Van Zandt County is on Interstate Highway 20 fifty miles east of Dallas in the Claypan Area of northeastern Texas. The center of the county is at 32° 25' N, 95° 59' W, near the county seat of Canton. Van Zandt County covers 855 square miles, with altitudes ranging from 421 to 573 feet. The Neches River rises in eastern Van Zandt County, and the Sabine River forms part of the northeastern county line. Creeks in the eastern portion of the county are part of the Trinity River watershed. The northwestern third of the county is undulating with gray to black, cracking clayey soils and slightly acidic, light-colored, loamy soils over deep clayey subsoils. The central third has light-colored soils with sandy surfaces over mottled, clayey subsoils. The southeastern third has gently rolling to hilly terrain surfaced by light colored loam over very deep, reddish, clayey subsoils. Natural resources include oil, gas, salt, iron ore, and clays. The eastern two-thirds of the county is in the Post Oak Savannah vegetation area, with tall grasses and post and black jack oak predominating. The western third is in the Blackland Prairies vegetation region, which is characterized by tall grasses, mesquite, and oak, and pecan and elm trees along streams. Wildlife includes eastern gray and fox squirrels, various species of bats and skunks, small herbivores such as gophers, mice, rabbits, and armadillos, as well as raccoons, white-tailed deer, opossums, bobcats, coyotes, and red and grey foxes. Frogs, toads, numerous snake species, including the poisonous copperhead, cottonmouth, coral, and rattlesnake, are found in abundance. The climate is subtropical humid with hot summers. The annual average precipitation is forty-three inches, and the average annual temperature is 65° F. Temperatures in January range from an average low of 33° to an average high of 54° F and in July range from 72° to 97° F. The growing season averages 250 days per year, with the last freeze in mid March and the first freeze in late November.
The area has long been the site of human habitation. Artifacts from the Paleo-Indian and Archaic cultures have been found in the region, suggesting that it has been continuously occupied for more than 10,000 years. When the first Europeans arrived, the region was dominated by various Caddoan Indian tribes, but diseases, especially smallpox, ravaged these agrarian peoples by the time the first Anglo-American settlers arrived. During the 1820s and 1830s the eastern portion of the future county was occupied by refugee Cherokee Indians led by Chief Bowl. The Cherokees had a brief but colorful history in their new home. Chief Bowl was instrumental in preventing them from joining the Fredonian Rebellion. As a result the Republic of Mexico granted them title to lands in the area in 1827. In 1836 the government of Texas, then in revolt against Mexico, validated the claim. A treaty was signed but soon broken. President Mirabeau B. Lamar, known for his aggressive Indian policy, pressed the issue in 1839. In the battle of the Neches, fought over two days in the area that is now Henderson and southeastern Van Zandt counties, the Cherokees were decisively beaten and dispersed.
The defeat of the Cherokees opened the area for Anglo-American colonization. Some settlement occurred prior to 1840. At least fifteen titles were granted in the area before this date. Luiz Ruiz, a Mexican, was the first documented settler. In 1844 Charles F. Mercer attempted to settle a vast area of northeastern Texas that included part of the area of future Van Zandt County. His agreement with the Republic of Texas was declared void by the legislature in 1845, but a few of the Mercer colonists obtained titles to the land as a result of the venture. Dr. W. P. King made the first surveys in the county in 1840, when he brought a group of men organized in Mississippi to buy land "between the three forks of the Trinity River." This party, finding their land certificates of small value under the Fraudulent Land Practice Act of 1840, bought some genuine certificates, but the men disbanded when they failed to locate the land. In the area of the Sabine, settlers cleared small acreages and grazed their livestock in the woods. The first post office was established by John Jordan in 1845 at Jordan's Saline, after he had blazed a trail from Nacogdoches and hauled two iron kettles to start his salt works. In 1845 William H. McBee established a gristmill and a sawmill three miles west of Loller's bridge at the site of Hamburg, established in 1850 by James Colthorp. This mill is said to have cut the logs that were used in the first courthouse in Dallas.
