Waller County is in the lower coastal plain of southeast Texas. The center of the county lies at 29°11' north latitude and 96° 01' west longitude. Hempstead, the county's seat of government and largest city, is twenty-five miles northwest of Houston. The county covers 514 square miles of land, from the rolling timbered area in the northern part of the county to the coastal prairie in the south, where marsh and bunch grasses grow. Elevations range between 100 and 300 feet above sea level. Soil types vary from the fertile alluvial soil in the Brazos river bottoms to the sandy loam soil in the prairie region and the black waxy soils in the small southern area of the county. The Brazos River defines the county's western boundary and is the area's most important stream, but the county is also crossed by a number of creeks, including Clear, Spring, Walnut, Brushy, Pond, Birch, Mound, Besser, Iron, and Cedar creeks; Hubbard Springs provides mineral waters. Small lakes in the area include Garrett Lake, Mound Lake, and Hannay Lake. Pine trees predominate in northeastern Waller County, while pecan trees are found on the Brazos river bottom, and live oak, sycamore, ash, elm, cottonwood, walnut trees, and wild fruits and berries are found elsewhere. Temperatures range from an average low of 41° F in January to an average high of 95° in July. The average annual precipitation is forty-two inches, and the average growing season lasts 288 days. The economy of Waller County revolves primarily around farming, cattle, and forest products. Mineral resources include oil and gas, salt domes, shell, gypsum, sulphur, sand, gravel, and brick clay. Waller County is served by U.S. Highway 290, State Highway 6, the Union Pacific Railroad, and three airports.
Before settlement large herds of mustangs and wild cattle roamed through what is now Waller County; deer and prairie chickens were also abundant. The Bidai Indians lived a migratory life in the area, where they engaged in hunting and fishing. By the time of Anglo occupation, this group had been reduced to only about 100 members. European explorers apparently did not enter the area before the 1800s. The area that is now Waller County was originally part of the Municipality of Washington under Mexican rule, then became part of Washington County and then Austin County. The area began to be settled in the early 1820s as part of Stephen F. Austin's original colony. In 1821 Jared Groce moved from Alabama with 100 slaves and established Bernardo Plantation, four miles from the site of present Hempstead. Groce grew a crop of cotton in 1822 (perhaps the first in Texas), and in 1825 he constructed the first cotton gin in Texas. A blacksmith shop and commissary were also established at Bernardo, and the plantation became the nucleus of settlement in the area. In April 1836, during the Texas Revolution, Sam Houston's army briefly camped at the plantation. Other early settlers on the east bank of the Brazos were Isaac M. Pennington, first schoolteacher in Austin's colony, and two free Blacks, Lewis B. Jones and Samuel Hardin. The southern part of what became Waller County developed more slowly than the northern sections did. James Pattison established a plantation close to the site of present-day Pattison, and Edwin Waller settled near the site of the present community of Clemons sometime after 1840. Most settlers in the area came from the southern United States. By 1845 the east bank of the Brazos had become a prosperous, cotton-exporting plantation area; about 200 Whites owned more than 1,000 slaves. Jared Groce's son, Leonard W. Groce, acquired some of his father's land in 1854 and built Liendo Plantation, which became the area's social center. During these years most of the area's cotton crop was taken to Houston for marketing. Planters had to rely on inadequate steamboat and poor road transportation until the late 1850s, but development of the area was accelerated in 1858, when the Houston and Texas Central Railway built into the county. Hempstead, a new town located at the railroad's terminus in the northwestern part of the county, was incorporated in November 1858 and soon became a major trade center for the area, as cotton and other agricultural exports were increasingly shipped down the railroad to the coast. Hempstead's importance as a trade center grew in 1861, when the Washington County Rail Road connected the town to Brenham. The formation of Hempstead caused a shift in the county's population, as people moved away from the northern village of Rock Island, which earlier had been the only community in the region.
