Zapata County is on U.S. Highway 83 south of Laredo in the Rio Grande Plain region of South Texas. The county, named for local rancher Antonio Zapata, is bordered on the north by Webb County, on the east by Jim Hogg and Starr counties, and on the west by Mexico. The center of the county is at 26°58' north latitude and 99°10' west longitude. The county's largest town and county seat is Zapata, which is on the Rio Grande at the junction of U.S. Highway 83 and State Highway 16. Other communities include San Ygnacio, Ramireño, Escobas, Falcon, and Lopeño. Zapata County covers 999 square miles, with elevations from 200 to 700 feet above sea level. The county generally has light-colored loamy soils over reddish or mottled clayey subsoils; limestone lies in places within forty inches of the surface. The flora includes thorny shrubs, grasses, mesquite, and cacti. Less than 1 percent of the county is considered prime farmland. Natural resources include caliche, clay, lignite coal, sand, gravel, oil, and gas. Zapata County's climate is subtropical-subhumid. Temperatures range from an average of 44° F to 69° in January and 75° F to 100° in July. The average annual temperature is 74°. Rainfall averages nineteen inches a year, and the growing season lasts 295 days.
Artifacts dating from the Paleo-Indian period (9200 B.C. to 6000 B.C) demonstrate that humans have lived in the general area for perhaps 11,000 years. The local Indian population seems to have increased during the Archaic period (6000 B.C. to A.D. 1000), when many groups of hunter-gatherers spent part or all of their time in the region. The hunting and gathering life persisted into the Late Prehistoric period (A.D. 1000 to the arrival of the Spanish), though during this time Indians in the area learned to make pottery and hunted with bows and arrows. During historic times Zapata County was inhabited by Carrizos and Tepemaca Indians (Coahuiltecan groups) and Borrado Indians. The first European exploration of the region was probably made by Capt. Miguel de la Garza Falcón, who in 1747 led a group down the northern bank of the Rio Grande from the site of present day Eagle Pass to the mouth of the river following a route that later became known as the Old Military Highway. Garza described the land as "barren, with little or no water, scanty grass...and unfit for settlement for lack of an adequate water supply." Nevertheless, the first settlement in the future county was founded just three years later by José Vázquez Borrego, a rancher from Coahuila. On August 22, 1750, he founded Nuestra Señora de los Dolores Hacienda a few miles from the site of present San Ygnacio. To settle the area Vázquez moved twenty-three families from Coahuila. The same year, José de Escandón was in the area founding new settlements. Vázquez contacted Escandón and proposed that Dolores Hacienda be added to Escandón's list of proposed settlements. In exchange, Vázquez offered to establish a ferry on the river at his own expense. Escandón agreed, gave Vázquez the title of captain, and assigned him fifty sitios. After a visit to Dolores in early 1753, Escandón wrote to the viceroy commending Vázquez and his colonists and noting that the community was well established. Eventually Vázquez's holdings increased to 350,000 acres, and by 1755 the ferry at Dolores was the most important crossing on the Rio Grande. Originally, the southern part of the county was in the jurisdiction of Revilla, and both colonies were incorporated into Nuevo Santander. Colonists of Revilla, whose lands extended across the river, made a settlement at Carrizo (later Zapata) about 1770, which eventually became the area's largest settlement. Ranching was the primary industry in the early years. In 1757 Vázquez owned 5,000 horses and mules, 3,000 cattle, and more than 1,000 donkeys; he exported an estimated 500 mules per year. In 1818, after a series of Indian attacks, Hacienda Dolores was abandoned, though by 1830 it was once again occupied. In 1821 the future Zapata County, along with other settlements between the Nueces and the Rio Grande, became part of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.
From the Texas Revolution until the Mexican War the region was disputed territory, claimed by both Texas and Mexico. In 1839–40 Antonio Zapata and other residents joined Antonio Canales Rosillo and Jesús Cárdenas to fight for the Republic of the Rio Grande. Despite political turmoil, the population of the area continued to grow. By 1848 thirty-nine porciones and fifteen other tracts of land had been granted to individuals either by Spanish authorities or by the Mexican government. But raids by Comanches, Apaches, and other Indians continued to plague the settlers. During the 1850s Dolores Hacienda was destroyed by Indians, and sporadic attacks on isolated haciendas continued until well after the Civil War. Among the earliest Anglo-Americans in the region was Henry Redmond, who in 1839 filed a claim for a headright that became known as Habitación de Redmond. A small settlement eventually grew up at the site, which was called Habitación until 1858, when it was renamed Bellville. In 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established the Texas claim to the region, and the area of future Zapata County was included in Starr and Webb counties. On January 22, 1858, the legislature passed a measure establishing Zapata County, which was organized on April 26, 1858, with Bellville (later known as Carrizo and subsequently as Zapata) as the county seat.
