Walker County is in southeast Texas. The center of the county is at 30°47' north latitude and 95°33' west longitude. Huntsville, the county seat, is near the center of the county sixty miles north of Houston. The area was originally named for Robert J. Walker of Mississippi, who introduced into the United States Congress the resolution for the annexation of Texas; because he was a Unionist during the Civil War, however, in 1863 the state legislature changed the honoree to Samuel H. Walker. Walker County encompasses 801 square miles of rolling hills and open prairies in the Piney Woods vegetation area; around 70 percent of the county is blanketed by forests of loblolly, short-leaf and long-leaf pine, and hardwoods. The area rests at the extreme western end of the Coastal Plain region. Elevations in the county range from 140 to 404 feet above sea level. The land is well watered, receiving forty-six inches of rain each year, and is drained by two major rivers, the Trinity River in the north and the San Jacinto River in the south. Numerous creeks also cross the county. Bedias Creek forms part of the northwestern boundary and empties into the Trinity River, as do Harmon, Carolina, and Nelson creeks. Mill, East and West Sandy, and Robinson creeks drain into the San Jacinto River in the south. Forest soils are typically sands and clays, but alluvial loams are found in creek beds and at lower elevations. Temperatures range from an average low of 38° F in January to an average high of 95° F in July; the growing season lasts 265 days. Clay deposits-ceramic and brick clays and Fuller's earth-have been mined commercially, as have other minerals, including sand, gravel, lignite, volcanic ash, and petroleum. Walker County is crossed by the Union Pacific Railroad and Interstate Highway 45. Transportation in the area is also facilitated by a series of farm-to-market roads radiating outward from Huntsville.
The Cenis Indians were among the earliest known residents of the area that is now Walker County. They lived between the Trinity and the San Jacinto rivers, where they raised corn crops which they traded with western Indians for horses, hides, and Spanish goods. The Cenis were wiped out in 1780 by invading tribes that had been driven from their own ancestral homes along the Mississippi River by American expansion. Another band of Indians, the Bidais, inhabited the northern area of present Walker County and eked out a marginal existence as hunter-gatherers. The Huntsville area, situated at the edge of the southern forest, became an important site for intertribal trade. Here the Alabama-Coushatta, the Neches, and the Nacogdoches tribes from the forests to the south arrived to swap goods with the Comanches, Lipans, and Tonkawas of the plains. The first Europeans to explore the area may have been Spaniards under the leadership of Luis de Moscoso Alvarado, who arrived in the region in 1542. Frenchman René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle crossed the area in 1687. To counter the French threat presented by the La Salle expedition, a military company captained by Alonso De León was dispatched to East Texas in 1689 by the Viceroy of New Spain. De León's men cleared a lane that became La Bahía Road. A portion of this thoroughfare passed over the area of present-day Walker County. In the early 1830s colonists from the United States arrived in the area. Pleasant Gray and his brother Ephraim established a trading post on the site that eventually became Huntsville, named after Huntsville, Alabama, Pleasant's former home. In the mid-1830s the brothers conducted a lucrative trade with the neighboring Indians.
In the years prior to Texas independence, the area was governed by the Municipality of Washington, which became Washington County during the Texas Revolution. In 1837 the First Congress of the Republic of Texas included the area of present Walker County in Montgomery County when that county was carved from Washington County. Steamboat navigation of the Trinity River spurred the earliest burst of commerce in the county. In 1838 James DeWitt established the port town of Cincinnati, which soon became the leading regional commercial center, partly because it was on the stage road connecting Washington-on-the-Brazos and Nacogdoches. Cotton and other agricultural products were taken down this highway to Cincinnati, then transported down the Trinity River to the Port of Galveston. In April 1846 the First Legislature of the new state of Texas established Walker County and designated Huntsville the seat of government. The county's first officials included Milton Estill as chief justice, Isaac McGary as county clerk, and William Reeves as sheriff. James Mitchell, Benjamin W. Robinson, Elijah S. Collard, and D. J. Tucker, the county commissioners, held their first session on July 27, 1846, in Huntsville. A site for the courthouse was donated by Pleasant Gray and his wife, and Henry Sheets and his spouse provided the property for the jail. The new jail was completed in 1847, and the first courthouse a year later. By 1847 there were 2,695 people living in the area. In 1848 the county became the designated site for what became the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, which began operating in 1849. By 1850 the population of Walker County had increased to 3,964, including 1,301 slaves. No free Blacks lived in the area. Farms in the county encompassed 146,000 acres that year; of these, 12,000 were classified as "improved," and local farmers produced 102,000 bushels of corn and 1,873 bales of cotton. Oats, beans, and sweet potatoes were also grown. Livestock was an important part of the economy at that time; almost 4,300 milk cows and more than 18,000 other cattle were reported that year.
