Wharton County, named for brothers William H. and John A. Wharton, is southwest of Houston on U.S. Highway 59 on the Coastal Plain of southeast Texas at the coastal bend. The county is bounded by Matagorda, Colorado, and Jackson counties and the San Bernard River, which forms its northeastern border and the Fort Bend county line. Wharton County comprises 1,086 square miles and is divided primarily between prairie and timber land. The Colorado River, which traverses the county from northwest to southeast, divides it roughly in half and flows through Wharton and Glen Flora. The county lands are drained by Mustang Creek in the extreme west, the Colorado River in the central portions, and the San Bernard River and West Bernard Creek in the eastern portions. Major creeks west of the Colorado River are the Blue and Jones creeks; those east of the Colorado River are the Peach and Caney creeks. Level to undulating plains rise toward the north and are marked by a timber belt of ash, pecan, live oak, and other varieties of hardwood trees along the river; closer to the Gulf, in an area referred to as Bay Prairie, prairie and bunch grasses, mesquite, and oak predominate. The upper northeastern portion, Lissie Prairie, is treeless with prairie and bunch grasses. Altitude varies from 50 to 200 feet. The climate is considered subtropical humid, and rainfall averages forty-two inches annually. The average temperature is 93° F in the summer and 44° in the winter months. Occasional snow falls, and the growing season lasts 268 days per year. The county originally had bear, fox, wolves, raccoon, possum, deer, armadillos, rabbits, ducks, geese, crane, quail, and dove; it continues to permit hunting. Loam, sand, coastal clay, and alluvial soils predominate in Wharton County. Natural resources include salt domes, sand and gravel, oil, gas, and sulphur; all have been tapped for commercial and industry use. The county is served by State Highway 60, U.S. Highway 90 A, Interstate Highway 59, and State Highway 71. The Southern Pacific and Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroads own the remaining rail lines in the county. The county's incorporated and largest communities are Wharton, the county seat, located at the center of the county (at 29°19' N, 96°06' W) east of the Colorado River, and El Campo, located west of the Colorado.
The land was inhabited as early as the Paleo-Indian period, and a stable occupation pattern lasted through the Late Prehistoric period for as long as 10,000 years. The Karankawa Indians, a Coco band, occupied the area that became Wharton County until the late eighteenth century, using the region for hunting and settlement along the Bernard, Caney, Peach, Mustang, and Colorado waterways as late as 1823. The Tonkawas came into the area on occasions, as their lower range overlapped the upper range of the Karankawas. Skirmishes with white settlers continued as late as 1840, but by 1850 most of the Indians had retreated out of this area into Mexico. Wharton County is in the section of Texas first explored by Europeans. In 1687 René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, traversed the area on the last exploration he made before his death. Alonso De León passed through on his third and fourth trips in search of the La Salle colony in 1688 and 1689, and in 1718 Martín de Alarcón came to inspect East Texas missions after exploring Espiritu Santo Bay. Pedro de Rivera y Villalón crossed the area in 1727, and between 1745 and 1746 Prudencio Orobio y Basterra explored the coastal area. Spain controlled the territory until Mexico achieved independence in 1821, and Anglo-American colonization began under a program sponsored by the Mexican government in 1823, when thirty-one of Stephen F. Austin's Old Three Hundred received titles to land in the area of present Wharton County. The main transportation trails across the county originally passed along the Colorado River and Caney and Peach creeks from Matagorda to San Felipe, bisected by a trail across the Colorado near Egypt that connected Richmond with Texanna; the Old Spanish Trail crossed the San Bernard River to East Bernard connecting Richmond with Columbus.
