Williamson County, in Central Texas, is on the Balcones Escarpment just north of Austin. Georgetown, the county's largest town, serves as the county seat and is twenty-five miles north of Austin. The county's center is at 30°40' north latitude, 97°35' west longitude. U.S. Highway 183, Interstate Highway 35, and State Highway 95 are the major north-south roads, and U.S. Highway 79 and State Highway 29 cross the county east and west. Williamson County is also crossed by three railroads, the Union Pacific, the Austin Area Terminal Railroad, and the Georgetown line. The county occupies 1,137 square miles and is divided into two regions by the Balcones Escarpment, which runs through the center from north to south along a line from Jarrell to Georgetown to Round Rock. The western half of the county is an extension of the Western Plains and is undulating hilly brushland with an average elevation of 850 feet, while the eastern region is part of the Coastal Plains and is flat to gently rolling with an average elevation of 600 feet. Williamson County is drained in the center and south by the San Gabriel River, which is the only river in the county, and in the north by creeks that run into the Lampasas and Little rivers north of the county line. Soils in the eastern part of the county are mostly dark loamy to clayey "blackland" soils, while those west of the Balcones fault are light to dark and loamy with limey subsoils. The southeast corner of the county has light colored soils with sandy surfaces and clayey subsoils. Vegetation west of the fault is characterized by tall and mid grasses, post and live oak, mesquite, and junipers. The eastern part of the county, which has been extensively utilized for agricultural purposes, is still wooded along its streams with mesquite, oak, pecan, and elm trees. About 30 percent of the land is prime farmland. Mineral resources include dolomite, limestone, sand, gravel, oil, and gas. Among other minerals that play a part in the county economy, limestone is produced as crushed limestone, dimension limestone, fieldstone limestone, and pulverant limestone; sand and gravel are also marketed. In the mid-nineteenth century early settlers found a rich wildlife population of buffalo, deer, bears, mountain lions, alligators, and various kinds of small wild game including wild turkeys, but all of these except deer and small game were hunted to extinction by 1900. Temperatures in the area range from an average high of 96° F in July to an average low of 36° in January. Rainfall averages thirty-four inches a year, and the growing season averages 258 days annually.
The area has been the site of human habitation since at least 4500 B.C., and possibly considerably before that. Evidence of Archaic Period inhabitants has been recovered from burned rock middens near Round Rock along Brushy Creek, at several sites along the San Gabriel that are now inundated by Granger Lake, and at the Ischy site west of Georgetown. The earliest known historical occupants of the county, the Tonkawas, were a flint-working, hunting people who followed the buffalo on foot and periodically set fire to the prairie to aid them in their hunts. During the eighteenth century they made the transition to a horse culture and used firearms to a limited extent. Decimated by European diseases and by warfare with Cherokees and Comanches, the Tonkawas were generally friendly towards the early settlers of Williamson County but were nevertheless removed from Central Texas by the 1850s. Lipan Apaches and Comanches were also associated with the area that would become Williamson County. Before the arrival of Europeans in the area, the Lipan Apaches ranged through the western part of present Williamson County, and after Spanish missions were established on the San Gabriel River in the eighteenth century the Indians frequently raided the missions for horses. Their enemies, the Comanches, arrived in the area in the eighteenth century and lived in parts of the territory of Williamson County until as late as 1838. After they were crowded out by White settlement, the Comanches continued to raid settlements in the county until the 1860s. There also appear to have been small numbers of Kiowa, Yojuane, Tawakoni, and Mayeye Indians living in the county at the time of the earliest Anglo settlements. While Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca may have traveled through the area in the sixteenth century, it was probably first explored by Europeans in the late seventeenth century, when Capt. Alonso De León sought a route between San Antonio and the Spanish missions in East Texas that would serve as a drier alternative to the more southerly Camino Real. The new route passed through the area of Williamson County along Brushy Creek and the San Gabriel River and was called Camino de Arriba. In 1716 two explorers in the Spanish service, Louis Juchereau de St. Denis and Domingo Ramón, led an expedition that passed through the area and camped on Brushy Creek and the San Gabriel River, naming them respectively Arroyo de las Bendítas Ánimas and Rio de San Xavier. The San Xavier missions, which were founded in the mid-eighteenth century and occupied a series of sites along the San Gabriel River, were just over the eastern border of Williamson County in present-day Milam County, and the area was extensively explored by the Spanish. During the Mexican period parts of the county were awarded as land grants, first to several Mexican families, then as part of Robertson's colony, but no settlement resulted from these grants.
