Upshur County is in northeastern Texas. The center of the county lies at 32°44' north latitude and 94°54' west longitude. Gilmer, the seat of government, is near the center of the county, twenty-three miles northwest of Longview. The county was named for Abel Parker Upshur, the secretary of state under President John Tyler. Upshur County encompasses 587 square miles of land that slopes gradually from northwest to southeast, with altitudes that range from 225 to 685 feet above sea level. It is in the Piney Woods vegetation region and is covered by grasslands; loblolly, shortleaf, longleaf, and slash pines; and hardwoods such as oak, hickory, and maple. Generally sandy, acidic, light-colored surface soils cover deep reddish, mottled subsoils. Upshur County straddles both of the major drainage systems of Texas. The northern portion drains into the Mississippi River via Little and Big Cypress creeks, while the waters of the southern portions flow to the Gulf of Mexico by means of the Sabine River, which forms the southwestern border of the county. The county has a subtropical humid climate and an average annual rainfall of 45.74 inches. Temperatures range from an average minimum of 37° F in January to an average maximum of 96° in July; the average growing season lasts 245 days. Prehistoric Upshur County was almost entirely forested with a blend of pine, maple, sweet and black gums, hickory, birch, ash, and many kinds of oaks, such as are found in the mixed deciduous-pine forests throughout the Eastern Woodlands region. The lumber industry has been a major operation from the early days of settlement, and none of the area's virgin forest now exists. In the 1980s more than half the county was forested. While the local flora and fauna generally belong to the mixtures common to the Mississippi Valley and the Eastern Woodlands, during the drought of the 1950s road runners, armadillos, and other species from West Texas migrated into the county and have since remained. Mineral resources include oil, natural gas, lignite, and industrial sand.
Artifacts dating from the Paleo-Indian period have been found in Upshur County, indicating that humans have lived in the area for perhaps 10,000 to 12,000 years. Caddoan Indian groups lived in the region during the Late Prehistoric period (1,150 to 250 years ago), but by the 1690s most of the Caddoans had disappeared, probably the victims of disease epidemics. By the 1820s and 1830s Cherokees had crossed into the area as they traveled from Oklahoma toward Nacogdoches using the route called the Cherokee Trace. By 1839, when the Cherokees were expelled from Texas, the area that is now Upshur County was at the intersection of two early immigration routes: the Cherokee Trace and the Jefferson-Dallas Road, which ran across the northern portion of the area. The first settler within the limits of modern Upshur County was probably Isaac Moody, who settled on the Cherokee Trace near West Mountain in 1836. The area that is now Upshur County was originally part of Nacogdoches County and later was incorporated into Harrison County. On April 27, 1846, after Texas was admitted to the Union, the first legislature of the state of Texas established Upshur County; at that time the county included the area of present Camp County and part of modern Gregg County. On May 1, 1848, the county's voters chose the location for Gilmer, the county seat, and in August the sale of blocks and lots in the new town began. Some of the earliest residents had been participants in the Regulator-Moderator War. John Hamilton McNairy, for example, signed the treaty that ended the war as a representative of the Regulators; in 1847 he bought land near Coffeeville and moved to Upshur County. McNairy was elected the first representative from the new county to the Texas legislature. Analysis of the 1850 and 1860 United States Census returns demonstrates that almost equal numbers of Tennesseans and Alabamans moved to the county during its early period. Planters from the Deep South tended to concentrate in the eastern half of the county, using their slaves to open up large tracts of land and to produce cotton. Meanwhile, farmers from the upper south who owned no slaves tended to settle in the western section of the county; they operated smaller, self-sustaining family farms and often lived in log cabins. One of the oldest churches in the county, the Enon Baptist Church of the Missionary Baptist Association, was organized on May 13, 1848; in 1849 the Hopewell Methodist Church organized and constructed its first building. Meanwhile other communities had begun to grow, including Ashland, Lafayette, and Shady Grove. By 1850 there were 3,934 people, including 682 slaves, living in Upshur County. According to the agricultural census for that year, local farmers produced 31,000 bushels of corn, 673 400-pound bales of cotton, and 1,061 pounds of tobacco, along with smaller amounts of wheat, rice, and oats. As the county grew and prospered, new social institutions evolved, and by the mid-1850s schools such as the Gilmer Masonic Female Institute, the Murray Institute, and the Gilmer Male Academy had been established. By 1860 the population had increased to 10,645, including 3,794 slaves. That year 404,000 bushels of corn and 8,000 bales of cotton were produced, and 11,000 cattle were also reported in the area. Lumbering was another important part of the local economy, and by the beginning of the Civil War there were ten to twelve water-powered lumber mills operating in the county.
