The Texas State Historical Association, a nonprofit organization with offices on the University of Texas at Austin campus, developed from an interest in the history of the state shared by ten individuals who met at the University of Texas at Austin on February 13, 1897. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the founding of an organization to promote the discovery, collection, preservation, and publication of historical material pertaining to Texas. The assemblage included academic and nonacademic historians, a blend of membership that has been preserved until the present. George P. Garrison, Eugene Digges, and Charles Corner drafted a constitution for the organization and invited 250 persons to attend a general organizational meeting held in Austin on March 2, 1897. Former governors Oran M. Roberts and Francis R. Lubbock, former congressman and railroad commissioner John H. Reagan, George T. Winston, A. J. Rose, and Garrison signed the letter of invitation. Approximately twenty-five persons attended the first formal meeting in the office of the Commissioner of Agriculture, Insurance, Statistics, and History in the Capitol. Roberts was elected president, and Dudley G. Wooten, Julia Lee Sinks, Guy M. Bryan, and Corner were elected vice presidents. Garrison was elected secretary and librarian, and Lester G. Bugbee was named treasurer and corresponding secretary. The meeting was conducted by the light of two lanterns, since the lighting system failed; lanterns lighting the path of historical discovery have served as the symbol of the association ever since. Because those attending included Dora Fowler Arthur, Julia Lee Sinks, and Bride Neill Taylor, a spirited discussion over female membership developed. John S. Ford wanted to call the women "lady members" in the constitution, rather than just "members," and he grew especially concerned over the term Fellow, which he maintained could not apply to a woman. Garrison and the women were unable to change his mind, and Ford stormed from the meeting.
The officers met at the University of Texas on May 23, 1897, to plan the first official annual meeting, which was held in Austin on June 17, 1897. In an address entitled "The Proper Work of the Association," Roberts observed that many of the members had been important figures in the making of Texas history and that their role was "not so much...the writing of a connected and complete history as to furnish the facts for that object in the future." In accord with this precept, the early issues of the Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, which began publication in July 1897, contained numerous letters, diaries, journals, and memoirs. The title of the publication became Southwestern Historical Quarterly in the volume for 1912–13, and it is now the oldest continuously published learned journal in the state. In addition to publishing the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, the association began publishing books of interest to Texas historians in 1917. Garrison's original title, secretary of the association, in time became executive director as duties of the office multiplied. The executive director was required to be a faculty member of the University of Texas and was also director of the Center for Studies in Texas History, an organized research unit of the university. The association continued to host annual meetings, where members shared the results of research, during the first week of March in Austin until 1968, when the meeting was held in San Antonio in conjunction with HemisFair '68. During the 1970s semi-annual meetings also were held in other Texas cities during the fall to give members in each section of the state a greater opportunity to participate. From 1970 through 2000 annual meetings generally were held in Austin in even-numbered years and in other cities in alternate years. Since 2000 the meetings have circulated around the state. An important event at the annual meeting is an auction of donated books, artifacts, and works of art to raise funds for the association's activities.
In 1939 the association began the Junior Historians of Texas program to encourage an interest in the history of Texas among students in secondary schools. By 1980 this activity, with the addition of Texas History Day, an affiliate of the National History Day program, had become the Educational Services Division of the association. This division publishes the Texas Historian, a forum for student writers, and provides educational materials and programs for teachers of Texas history. The division also administers the Walter Prescott Webb Historical Society for college-level students of Texas history, including an undergraduate journal Touchstone.
The most significant publication of the association has been The Handbook of Texas, edited by Walter P. Webb and H. Bailey Carroll and published in two volumes in 1952; a supplementary volume edited by Eldon S. Branda appeared in 1976. The original volumes were the first encyclopedia of a single state to appear and contained over 16,500 articles on persons, places, and events of importance in many aspects of Texas history and life. A major revision of the Handbook began in 1982 and appeared as The New Handbook of Texas in 6 volumes in 1996. By 1997 the Texas State Historical Association had launched a Web site, and on February 15, 1999, the Handbook of Texas Online debuted with over 25,000 articles, which continue to be updated. As of 2015, the Web site receives more than 14 million visits a year from readers around the world.
In 2007 the association published At the Heart of Texas, a history of the organization's first 100 years, by Richard McCaslin of the University of North Texas. In 2008 the association acquired The Texas Almanac, first published in 1857, from the Dallas Morning News, including inventory, work-in-progress, its trademark, archives, and certain other assets, as well as its URL.
The association was quartered initially in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin. It moved in 1950 to the Barker Texas History Center and in 1971 to Sid Richardson Hall. In November 2007, after 110 years of affiliation with the University of Texas, the association moved to private offices in northwest Austin while several universities discussed the possibility of hosting the association on their campuses. An agreement was accepted with the University of North Texas, and the university renovated space in Stovall Hall on the Denton campus to fit the needs of the association. In November 2008 the association moved to the newly remodeled offices on the campus of the University of North Texas in Denton. That year changes to the bylaws created the position of chief historian and made the director the chief executive of the association. The chief historian is required to be a member of the academic community and is responsible for the scholarly work of the association, while the director is responsible for the operations of the association. In 2008 Randolph "Mike" Campbell of the University of North Texas history department became the first chief historian, followed by Walter L. Buenger of the University of Texas at Austin in 2017. J. Kent Calder, who had served as director of publications from 2003 to 2006, became the executive director. Brian A. Bolinger became executive director in 2014, followed by Jesús "Frank" de la Teja in 2018, and William "Bill" Ellis in 2020.
In May 2015, the association announced its return to the University of Texas at Austin campus.