Anglo settlement began during the Texas Revolution and the early days of the Republic of Texas, when the area was part of Milam County. In 1835, in an attempt to strengthen the frontier against Indian attack, a military post was built near the headwaters of Brushy Creek in what would become southwestern Williamson County and was named for Capt. John J. Tumlinson, Jr., the commander of the company of Texas Rangers who garrisoned the post. The post was abandoned in February of 1836, when its garrison was withdrawn to deal with the Mexican invasion. In 1838 the first civilian settlement was established by a Dr. Thomas Kenney and a party of settlers who built a fort, named Kenney's Fort, on Brushy Creek near the site of the present-day crossing of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. Several other sites on Brushy Creek were settled soon after, but Indian raids kept White settlement in check, and a number of the early pioneers, including Kenney, were killed by Indians over the next few years. In 1842 many of the early farms were abandoned when Governor Sam Houston advised settlers to pull back from the frontier. The Indian threat eased after 1846, and part of the influx of settlers who came to Texas after its annexation traveled to the frontier along Brushy Creek and the San Gabriel River. By 1848 there were at least 250 settlers in what was then western Milam County, and in the early months of that year 107 of them signed a petition to organize a new county. Recognizing that the petitioners needed a seat of local government that was considerably closer to them than Milam County's, the Texas legislature established Williamson County on March 13, 1848, naming it for prominent judge and soldier Robert M. Williamson. Georgetown, the county seat, was laid out during the summer of that year, and the district court was in session by October. According to the census of 1850 Williamson County had a population of 1,379 Whites and 155 slaves, living in agricultural communities on Brushy Creek and the San Gabriel. As was common in other frontier counties, most of the improved acreage was used to grow corn. Three families owned fifteen or more slaves in 1850, but family farms and subsistence agriculture remained the norm prior to the Civil War. While most of the settlers had moved to Texas from other southern states, particularly Tennessee, a substantial contingent came from Vermilion County in Illinois, and this latter group remained pro-Union and Republican in its political orientation during the secession crisis.
On the eve of the Civil War Williamson County had moved beyond the frontier stage and was a populous, agriculturally diverse county. The White population tripled between 1850 and 1860 to 3,638 Whites, while the Black population grew even more dramatically to 891 enslaved people, six times the number of enslaved people in 1850. Agricultural pursuits were quite varied and reflected the county's geographical diversity. Farmers were using the rich blackland soils in the eastern half of the county to grow wheat and corn. Cotton was introduced in the 1850s, but only 271 bales were grown in 1860, and it was not an important cash crop for most farmers. The early settlers had found large herds of wild cattle in the 1840s, and cattle ranching, both for home consumption and for market, was widespread throughout the county by 1860. The number of cattle on county ranches had more than tripled from 11,973 head in 1850 to 38,114 head in 1860. Similarly, the number of sheep grew from 2,937 producing 3,499 pounds of wool in 1850 to 16,952 sheep and 32,994 pounds of wool in 1860. Williamson County was marked by political divisions during the secession crisis, divisions that were carried over into the Civil War and Reconstruction. Unionist sentiment was strong in the county, and a resolution denouncing secession was adopted by a Texas Constitutional Union party meeting in Round Rock in 1860. One of the county's delegates to the secession convention, Thomas Proctor Hughes, was among the eight who voted against the ordinance of secession. When the ordinance was referred to a statewide election, Williamson County was one of nineteen counties to oppose it, rejecting secession by 480 votes to 349. When the war came, the majority of the citizens of Williamson County supported the Confederate cause, and at least five companies were raised in the county; an independent "spy" company under James O. Rice, a company of Texas Rangers for border defence under William C. Dalrymple, and companies in the Fourth, Seventh, and Sixteenth Texas Cavalry regiments. While some of those who had opposed secession became active Confederate supporters, others remained loyal to the Union and fled to Mexico or the North, and a number enlisted in the Union army. In July 1863 eight Williamson County men were caught by Confederate troops while traveling to Mexico and were hung near Bandera, Texas, and other Unionists were persecuted during the war. The pattern of violence within the community continued into the summer following the end of the war, when several men were arrested for "flagrant crimes" and "illegal persecution of Union men." In September 1865 a mass meeting for the citizens of Williamson County was held on the San Gabriel near Georgetown, and the gathering set a general tone of reconciliation, which seems to have characterized the Reconstruction period in Williamson County, a period which ended with the return of county government to conservative Democratic control in 1869. Freed Blacks formed several new communities, and the county seems to have been free of much of the political and racial strife that occurred in other Texas counties during Reconstruction. On the other hand, there was a great deal of crime, much of it violent, in the later nineteenth century. Horse and cattle thieves and some of the more famous outlaws of the day, like Sam Bass and John Wesley Hardin, preyed on the property of citizens, and long-term family feuds and drunken brawls at the various saloons in the towns added to the toll of homicides.
