Washington County is in the Blackland Prairies region of southeast central Texas. The center of the county is at 30°14' north latitude and 96°24' west longitude. Brenham, the seat of government, is near the county's center and seventy-five air miles east of Austin. The county was named for George Washington, the first president of the United States. Washington County encompasses 611 square miles of gently rolling land with elevations ranging between 200 to 500 feet above sea level. Sloping generally southeasterly, the area drains into the Brazos River, which runs along the eastern border. Other prominent streams include New Year's Creek, East Fork Mill Creek, Doe Run Creek, Wolf Creek, and Yegua Creek, which forms the county's northern border. Soils along the Brazos River are brownish to reddish, cracking and clayey or loamy; in most of the rest of the county, shallow to deep clayey soils cover a bed of chalk. Subterranean water reservoirs include the Catahoula, Oakville, and Lagarto formations. Washington County, located in the post oak belt, is well timbered, and elms, ashes, hackberries, hickories, pecans, cottonwoods, red cedar, mulberry, and other trees grow in its forests. The county's climate is subtropical and humid, with an average annual precipitation of forty inches. Temperatures range from an average low of 39° F in January to an average high of 96° F in July; the growing season lasts 277 days. The principle mineral resources include oil, natural gas, lignite, brick clay, salt and sulphur. The county is linked to the rest of the state by U.S. Highway 290, which crosses east to west, and by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, which runs north-south.
Artifacts from the Paleo-Indian culture have been found in the area that is now Washington County, indicating that it has been occupied by humans for perhaps 9,000 years or more. Early Indian residents most likely included the Tamique and Xaraname tribes, who inhabited the prairie between the Tonkawas of Central Texas and the coastal-dwelling Karankawas. Early frontiersmen found Tonkawas living in permanent settlements in the central portion of the area that is now Washington County and encountered transient Arananamus and Apaches in the area. Frenchmen led by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, were likely the first Europeans to cross the area of present Washington County. In reaction to French incursions into territory claimed by Spain, the Spanish established the earliest Texas presidio in East Texas near Nacogdoches. Later, after the relocation of the La Bahía mission to Goliad, the Spanish constructed a road through what is now Washington County to connect these two settlements. The area remained unsettled by Europeans until 1821, when settlers recruited by Stephen F. Austin moved into the region. According to Austin's colonization plan, participating families would receive 640 acres for the head of the household, 320 acres for the wife, and 100 acres for each child. Slaveholders would receive an additional 80 acres for each slave possessed. Many, though not all, of the Old Three Hundred colonists settled in what is now Washington County. In November 1821 Andrew Robinson, accompanied by Abner, Joseph, and Robert Kuykendall, crossed to the west side of the Brazos River with their families. From there Abner Kuykendall and Thomas Boatwright moved some ten miles west, establishing farms on New Year's Creek in January 1822. Other early settlers to the area included James Gray, Abner Robinson, John P. Coles, and William Gates and his sons, Amos, Samuel, and Charles. A ferry began operation across the Brazos River near its confluence with the Navasota in 1822, and in 1825 a cotton gin was established in the area. Washington (usually known as Washington-on-the-Brazos), the county's first community, arose at the site of the ferry. By the mid-1830s the town had grown to become a commercial center for the area.
Following the establishment of the district of Brazos by the legislature of Coahuila and Texas in 1834, the citizens of Washington-on-the-Brazos petitioned the political chief at San Felipe de Austin, James B. Miller, to grant the community municipal status. Their request was approved, and in July of 1835 voters selected Josa Handley as alcalde, Jesse Grimes and Asa Mitchell as regidores, A. C. Reynolds as sindico procurador, and John W. Hall as sheriff. In late 1835 and early 1836, after the Texas Revolution had begun to unfold, Washington-on-the-Brazos became a center of political and military activities connected with the rebellion. In December 1835 the Texan army commanded by Gen. Sam Houston established its headquarters there; the following March the town was the site of the Convention of 1836, which issued the Texas Declaration of Independence and established the ad interim government. Fearing retribution from Mexican forces, the delegates and local population then evacuated the area, leaving the town temporarily abandoned. After the revolution the town was suggested as a possible site for the capital of the new republic, but an election held on the question in November 1836 placed the government in Houston instead. Washington County was formally established by the legislature of the Republic of Texas in 1836 and was organized in 1837. Washington-on-the-Brazos became the county seat. Immigration into the area increased significantly in the years after the establishment of the republic, and the rise in population led to the division of the county, which was originally one of the largest in Texas. In February 1840 all of Washington County west of the Brazos River and north of Yegua Creek was annexed to Milam County (some of this land later formed parts of Lee and Burleson counties), and in 1841 Washington County lost more land when Navasota County (now Brazos County) was established. It also lost territory to Walker County (1846) and Madison County (1853). Later, in 1874, the county was reduced one last time when Lee County was formed.