During the Civil War Confederate camps Carter, Groce, and Hebert were established near Hempstead; the town became a Confederate supply and manufacturing center, and a Confederate military hospital was established there. Camp Groce was one of two locations holding Union prisoners of war. Support was strong for the Confederacy in the area. Dr. Richard R. Peebles, a prominent local citizen who helped to found Hempstead, was imprisoned and exiled by Confederate authorities for speaking and writing against the war. Union soldiers marched into Hempstead in the summer of 1865, and about 4,000 troops commanded by George Armstrong Custer camped near Hempstead from August to October. An agency of the Freedmen's Bureau was established at Hempstead in 1866, and in 1867 two companies of federal troops were assigned there. The emancipation of the area's slaves disrupted the local economy and led to the breakup of many of the large plantations; cotton production plunged, and as late as 1870 remained significantly below prewar levels. (The Liendo Plantation was purchased by Edmund Montgomery and his wife, sculptor Elisabet Ney, in 1873). Though according to some reports the White citizens of Hempstead established a good relationship with the occupying soldiers, the city's peace was disturbed by a race riot in 1868. The area's majority Black population became active in local politics during Reconstruction, and a number of Blacks were elected to county and state offices. After Waller County was established in 1873, a majority of the county's voters supported the Republican candidates in every presidential election from 1872 to 1896.
Settlers on the east bank of the Brazos had attempted to obtain legislative approval to separate from Austin County as early as the 1850s. As a result of political maneuvering during Reconstruction, the state legislature established Waller County in 1873 from parts of Austin and Grimes counties; Hempstead was designated the county's seat of government. The construction of new rail links and new sources of livelihood soon encouraged the growth of old communities and new towns. Pattison grew rapidly after the Texas Western Narrow Gauge Railroad arrived in 1878; Prairie View State Normal School, a state school to train Black teachers, was established in 1879. In 1880 the first United States census to record the new county reported 9,024 people, including 5,830 African Americans, living in the area. The agricultural census for that year found 596 farms encompassing 103,369 acres. Waller County residents planted over 10,000 acres in cotton that year and had 10,500 cattle. Immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, Ireland, and Italy arrived during the later nineteenth century, with Germans forming the largest immigrant group; Catholic and Lutheran churches grew with the arrival, especially, of German, Polish, and Czech immigrants into the early twentieth century. A Jewish synagogue, established in 1873, also increased religious diversity. Brookshire grew after 1893, when the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad built through the area from Houston. South Texas Baptist College was established in the town of Waller in 1898, but did not survive the great storm that pushed through the area in 1900. The Narrow Gauge Railway closed in 1899. By 1900 the county's population had increased to 14,246, including 7,874 Blacks. The agricultural census reported 2,000 farms that year, and cotton production had spread to over 24,000 acres; another 18,300 acres were planted in corn, and 16,000 cattle were reported that year. The county's Black majority population regularly delivered Republican victories in local, state, and national elections during much of the late nineteenth century, but in the 1880s a White Man's Party was organized to reduce Black political participation, and some elections were marked by violence. As a result, the county's Republican vote dropped by 50 percent between 1896 and 1900; although 1,493 Republican votes were cast in the Presidential election of 1896, in 1900 the Republican ticket received only 760 votes. The 1903 state White primary law all but eliminated Blacks as a political power in the county, and in the Presidential election of 1912, only 144 Republican ballots were cast.
Cotton production continued to expand in the first decade of the twentieth century but then began to decline. More than 30,000 acres were planted in cotton in 1910, but by 1920 only 23,000 acres were devoted to the fiber. Though cotton cultivation expanded again briefly in the early 1920s—to over 34,000 acres by 1924—it declined again later in the decade, and by 1930 only 24,000 acres were planted in the crop. By that time, a number of farmers had turned to truck farming. The county's Black population declined sharply during this period. By 1930 only 4,952 Blacks were living there. Overall, the population dropped to 12,138 by 1910, to 10,292 by 1920, and to 10,014 by 1930. Cotton farming in the area continued to decline during the Great Depression of the 1930s, due to federal crop restrictions, low prices, and other problems. A number of cotton gins closed during the 1930s, and by 1940, 14,000 acres were planted in cotton. Cropland harvested declined from 58,000 acres in 1930 to only 47,000 acres in 1940.