During the Civil War hat and leather factories in Gilmer made clothing for the Confederacy, and new Confederate recruits were trained at Camp Tally, near Coffeeville. Many local men enlisted to support the Confederate cause, and the resultant manpower drain and other disruptions related to the war caused a decline in agricultural production. According to one account about half of the men from the county who left to join Confederate forces during the Civil War never returned; those who did found a different county than they remembered. After the war the emancipation of the many slaves in the area made it difficult for many local planters to continue operations, and a number of plantations were abandoned or divided; most ex-slaves became sharecroppers, though some acquired land of their own. Production of corn and cotton dropped significantly during and just after the war and remained below prewar levels as late as 1870, when 7,362 bales of cotton were produced in the area. Nevertheless, the population increased somewhat during the 1860s; by 1870 there were 12,695 people, including 4,867 Blacks. Blacks briefly held a number of political offices in the county after the Civil War, but by the late 1860s the White majority was again firmly in control, partly because the Ku Klux Klan intimidated Black leaders. Meshack Roberts, for example, moved from Upshur County to Marshall after a Klan beating in 1867 (see RECONSTRUCTION). Upshur County's economy began to develop more rapidly during the 1870s, especially after railroads tied the region to national markets and encouraged more immigration into the area. On April 7, 1870, O. H. Methvin, Sr., a citizen of the county since at least 1846, sold 100 acres to the Southern Pacific Railroad, which was then building through the county, and in November 1871 the plan for the town of Longview (then in the southeastern corner of Upshur County) was filed. In 1877 the rail link known as the Tyler Tap was built from Tyler to Big Sandy; by 1880 the line had become part of the Texas and St. Louis Railway (also known as the Cotton Belt Route) and had been extended to Gilmer and Mount Pleasant. Meanwhile, the railroad construction of the early 1870s had led to a population boom in the southeastern parts of Upshur County, which led to the division of the county. In June 1873 the Texas legislature carved Gregg County out of southern Upshur and northern Rusk counties, and in April 1874 they formed Camp County by lopping off the northern section of Upshur County below the bend in Big Cypress Creek. On January 1, 1877, a newspaper, the Upshur County Democrat, began publication. Although other newspapers had existed briefly in the Gilmer area, this newspaper was the first to become firmly established.
The economy continued to grow during most of the late nineteenth century, as cotton production spread and logging operations intensified. In 1880 the United States census found 10,226 people, including 3,381 Blacks, in Upshur County. The drop in population was caused by the earlier division of the county. The agricultural census for Upshur County that year reported 1,334 farms encompassing more than 211,000 acres and including 59,000 "improved" acres. Local farmers planted 21,000 acres in corn and 19,000 acres in cotton that year. Meanwhile, the lumber industry was also growing, and by 1882 there were eighteen sawmills and many shingle mills in the county. Cotton culture spread to 27,000 acres by 1890 and to 42,000 acres by 1900; during the 1890s yams also began to be an important cash crop for some of the area's farmers. The number of farms in the county increased to 1,763 by 1890 and to 2,711 by 1900. While the county's Black population increased during this period, the number of Whites grew even more quickly, and by 1900 there were 15,266 people, including 4,957 Blacks, living in Upshur County. Immigration to the area by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints helped to diversify the county's population. In the fall of 1897 John and Jim Edgar and their families rode into western Upshur County from Mesa, Arizona. The Edgar brothers bought several square miles of land and laid out the new town of Kelsey, one of the first Mormon communities in the South. The Edgars were rapidly followed by other Mormons, who settled in the neighborhood. In the early twentieth century new railways were built into the county, opening additional areas to development. In 1901 the Texas Southern began to build through the area, and by 1902 it passed through Gilmer to connect Marshall and Winnsboro. After 1909 the line was acquired by the Marshall and East Texas Railroad, dubbed the "Misery and Eternal Torment" line by local wags. The railroad opened the virgin forests in the western part of the county to lumbering operations, and from 1907 to 1917 the county experienced a lumbering boom, especially around Rhonesboro and Rosewood. The last of the virgin forests were cut down during this period. Meanwhile, the Port Bolivar and Iron Ore Railroad, built in 1910, ran north from Longview to open iron deposits in the northeastern part of the county, leading to the establishment of Ore City and the demise of Coffeeville. Cotton cultivation continued to spread. Almost 44,000 acres in Upshur County were planted in cotton in 1910 and 71,000 acres by 1920. Meanwhile, the number of farms in the county rose to 3,313 by 1910 and to 3,690 by 1920. The spread of cotton cultivation, combined with the logging boom, led to a marked increase in the population, and the number of Whites in the Upshur County continued to increase more rapidly than the Black population. The census reported 19,960 people in 1910 and 22,297 (including 6,234 Blacks) by 1920. At least two lynchings of Black men took place during the 1910s.