As new immigrants poured into the area the county rapidly developed a thriving agricultural economy and the accoutrements of a settled society. By the early 1840s a number of small communities, including Gay Hill, Tiger Point, Mustang, Mount Vernon, and Independence, had been established in the area. Sawmills and a brickyard were built in or near Washington-on-the Brazos in 1837, and that same year the first school began to operate. In 1839 Reverend Anderson Buffington began to publish the Tarantula, the area's first newspaper, and soon other papers, such as Greenberry H. Harrison's Texian and Brazos Farmer, were also being printed. The growth of the county led to the county seat being moved, first to Mount Vernon in 1841 and then to Brenham in 1844. Meanwhile, Washington-on-the-Brazos became the capital city of Texas in 1842; the Texas government remained there until 1845, when Texas was annexed by the United States and the capital was moved to Austin (see ANNEXATION). Washington County's development accelerated during the mid-1840s, as steamboat traffic on the Brazos River helped to open the area to immigration and linked local farmers to national markets. By the late 1840s as many as a dozen steamboats regularly visited the area, carrying passengers and goods back and forth from Velasco and Quintana. Meanwhile new communities such as Chappell Hill (1849) and the Rehburg settlement (1847) were being established. In 1846 the Texas Union Baptist Association established Baylor University in Independence. By 1850 the area had a flourishing agricultural economy based on the production of cotton, corn, and cattle. A number of wealthy slaveholders had established extensive plantations, some of which supported large, elegant homes in the old Southern tradition. The United States Census counted 5,983 people, including 2,817 slaves, in Washington County in 1850. No free Blacks were reported. Farms covered 263,917 acres, and 19,535 acres were classified as "improved." Over 4,000 bales of cotton, almost 162,000 bushels of corn, and almost 24,000 bushels of potatoes were produced that year, along with other crops such as tobacco, wheat, and oats. The agricultural census also reported over 5,000 milk cows, 15,000 other cattle, almost 16,000 swine, and over 4,000 sheep that year.
Washington-on-the-Brazos flourished until the mid-1850s and had a population of 1,500 by that time. River traffic was seriously disrupted after a flood in 1854, however; and in 1858 the citizens refused to pay an $11,000 "bonus" to the Houston and Texas Central Railway, which was building into the area at that time. In refusing, the townspeople had hoped to protect their river trade. But after the railroad was rerouted through Navasota, and then the new Washington County Railroad built into Brenham in 1860, the significance of the mistake became clear. Though a bridge across the Brazos to Navasota was constructed, Washington-on-the-Brazos declined. Other parts of the county continued to develop. Soule University was established in 1855 at Chappell Hill and became the center of Methodism in Texas. By 1860 there were 15,215 people living in Washington County; the 7,941 slaves made up more than half of the population. Farmland had expanded to encompass 365,000 acres, including more than 76,000 acres of improved land. Over 24,400 bales of cotton and more than 541,000 bushels of corn were produced that year; the number of livestock had also grown to include 11,600 milk cows, 35,000 cattle, and 27,000 swine. About 20,500 sheep were also reported that year, and 30,500 pounds of wool were produced. In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, over 95 percent of the electorate supported secession. Numerous Washington County residents volunteered for service in the Confederacy. Two companies from Washington County, Company E of Brenham and Company F of Longpoint, served in the Fifth Texas Cavalry; the "Dixie Blues" of Hood's Texas Brigade were also raised. The number of slaves grew significantly during the Civil War, possibly due to southerners fleeing west with their slaves. According to county tax records, the slave population increased to 8,663 by 1864.
