Victoria County is located in southeastern Texas on the Coastal Plain about midway between the southern and eastern extremities of the Texas Gulf Coast. Victoria, the county's largest town, is the county seat. There roads converge 120 miles from Houston, 102 miles from San Antonio, 110 miles from Austin, and 75 miles from Corpus Christi; hence the town's nickname, the "crossroads of South Texas." The county's center lies at approximately 28°47' north latitude and 96°57' west longitude. Victoria County comprises 887 square miles of nearly level to gently rolling coastal prairie, surfaced primarily with dark clay loams and clays that support bluestems and tall grasses, oak forest, huisache, mesquite, prickly pear, and other vegetation. The northwestern part of the county lies in the Post Oak Belt and thus marks the southernmost extension of the East Texas timberlands. The soils there, primarily sandy loams and sands, support post oak, blackjack oak, elm, and pecan trees. The elevation ranges from sea level in the southeast to 300 feet near Mission Valley in the northwest. The climate is humid and subtropical, with a temperature range from an average high of 92° F in July to an average low of 46° in January; records of 110° and 9° were set in 1939 and 1930, respectively. The average annual length of the frost-free season is 290 days; the annual precipitation range is from thirty-two to forty inches. The northeastern half of the county drains into Lavaca Bay, principally through Garcitas, Arenosa, and Placedo creeks, and the southwestern area is drained by the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers and Coleto Creek. Prehistoric fossils of mammoths, horses, camels, sloths, and bison of the Late Pleistocene era have been unearthed in the county, as well as artifacts from the Paleo-Indian period. Despite a variety of archeological excavations, however, little is known of the early hunting and gathering occupants except that they made the change from spear to bow and arrow after A.D. 1000. By the era of contact with the West at least four distinct groups were living in the county: the Karankawas, last seen at Kemper's Bluff before fleeing to Mexico in 1842; the Aranamas; the Tamiques; and the Tonkawas. Comanche, Lipan, and Tawakoni raids were common in the area by the early nineteenth century as well, the most infamous being the great Comanche raid of 1840, which destroyed the port of Linnville (see LINNVILLE RAID OF 1840).
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca traversed the area in 1528. Fort St. Louis, established in 1685 by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, was probably on Garcitas Creek in what became Victoria County; if that was its location, the French fort was the county's first settlement. Alonso De León discovered and named the Guadalupe River on April 14, 1689, at the approximate site of present Victoria while on a mission from the Spanish government to find and destroy La Salle's settlement. The establishment in April 1722 of Nuestra Señora de Loreto Presidio and Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga Mission (La Bahía) near the ruins of Fort St. Louis marked the first Spanish settlement in what is now Victoria County. The mission and presidio were moved in August 1726 to the Guadalupe River near the site of present Mission Valley because of Indian depredations and an ill-commanded garrison. Until the mission was removed to the San Antonio River in the fall of 1749, the padres at La Bahía cultivated crops, produced enough hay and corn to export their excess to San Antonio and settlements in East Texas, and established in Victoria County the foundation of a characteristic Texas industry-raising cattle and horses. Although the number of livestock grazed on the Guadalupe River prairie is not known, the mission owned 3,220 branded cattle, 120 horses, and 1,600 sheep when inventoried in 1758, nine years after the move to the site of present Goliad. With the removal of La Bahía to the San Antonio River, no further permanent settlement occurred in Victoria County until the nineteenth century, although La Bahía Road, the most protected route to San Antonio and East Texas from the Rio Grande, provided constant activity. There were individual settlements, such as Carlos de la Garza's rancho at Anaqua (see CARLOS RANCHO, TEXAS) and Margaret Wright's homestead at Mission Valley, but colonization of the area occurred only in 1824 with the establishment of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Jesús Victoria by the empresario Martín De León. The settlement, known as Guadalupe Victoria, prospered, and over 100 titles to land grants were issued by the Mexican government by 1835. In addition to the La Bahía ranch, De León, who had amassed about 5,000 branded cattle by the time he started his colony, established Victoria County's claim to be the "Cradle of the Texas Cattle Industry."
