hero of the Texas Revolution and a prominent military figure in the Republic of Texas. Tyler was designated as the county seat and has remained so. The county commissioners' court was elected and met for the first time before the end of the year. By 1850 the county had reached a population of 4,292, including 717 Black enslaved people. Residents attended seven local churches, including one Missionary Baptist and one Methodist in Tyler. The little town also had several stores and 276 inhabitants. In the county were seven schools with one teacher and an average of nineteen students each; the school in Tyler had only four students. Most trade was carried on in New Orleans; goods were shipped from there to Shreveport and then transported by ox-drawn wagons to Tyler by way of the Dallas-Shreveport Road. The 1850 census reported 91,360 acres of farmland, of which 82,434, or 89 percent, was unimproved. The remaining 8,926 acres was used primarily to keep livestock, particularly hogs, and to grow subsistence crops. Corn was the staple crop, used for family consumption as well as livestock feed through the winter. In 1850 seventy-six farmers reported a cotton crop that produced a total of only 415 bales. Local residents grew peaches, apples, grapes, blackberries, and vegetables, but mass production was not feasible because of transportation difficulties.
In the 1850s the county continued to grow. Alfred W. Ferguson built five brick buildings, the first in the county, at Tyler. More doctors and other settlers arrived and bought town lots as well as settling at such new sites as Starrville, Jamestown, Canton (later renamed Omen), Garden Valley, Flora, Mount Carmel, and Mount Vernon. Although ferries were built at several stations along the Sabine and Neches rivers, travel remained treacherous and dependent on good weather. David Clopton began publishing the first Smith County newspaper, the Tyler Telegraph, on a weekly basis in 1851. Tyler University, an academy sponsored by the Cherokee Baptist Association, opened either in 1852 or 1853. In 1857 the men's department was destroyed by fire but soon reopened under the name Masonic Male Academy. The women's department became Eastern Texas Female College, also called Tyler Female Seminary. By 1860 the county population had increased to 13,392, including 4,980 enslaved people and two free Blacks. Of these citizens, 1,021 lived in Tyler. Other small towns now included Mount Sylvan, Winona, and Whitehouse. Though 50 percent of the residents owned fewer than five slaves, fifty families owned more than twenty. The census for 1860 reported 82,043 improved acres, while 286,503 remained claimed but unimproved. County farmers had ginned 9,763 bales of cotton, which they delivered to the Shreveport and Jefferson markets in wagons now made in the county and drawn by locally grown oxen. The number of hogs, most of them wild, more than tripled (to 34,003), and in ten years the number of cattle had increased from 3,831 to 14,716. With a larger population, a slave labor force, and growth in livestock production came general expansion in the growth of subsistence crops. In 1860 Smith County farmers produced 605,326 bushels of corn, 66,981 of sweet potatoes, and 19,189 of peas and beans. These crops fed both families and livestock. Development, however, was not limited to agriculture. In 1860 the county had six sawmills, five gristmills, three corn-whiskey distilleries, seventeen blacksmith shops, nine wagonmakers, three saddle shops, five cabinetmakers, and thirty-one general stores. The lawyers included future governors O. M. Roberts and Richard B. Hubbard. Tyler had become a stop on the routes of five stagecoach lines that transported both passengers and mail and had emerged as an important legal center for the region. Thirty-one common schools, forty-five churches, and five Masonic lodges were now established in the county.
Politically, Smith County remained Democratic in the 1860 presidential election. In April, some disillusioned Democrats, loyal to unionist Sam Houston and upset that the states'-rights faction controlled the party, called a Constitutional Union party convention in Tyler, but only six people attended. In August, after fire destroyed downtown Henderson, Smith County residents, along with others in the vicinity, were extremely fearful of slave insurrections. Tyler and Starrville organized patrols, but they were never forced to act. As the election approached, local newspapers urged secession. The great majority of Smith County voters supported John Breckinridge, the Southern Democratic party candidate, and upon Lincoln's election they organized one infantry and two cavalry units. In January 1861 the county sent Oliver Loftin, Tignal Jones, George W. Chilton, John C. Robertson, and O. M. Roberts to the state Secession Convention in Austin, where Roberts served as president and helped lead Texas into the Confederacy. In June a unit known locally as the Smith County Cavalry traveled to Dallas to answer the Confederate call to arms. During the Civil War, Smith County became an important part of the Confederacy. In the summer of 1862 Gen. Henry E. McCulloch camped at Camp Clough, three miles east of Tyler, while preparing his troops for a march to Little Rock. Camp Ford, named for Capt. John S. (Rip) Ford, was established four miles northeast of Tyler as a training post. With the help of local women, army physicians established a post hospital at Planter's Hotel. Medicines were prepared for the Confederate Army at the Confederate States Chemical Laboratory, just east of Tyler at Headache Springs. After the blockade ended the importation of foreign medical supplies, surgeon W. R. Johnston of Virginia and his staff made medicine and liniments from native plants, as well as distilling medicinal whiskey. "Kirbyville," established near Tyler by Capt. John C. Kirby, operated as a transport depot, housing workers who made wagons, harnesses, caissons, and saddles. A local shoe shop was one of only five in the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederacy. Vegetables and meat, primarily pork, produced by county farmers were used to feed military personnel. The largest ordnance plant in the Trans-Mississippi, which eventually employed seventy-five workers, was located in Tyler. By 1863 slaves had built a stockade at Camp Ford, where prisoners of war were housed. The facility held 6,000 federal troops during the war.
