Tyler County is in southeastern Texas near the Louisiana border. Woodville, the county seat and largest town, is fifty-six miles north of Beaumont and ninety miles northeast of Houston, very near the center of the county at 30°47' north latitude and 94°25' west longitude. Tyler County is bounded on the north and east by the Neches River. The county comprises 908 square miles of the East Texas timberlands, an area densely forested with pine and a great variety of hardwoods. It contains two units and parts of two more of the twelve units of the Big Thicket National Preserve established by Congress in 1974. The land is gently rolling, with an elevation ranging from 100 to 400 feet above sea level. Northern and eastern Tyler County is drained to the Neches River via Caney, Russell, Billiams, Pamplin, Wolf, Theuvenins, and Rush creeks. The southwestern part of the county contains numerous springs and drains into Horsepen, Hickory, Turkey, and Cypress creeks. The largest body of water in the county is B. A. Steinhagen Lake on the Neches River, impounded in 1951 by Town Bluff Dam (also called Dam B); the lake covers 13,700 acres. Two main soil types are found in Tyler County. In the northern, rolling two-thirds are clayey to sandy marine and continental deposits, and in the level, southern one-third are recent noncalcareous and calcareous clayey flood plain and alluvium. The former, with its loamy or sandy surface layers and clayey or loamy subsoils, supports heavy stands of pine and hardwoods. The latter, more varied soil supports hardwood forest, grasses, crops, and pasturage. Excellent farmland comprises 21 to 30 percent of the land in the county. Mineral resources include clay, industrial sands, oil, and gas. Temperatures range from an average high of 94° F in June to an average low of 38° F in January, rainfall averages forty to fifty inches per year, and the growing season extends for 241 days.
The area of Tyler County was for centuries occupied by agricultural Caddoan, and possibly Atakapan, Indians. White settlers there in the early nineteenth century encountered both Caddoan-related Cherokees uprooted from the east and groups of Alabama and Coushatta Indians, recent migrants from Louisiana. In 1809 there were hundreds of Alabama Indians living on the west bank of the Neches River, three leagues above the junction of the Neches and Angelina rivers. At Peach Tree Village in Tyler County, their principal Texas settlement, the Alabamas kept cattle, horses, and hogs and cultivated corn, potatoes, beans, and yams. The Cherokees were eventually driven from the state by order of Mirabeau B. Lamar, but the Alabamas and Coushattas cooperated with Sam Houston and others friendly to their cause and have survived as one of only two Indian groups living on their own reservations in Texas. The Alabama-Coushatta Reservation is just across the western Tyler County line in Polk County. The settlement by whites of what was to become Tyler County began before the time of the Texas Revolution in 1836. Three Americans received land grants there from Mexican authorities in 1834, and thirty-four more men and one woman, Jane Taylor, received grants during 1835. The area was originally organized in 1842 under the name of Menard District, "for judicial and other purposes," from a part of Liberty County. Tyler County was officially established by the Texas legislature on April 3, 1846, and was named in honor of President John Tyler. In 1842 Town Bluff, one of two early settlements, became the temporary county seat. In 1845 a permanent location was chosen. This was the site of the present county seat, Woodville, on 200 acres of land donated by Dr. Josiah Wheat in the forks of Turkey Creek. Woodville was named in honor of George T. Wood, who introduced the bill to establish the county and was the second governor of the state of Texas. The other early settlement, Fort Teran, on the Neches River where it crossed the Old Spanish Trail from Nacogdoches to Liberty, was established as a result of Anastasio Bustamante's Law of April 6, 1830 and its policies of restrictions on immigration.
Tyler County was settled predominantly by people from the southern United States, many of whom planned to resume the slaveholding society they had known before moving to Texas. However, the forests and loamy sand were not suited to growing cotton, so many of those who actually stayed were poor white farmers who owned no slaves. In 1850 the population was 1,894; by 1860 it was 4,525, and 26 percent of the population was black. Tyler County before the Civil War had a subsistence productivity, home-consumed, mainly corn, sweet potatoes, molasses, and home-slaughtered animals. Only 3,907 bales of cotton were produced in 1860. In 1861, 99 percent of the citizens supported secession. The area was not invaded during the Civil War, but hundreds of its men fought, and most of its families felt in some way the pains of the war. During Reconstruction federal troops were stationed in Woodville for a time in 1868. Whites resented federal authority, but because of their numerical strength they were able to maintain a Democratic county government even in the face of black enfranchisement.