Early settlement patterns reflect the county's geography. The early colonists located their land grants along the Colorado and San Bernard rivers for access to building materials and stream transportation, but most built their homes along the Peach and Caney creeks, as the Colorado was prone to flooding. Earliest agriculture was developed primarily along the Caney with its rich alluvial soil; slaves burned off large sections of the primeval canebrake forest and planted corn, cotton, and sugar cane. The settlers were mostly from Southern states, and their homesteads were copies of those they had left. So many came from Alabama that the trail from Matagorda to Texanna was called "Alabama Road"; this name is still used for portions of the trail at Wharton. Later settlement was on the open prairies in the county's western areas, where European immigrants operated small family farms and raised livestock with little or no Black labor. Many individuals from the area that became Wharton County participated in the Texas Revolution. Gen. Martín Perfecto de Cos is believed to have camped near Egypt on Peach Creek, at a site now called Spanish Camp, en route to reinforcing Antonio López de Santa Anna's army at San Jacinto. An Egypt resident, W. J. E. Heard, was captain of Company F, First Regiment of Texas Volunteers, at the battle of San Jacinto. He and Albert Clinton Horton, Henry P. Cayce, G. W. Tilley, and others fought against Gen. Adrián Woll at San Antonio in 1842. Post West Bernard Station, an ordnance depot of the Republic of Texas army, was established in the summer of 1837, seven miles from Egypt. Here men refurbished the military arms that had been seized at San Jacinto from the Mexican Army and those turned in by discharged Texas volunteers at Camp Independence near Texanna. It also served as an alert post to any crossings by the Mexican Army on Mercer's Ferry on the Colorado west of Egypt.
Dispersed settlement in the county continued through the Republic of Texas period from 1836 to 1846. Aside from occasional farm settlements, the area was a near wilderness. After the war postal stations were established at Egypt and Peach Creek in 1836, Preston in 1839, Wharton in 1846, and Waterville in 1859. Wharton County was established after Texas statehood and the Mexican War in 1846 from parts of Matagorda, Jackson, and Colorado counties, taking their best and most fertile land. The act that formed the county provided for its immediate organization and a county seat to be named Wharton and located on the northeast bank of the Colorado River in the east central portion of the county within one of the leagues granted to William Kincheloe. Colonists brought their religion with them and practiced it, even though Mexican law forbade any organized religion in Texas other than Catholic. Kincheloe was one of eleven Baptist heads of households in Austin's colony, and his home on the east bank of Peach Creek is reputed to be the site of the colony's first Protestant service, conducted by Joseph Bays in 1822. The Kincheloe estate was also the site of the second or third Baptist Sunday school in Texas; Bays organized it in late 1829 or early 1830. It is probable that families of all denominations attended the services. According to tradition, Reverend Noah Hill helped organize the first Baptist Church in Wharton on May 23, 1847, with twenty-four whites and ninety-eight slaves as charter members. A. C. Horton was a charter trustee for Baylor University in 1845 and donated a bell to the Ladies Seminary in Independence in 1858. In 1835 Reverend J. W. Kinney held a Methodist camp meeting in Egypt at W. J. E. Heard's home, and it is purported to be the first such denominational service held west of the Trinity River; White and Black families were in attendance. Methodist circuit riders who served Egypt and other areas that would become Wharton County were Homer S. Thrall, Martin Ruter, and John Wesley DeVilbiss. Ruter made his headquarters at Captain Heard's in Egypt, and when Rutersville College was established after Ruters death, Heard was among its supporters. J. W. DeVilbiss was assigned to the Egypt area circuit and married Talitha Menefee, daughter of William Menefee, signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence and a resident of Egypt.