Reconstruction was a difficult time for Smith County. The war had cost the lives of many of the county's young men and had brought widespread material loss. Many industries that had employed local residents and provided business for merchants were discontinued. County residents grappled with the new economic and social relations between the races. Land values had decreased from a total of $1,764,661 in 1860 to $961,475 in 1866. The value of county livestock, which totaled $372,568 before the war, fell to $249,316. After the Reconstruction Acts were passed, Republicans held local offices for the first time. The majority of these politicians were long-time local residents. With much of their leadership disenfranchised, Democrats formed a weak coalition under the leadership of Richard B. Hubbard. The early years of Reconstruction in the county were characterized by relative calm, though Black residents complained of abuse from Whites. In 1867 Tyler became the headquarters of a subdistrict of the Freedmen's Bureau, and the bureau's agents, occasionally supported by small military garrisons, attempted to secure voting rights, fair labor contracts, and educational opportunities for the Blacks of Smith County and its environs. Race relations rapidly deteriorated as the White citizens resisted these initiatives. Smith County authorities refused to cooperate with the agency in enforcing labor contracts violated by White landowners and in investigating the numerous cases of violence against Blacks. By 1868 the Freedmen's Bureau subcommissioner complained that a White "reign of terror" characterized the district, and he and several agency personnel were personally involved in a shootout with local toughs. In June 1868 White citizens attacked schoolchildren attending the year-old Black school in Tyler, forcing temporary suspension of the school. The bureau closed in 1869, but racial tensions continued to disrupt the county. Late in 1871 the trial of several Whites accused of violence against Blacks resulted in a gunfight in the streets of Tyler between White citizens and Black state policemen that left two Whites dead and several Black policemen wounded. Three years later Jack Johnson, a Black man accused of murder, was lynched by Whites (see LYNCHING).
The Republican party remained a large faction in Smith County politics even after Democrats took back control of the state in 1874. In 1876 local voters chose Democrat Samuel Tilden over Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, but by a narrow margin of 242 votes. Local versions of the White primary movement succeeded in disfranchising Black voters by the turn of century; the number of county voters dropped from 6,620 in 1896 to 3,746 eight years later. The postwar years brought political chaos, but they also brought growth and, eventually, prosperity. In 1865 Professor J. T. Hand opened Charnwood Institute, a boarding school that became well known in the state. By 1870 the county population had increased to 16,532. Early in the decade a furniture factory employing about twenty workers was constructed at Mechanicsville, northwest of Tyler. Railroad expansion meant new jobs for unskilled labor and fresh markets for farm produce. In 1874 a branch of the International & Great Northern (later the Missouri Pacific) was completed through Tyler to Mineola, and in 1877 twenty-one miles of the Tyler Tap Railroad had been constructed. This road, organized by local citizens, was built by county labor and financed by state funds and local donations. New towns, including Troup, Bullard, and Lindale, appeared along these new transportation lines. By 1880 Smith County contained 104 miles of track. Small industries, still few in number, included Taft's Iron (a rolling mill), Daniel Jones's wagon factory, and the Mechanicsville furniture factory. The production of cotton, now easily shipped to market by railroad, had boomed from 9,763 bales in 1860 to 45,703 in 1880. Farmers grew more than a million bushels of corn as well as large amounts of oats. Livestock continued to be an important source of income; the number of sheep and horses had increased significantly. With the beginning of the 1890s, the population of Tyler more than tripled, and 28,324 people lived in the county. New industries included a box manufacturer, a bottling works, and a cigar factory. There were also two national banks, four sawmills, an ice factory, and six canning companies. Texas College, a Black Methodist college primarily for educating schoolteachers, opened in Tyler in 1894. A second Black school, Texas Baptist Academy, opened in Tyler in 1905 and changed its name to Butler College in 1924.