Despite border clashes with DeWitt's colony to the north and the Power and Hewetson colony to the south, De León's colonists were settled in all of the territory of present Victoria and Calhoun counties and in part of that of Lavaca, Jackson, and DeWitt counties as well. Such was the area that constituted Guadalupe Victoria as a district under the Mexican government in 1832 and as a municipality under the legislature of Coahuila and Texas in 1835. The settlement had the distinction of being the only primarily Mexican colony in Texas. Although the settlers supported the revolution against Antonio López de Santa Anna, the Mexican colonists were ostracized and forced to flee after the revolution in 1836, and Anglo-Americans resettled the area. Immediately following the victory at San Jacinto 3,000 troops of the Texas army, the largest single gathering of Texans in 1836, encamped near Spring Creek, Victoria County, under the command of Gen. Thomas J. Rusk. This force was the main defense against a threatened attack by Mexican general José de Urrea. The attack failed to materialize, and the camp was dispersed by September and removed to Texana. Mexican forces returned, however, and terrorized the county in 1842 in invasions led by Rafael Vásquez and Adrián Woll. Of the thirty-four Victoria men who joined other Texans and crossed the Rio Grande with the retaliatory Mier expedition, four drew black beans and were executed at Salado by Santa Anna's orders (see BLACK BEAN EPISODE).
Victoria was among the original twenty-three counties established by the First Congress of the Republic of Texas on March 17, 1836. Its modern boundaries were defined by the Texas legislature on March 31, 1846. Conflicting claims between Victoria County and Lavaca, Jackson, and Calhoun counties were settled in Victoria's favor on April 23, 1846, nineteen days after Calhoun County was demarked primarily from the Victoria County coastal area. Because Victoria lay on the important cart road from the port of Indianola to San Antonio and New Braunfels, as well as on the old Goliad road from east to west, the county was heavily traveled by traders and immigrants and populated by many who found the area satisfactory. The German element was particularly large and influential at Coletoville, Mission Valley, and Victoria. Though there were several points at which travelers and traders could cross the Guadalupe River, White's Ferry and Kemper's Bluff were the most serious competition to Victoria as trade centers and embarkation points (see KEMPER CITY, TEXAS). In 1840 the county commissioners approved rates "payable in good money" for a municipal ferry across the river at Victoria to handle the traffic. The first toll bridge erected across the river was also built at Victoria by Richard Owens and Sylvester Sutton in February 1851. The move for a free bridge began about 1885, and the river was spanned in February 1886 by King Iron and Bridge Company of Cleveland, Ohio. Also in 1886 a ferry known as Bray's Ferry was established at the San Antonio River by G. B. Amery and John Bray.
The Guadalupe River itself assumed economic importance because of its navigability to Kemper's Bluff and Victoria, a distance of about seventy-eight miles from its mouth. The legislature of Coahuila and Texas approved a government-sponsored attempt at making the river navigable in 1828 and again in 1833 and 1835, but the Texas Revolution ended this effort. The Republic of Texas, however, passed similar legislation, authorizing river improvements in 1840, as did the Texas state legislature in 1853. By then several boats, such as the William Penn, owned by Jesse O. Wheeler, were making regular trips from Victoria to Saluria, a port formerly on Matagorda Island about three miles across Matagorda Bay from the site of present Port O'Connor. Although a committee chaired by John J. Linn worked with the state legislature to clear the river in 1857, river transportation waned with the completion of the San Antonio and Mexican Gulf Railroad from Victoria to Port Lavaca in 1861 and was interrupted from the Civil War to the 1880s.
Until oil was discovered in the 1930s Victoria County's economy was primarily agrarian. The major industry remained the raising of cattle, horses, and cotton; other farming generally was for sustenance. Only twenty other Texas counties had a greater number of cattle in 1850, when Victoria County ranked thirteenth in total value of all livestock at $205,725. Ten years later the county still ranked twenty-first, but the number of beef cattle had grown from 8,783 to 39,287, and the value of all livestock had increased to $534,314. About 1836 there was some commercial farming, however, that engaged slave labor on the riverbottoms. Corn became important to the numerous freighting teams frequenting the area and for export to other Texas settlements. County farmers produced 54,110 bushels in 1850 and 129,570 ten years later. Cotton was considerably more important to the county's economy before the Civil War; the 270 bales produced in 1850 were dwarfed by the 2,212 bales recorded in 1860. Victoria County also ranked fourth in Texas in 1850 in gallons of molasses produced from cane sugar. As the number of slaves increased from 28.3 to 33.9 percent of the population from 1850 to 1860, the total number of acres under cultivation jumped from 4,072 to 31,495. The county registered 1,396 Whites, 52 free Blacks, and 571 enslaved people in 1850, a total of 2,019 people, of whom 806 lived in Victoria, then the most populated Texas town besides Galveston, Houston, Marshall, New Braunfels, and San Antonio. The last census taken before the Civil War enrolled 1,413 Black enslaved people and 2,757 Whites, of whom 32 percent were foreign born (primarily Germans). The population of the city of Victoria increased to 1,986 and included the county's only remaining free Black, a man aged at least fifty years.