Van Zandt County was established by the legislature in 1848 from part of Henderson County and named for Republic of Texas leader Isaac Van Zandt. Sabine Lake (Jordan's Saline) was named the county seat, a crude log courthouse was built, and court was held for the first time in December 1848. In 1850 Wood County was carved out of Van Zandt County, and the Van Zandt county seat was moved to Canton. The 1850 census indicated that the recently established county had 1,348 residents. The overwhelming majority of the residents (92 percent) came from the states of the Old South, with the largest number from Tennessee and Alabama. In addition, there were a small number of recent immigrants from Europe, including a Norwegian colony settled by Johan Reierson at Four Mile Prairie in the southwestern portion of the county. In its early years the economy was largely subsistence farming, though some settlers also engaged in the salt trade. The salt in the area had been known to the Indians, who extracted it in the northeastern part of the county near the site of present Grand Saline. Jordan had a salt extraction operation at Jordan's Saline in 1845. Plantation farming did not prove profitable, and slave population dropped to 322 in a total population of 6,494 in 1860. A cotton gin, built at Hamburg by Burrel H. Hambrick in 1853, was moved to Tyler prior to the Civil War.
Despite the small number of slaves, a majority of Van Zandt's citizens (181 of 308) voted for secession in 1861, and local men volunteered for service in the Confederate army in sizeable numbers. Many enlisted in the Tenth Texas Cavalry under Col. M. F. Lock, while others joined the Sixth Texas Cavalry, the Third Texas Cavalry, the Fifteenth Texas Cavalry, and the Eleventh Texas Infantry. Not all of the citizens, however, supported the Southern cause. Many of the Norwegian settlers, who were opposed to slavery on moral grounds, and a number of small farmers, who resented the power and influence of the state's large plantation owners, spoke out against the war. In 1864 three of the Unionists were lynched, and some of the Norwegian settlers were arrested, effectively quelling the opposition. The anti-slavery stance of this vocal minority, however, reportedly gave rise to the practice of calling the county the "Free State of Van Zandt." According to one story, the name arose when Sidney S. Johnson of the Canton Times wrote that one slave driver seeking a site in Texas to bring his slaves to safety said that he would rather settle in a free state than bring his slaves to Van Zandt because of its Unionist reputation.
During Reconstruction Van Zandt County, like much of the state, experienced a prolonged period of unrest. While county judges and prewar residents such as Samuel Q. Richardson and F. M. Hobbs attempted to carry out federal policies as well as possible, violence and political murders became all too commonplace. In 1868, near Jordan's Saline, outlaws killed a freedman and harassed several Unionists, and the same year vigilantes took over the courthouse briefly and escaped without arrest. The killings of several other blacks were attributed to the Ku Klux Klan or similar organizations. The county also experienced the effects of the postbellum economic depression. Land values dropped, and cash was hard to come by, while taxes remained relatively high. Subsistence farming continued to be the rule in the early postwar years, with corn and hogs constituting the leading products. Farms were generally small, typically worked by one to two families, and much of the county remained forested. As late as 1870 only twenty-eight of the 590 farms had more than 100 acres, and the total number of improved acres was only 22,195. What produce was sold outside the county was hauled overland 125 miles to Shreveport, Louisiana, because of the lack of a railroad connection. The situation began to change in 1873, when the Texas and Pacific Railway was completed through the northern portion of the county. The railroad opened up the county for settlement and provided much better access to outside markets, causing a rapid expansion of the farming economy. Between 1870 and 1880 the population nearly doubled, increasing from 6,494 to 12,619, and by 1890 the number of residents reached 16,225. The number of farms also grew rapidly during the same period, increasing to 1,607 in 1880 and 2,345 a decade later, as did the amount of improved acreage, which rose nearly five-fold between 1870 and 1890. The railroad, however, brought new problems as well. Wills Point, which grew up as railroad point, quickly emerged as one of the county's leading shipping centers. In 1877 an election was held for relocating the county seat from Canton to Wills Point. According to the county judge, C. W. Raines, "Several [voting] boxes were thrown out on account of irregularities and Wills Point was declared to be the county seat." The commissioners court ordered county records removed from Canton to Wills Point, but a force of 500 men led by Thomas Jefferson Towles marched on the town to bring the records back. Governor Richard B. Hubbard had to order troops into the county to restore order. A short time later the supreme court ruled the election void and ordered the records were returned to Canton, ending the so-called "Wills Point War."