Walker County continued to grow and develop during the 1850s, though Cincinnati was struck by a severe epidemic of yellow fever in 1853. By 1860 farms had expanded to cover 180,000 acres of county land, including 38,000 acres of improved farmland. Almost 14,000 cattle and 2,600 sheep were reported in the area that year, but livestock were becoming relatively less important to the local economy, as corn and cotton production expanded rapidly. Almost 12,000 bales of cotton and more than 315,000 bushels of corn were produced by county farmers in 1860. As the cotton production expanded, so did its slave population; on the eve of the Civil War slaves in Walker outnumbered the Whites. While the county's total population more than doubled between 1850 and 1860, rising to 8,191, its slave population more than tripled during the same period, rising to 4,135. Land values also tripled during the decade. Thus, on the eve of the Civil War, Walker County was coming to mirror the culture of the Deep South, as its economy and society increasingly revolved around cotton and slavery. In 1860, 376 of the Walker County's 646 White families owned slaves. About 80 percent of the slaveholding families owned fewer than twenty slaves, and most farmers (232 out of 349) farmed fewer than fifty acres. Over 100 plantation owners cultivated between 100 and 500 acres, and eleven plantations were larger than 500 acres; one was 1,000 acres. Several Walker County communities along the Trinity River became active trade centers, shipping farm commodities to market and importing manufactured goods for local planters and farmers. At various times the communities of Newport, Carolina, Cincinnati, Tuscaloosa, and Wyser's Bluff served as points of departure for river freight. By 1860 Huntsville, the county seat, had become the county's principal town and had attracted several churches, two small colleges (Austin College and Andrew Female College), numerous businesses, and a newspaper, the Huntsville Item. Meanwhile, the state penitentiary had expanded and become a significant producer of cotton goods; in 1859 the institution was capable of producing 12,000 yards of cotton goods each day. By 1860 county residents also supported ten public schools attended by more than 400 students. A majority of the area's voters supported the Democratic presidential candidates in national elections from 1848 to 1856; the American party received 47 percent of the county's vote in 1856. The county's sectional sentiments were reflected in the pivotal election of 1860, when local voters overwhelmingly supported southern Democrat John Breckenridge over John Bell, the candidate of the Constitutional Union party. When the Civil War broke out, James Gillaspie raised a company of volunteer infantry from the men of the county for the Confederate Army, and the area furnished two companies of cavalry. The number of slaves in the county grew significantly during the conflict, possibly due to southerners fleeing west with their slaves; county tax records show that by 1864 there were 8,663 slaves in the area.