In 1861 Victoria County joined the majority of organized Texas counties in voting for secession from the Union by a margin of 313 to 88. Some 300 county men served with the Confederate Army; at least forty-eight died from wounds or disease. Units organized in Victoria County included Company C, Fourth Regiment, Texas Mounted Volunteers, which served in New Mexico; Company B, Sixth Texas Infantry, which was attached to the Army of Tennessee and saw action east of the Mississippi; and Company A, Thirteenth Texas Cavalry (Waller's Battalion), sent to western Louisiana with Bagby's Brigade (see BAGBY, ARTHUR PENDLETON). Camp Henry E. McCulloch was established about four miles from Victoria under the command of Col. R. R. Garland, who for eight months trained 643 men of the Sixth Texas Infantry, with companies from Port Lavaca, Victoria, Austin, Matagorda, Seguin, Gonzales, and elsewhere. Victoria County served as a transportation, military, and supply center during the war, since its major town was on a branch of the Cotton Road, which provided access to guns, ammunition, medicine, and supplies from Mexico in exchange for crops. In 1863 Gen. John B. Magruder, Confederate commander of the Department of Texas, destroyed the railroad from Port Lavaca to Victoria when Union invasion seemed imminent; he also rendered the Guadalupe River unnavigable by sinking trees and boats. After the Union victory, the county was occupied from 1867 to 1869 by federal troops, who rebuilt the railroad but also committed such local terrorist acts as the murder of Benjamin F. Hill.
War and Reconstruction considerably altered the county's wealth and economic base. Between 1860 and 1870 the value of all property fell from $3,088,476 to $1,503,295; the families owning property valued at $20,000 or more were reduced from thirty-three to five. Much of the property value had been tied up in the county's 1,413 slaves, who had contributed to the success of the cotton economy and to the wealth of such plantation owners as Preston R. and John Washington Rose. The transformation to a cattle and young manufacturing economy was evident by 1870. Cotton production fell to 205 bales, while the number of cattle grew to 61,651, the county rising from twenty-first to seventh in numbers of cattle in Texas. Manufacturing establishments increased from ten to twenty-five. By 1873 the Gulf, Western Texas and Pacific Railway connected Victoria with Cuero and the coast, and in 1882 the New York, Texas and Mexican Railway, built primarily by Italian immigrants, many of whom settled in Victoria, provided the first cross-country route to Rosenberg Junction. These lines, together with Victoria's strategic location on the old Goliad and Indianola roads, contributed to the county's rise as the commercial center of the surrounding agricultural counties. The German element remained a strong influence in the county into the twentieth century, though increasing numbers of immigrants from Mexico continued to reassert the original cultural heritage of the area. Roads crossing Victoria County improved considerably. Before the Civil War a Galveston newspaper credited the county with having the "worst road in that part of the State." Railroads and river navigation impeded road construction, but a series of graded roads was built in 1889, and in 1911 the county constructed one of the first extensive all-weather, graveled road systems in the state. Concrete paving followed from 1928 to 1932. Improvements in transportation helped unite the county and enabled its primary industry-raising cattle-to prosper along with the growth in commercial trucking.