The latter decades of the nineteenth century saw other forms of political unrest. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s the county was buffeted by a succession of farm and associated political movements, including the Grange, Greenback Party, and the Farmers' Alliance. The People's Party, which ran on a strong pro-farmer platform, was particularly influential, and by 1892 the local chapter had 300 members. Van Zandt County was also the home base for Democratic reformer James Stephen Hogg, who had served as district attorney for the district including Van Zandt County from 1881 to 1884. More than 3,000 citizens gathered when he began his gubernatorial reelection campaign in Wills Point on April 21, 1892. The county's progressive tendencies were also reflected in other ways. For example, because of the county's strong Populist tradition and relatively small black population, Van Zandt was among the few counties in East and North Texas not to institute the White Primary, which kept blacks from voting in the spring elections. The decades of the 1880s and 1890s were a time of internal improvements. A public school system was inaugurated, and between 1887 and 1890 twenty-five new schools were constructed. Telephone service began 1892, and in 1896 a new courthouse was dedicated. The population grew and by 1900 was 25,000. With the continuing expansion of the population came a steady increase in the economy. The number of farms rose from 2,345 in 1890 to 4,208 by 1900, and the number of improved acres grew by nearly one-third, as more and more of the timberland was cleared. Livestock raising, which had long played a central role in the economy, became even more important at the end of the nineteenth century, as farmers began to raise large numbers of chickens, turkeys, and hogs. Cattle, however, remained the leading source of livestock revenue; by 1890 there were 24,990 head on the county's farms. The most significant cash crop at the end of the century remained corn, with 587,955 bushels harvested in 1890; oats (96,440 bushels produced in 1890) were a distant second. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries salt production also continued to be an important source of earnings. A number of companies, including the Lone Star Salt Company, the Southern Salt Company, and the Grand Saline Salt Company (later acquired by the Morton Salt Company) were active in the period from 1900 to 1920.
The period after 1900 witnessed significant changes in the agricultural scene. Cotton, which had been introduced at the end of the nineteenth century, began to be grown on a commercial scale. By 1910 it had it emerged as the county's leading crop, with more than 83,527 acres devoted to its production. Over the course of the next decade the amount of cotton ginned grew steadily, increasing to nearly 30,000 bales annually by the late 1910s. The cotton boom brought new found prosperity for many farmers, but it contained in it the seeds of future disaster. Because of high land prices many were forced into farm tenancy; by 1920 nearly half of all farmers (2,348 of 5,149) were tenants or sharecroppers. While most of these tenant farmers were able to do well during the relatively prosperous years of the 1910s and 1920s, most did not have the resources to endure the hard times that came with the Great Depression, when falling prices, soil depletion, and boll weevil infestations combined to drive down production and profits. Between 1930 and 1940 annual cotton production fell from 32,592 bales to 25,096, and the amount of land devoted to cotton dropped from 162,695 acres to 70,890. Many of the tenants suffered as a result, and a sizeable number were eventually forced off the land. The depression was partially tempered in Van Zandt County by the development of natural resources. Landowners and businesses alike felt the pinch, but the expansion of the Morton Salt Works at Grand Saline and the discovery of oil near Van in the eastern portion of the county in 1929 provided additional income from jobs and taxes, particularly oil taxes. New Deal relief programs such as the Civil Works Administration drained swamps for malaria control. The Public Works Administration provided funds for construction of the present courthouse, which was completed in 1937, and for local road improvements. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration aided farmers by paying for decreased production of cotton and other agricultural commodities encouraging soil conservation and crop diversity. And the Rural Electrification Administration extended electric power to rural areas in cooperation with Texas Power and Light Company. Prosperity began to return on the eve of World War II, and during the war oil, salt, and farm revenues rose steadily, as production of all three was increased to support the war effort. After the war the agricultural economy became increasingly diversified, with more and more emphasis placed on cattle raising, dairying, and the cultivation of truck crops. As a result of increased mechanization, however, both the number of farms and the number of agricultural workers rapidly decreased, resulting in a pronounced population exodus. Between 1940 and 1950 the population fell from 31,155 to 22,593, and by 1960 it declined to 19,091, as numerous residents moved away to seek better opportunities in the cities.