The first county courthouse was built in 1848 but was so poorly constructed that it was replaced in 1852. Antebellum Wharton County resembled parts of the Deep South, as planters and farmers from states there moved to the region. By 1850 the county had a population of 1,752 living in 112 dwellings; this included 1,242 enslaved people but no free Blacks. In 1858 slaves made up 2,181 of a total population of 2,861. In 1860 Albert Clinton Horton was among Wharton County's largest slaveholders, possessing as many as 170 slaves. One plantation was over 4,500 acres, and the county had 16,784 acres of land under cultivation. In 1859 the value of Wharton County's land was $10.40 per acre, the highest of any other county in Texas; at the time the average land in Texas was $2 per acre. In 1860 the value for Wharton County land went up to $14 per acre. The largest plantation and sugar mill in Texas were located in Wharton County prior to the Civil War, and the 1858 census reported 13,665 cattle there. Because of sugar cane production, Wharton, Fort Bend, Brazoria, and Matagorda counties came to be known as the "Texas sugar bowl." Completion of the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway extension across the northwest corner of the county by 1860 improved commodity prices, though roads to the railroad line remained poor. Some consumer goods were brought by riverboat up the Colorado River from Matagorda, but most came overland from Richmond or Matagorda. Residents of Wharton County cast only two votes against secession, and many soon joined the Confederate war effort as part of Terry's Texas Rangers, the Home Guards, or the Wharton Rifles. Three Home Guard posts were established in 1861 at Egypt, Wharton, and Waterville, as part of the Twenty-second Brigade, which included Fayette, Colorado, Wharton, and Matagorda counties. The camp in Wharton was named Camp Buchel in honor of Col. Augustus Buchel, C.S.A., and was in the First Military District, Sub-district Three. No fighting occurred in Wharton County, but the Civil War destroyed the county's plantation economy. With the emancipation of slaves, the repudiation of Confederate securities, declining property values, and cotton too expensive to grow and market, Wharton County's scrip was finally worth only thirty-three cents on the dollar. Plantations were converted into cattle ranges, and many residents left for Mexico. The resulting commercial and agricultural depression was heightened by a national depression in 1873.
During Reconstruction, several county officials were removed from office and replaced with others more supportive. During the forty years after emancipation, Wharton County Blacks outnumbered whites-the proportion reaching a ratio of five to one in 1890. Political gains by county resident Blacks were shortlived, but Bird B. Davis attended the Constitutional Convention of 1875. In 1880 R. H. Tisdale was elected county commissioner and served three non-consecutive terms, A. H. Speaker was elected county commissioner in 1886 for two terms, and E. P. Young was elected county and district clerk in 1888. Mingo Hodges served on the county school board for many years, and other Black men served as justices of the peace. The first Reconstruction school for Blacks later became the Wharton Training School in Wharton. Two Black newspapers, the Wharton Southern Monitor and the Wharton Elevator, were started in 1887 and 1897, respectively. By 1912 the county had a Black agricultural fair and employed a Black county agricultural agent. There were numerous Black owned or operated businesses around the courthouse square between 1880 and the late 1930s. Then separate Black commercial districts developed, a trend common in most Texas communities. Whites responded to radical reconstruction by organizing a White Man's Union Association in 1889 to protect White interests and to limit Black political participation. In its first month the organization claimed more than 700 members. No person could file for office without approval by the association. Conflict between this organization and the independent political ticket resulted in the politically-motivated murder of a candidate for sheriff. The White Man's Union continued to function up until the 1950s and was known for a time as the Wharton County Party. The Ku Klux Klan was evident in the county and had 500 members at one time.
The Civil War delayed the development of Wharton County. Prior to 1880 the only postal stations in Wharton County were East Bernard, Egypt, New Philadelphia, Quinan, Spanish Camp, Waterville, and Wharton. In the 1880s the influx of Europeans and the extension of railroads stimulated growth in the area. Wharton County's population tripled between 1870 and 1900, from 3,426 to 16,942. In 1910 it was 21,123, of which 12,234 were Whites (2,000 were foreign born) and 8,899 Blacks. El Campo experienced rapid growth with the 1881 completion of New York, Texas and Mexican Railroad and by 1900 had a population of 856. It doubled to 1,766 by 1920; Swedes, Germans, and Czechs settled there during that time. The Danish settlement at Danevang became a viable community by 1893, but Danes from the northern prairie wheat belt failed to plant successfully; some of the group moved on to California. A group of English and Welsh immigrants were brought in to establish New Philadelphia, but the different farming conditions and the conflicts between them and the open range advocates led most of them to leave Wharton County. Numerous Jewish families immigrated to Wharton County as early as 1850 and founded business establishments; the greatest number moved into Wharton. Eugene T. Heiner was commissioned to design a new three-story courthouse and a three-story jail for county use. A smallpox epidemic in 1898 led to the draining of Caney Creek and the construction of a hospital in Wharton. A county hospital was built in 1937.