With the turn of the century, Smith County took a new agricultural direction. Orchard produce had been the livelihood for farmers in smaller communities such as Pine Springs (then called Fruit) and Lindale since early in the 1880s, when the railroad made fruit shipment feasible. By 1900 there were a million fruit trees, mainly peach, in the Lindale-Swan vicinity. Then a serious blight hit the local orchards and spread quickly. Some farmers continued to grow strawberries or plums with success, but those who could no longer depend on fruit as a staple crop turned to pecans, tomatoes, cotton, or roses. The latter proved to be ideally suited to the Tyler area and soon became a lucrative business. The long growing season, warm rains, and south wind provided an appropriate climate. Farms within forty miles of Tyler, where the acidic soil was perfect for rose production, were especially successful. The Shamburger family of Pine Springs had sold rose bushes for $1.50 as early as 1879, and several families in the community were pioneers in the business. In 1904 B. S. Shamburger began planting 20,000 bushes per acre. But other farmers met with problems in their attempts to find new crops. Their difficulties led to assistance programs. On November 12, 1906, several Tyler businessmen hired W. C. Stallings, from the Dixie community, as the first county agent in the nation to supervise a single county. Under his guidance, county farmers recovered from the fruit blight by 1910. That year they produced more than 38,000 bushels of peaches and nectarines, and 667 acres yielded 1,832,612 quarts of strawberries. They also harvested large numbers of peanuts. The cotton output remained stable, with 24,154 bales of cotton harvested from 87,123 acres. Swift and Company and the Armour Company had come to Tyler, and the number of hogs had risen by 3,000 during the decade. The number of residents in the county had reached 41,746 in 1910. Of the 5,924 farms in the county that year, 1,270 (21 percent) were farmed by sharecroppers. As both the population and the economy developed, Smith County residents realized that better roads were needed to facilitate safe transportation. In the 1910s a Good Roads Commission was established to build sand-clay roads throughout the county. By 1919 a $1 million bond issue had been approved to maintain the condition of the new roads. In 1921 the Dixie Highway, the first hard-surface road in the county, was built from Tyler to Winona with iron ore, gravel, asphalt, and crushed limestone. Soon after, the Jim Hogg Highway was completed from Tyler to Lindale. In 1924 the Texas State Highway Commission assumed management of such thoroughfares, while county roads remained under the jurisdiction of the county commissioners' court.
The expansion of farm tenancy during the early decades of the twentieth century was a sign that county agriculture was becoming increasingly vulnerable. By 1920, 50 percent of the county's 6,317 farmers were tenants, and ten years later, with the advent of the Great Depression, more than 62 percent were tenants. Ironically, new highways and refrigerated trucks had destroyed the livelihood of more than 300 farmers because the demand for Smith County tomatoes had declined. In 1929 proceeds from the sale of cotton represented four-fifths of the county income. Each year Smith County, along with other southern counties, had produced larger amounts of the crop until overabundance had resulted in a depressed market. As prices fell lower, farmers produced larger crops to raise their income, but the boll weevil often destroyed a field before it could be harvested. The number of livestock had also fallen drastically. The rose industry continued to be profitable, and the first Tyler Rose Festival was held in 1933. Citizens also faced the possible loss of the railroad. In 1932 the Southern Pacific purchased controlling interest in the Cotton Belt and decided to move the central offices out of Tyler. More than 1,000 employees feared for their jobs, and a court trial ensued. Tyler, however, won the case, and the offices remained there. Later in the decade the county was adversely affected by the construction of U.S. Highway 80, which bypassed Smith County and diverted the Shreveport-Dallas traffic.
Farmers, desperately in need of economic improvement, began to seek solutions to their problems. The federally funded Duck Creek Soil Erosion Project was established in the Lindale area to study the effects of erosion and formulate effective methods of control. Landowners participated by voluntarily testing new procedures on their farms. Workers from a nearby Civilian Conservation Corps camp assisted local residents in practical application. They constructed schools, dams, fences, and Tyler State Park, and also planted trees and grass. The camp provided both consumers and labor, and Smith County farmers cooperated with legislative acts by growing less cotton. But the greatest boost to the county economy came in 1931, when Guy V. Lewis completed drilling on the first oil well in Smith County. His well was part of the original East Texas oilfield; soon other fields, including Chapel Hill, South Tyler, Mount Sylvan, and Sand Flat, were being developed. Many oil companies and field developers established offices in Tyler. Suddenly, land was a valuable commodity. The value of county farms increased from $15,166,945 in 1930 to $82,351,187 in 1940, though the tenancy rate remained high (49 percent). The population grew to 69,090 by 1940, when 28,279 residents lived in Tyler.