Though the county's thousands of former slaves celebrated their freedom in 1865, the years immediately following the war were difficult for most of the people in the county. In 1867 Huntsville was ravaged by an epidemic of yellow fever that touched virtually every family in the city. The people in the county also suffered because the war had seriously disrupted the local economy; farm production had fallen significantly. In 1870, five years after the war was over, only 5,524 bales of cotton were produced in the county, less than half the county's 1860 production level. The county's farms had also lost hundreds of milk cows, mules, hogs, cattle, and other livestock. Improved land in farms declined during the 1860s, and real estate values plummeted, dropping from $1,525,411 in 1860 to only $311,556 in 1870. Though the number of people living in the county increased to 9,776 by 1870, many of the new residents were apparently ex-slaves who had been brought into the county during the war. In 1870 almost 60 percent of the people living in the area were Black. Racial tensions erupted during Reconstruction. The most dramatic incident occurred in the early 1870s, after Sam Jenkins, a local freedman, was brutally murdered. The killing led to an investigation by Capt. Leander H. McNelly of the State Police in January of 1871. McNelly arrested four suspects, and three were convicted of the crime. Before the judge could pronounce sentence, however, local sympathizers armed the prisoners and a shooting spree erupted in the courtroom. McNelly and another lawman were wounded, and the trio escaped, aided by numerous townspeople; only two citizens were willing to be deputized into a posse. In response, Governor Edmund J. Davis declared martial law in Walker County and ordered a militia unit into the area. The county remained under martial law for sixty days.
During the 1870s the area's economy became more diversified as a vigorous lumber business developed. The arrival of the International and Great Southern Railroad in 1871 sparked this industry, as it passed through the forested eastern half of the county. Sawmills were established with spurs connecting them to the railroad, providing convenient transportation for their products, and lumbering soon became the most important industry in the area. By 1890 seven sawmills were operating. While the railroads tied Walker County to national markets and helped to encourage immigration into the county, the arrival of locomotives also helped to shift the area's demographic patterns. Being bypassed by a railroad meant almost certain death to a community in the late nineteenth century. Huntsville was threatened with extinction in the early 1870s after the city failed to pay the railroad a requested bonus. In 1872, after the tracks had bypassed their town, Huntsville residents hurriedly raised $90,000 to build a spur line from their town to the road that had passed them by; the county government contributed an additional $35,000. The spur, known as the Huntsville Tap, reached the main line near the new town of Phelps. The river port towns died as the railroads replaced steamboats for hauling freight; when the railroad community of Riverside, established at the crossing of the Trinity River, became the new center for both rail and water freight, it eventually killed off its upstream competitors. Meanwhile, new communities like New Waverly, Elmira, Phelps, and Dodge sprang up adjacent to the tracks. The arrival of the railroad also helped to stimulate the area's agricultural economy, which began to revive during the 1870s. By 1880 more than 20,000 acres of county land were planted in cotton, and farmers that year produced 6,441 bales. Much of the county's production was grown and harvested by former slaves who had become sharecroppers since emancipation. In 1880, 60 percent of the farmers in the area worked for shares. The number of farms rose from 702 in 1870 to 1,264 by 1880; during that same period, the population increased from 9,776 to 12,874. Immigrants from other southern states, particularly Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana, continued to move into the area throughout the late nineteenth century. Though cotton remained king, depleted soils and other problems dragged down production, which did not reach pre-Civil War levels until 1900. That year almost 27,000 acres were planted in cotton, and over 12,014 bales were ginned. The new lumber industry and the recovery of the agricultural economy all contributed to the population growth during the late nineteenth century; by 1900 there were 15,813 people living in Walker County, including 8,319 Blacks.
Because of electoral swings related to Reconstruction politics, racial hostilities, and agrarian problems, Walker County had a volatile political atmosphere during the late nineteenth century. In the presidential election of 1872 a majority of the county's voters supported Ulysses S. Grant, the Republican candidate; in 1876, however, Republican Rutherford Hayes received only one vote in the county, and the county went Democratic. Then, in the presidential election of 1888 Walker County's Republican voters reappeared to give James G. Blaine a majority of the county's votes. Between 1888 and 1896 economic and cultural concerns increasingly drove local voters into the arms of third parties. In 1888 a plurality of the county's voters supported the candidate of the maverick Greenback party; four years later the People's (Populist) Party won a plurality of the county's votes, and in 1896 William Jennings Bryan, the fusion candidate of the Democratic and People's parties, took over 70 percent of the county's votes to beat Republican William McKinley. In 1900, when the Populists ran a separate ticket, Bryan won a plurality in the county for the Democrats, beginning a trend that would continue for more than fifty years.