Though the Civil War had caused little material damage in the area, the county was a much poorer place in 1870 than it had been in 1860. The total value of farms had fallen from $833,418 to $389,239 and the value of livestock from $823,653 to $341,794. The economic recovery in the 1870s was aided by the growth of the cattle and sheep industries and a dramatic expansion of cotton farming. Various feeder routes to the Chisholm Trail passed through Williamson County, and many cattle drives passed through or originated in the county from the 1860s through the early 1880s. With the coming of the railroads to the county in the 1870s, Taylor, in the eastern part of the county, became an important rail center for the cattle trade. Cattle raising, after declining somewhat in importance in the early twentieth century, was again a major part of the agricultural economy by 1950, and in 1969 ranchers owned a record 65,093 cattle. Sheep and goat raising followed a similar pattern. Sheep ranching recovered its pre-war level by 1880 and peaked at 39,961 sheep and 171,752 pounds of wool in 1890, then declined in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to some 13,397 sheep and 39,458 pounds in 1920. The industry revived in the 1930s and reached a new high of 59,919 sheep and 336,494 pounds of wool in 1959. Mohair became a significant agricultural product by 1930 and reached a peak in 1959, when some 44,668 goats produced 209,098 pounds of mohair. Cotton, the second boom industry in Williamson County, also developed about the same time as the cattle industry. As early as 1869 the editor of the Georgetown Watchman was advising farmers to "make cotton, but do not, by any means, neglect the grain crop-diversify." Cotton production, which had been insignificant before the war, rose to successive heights of 4,217 bales in 1880, 33,945 bales in 1890, and 80,514 in 1900. In 1900–01 Williamson County ginned more cotton than any county in Texas except Ellis County. The number of improved acres increased almost ten-fold from 1870 to 1880 and doubled again to 306,881 acres by 1890. The proportion of cropland used for cotton production moved from about one-third of the total in 1880 to a high of 77 percent in 1910, and cotton was grown on 73 percent of the cropland as late as 1930. Dramatic changes in land tenure attended the shift to cotton production. As late as 1880, 1,183 of the 1,538 farms, or 77 percent, were still worked by owners. By 1890 only 43 percent of the farms were operated by owners, and the percentage of owner-operators remained at 40 percent until the 1920s, when it dropped still further to 29 percent in 1930. Farm tenancy rates began to decline during the Great Depression with the shift away from cotton and other staple crops and by 1959 had dropped to 36 percent of the county's farmers. Both the cattle and the cotton booms were aided by the improved communications available in the county in the later nineteenth century. The International-Great Northern Railroad, which later was consolidated with the Missouri Pacific, was built across the eastern part of the county in 1876 and led to the founding of Taylor (now Williamson County's third largest city) and Hutto and to the relocation of Round Rock. It also opened up large areas in eastern Williamson County to commercial farming. The Taylor, Bastrop and Houston Railway, which was eventually consolidated with the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway, was built in the 1880s and aided in the development of Taylor, Granger, and Bartlett. Roads were generally poor throughout the county in the early twentieth century. There were 11,882 automobiles in the county by 1930, and extensive improvements, including blacktopping, of all major roads took place in the 1930s.
The county also became more ethnically diverse in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While there were only 111 inhabitants of foreign birth out of a population of 6,368 in Williamson County in 1870, significant numbers of Scandinavians, Germans, Czechs, Wends, and Austrians moved to the county in the 1880s and 1890s. The proportion of foreign born in the county population remained at about 10 percent from 1890 to the 1930s. Mexican immigration reached a significant level about 1910, just as Europeans stopped arriving in the county. There were 294 Hispanics in 1900, 732 in 1910, and 4,967, or 11 percent of the population, in 1930. In 1980, 9,693 residents, or again 11 percent, were of Hispanic origin. The immigrants added their distinctive customs and architectural styles to the mix of county life and introduced new religious denominations. By the time of the Civil War, Williamson County had a number of Baptist and Methodist churches and several different factions of the Presbyterian Church. Churches of other denominations were built after the war, and the new emigrants established Lutheran, Catholic, and Czech Moravian congregations. By 1930 Williamson County had a culturally diverse population of 44,146 inhabitants. The economy was still overwhelmingly agricultural; only twenty-nine manufacturing establishments employed 347 workers that year. While cotton production was near its peak in terms of percentage of cropland, the cotton industry was already undergoing a rapid transformation. The combined effects of soil depletion, overproduction, and the influx of the boll weevil had already injured the profitability of the industry by the late 1920s, and the situation of cotton growers was further worsened by the depression. The Black population seems to have been particularly hard hit by the depression. Of the 944 county families on relief in 1933, 442, almost half, were Black, though Blacks were only 16 percent of the population. Various federal relief programs benefitted farmers with farm loans and subsidies, and in 1936 a total of $204,000 in subsidy checks was issued. The depression encouraged diversification among farmers and a shift away from staple crops to livestock. Between 1930 and 1940 the number of acres used for cotton growing fell by almost half, and cotton production went from 68,266 bales to 36,890. Cropland acreage used for corn production increased over the same period by about one half, and wool and mohair production more than doubled, to 342,983 pounds and 102,517 pounds, respectively. While cotton continued to be an important crop in eastern Williamson County, farmers increasingly turned to other crops like sorghum and wheat and to livestock raising in the later twentieth century. Along with traditional livestock like sheep and cattle, poultry farming played a significant role in the economy by 1950, when the county was fifth in the state in the production of eggs and chickens. In 1980 it was tenth in the state in the production of turkeys.