Upshur County's economy suffered during the 1920s. As the forest areas played out, the Marshall and East Texas Railroad abandoned its tracks in 1923, leaving some towns isolated. Agricultural production also began to decline during this period. Cotton farming continued to expand into the early 1920s, but then fell off due to soil depletion and other problems. During the early 1920s the county's yam fields became infested with sweet potato weevils; from 1924 to 1935 the county's entire production was quarantined. One indicator of economic stress, the number of tenant farmers, rose by 30 percent during the 1920s, and by 1930 2,546 of the county's 4,230 farms were operated by tenants. Upshur County's population declined during the decade, dropping to 22,297 by 1930. Among those who left in the 1920s were gospel music singers Virgil Stamps and Frank Stamps. The Stamps brothers had founded the Stamps Music Company (see STAMPS-BAXTER MUSIC AND PRINTING COMPANY) in Jacksonville in 1924 to publish their music, but in 1928 they moved their company to Dallas. Local cotton farmers encountered even greater hardships during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Low prices, federal crop restrictions, and other problems led to severe reductions in cotton production, and by 1940 only 32,000 acres were planted in the fiber. Hundreds of farmers left the land. Between 1930 and 1940 the number of farms dropped by 20 percent, and by 1940 only 3,412 remained. One bright moment for the farmers occurred in 1935, when the yam quarantine was lifted. In celebration, locals organized the East Texas Yamboree, a fall festival with parades, music, and various contests. The county's agricultural difficulties during the depression were offset to some extent by the discovery of oil in the county. On April 26, 1931, the Mudge Oil Company's J. D. Richardson well No. 1 struck oil, demonstrating that the northern limits of the East Texas oilfield extended into Upshur County. By the end of May twelve wells were in production. Thousands of people moved to the area in search of jobs and other opportunities. In 1938 more than 12,366,000 barrels of oil were produced. In addition to providing jobs and stimulating business, the oil boom provided new revenue to the county; by the end of 1937, for example, oil money had helped the county to construct a new white brick courthouse. New Deal programs initiated during the depression also helped to change the way people lived. In July 1938 the Upshur Rural Electric Cooperative turned on the lights for its first 139 members. Primarily because of the oil boom Upshur County's population rose significantly during the 1930s to reach 26,178 by 1940. Petroleum remained an important part of the economy for many years, but production declined during and after the 1940s, dropping to just over 9,000,000 barrels in 1944, to about 6,074,000 barrels in 1948, and to 2,971,000 barrels in 1956. Meanwhile cotton production continued to decline, and farm consolidation and mechanization forced many of the rural inhabitants to search for jobs in metropolitan areas. As a result the population declined for two decades after World War II, dropping to 20,822 by 1950 and to 19,793 by 1960.
After the depletion of the soil by a century of planting cotton and corn, the residents began reforestation of the county after World War II; about a million pine seedlings had been planted by the early 1980s, and pine seedlings of the reforestation gradually reached cutting size, first as pulp wood and then as timber. Many worn-out cotton fields became improved pastures, and beef and dairy production increased. In addition, local businessmen began to succeed in their search to diversify the economy. An electrical conduit and fittings plant joined the pottery and the lumber mill in hiring local people; some people remained in the county and commuted to jobs in adjoining counties. Oil wells in the southern part of the county began to play out, but in 1964 the discovery of gas near Diana in the Cotton Valley formation added another dimension to the economy. Another postwar trend began in the 1960s, when urban dwellers from other counties began buying second homes in Upshur County and moving there after their retirement. As a result, the population grew to 20,796 by 1970, and by 1980 there were 28,595 people living there. In national elections the voters of Upshur County supported the Democratic candidates in virtually every presidential election between 1880 and 1964; the only exception occurred in 1956. In 1968 the voters supported George Wallace, the candidate of the American Independent Party. The county voted Republican in 1972, 1984, and 1988, and Democratic in 1976, 1980, and 1992. In 1982 almost 24,515,000,000 cubic feet of gas-well gas and 753,000 barrels of crude oil were produced. In the late 1980s, 4,395 of the Upshur County's estimated 32,700 residents were employed in the county, and there were 403 businesses. An additional 13,144 persons lived in the county and commuted to adjoining counties to work. At that time most of the county's $40,000,000 average annual agricultural income was derived from beef and dairy cattle, hogs, and poultry production; the county is a leading producer of broilers and dairy products. Peaches, vegetable crops, and hay are the principal crops. Only two sawmills and no cotton gins were operating in Upshur County; no commercial cotton producers remained, and most of the corn grown in the county was used for domestic purposes. The principal sawmill produced lumber, treated wood products, and wood chips. With the return of the forest cover, the number of game animals had increased; deer hunting had revived in the area, and abundant cover had grown for squirrels, quail, and dove. By 2014 Upshur County's population had grown to 40,354. About 81.1 percent were Anglo, 8.7 percent Hispanic, and 7.4 percent Hispanic. Communities include Gilmer (population, 5,127) the county seat; Big Sandy (1,359); East Mountain (804); Gladewater (2,447 in Upshur County, mostly in Gregg County); Ore City (1,160); and Union Grove (365). The International Possum Museum opened in Rhonesboro in the 1980s, and each year on the fourth Saturday in October the museum is "re-opened," and a Possum Queen is crowned with a crown of persimmons. Following the tradition begun in 1935, the East Texas Yamboree is held in Gilmer every October. Activities blend original events like the Queen's Parade and the Old Fiddlers' contest with more contemporary contests such as the Tater Trot with its ten and two kilometer races, the cross country bicycle races called Tour D'Yam, and the selection of the Grand Champion Hog and Steer.