Starting with 137 farms in 1850, Tyler County remained overwhelmingly agricultural and rural through 1900, when farms peaked at 1,199. In 1900 about the same amount of cotton (3,863 bales) was produced in the county as had been produced in 1860. But the economic picture shifted for the better with the coming of the railroads in the 1880s, because they facilitated the exploitation of its vast timber resources. In 1882 the Sabine and East Texas Railroad constructed a line from Kountze to Rockland that ran the length of Tyler County. In 1884 the Missouri, Kansas and Texas constructed twenty-nine miles of track across the northern part of the county, ending at Colmesneil. Many smaller connecting and short-line spurs were subsequently built to accommodate loading and hauling of timber. The foundation was laid for the sale of timberlands and timber and wood-related industries. By 1890 there were nineteen sawmills operating in Tyler County, and the population, which had increased only from 4,525 to 5,825 in the twenty years between 1860 and 1880, nearly doubled in the ten years between 1880 and 1890, when it reached 10,876. In the early 1890s William McCready and the Doucette brothers, Fred and Peter, founded a mill at Doucette, two miles north of Woodville, making the community for a time one of the major towns of East Texas. Many other settlements, now ghost towns or depopulated towns like Doucette, sprang up around sawmills throughout the county-Maydell, Mobile, Seneca, Barnum, Camden, Hampton, Josie, Hyatt, and Hillister, for example. The lumber industry continued to form the economic backbone of Tyler County through the first half of the twentieth century. In 1913–14 Tyler County had 300 employees in lumber plants. Two years later the maximum wage of skilled workers in the lumber industry there was one of the highest in the state. Further spur lines, such as the East Texas and Gulf from Hyatt to Hicksbaugh built in 1917, were constructed into the piney woods. In 1925 it was estimated that some fifteen years' supply of virgin long and short leaf pine remained to be cut in Tyler County-perhaps fifteen million board feet. By 1939 there were an estimated 600,000 acres still in timber, and of nineteen industries in 1940, seventeen were sawmills. In 1950 lumber and wood products industries continued as the major employers, providing work for 876 males over fourteen years of age out of a total of 3,130.
The Great Depression, however, hit the county hard. Between 1930 and 1940 the number of people in both agricultural and nonagricultural occupations declined sharply, and unemployment remained at a high 18 percent in 1940. Public employment was relatively high in that year, however, when more people (461) worked for the Work Projects Administration and other such projects than were seeking jobs in the private sector (273). World War II ended the economic disaster of the 1930s, but the decade of the 1940s saw a decline in the white population and only a slight gain in the black population. The total population fell from 11,946 in 1940 to 11,747 in 1950. This trend continued into 1960, when the total was 10,666. Agriculture occupied fewer workers each year after 1950, and cotton-planting virtually disappeared. Those who stayed on the land depended on mixed farming, poultry raising, and cattle. Since 1940 the largest town has been Woodville. Timber sales remained the number one producer of income. In the 1980s Tyler County was second only to Polk County in timber production, followed by farming, lumbering, poultry processing, manufacturing, tourism, and catfish production. Oil and gas production started in 1937 and experienced a limited increase during the 1970s and early 1980s. By 1990 a total of 33,618,537 barrels of oil had been produced in the county. While the depression and World War II saw a decline in population and the end of parts of Tyler County's agricultural economy, other developments have promised a more progressive future. The lumber industry remains healthy. Dairying increased in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The county had fourteen Grade A dairies shipping to Houston and Beaumont in 1952. It also experienced an improvement in transportation brought about by the automobile. In 1922 there were only 458 vehicles registered in Tyler County. By 1939 there were 1,929 registered, and by 1952 the number stood at 4,095. Registration climbed steadily; in 1980 there were 13,212 motor vehicles registered in the county for a population of 16,223. In 1938 U.S. Highway 190, intended to cut the county through its center, was proposed by a group of citizens. Completed in 1948, it remained a major artery through deep East Texas, where travel had always been difficult. U.S. Highway 69 crosses 190 at Woodville, carrying a substantial amount of traffic from Beaumont to Lufkin.
In 1985 Tyler County had two weekly newspapers, the Woodsman and the Tyler County Booster, both published at Woodville. The county was served by Southwestern Bell, Colmesneil Telephone, and Eastex Telephone Co-op. It was totally dry. Woodville had electricity as early as 1925, and the rural areas were electrified during the 1940s after the Sam Houston Electric Cooperative was organized in 1939. After the depression there were also significant advances in the educational level of the population. In 1950 only 12.4 percent of those aged twenty-five or older were high school graduates. By 1980, however, about half of the population met this standard. Religious life, as in much of East Texas, has been dominated since the county's beginnings by evangelical Protestantism, especially by the Baptist, Primitive Baptist, and Methodist denominations. Other churches include the Fellowship Church, established in 1867, and the Episcopalian and Disciples of Christ churches, which came with the railroads during the 1880s. Still an actively church-oriented area of Texas, Tyler County has a reputation for rural harmony, quiet, and beauty that particularly encourages family tourism. A Democratic majority was returned for Tyler County in every presidential election from the Civil War until 1964, with the exceptions of 1956 and 1960, when Republicans won. In 1968 the majority in Tyler County voted for George Wallace's American party. From 1972 through 1992 voters have favored Republicans. The population was 16,646 in 1990. As of 2014, 21,418 people lived in the county. About 79.4 percent were Anglo, 11.6 percent African American, and 7.4 percent Hispanic. The major towns, Woodville (population, 2,636), Colmesneil (611), and Chester (324), collaborate with some fourteen unincorporated communities yearly to stage a spring celebration held on the last weekend in March and the first in April. These are Western Weekend for trailriders and the Tyler County Dogwood Festival, both involving extensive parades in Woodville and other activities. A county fair is held the first weekend of October. Visitors to the county come not only for these events but for the varied flora and fauna of the Big Thicket National Preserve, the "biological crossroads of North America."