Union troops entered Brenham in 1865, and after the spring of 1866 the town was occupied by two companies of federal troops (see RECONSTRUCTION). Because of the area's large population of ex-slaves, an agency of the Freedmen's Bureau was also established there. Relations between the federals and the white population were often tinged with hostility. D. L. McGary, the editor of the Brenham Banner, frequently attacked the Freedmen's Bureau in his paper, and his arrest by federal authorities in 1866 led to increased tensions. On September 7, 1866, after McGary had been released, three federal soldiers were shot during an altercation at a dance. Other soldiers returned to the scene, arrested two citizens, and then set a fire that burned down part of the town. The town gained a reputation for the "unreconstructed" Southern mentality of its white residents. In 1869 Brenham was the site of the Democratic Editors Convention, which denounced, among other things, the idea of Black suffrage. The Ku Klux Klan was active in the county and was responsible for at least one murder in 1869. Nevertheless, under the protection of federal troops a local Republican party was organized in Washington County between 1867 and 1869. Composed of Black freedmen, German immigrants, and a small number of white Unionists, the county's Republican party dominated politics throughout the 1870s and into the early 1880s. White Democrats regained control of the local government in 1884, however, under the banner of the People's Party (not to be confused with the later People's Party also known as the Populist Party). Ostensibly organized to rid the county of corruption, the People's Party won all but one post in the election of 1884. The party was successful partly because a scandal in the county treasurer's office encouraged the area's Germans to vote against the incumbent Republicans, and partly because of violence intended to intimidate Black voters. Whites raided local Black polling places, and wounded three Black election officials; fearing for their lives, many Blacks failed to go to the polls. Local Democrats strengthened their hold on the county two years later in the violent election of 1886, as ballot boxes from Black precincts were stolen, three Black leaders were lynched, and White Republican leaders were run out of the county. The voting pattern in national elections during the late nineteenth century reflected these events. Solid majorities of the voters supported the Republican presidential candidates in national elections held between 1872 and 1884, but in 1888 and 1892 the county swung to the Democrats. Though a majority of the county's voters supported Republican William McKinley in 1896, the number of Republican ballots dropped off dramatically in elections held over the next forty years; the Democrats had reestablished their control by driving Blacks from the political process.
The local economy was disrupted and altered by the Civil War and the subsequent emancipation of the many slaves. In the years after the war most of the large plantations were broken into small tracts and sold to arriving immigrants or rented to tenant farmers or sharecroppers; by 1880 about two-thirds of the farmers labored on rented land (see FARM TENANCY). The economy was stimulated, however, by the thousands of immigrants, many of them from Germany, who moved into Washington County during the late 1860s and the 1870s. In 1870 there were 1,901 farms, and almost 123,000 acres of county land was classified as "improved"; though cotton production that year was slightly less than it had been in 1860, corn production had risen substantially, to more than 663,000 bushels. By 1880 there were 3,413 farms, and 178,000 acres were classified as "improved." Cotton was planted on 59,000 acres that year, and local farmers produced 29,000 bales. The production of corn, the second most important crop at that time, also expanded; in 1880, 789,000 bushels were produced. The census counted 23,104 people in 1870, and by 1880 the population had grown to 27,565. That year further development was encouraged when the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway extended its tracks into Brenham. Partly because of rising cotton production and new immigrants from Poland and other European nations, the economy and population continued to grow, though more slowly, during the rest of the nineteenth century. By 1900 there were 4,359 farms in the area. That year 105,000 acres were devoted to cotton, and 52,215 bales were produced; another 47,000 acres were planted in corn, producing 982,000 bushels. Poultry production was also becoming a significant part of the agricultural economy by 1900, and the agricultural census reported 196,000 chickens and 19,000 turkeys that year. The discovery of natural gas in 1879 had also helped to diversify the economy. By the 1890s three gas wells in the area were producing 1,500,000 cubic feet of gas per day. As the economy continued to develop, the number of people increased during this period to reach 29,161 by 1890 and 32,931 by 1900. In the early 1900s the cotton fields were infested by the boll weevil, however, and production of the county's most important crop began to decline. Cotton acreage dropped more than 20 percent in the first decade of the twentieth century. By 1910 only 80,542 acres were devoted to cotton, and the number of farms in the area had dropped to 3,651. The population dropped to 25,561 in 1910.