During the 1960s the economic picture began to improve. The construction of a petroleum refinery near Edgewood in 1963 and the continued presence of the Morton Salt Company at Grand Saline aided the economy, as did the recreational opportunities afforded by the completion of Lake Tawakoni and the development of Interstate Highway 20 through the county. The trend toward economic diversification continued in during the 1980s and into the 1990s. In 1988 the average annual income from agricultural products was $51 million, 7 percent of this from cattle, hogs, and dairy products. In the early 1990s Van Zandt was a leading producer of beef cows, hay, and sweet potatoes. Nursery stock, grains, vegetables, and cotton also contributed to the county's agricultural bounty. Overgrazing, undesirable brush, and erosion were impediments to increased agricultural production. Oil, tourism, agribusinesses, light manufacturing, and salt production also remained important to the economy, as did retail trade, manufacturing, and professional services. Nonetheless, 40 percent of the work force was employed in other counties in the early 1990s, most of them in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. After 1960 the population grew steadily; in 1970 it was 22,155, in 1980 it was 31,426, and by 1990 it had increased to 37,944. Major population centers included Canton, the county seat, with a population of 2,975; Wills Point (3,125); Van (1,970); Grand Saline (2,842); and Edgewood (1,452). The population remained overwhelmingly white, with blacks (3.8 percent) and Hispanics (4.0 percent) forming the largest minorities.
Education levels in the county have traditionally been quite low, though they began to improve in the late twentieth century. In 1950 only 15.6 percent of the population had completed high school. By 1980 the percentage had increased to 51.7 percent. Many of the best-educated young people, however, continued to leave the county to seek opportunity. Religion plays an important role in community life. In the early 1990s there were more than 100 active churches, with a combined membership of 20,000. The largest denominations were Southern Baptist, Baptist Missionary, and United Methodist.
Historically Van Zandt County was staunchly Democratic until the late twentieth century. Despite strong showing by Populists and other third parties at the end of the nineteenth century, Democrats wonevery presidential election from the time of Reconstruction through 1968. After 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon carried the county over Democrat George McGovern, the area began to trend Republican. Though Democrat Jimmy Carter carried the county in 1976, the area went Republican in every other presidential election from 1972 through 2004. In 2005 a number of county office holders abandoned the Democratic party and became Republicans.
In 2014 the census counted 52,910 people living in Van Zandt County. About 84.7 percent were Anglo, 10 percent were Hispanic, and 3 percent were African American. Seventy-two percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and almost 12 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agribusiness, tourism, and oil and gas production were key elements of the area’s economy. In 2002 the county had 2,842 farms and ranches covering 422,084 acres, 47 percent of which were devoted to crops, 39 percent to pasture, and 10 percent to woodlands. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $73,027,000, with livestock sales accounting for $39,801,000 of that total. Beef cattle, dairy, nursery crops, hay, sweet potatoes, and vegetables were the chief agricultural products. Towns include Canton (population, 3,609), the county seat; Willis Point (3,594); Edgewood (1,473); Grand Saline (3,147); Van (2,720); Fruitvale (424); and Ben Wheeler (504). The area provides numerous opportunities for hunting, fishing, hiking, and picnicking. Local attractions include First Monday Trade Days, a gigantic flea market at Canton, Lake Tawakoni, the Edgwood Heritage Park Museum, and the Brewer’s Bells Museum in Canton.