The agricultural diversification of the middle decades of the twentieth century was followed by significant social and economic changes in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The Black population, which had remained at between 15 and 18 percent of the total in the early and mid-twentieth century, began to decline, both proportionately and in real numbers, from the 1940s on and had fallen to 4,111, or about 5 percent, by 1980. As in other areas of Texas, Blacks were relegated to segregated and inferior housing and educational facilities until the 1960s, when some improvements were brought about by federal desegregation policies. Along with changes in racial composition, Williamson County experienced a dramatic increase in population in this period, growing from 37,305 inhabitants in 1970 to an estimated 85,700 inhabitants in 1982, making it thirty-fourth in population growth among counties in the United States in the decade 1970–80. Much of the growth in population was related to the development of new housing communities in the area of the county bordering Austin. Urbanization, or rather "suburbanization," increased the population of Round Rock from 2,811 in 1970 to 11,812 in 1980. Cedar Park went from 125 to 3,474 inhabitants over the same period, and even Georgetown's development was affected by the growth of Austin's area of influence. In 1980 almost 60 percent of the county's inhabitants lived in urban areas. In 1990 the population reached 139,551, an increase of over 60 percent during the 1980s. Population growth benefitted from and contributed to economic diversity in Williamson County. In 1982 some 3,500 residents were employed in factories, five times as many as in 1967, and other major areas of employment in the 1980s were construction, agribusiness, trade, services, and local government.
Politically, the county remained solidly Democratic for a century after Reconstruction, though in the several Presidential elections there were sizable minorities of Greenbacks in 1880, Populists in 1892, and Ferguson supporters in 1920. Temperance and prohibition had many supporters at the turn of the century, and parts of the county remained dry in the 1980s. When women received the right to vote in Texas primaries in 1918, Georgetown resident Jessie Daniel Ames, the reformer and suffragist, led a drive that registered some 3,300 Williamson County women in time for the first primary. In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan had strong power bases in the county, and a successful prosecution of Klan activities in Georgetown in 1922 by then district attorney Daniel J. Moody was considered a national landmark in the suppression of the secret society. Residents of the county went Republican in the presidential election of 1972 and thereafter tended to split their votes, voting for Republican presidential candidates and a mixture of Democrats and Republicans for other offices through 1992. By the mid-1990s, however, the area was solidly Republican at the local level as well; several county offices went to Republicans running uncontested. Williamson County voters gave Republican candidates lopsided victories in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential contests.
Urbanization and “suburbanization” continued to transform Williamson County during the 1990s and into the early twenty-first century. In 2014 the U.S. Census Bureau counted 489,250 people living in the area; about 62.3 percent were Anglo, 23.8 percent Hispanic, and 6.7 percent African American. Of residents twenty-five and older, 89 percent had graduated from high school, and 34 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century high-tech businesses, various manufacturing concerns, and agriculture were important elements of the county’s economy, and many residents commuted to Austin to work. In 2002 the county had 2,510 farms and ranches covering 583,099 acres, 52 percent of which were devoted to crops and 42 percent to pasture. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $46,396,000; crop sales accounted for $30,588,000 of the total. Corn, cattle, grain, sorghum, cotton, and wheat were the chief agricultural products.
Georgetown (population, 56,536) remains the county’s seat of government, but Round Rock (110,326) has become its largest city. Other towns include Taylor (16,178), Cedar Park (57,504), Jollyville (16,852), Leander (32,276), Hutto (18,371), Jarrell (1,022), and Florence (1,169). The area offers many recreational attractions for visitors and residents, including hunting, fishing and boating, Inner Space Cavern, the Gov. Dan Moody Museum in Taylor, the Round Rock Express minor league baseball team, and the annual Pioneer Days festival.