Though cotton acreage rose somewhat during the 1910s, actual production remained low. By 1920 more than 98,000 acres were devoted to cotton, and the number of farms had increased to 4,158, but production had dropped to only 11,014 bales. Farmers diversified their crops and increasingly planted grain, hay, and grass crops to support high grades of livestock and dairy cows, and some ranchers began to expand their flocks of sheep. By 1930 there were 30,000 cattle and 4,000 sheep reported. Meanwhile, the poultry business continued to develop. By 1930 the agriculture census reported 255,000 chickens, and that year local farmers sold more than 1,330,000 dozens of eggs. A drought in the area during the mid-1920s caused more problems for farmers already concerned about declining cotton production; in 1925 the cotton crop was minimal, and the corn and forage crops were almost entirely lost for lack of water. By 1930 about 87,000 acres were planted in cotton, and only 36,000 acres were devoted to corn. The number of farms had dropped to 3,930, and its population had declined to 25,589. The area suffered during the Great Depression of the 1930s, as thousands of acres of cotton land were taken out of production; according to one historian, the area was "overrun with unemployed people" during these hard times. Cropland harvested dropped from 136,571 acres in 1930 to 118,477 acres in 1940, and the number of farms declined to 3,912. Federal New Deal programs provided some relief. A Civilian Conservation Corps camp, established at Brenham, employed some of the county's young men, and a National Youth Administration training center, placed at Blinn College in Brenham, trained young women in radio transmission work and other skills. The development of a modest petroleum and natural gas extraction industry also provided some jobs. According to one source, oil was first discovered in the county in 1879, but systematic attempts to drill for petroleum in the area were apparently not conducted until the 1910s. In 1915 the discovery of the Brenham oilfield demonstrated that oil could be extracted from the large salt domes that underlie the area; then, in 1928 wells dug in the Sun oilfield in the northwestern part of the county also began to produce. In 1938 almost 210,000 barrels of oil were produced. Despite the hard times of the depression, the population increased slightly during the 1930s, and by 1940 there were 25,589 people.
The population declined significantly during the 1940s and 1950s as farms mechanized and consolidated. The number of sharecroppers dropped from 2,281 in 1940 to just 1,007 by 1950. The number of farms dropped by more than 30 percent during the same period, and by 1950 there were only 2,929 farms left. Meanwhile, the total population declined to 20,542 by 1950 and to 19,145 by 1960; the number of African Americans dropped by more than 35 percent during this period. In one sense, the decline in the area's Black population in the years after World War II was only an accelerated phase of a demographic shift that had been occurring since the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1900 Blacks had constituted almost half of the area's population. But the number of African Americans had been steadily declining since that time, even as area's white population increased, and by 1960 there were two Whites for every Black person in Washington County. The population began to increase again during the 1970s, rising to 21,988 by 1980 and to 27,066 by 1990. The relative size of the Black population continued to decline, however, and by 1990 only 19 percent of the people in the county were Black. Meanwhile, people of Mexican descent had begun to move into the area, and by 1990 made up 5 percent of the county's population.
The voters of Washington County supported the Democratic party in virtually every presidential election from 1900 through 1944; the only exceptions occurred in 1916 and 1940. In elections from 1948 through 2004, however, the county's voters supported the Republican candidates in every election except in 1964.
In the 1980s agribusiness still dominated the economy, although other industries, including the oil and gas industry, construction, weaving mills, furniture production, and tourism also contributed. In 1982 about 87 percent of the land was in farms and ranches; 90 percent of the agricultural receipts were from livestock and livestock products, especially cattle, milk, and hogs. Hay, oats, wheat, and corn were the primary crops grown that year, and farmers also produced potatoes, sweet potatoes, watermelons, peaches, and pecans. In 1982 wells produced over 2,830,000,000 cubic feet of gas-well gas, almost 1,594,000,000 cubic feet of casinghead gas, and more than 460,000 barrels of petroleum. The county was probably best known by people in Texas and elsewhere for the Blue Bell ice cream produced in Brenham. In 1992 Blue Bell Creameries was the second-largest ice cream manufacturer in the nation; over 117,000 people toured the company's plant that year.
In 2015 the census bureau estimated 34,765 people living in Washington County. About 64.3 percent were Anglo, 17.9 percent were African American, 15.5 percent were Hispanic of any race, and 1.9 percent were Asian. More than 80 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had completed four years of high school, and about 23 percent had a bachelor's degree or higher. In the early twenty-first century agribusiness, oil and gas production, tourism, and some manufacturing were key elements of the area’s economy. In 2002 the county had 2,303 farms and ranches covering 354,813 acres, 47 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 43 percent to crops, and 8 percent to woodlands. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $36,680,000, with crop sales accounting for $29,990,000 of that total. Beef cattle, poultry, dairy products, hogs, horses, hay, corn, sorghum, cotton, small grains, and nursery crops were the chief agricultural products. More than 768,000 barrels of oil and 25,965,878 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 31,162,254 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1915.
Communities in the county include Brenham (population: 16,212), the seat of government and largest town; Burton (305); Chappell Hill (750); Wesley; Muellersville; and Phillipsburg. Washington (100) is the site of a Texas Independence Day celebration in March, and an Octoberfest is held there each year. Brenham hosts a Maifest each May, and the Washington County Fair is held there in September.