Victoria County has been a leader in the development of the Texas cattle industry since the Spanish and Mexican eras, but especially just after Reconstruction. The abundant natural grasslands and subtropical climate allow grazing year-round and minimize the need for winter shelter. The county's major pioneer ranchers, James A. McFaddin, Thomas and Dennis O'Connor, John J. Welder, and John N. Keeran, replaced the longhorn cattle with shorthorn, Hereford, and Brahman cattle. The progress to 1930, when Victoria County held more cattle than any other county in Texas, was uneven, for the county ranked seventh in 1870, twelfth in 1880, and twenty-first in 1890 and was still eighth as late as 1920. In 1930, 93,997 head were counted. The establishment at Victoria of one of the state's first meat-packing plants in 1869 underscored the county's early importance in the cattle trade, as did the erection in 1883 of the largest plant in Texas by Texas Continental Meat Company. The company, financed by local ranchers, installed A. F. Higgs, inventor of the refrigerated railroad car, as president. The plant enjoyed a wide reputation as a packer of mutton, pork, and poultry in addition to beef (see MEAT PACKING).
Commercial farming of diverse crops developed only in the 1890s as knowledge grew about cultivating prairie soils. The production of corn and cotton again grew in importance; in 1900 the county harvested 490,080 bushels of corn and 9,459 bales of cotton, a level maintained until World War II. Victoria County's cotton production of 10,181 bales in 1910 led the coastal region, and in 1934 cotton occupied two-thirds of the county's cropland, corn about half of that. Although sugar cane and molasses production declined to minimal amounts, the production of honey increased to 20,512 pounds in 1930. The turn of the century saw some experimentation with citrus fruits, pears, peaches, and especially grapes. In 1900 the county produced 2,022 gallons of wine and 40,086 pounds of grapes, ranking Victoria as fifteenth and twenty-seventh in the state respectively. Figs and pecans also grew somewhat in importance. The establishment in the early 1900s of Victoria Rice and Irrigation Company on the Guadalupe River, a pumping plant irrigating 3,800 acres, and Clark Rice and Irrigation Company on Lone Tree Creek, designed to water 4,000 to 5,000 acres, demonstrated an early interest in rice farming. But rice, like sugar cane, failed to maintain economic importance. Only 100 acres was harvested by 1920, when Victoria was last among the thirteen Texas counties planting rice. Poultry production, especially of turkeys, proved a profitable supplement to agriculture, however; in 1930 Victoria County had 145,318 chickens and 50,427 turkeys, the latter valued at $121,025.
The oldest industry other than agriculture and ranching was the manufacture of bricks from Guadalupe riverbottom clay; several plants were built before 1850, and the first large factory was completed in 1899. The sand and gravel business grew out of river-dredging operations. John J. Welder, James A. McFaddin, and Henry E. Rathbone established the first large-scale company, the Guadalupe River Navigation Company, in 1906. Welder also supplied at low cost the gravel for the county's first all-weather roads in 1911–13, about the time the river was dredged for navigation for the last time. But besides cattle, oil and gas contributed most to the county's economy before the growth of service industries after World War II. Although various ranchers discovered oil in the late nineteenth century when drilling for water, they considered it a nuisance and a hazard to valuable grazing lands. Nevertheless, the first mineral leases were contracted by Guffey Petroleum Company of Pittsburgh (later Gulf Oil Corporation) soon after the Spindletop discovery in 1900. Various drilling operations occurred, some by the local Victoria Oil and Gas and Guadalupe Valley Oil companies; the first commercial oil and gas wells were not struck until 1930, at McFaddin. Other fields followed but developed slowly because of the Great Depression and flooded oil markets.
Although the depression slowed the growth of the oil industry and created widespread unemployment, it also brought the New Deal to Victoria County. The Civil Works Administration allocated $130,000 in federal funds to the completion of several public projects, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Work Projects Administration, and the National Recovery Administration were also active in the county. The post-World War II era has seen Victoria County prosper and gain regional importance. Aloe and Foster army air fields, established during the war to train Army Air Corps pilots, became Victoria County Airport and Foster Air Force Base, and though the base was closed in 1957 it was transformed and still operates as Victoria Regional Airport. The number of manufacturing establishments recorded in 1950 and 1983 grew from twenty-one to forty-three; 145 wholesale businesses, 646 retail businesses, and 550 service industries were also listed, many geared toward the valuable hunting and fishing trade. A DuPont plant was established in 1949 and has particularly benefited the area. It was the third DuPont plant to be built in Texas and one of the first in the United States operated from central controls. The Victoria Barge Canal was completed to the plant in July 1967, connecting Victoria County with the Intercoastal Canal, which carried almost 10 percent of United States domestic commerce in 1976 (see GULF INTRACOASTAL WATERWAY). The Victoria Barge Canal was the outgrowth of the original Intracoastal Canal Association established locally in 1905; Congress did not authorize the construction of a barge canal, except for the dredging of the Guadalupe River, until 1945. Construction began only in 1954 through Calhoun County and in 1958 in Victoria County.