On the eve of the Civil War, Zapata County was a ranching area on the Texas frontier with a population of 1,248. Because of its isolation and the fact that there were few White residents and no slaves, the county remained largely unaffected by the war and its aftermath. The area's wealthy Mexican landed elite supported the Confederacy, and under the leadership of Santos Benavides of Laredo they banded together to protect the area from "renegade" Mexican leaders such as Juan N. Cortina. Nevertheless, because of the absence of federal and state troops, the region underwent protracted lawlessness, particularly in the early postwar years. Before the war Zapata County had been known as a haven for outlaws. During the war, cross-border raids, carried out by bands living on both sides of the border, became increasingly common. In December 1862, for example, the county's chief justice, Isidro Vela, was murdered, and the assailants fled into Mexico. In retaliation Capt. Refugio Benavides and twenty-five Confederate soldiers pursued the men into Mexico, where they killed three of the raiders and dispersed the others. After the war both Mexican and American outlaws made frequent raids on Zapata County ranches, stealing cattle and horses and sometimes killing the occupants. After a district judge, a clerk, and various other county officials were killed in a raid in 1875, Governor Richard Coke declared that until order was restored all county judicial proceedings should take place in neighboring Webb County. Despite the threat of violence, however, the population continued to grow. By 1870 it reached 1,488, and by 1880, 3,636. Ranching remained the chief occupation, but the postbellum period saw a steady increase in sheep ranching. There were 34,960 sheep in the county in 1870 and 77,285 in 1880. The number of cattle grew from 6,957 in 1870 to 9,202 in 1880. What little farming existed was largely of the subsistence variety. Corn was the leading crop, with some 5,000 bushels harvested annually in the 1870s and 1800s. As late as 1890 the county had only 1,530 improved acres. After the 1890s, ranchers sold most of their sheep and replaced them with goats, which proved better adapted to the harsh climate and sparse vegetation. In 1910, when goats were first listed on the agricultural census rolls, there were 12,741 in the county, and the export of mohair was one of the county's chief sources of revenue. The period after 1900 also saw a growing emphasis on farming. Cotton began to be grown in commercial quantities after 1910, and by 1920 the county's farmers were producing 2,000 bales annually. During this same period, the population, which had declined slightly between 1880 and 1890, grew to 4,760. Although the number of White residents increased during the second half of the nineteenth century, the overwhelming majority of the population remained Hispanic, many of them the descendants of the original land grantees.
Unlike the situation in much of South Texas, relations between Anglos and Hispanics remained generally harmonious. This was partly due to considerable intermarriage. But, more importantly, large-scale farming was never introduced into the area. Many Hispanic landowners were unwilling to sell their land to Anglo newcomers, and Zapata County residents, like those in adjacent Starr County, rejected irrigation development and were thus spared an influx of northern farmers. Moreover, although Zapata County was occasionally the target of raids during the Mexican Revolution, it escaped the worst of the violence, and as a result the harsh racial polarization of many South Texas counties did not occur. Also, although Anglos took control of politics in many of the farm counties of the region, the old Mexican ranching elite in Zapata County was generally able to hold on to power, and social divisions generally were between economic classes rather than ethnic groups.
Oil was discovered in 1919, and during the 1920s the first commercial oil and gas wells were drilled in the Mirando Valley. A toll bridge between Zapata and Guerrero, Tamaulipas, was completed in 1931. In 1932 a water system was established for Zapata. Highway 83 was completed from Brownsville to Laredo in 1935, for the first time allowing Zapata County access to outside markets; many other county roads were graded and improved. Like most other Texas counties, Zapata County was hard hit by the Great Depression. Falling prices for crops and livestock made it difficult for farmers and ranchers to make ends meet, and many laborers and agricultural workers found themselves without work. The economic downturn had a particularly devastating effect on the area's cotton farmers, who suffered the combined effects of low prices, soil depletion, and boll weevil infestations. In 1929, 11,300 of the 13,440 acres harvested in the county was planted in cotton; by 1936 that figure had fallen by more than a half, and annual production had declined from 1,031 to 426 bales. By 1946 only a very small amount of cotton was being grown. After World War II cattle ranching once more emerged as the dominant industry. Goat ranching declined after the war, and by 1969 only 128 goats remained. The number of cattle, on the other hand, increased steadily, rising from 10,733 in 1930 to 34,613 in 1969.