World War II brought still more prosperity. In 1943 Camp Fannin, an infantry-training center, was constructed near the site of present-day Owentown. The camp employed 2,500 civilians and also brought army personnel into local towns; prisoners of war were held at the camp later. There were new markets for local produce, and the extensive system of railroads made Smith County important in transportation. In 1946 several successful businessmen established the Tyler Foundation to raise funds to help local entrepreneurs get started. That same year, rose growers formed the Texas Rose Research Foundation to apply tested methods to their crops. The oil industry had developed with the war, and by 1947, 98,367,890 barrels had been produced. In 1949 the Whitehouse Dam impounded Lake Tyler. Fishing and boating opportunities led to more businesses. As commercial dealings became more important in the county, farming became secondary. Most landowners grew subsistence crops, roses, or fruit—if they were involved in crop production at all. In 1950 corn output was down to 59,412 bushels, from 536,640 bushels in 1940. Cotton production was down by more than 50 percent. The number of livestock, however, had risen considerably, and the number of chickens increased twenty-four-fold, from 4,748 in 1940 to 114,212 in 1950. As cotton growing became less prevalent, so did tenant farming and sharecropping. Only 25 percent of 4,034 farmers declared themselves tenants in the 1950 census. The rose industry flourished; the county had 2,767 acres of roses in 1957, when 225 of the 294 East Texas producers operated in Smith County. By 1952 local schools had been consolidated into eighteen districts, including one in Gregg County and one in Van Zandt County. That year voters supported a Republican presidential candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Smith County had been solidly Democratic in national elections up to this time, with the exception of its support for Herbert Hoover in 1928. After 1952 the county continued to support Republican presidential candidates through 1992.
As people moved into the area in the 1960s, Tyler, Lindale, and Bullard became particularly prosperous. In 1966 the Mud Creek Dam project produced Lake Tyler East, which has a surface area of 2,530 acres and is connected to Lake Tyler by a small canal; both lakes are frequented by tourists and retirees. Of the 86,350 county inhabitants in 1969 only 1,479 were farmers. Roses continued to be the most stable and lucrative crop, and the lumber business employed almost 6,000 people. By 1969 county schools had been consolidated into eight independent districts in Smith County; two Smith County schools belonged to districts in other counties. Education continued to be important in county development in the 1970s. Though Butler College closed in 1972, Tyler State College opened the following year, with 176 students. It later moved to a 200-acre wooded tract in southeast Tyler, and in 1979 became part of the University of Texas system. Tyler began to emerge as a medical center for the region. Facilities that included Medical Center Hospital, Mother Francis Hospital, East Texas Chest Hospital (now the University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler), clinics, and doctors' offices employed more than 3,000 people. Roses remained enormously lucrative as a money crop and a tourist attraction, and over twelve million plants were produced in 1975. Brookshire Grocery Company, Tyler Pipe, General Electric, Kelly-Springfield Tire Company, and Southland Corporation had also become major employers.
Between 1980 and 1990 Smith County grew from 128,366 inhabitants to 151,309. In 1982 the county had two daily newspapers, the Tyler Morning Telegraph and the afternoon Tyler Courier-Times. Seven radio stations and a television studio served Tyler and the surrounding area. There were 191 churches, of which Southern Baptist, Christian Methodist Episcopal, and United Methodist were the predominant congregations. As of 2014, 218,842 people lived in the county. About 61.3 percen were Anglo, 17.9 percent African American, and 18.3 percent Hispanic. In that year,Tyler, with a population of 98,987, remained the county's largest city. Other incorporated communities were Whitehouse, Lindale, Troup (partly in Cherokee County), Bullard (partly in Cherokee County), Arp, Noonday, Winona, New Chapel Hill, and Overton (mostly in Rusk County). Hay, roses, and fruit were among the main agricultural products in the county, and oil and gas extraction firms, educational and medical facilities, and retail shops employed the most workers. County tourist attractions included the Tyler State Park, the campsites and marinas on the various lakes, Tyler Municipal Rose Garden, Caldwell Children's Zoo, the Goodman Museum in Tyler, the Tyler Museum of Art, the Hudnall Planetarium, the Spring Flower and Azalea Trail, and the Texas Rose Festival.