Though in 1920 the census showed, for the first time, a majority of Americans living in urban areas, Victoria County remained 51 percent rural as late as 1940, when the population included 20,610 Whites, 3,126 Blacks, and 976 foreign-born, mostly Mexicans. The home demonstration movement organized clubs to bring the modern age to rural areas through specially trained home economists from Texas A&M University, who showed modern and economical methods of canning, baking, freezing, sewing, and interior decorating. Electricity was supplied by the Victoria County Cooperative, formed in 1938, and the Sam Rayburn Power Plant, opened on the Guadalupe River in 1963. Rural health matters fell under the Victoria-Calhoun-Goliad Counties Medical Society, formed about 1900, which pioneered the patch-testing of county schoolchildren for tuberculosis and received special commendation from Dr. Albert Sabin for its 1962 immunization program, which used the controversial Type III Sabin oral polio vaccine. The present county hospital, Citizens Memorial, opened at Victoria in December 1956.
Victoria County was in the First Congressional District under the Republic of Texas and the Second District when Texas entered the Union; it is currently in District Fourteen. Although Victoria voters joined the rural groundswell that supported the People's (Populist) party in the 1896 presidential election, the county has been, like most of Texas, a stronghold of the Democratic party since Reconstruction. Not surprisingly, Prohibition was never popular; the county defeated prohibition measures in 1877, 1887, and 1919 and voted 1,929 to 223 to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933. Nevertheless, Nursery passed a local prohibition ordinance in 1896, as did Bloomington in 1902 and 1914. A countywide trend in support of the Republican party developed after 1968, when Republican Richard Nixon won a plurality of the area’s votes; and Republican presidential candidates carried the county from 1968 through 1992 with sizeable majorities in every election from 1972 through 2004.
By 1983 there were 68,807 people living in the county, 73.7 percent classified as urban, 30.35 percent Hispanic, 6.96 percent Black, and, with the exception of a handful of Asians, the rest White. Only 1,701 people were living on 965 farms. Cotton production in 1940, when gins were operated at Victoria, Guadalupe, Dacosta, Placedo, Raisin, Nursery, Telferner, Inez, Mission Valley, and Fordtran, was 9,121 bales; production fell to 2,200 bales by 1972, when most of the gins had been closed down. No cotton was recorded in 1982 or 1983. Still, Victoria County agriculture produced $33.5 million in 1982 from sorghums, rice, corn, beef cattle, hogs, and poultry. The significant increase in the stock-feeding industry after World War II lowered considerably the ranking of stock-raising counties such as Victoria in overall numbers of cattle. In 1984 Victoria County, with 69,000 head, still ranked in the top third statewide, but among the coastal counties ranked third, a more accurate indication of the county's regional and local prominence. Oil production in 1984 was 2,187,416 barrels, valued at $57,449,254. Tax value for the county in 1984 was $3,215,139,973, and an effective buying income of almost $770 million was recorded in 1985. In 1990 the county population was 74,361.
The U.S. Census counted 91,081 people living in Victoria County in 2014; about 46.7 percent were Anglo, 44.9 percent Hispanic, and 6.8 percent African American. Of residents twenty-five and older, 66 percent had graduated from high school and 16 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century petrochemical plants, petroleum production, agriculture and tourism were important elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 1,286 farms and ranches covering 513,828 acres, 32 percent of which were devoted to crops. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $29,064,000; livestock sales accounted for $15,106,000 of the total. Corn, beef cattle, grain sorghums, cotton, rice, and soybeans were the chief agricultural products. More than 922,000 barrels of oil, and 23,859,338 thousand cubic feet of gas well gas, were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 3,285,627,108 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1931.
Victoria (population, 64,834) is the county’s largest town and its seat of government. Other communities include Bloomington (2,540), Inez (2,196), Telferner (700), Placedo (720), and McFaddin (50). The county hosts a Czech Heritage Festival in October.