The postwar years saw other important changes for the county as well, including the construction of the massive International Falcon Reservoir on the Rio Grande. The project, designed to protect the lower Rio Grande valley from flooding, first entered the planning stages in the late 1940s. To oversee the project, a governmental commission known as the International Boundary and Water Commission was formed. After lengthy deliberations the board selected the line between Zapata and Starr counties as the site for the new dam. The choice of that location, however, meant that more than 115,000 acres of land in Zapata County would be inundated and would force the evacuation of 3,000 people and three of the county's largest towns, Zapata, Falcon, and Lopeño. Problems arose when the United States government proposed to relocate all of the individuals to a single site. Some residents chose to stay on their land. But when the Rio Grande flooded in August 1954, it filled the reservoir three years before the projected date and forced immediate evacuation. As a result, residents had to move to new towns that did not yet have water systems, schools, or much housing. There were also numerous problems with the compensation the government offered to those who were forced to move. Before the inundation, the "I Bully Widows and Children Commission," as the IBWC came to be called locally, had gone about assessing the value of land and homes that were to be lost to the reservoir. But residents were paid the supposed "fair-market" value rather than "replacement value" for their property, and many lost land that had been in their families for generations. Most also lost mineral rights. Although residents were allowed to retain mineral rights for their original property, no mineral rights were granted on their new land. Consequently, residents filed a lawsuit against the United States government for just compensation. Hearings lasted from 1954 until 1962, when the court ruled that the plaintiffs should be paid additional money for lost homes, land, and accrued interest. The reservoir nevertheless was a boon to the county, for it fostered tourism, which by the early 1960s was one of the county's largest sources of income. Indeed, developments on the lakeshore became the focus of both commercial and social activity. For the next three decades, tourism, ranching, and oil and gas were the county's leading industries. In the early 1990s, 90 percent of the land in the county was in ranches and farms, though less than 1 percent of the farmland was under cultivation. In 1990 445,503 barrels of crude oil were produced in the county.
From the turn of the century through the 1970s the county's population fluctuated between 3,800 and 4,400. Between 1980 and 1990, however, the area grew rapidly, as retirees and others attracted by the reservoir came to take advantage of the low cost of living. The population was 6,828 in 1980 and 9,279 in 1990. Although the number of Anglo residents had increased, the county remained overwhelming Hispanic; in the 1990 census 81 percent of the population identified themselves as Hispanic. In 1990 the largest town was Zapata, with 7,119 inhabitants. Politically, Zapata County has been a traditional Democratic stronghold. Although Republican presidential candidates won a number of contests during the early years of the century, Democrats outpolled their Republican counterparts in every election from 1924 to 2004. Zapata residents also generally supported Democrats in local races into the twenty-first century, though by that time Republicans in state-wide races sometimes did well in the area. Education levels in the county have generally been quite low, although the situation has improved. In the early 1990s the county had one school district with three elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school. Approximately half the high school graduates attended college. Nearly three-fourths of the population was at least nominally Catholic, and the estimated combined membership of the area's churches exceeds 7,000.
In 2014 the U.S. Census counted 14,319 people living in Zapata County. About 93.5 percent were Hispanic, and 5.8 percent Anglo; other ethnicities made up about 1.3 percent of the area’s residents. Of residents twenty-five and older, 53 percent had graduated from high school, and 9 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century ranching and the production of oil and natural gas were the central elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 388 ranches and farms covering 397,594 acres, 78 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 16 percent to crops. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $9,843,000. Beef cattle, goats, onions, cantaloupes, and melons were the chief agricultural products. More than 257,000 barrels of oil, and 296,265,484 thousand cubic feet of gas well gas, were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 47,779,811 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1919.
Zapata (population, 5,091) is the county’s largest town and its seat of government; other communities include Medina (4,150), San Ygnacio (659), and Falcon (185). Recreational facilities in the county include the Falcon State Park, the San Ygnacio Historic District, Corralitos Ranch, and San Francisco Ranch. The Texas Tropical Trail, which links the counties of the lower Valley, runs through the area. There are extensive hunting opportunities throughout the year. Special events include the Fajita Cookoff held in November in Zapata.