Cattle raising replaced the plantation system as Wharton County's major industry after the Civil War and drew significant numbers of Mexicans into the area to serve as herdsmen. Herds were formed as residents bought cattle and rounded up strays that had multiplied on the prairies when access to markets was limited. Abel Head (Shanghai) Pierce took advantage of the times and acquired vast acreage on the west side of the Colorado, with a cattle empire that stretched over three counties, encompassing a half-million acres, of which 30,000 were in Wharton County. He saw the potential impact that the Brahman cattle breed could have on the cattle industry in the south, but his death in December 1900 left his nephew, A. P. Borden, to facilitate the first major importation of Brahmans to the United States, specifically Wharton County, in 1906. J. D. Hudgins had purchased some Brahman cattle prior to 1900 and later purchased some from the Pierce Ranch herd and imported Brazilian bulls via Mexico. The J. D. Hudgins Ranch in Hungerford eventually established the largest American Grey Brahman herd in the world. Wharton County became the second largest cattle producing area in the state. Plantations converted to other crops during the Civil War but slowly returned to sugar production in the 1890s, and sugar, cotton, corn, and hay became the county's principal products. Other farmers turned to potatoes, spinach, broom corn, cabbage, figs, and honey. Cotton production took forty years to recover, due to the economy and the boll weevil, but a cottonseed oil mill in Wharton, organized in 1900, eventually became the county's first long term major industry. Hay shipped from El Campo added to the prosperity of that community by 1901. A government sponsored experimental farm raised tea, camphor, and poppies in 1900 on the Pierce Ranch lands. In 1910 the county reported 38,263 cattle, 14,500 horses and mules, 17,317 hogs, 2,136 sheep, and 96,033 poultry on 2,654 farms. Japanese families, brought to the area at the encouragement of the government, began rice farming on land just opposite Wharton on the west bank of the Colorado. Irrigation from three canal systems built from the Colorado River around 1900 helped farmers diversify and turn to rice as a dependable cash crop. During the late 1890s and early 1900s Wharton County had the two largest pumping plants in Texas, Waterhouse Irrigation Company and Southern Irrigation Company. Rice production centered east of the Colorado River near Lissie and Nottawa on the Lissie Prairie and Lane City and Magnet on the Bay Prairie and west of the Colorado near Louise, Pierce, and Danevang. Rice depleted the land rapidly, and rice farming seemed doomed. Farming grew with the introduction of deep water wells and the innovation of chemical fertilizers; land under irrigation increased to 21,384 acres, and one million bushels of rice was produced in 1930, making Wharton County a leader in Texas.
Governor Elisha M. Pease established a school fund in 1854 to underwrite a public school system in the state, and Wharton County received four leagues of land to establish their common school system. Freedmen's Bureau schools operated after 1865, and in 1868 the Reconstruction convention set land aside for public schools required to serve at least four months of the year. By 1877 the school population between the ages of eight and fourteen numbered 626. The county had fifty-six school districts in 1898 and ten high schools, and as transportation and roads improved consolidation took place. It was the late 1880s and early 1900s before counties were able to take advantage of the fund. Districts were established for White, Black, and Hispanic children, using the school fund from the sale of school lands and education grants from the state to build schools and pay for teachers, books, supplies, and a hot lunch program. The arrival of railroads restored the farm economy by generating new capital investment in the region. Improved marketing made materials and consumer goods available and attracted new immigrants. The Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway, later known as Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway, established a station at East Bernard, traversing the northern section of the county by 1878, but did not result in significant local growth. In contrast, the New York, Texas, and Mexican Railway, which nearly bisected the county from north to south in 1881, and a connecting line west to east from Wharton to Bay City via Iago and Pledger had an immediate impact in economic growth and capital investment in the region. These lines became part of the Texas and New Orleans, and later the Southern Pacific Railroad system. The Cane Belt Railway was completed across Wharton County west to east in 1900; it was later controlled by the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway, which was under control of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. The San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway line cut across the northwestern tip of Wharton County but did not influence the economy.