The discovery of petroleum in the county in 1934 helped to diversify the area's economy during and after the depression, but production remained fairly limited. Oil production rose from 80,000 barrels in 1938 to more than 385,000 barrels in 1944 and to almost 591,000 barrels in 1948. By 1960 production had dropped to just under 332,000 barrels; about 217,000 barrels were produced in 1974, and under 134,000 barrels in 1982. In 1990 just under 199,000 barrels of crude were produced. More than 1,501,000 barrels of oil and 6,852,751 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 27,752,794 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1934.
As cotton cultivation continued to decline after World War II many small communities lost population. Farming declined relative to ranching after the 1950s, and by the 1980s irrigated rice had replaced cotton as the area's important crop; the county's last cotton gin closed in 1976. Meanwhile, truck farming and egg production became increasingly important, while watermelon growing declined. After 1960 Waller County's population grew rapidly, as more people moved into the area to commute to jobs in Houston. The United States Census counted 12,071 people in the county in 1960, and 14,285 in 1970; in 1973 the federal Office of Management and Budget began to include Waller County in the Houston Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area. By 1980 almost half of the county's residents lived in urban areas, and the population had increased to 19,798. In the 1980s the county had only ten manufacturing firms, generally specializing in metal fabrication and drilling equipment and supplies, and three banks. Most nonagricultural workers were employed in oil and gas extraction, service industries, and construction. In 1982 about 81 percent of the land was in farms and ranches; about 33 percent of the farmland was cultivated, and about 23 percent was irrigated. Major crops included soybeans, corn, hay, and rice; watermelons, peaches, and pecans were also produced. That year about 53 percent of the county's agricultural income was derived from livestock, particularly cattle, sheep, and hogs. Forest products are also important to the local economy, and in 1981 over 1,921,000 cubic feet of pine was harvested. In 1982 almost 139,265,000,000 cubic feet of gas-well gas and 134,000 barrels of petroleum were produced in the area. Tourism also contributed to the area's economy. Two weekly newspapers, the Brookshire Banner and the Hempstead News Citizen, were published. The town of Prairie View experienced particularly rapid growth as Prairie View A&M's enrollment expanded, and by 1990 it was the largest population center in the county. The school's growth has also shaped the social and political development of the county. In the 1960s Prairie View students boycotted Hempstead businesses to force integration. Black voters became a more potent political force in 1976, after students at Prairie View A&M successfully challenged obstacles to their local voting registration. By 1990 there were 23,390 people living in Waller County.
In national elections a majority of the voters of Waller County supported the Democratic candidates in every presidential election from 1900 to 1948. However, the county swung to Republicans in 1952, 1956, and 1960. The county's voters then supported the Democratic candidates in most presidential elections from 1964 through 1996, except in 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon carried the county, and 1984, when Ronald Reagan did. In the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections Republican George W. Bush carried the county with solid majorities.
In 2014 the census counted 46,820 people living in Waller County. About 43.6 percent were Anglo, 25.8 percent were African American, and 29.5 percent were Hispanic. Almost 74 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and almost 17 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agriculture, education, and some manufacturing were key elements of the area’s economy. In 2002 the county had 1,453 farms and ranches covering 277,000 acres, 45 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 45 percent to crops, and 6 percent to woodlands. In that year Waller County farmers and ranchers earned $37,884,000, with crop sales accounting for $21,935,000 of that total. Cattle, rice, nursery crops, aquaculture, corn, hogs, poultry, horses, goats, hay, and watermelons were the chief agricultural products. More than 274,000 cubic feet of pinewood and almost 5,000 cubic feet of hardwood were harvested in the county in 2003. Hempstead (population, 6,476) is the county’s seat of government; other communities include Brookshire (4,831), Prairie View (5,809), Katy (15,094, mostly in Fort Bend and Harris counties), Waller (2,445, partly in Harris County), Pine Island (1,012), and Pattison (513). Hempstead hosts a watermelon festival in July, and the Waller County Festival is held in October.