Logging and cotton farming continued to be the mainstays of Walker County between 1900 and 1930, but partly because of the boll weevil, cotton farming in the area became less productive after 1900 even though the number of acres devoted to the crop expanded significantly. Land devoted to cotton in the county rose from 27,000 acres in 1900 to 31,000 acres in 1920, and to more than 43,000 acres by 1930; meanwhile production over the same period dropped from 12,000 bales in 1900 to 8,000 bales in 1910. Less than 9,000 bales were produced in both 1920 and 1930. While the number of farms grew from 1,703 in 1900 to 2,162 by 1930, farm tenancy also climbed. About 54 percent of the farmers were tenants in 1900, and by 1930 almost 64 percent were. The population grew slowly during the first years of the twentieth century, rising from 15,813 in 1900 to 18,566 by 1920, but the area lost population during the 1920s. In 1930 there were 18,528 people living there.
The character of the local economy was fundamentally altered during the Great Depression, as cotton farming collapsed, sharecroppers left the land, and cattle ranching became more important. By 1940 only 17,000 acres were devoted to cotton, and total cropland harvested declined by 50 percent during the 1930s. By 1940 only 1,583 farms remained in the area. Most of the lost farms had been operated by tenants; their number declined from 1,379 in 1930 to 904 by 1940. As tens of thousands of acres were taken out of crop production during the depression, the number of cattle doubled, from 12,000 in 1930 to 24,000 by 1940. These trends continued into the 1940s, so that by 1950, 7,000 acres were planted in cotton, the number of farms had dropped to 1,328, and only 292 tenants remained.
In 1982, 50 percent of the land was in farms and ranches; about 70 percent of its agricultural receipts that year were from livestock, especially cattle and hogs. Crops grown included hay, oats, rye, cotton, and sorghum, as well as potatoes, tomatoes, and watermelons. The Sam Houston National Forest, which includes much of the southern half of the county, sustains the large lumber industry. The population increased during this period, rising to 19,868 by 1940 and to 20,163 by 1950, but the Black population declined significantly. In 1930 the 8,531 African Americans constituted 46 percent of the total population, but by 1950, 7,503 Blacks were only 34 percent of the total. As the county's population continued to expand, rising to 21,475 by 1960, to 27,680 by 1970, and to 41,789 by 1980, the percentage of the Black population in the area continued to decline. By 1980 about 24 percent of the population was African American. In 1990 there were 50,917 people living in Walker County; about 24 percent of them were Black. The Hispanic population grew significantly in the 1980s, and by 1990 comprised almost 11 percent of the people living in the county.
Since the late nineteenth century the county’s economy has benefited from the presence of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. By the late twentieth century, the tremendous expansion of Houston became an increasingly important factor in the growth of Walker County. As this city continued to sprawl northward, more Walker County residents benefited from employment opportunities available in its metropolitan area. Huntsville residents often worked in Houston offices, commuting from their Walker County homes.
The voters of Walker County supported the Democratic candidates in virtually every election from 1904 through 1968; the only exceptions occurred in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover took the county, and 1956, when Dwight D. Eisenhowerqv did. After 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon carried the county over 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 2014 the census counted 69,789 people living in Walker County. About 57.7 percent were Anglo, 22.8 percent were African American, and 17.5 percent were Hispanic. Seventy-three percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and more than 18 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century state prisons, education, and agriculture were key elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 1,043 farms and ranches covering 206,311 acres, 46 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 30 percent to crops, and 22 percent to woodlands. That year Walker County farmers and ranchers earned $25,372,000, with crop sales accounting for $13,832,000 of that total. Cattle, nursery crops, poultry, cotton, and hay were the chief agricultural products. Almost 11,613,000 cubic feet of pinewood and almost 649,000 cubic feet of hardwood were harvested in the county in 2003. Huntsville (population, 40,125) accounts for most of the county's population, while Riverside (489) and New Waverly (1,027) are the next largest communities. A large portion of the county is owned by two public agencies, the state prison system and the National Forest Service. Numerous prison farms are operated by the prison system. Huntsville is home to the Sam Houston Memorial Museum and hosts a number of annual events, including the Walker County Fair in July.