In World War I Wharton County contributed men to the armed forces, and both Black and White residents organized home guards. The Wharton County Fair, which began in 1912, was interrupted by the war, but resumed in 1929 and in 1940 became the Wharton County and Gulf Coast Livestock and Agricultural Exposition, with exhibits from five counties, but it was interrupted by World War II. The 1920 census recorded a population of 24,288, of which 13,720 were native born whites, 2,684 foreign born Whites, and 7,884 Blacks. One of the world's largest sulphur deposits, the Boling Dome, was discovered in 1923 and first mined in 1928 by Union Sulphur Company. Texas Gulf Sulphur Company took over and established the Texas Gulf Sulphur company town, Newgulf, in eastern Wharton County. Drilling for oil began in 1904 southwest of El Campo, but the first productive oil well was drilled east of the Colorado near Iago in the Boling Field in 1925. Subsequent oil and gas fields include Withers-Magnet, Spanish Camp, West Bernard, New Taiton, Lissie, and numerous others. Between 1925 and 1973 over 230 million barrels of crude oil were produced in the county, with a peak year in 1947 reaching 8,341,000 barrels. Several natural gas transmission plants were built around 1944 near Nottawa and Hungerford, boosting pressure and sending natural gas north from the area fields.
Farm tenancy in the county peaked in 1930, when 2,815 farms were operated by tenant families and only 1,144 by land owners. Acreage in production increased from 23,675 acres in 1890 to 133,053 acres in 1930. In 1938 the Work Projects Administration in Wharton County employed 438 men and 235 women for efforts at school and road repair, drainage, water mains and sewers, tree planting, and malaria control. Stable farm and land prices brought about new security, and increased truck farming and dairying tied the area closer to markets in Houston, but from 1930 to 1950 the number of farms in the county gradually declined. During the Great Depression years of the 1930s, public works projects upgraded county and federal facilities, introducing streamlined and modern design and adding plain or art deco style facades to many buildings, including the county courthouse and its additions constructed in 1935 and 1954. In 1926 a new county jail was constructed, and in 1938 the old jail structure was redesigned for county, state, and federal agriculture agencies and the Wharton County Library. In World War II federal funds were used to establish community centers for servicemen at Wharton and El Campo; the Forty-seventh Battalion of the Texas State Guard had its headquarters in Wharton County. German prisoners of war from the Afrika Corps were housed at Camp Wharton, which was the former county fairgrounds and buildings, from 1943 to 1945. These prisoners were used to help harvest crops in Wharton County by contract agreement. The prisoners were paid ten cents per hour for their labor by the farmer in addition to the fee charged by the county. The Hall of Tomorrow, the largest building on the fairgrounds, became a sleeping barracks housing between 80 and 350 prisoners. Wharton County Junior College was established in 1946 by the Post War Planning Committee. Decline in the number of county farms slowed in the 1950s. From 1940 to 1950 cotton and rice acreage increased and corn declined. Grain sorghum became a major crop during the late 1950s, and during that period the county was second in the state in total number of beef cattle. Industries in the county included woodworks, creamery, canneries, and garment manufacturers. Population figures rose from 35,966 in 1950 to 38,152 in 1960, but only two towns claimed a population over 2,500; Wharton and El Campo. The number of farms continued to decline, while the size of farms increased as agribusiness grew. In 1960 there were 977 owners, 627 tenants, and 1,415 sharecroppers. Studies indicated that over 28 percent of all households in the county were indigent. The county remained a major cotton producer, harvesting 54,000 bales of cotton on 68,000 acres. County farms also grew 1,050,000 bushels of corn and 918,000 bushels of rice that year. By 1961 the county had twenty-nine manufacturing plants, 174 service industries, and 57 wholesale industries, but before the 1980s the county never had more than 700 persons employed in manufacturing. Lack of sufficient industry to employ those with college training and insufficient vocational training facilities caused many young people to leave the county in search of better jobs.
From 1960 to 1970 Wharton County's population declined to 36,729, but between 1970 and 1982 it grew by more than 4,000, chiefly in the urban area. In this period 22 percent of the population was Hispanic, 18 percent German, and 17 percent Black. By 1972 mineral income in Wharton County reached $53 million dollars, and the average annual farm income was $40.4 million. The county was the leading Texas rice producer and third among Texas counties in beef cattle; in 1970, 87,059 cattle roamed on 89,000 acres of county rangeland. In the 1980s, 94 percent of the land was in farms and ranches, and 64 percent of farmland was under cultivation. County-wide ranching continued, and the county was second in the state in sorghum production. Farmers also produced significant amounts of rice, soybeans, corn, rye, cotton, milo, hay, watermelons, peaches, and pecans; this production record continued in the 1990s. Scientifically managed farms and ranches replaced the county's earlier plantation system. Wharton County ranked eighth in Texas in total agricultural receipts. Business establishments were chiefly related to agribusiness and oil and gas extraction, but included manufacturers of clothing, wood furniture, plastic, aluminum, and toy kites and sports pom-poms and a tire vulcanizing plant.
With the urban sprawl of Houston into surrounding counties, the agricultural quality of life was being threatened in Wharton County by the early 1990s. The county had maintained its status in the state with rice, cotton, and cattle production, but many farmers had to declare bankruptcy during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Two Amish groups moved to Wharton County, one settling west of the Colorado near El Campo and the other east of the Colorado between Boling and Lane City. The rail line from Eagle to Wharton was removed, and the rail line from Rosenberg to Victoria was discontinued. The only rail line in the county with daily use was the line from Rosenberg to Eagle Lake, which was the first rail line to be built in the county. In the early twenty-first century, this route was being operated by the Union Pacific Railroad.
Wharton County voters supported Democratic candidates Cass, Pierce, and Buchanan between 1848 to 1856 and chose third party candidates in 1860. Following the Civil War the county voted Republican between 1872 and 1896. Third party candidates won support during Prohibition, as did Socialist candidates in 1908 and 1912. Democratic support resumed in the 1900 election, when the county voted for Bryan and continued, with the exception of Harding in 1920, until 1948. In the 1950s voters supported Dwight D. Eisenhower's two terms, and in the 1960s Democrats John Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Hubert Humphrey won a majority. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey won only a plurality of the area’s voters, partly because independent candidate George Wallace ran strong in the county that year. After 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon easily carried the county, the area began to trend Republican. Democrat Jimmy Carter took the county in 1976, but thereafter the Republican presidential candidate carried the area in every election from 1980 to 2004.
In 2014 the U.S. Census counted 41,168 people living in Wharton County; about 46.2 percent were Anglo, 39 percent Hispanic, and 14.4 percent African American. Of residents twenty-five and older, 70 percent had graduated from high school and 14 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century oil and gas production, agriculture, various manufacturing concerns, and Sheppard Air Force Base were important elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 1,538 farms and ranches covering 637 acres, 67 percent of which were devoted to crops and 29 percent to pasture. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $146,370,000; crop sales accounted for $99,268,000 of the total. Rice, cotton, milo, corn, sorghum, and soybeans were the chief agricultural products. More than 2,055,000 barrels of oil, and 55,224,344 thousand cubic feet of gas well gas, were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 342,766,363 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1925.
Wharton (population, 8,664) is the county’s seat of government, and El Campo (11,515) its largest town. Other communities include Boling-Iago (1,131), East Bernard (2,318), Louise (1,011), and Hungerford (335). Wharton hosts Shanghai Days Cowboy Gathering in spring, and El Campo holds a Polka Expo in November. Wharton County is only thirty five miles from the Gulf of Mexico and minutes away from Houston, making it a prime location for agriculture or industry and as a residential location for those working outside Wharton County.