Zavala County, in the Winter Garden Region of Southwest Texas, is 170 miles northwest of Corpus Christi. It borders Maverick, Uvalde, Frio, and Dimmit counties. Its center point is at 28°51' north latitude and 99°45' west longitude. Crystal City, the county seat, is in south central Zavala County on U.S. Highway 83. The rectangular county has an area of 1,298 square miles. The Nueces River drains the central and western region, and the Leona and Frio rivers drain the eastern. Comanche Lake, six miles west of Crystal City, is popular with sportsmen and is believed to be the site of the last Indian raid in Texas. The Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, which underlies much of Zavala County, provides water for irrigation and public and industrial uses. Zavala County is in the Rio Grande Plain region, a brushland with dry streams. Most of the county was once a grassland, with numerous perennial streams lined with trees. Changes in the local environment are believed to have been influenced by ranching and farming practices as well as the spread of mesquite and thorny shrubs from northeastern Mexico. The climate is continental, semiarid, and influenced by winds from the Gulf of Mexico; the average annual rainfall is 21.87 inches. Zavala County farmers can expect a growing season of 282 days, with the last freeze in late February and the first freeze in early December. Rainfall, often occurring in the form of thunderstorms in the spring and fall, is impounded in earth reservoirs to supply water for livestock and for irrigation of some crops. The climate is extremely favorable for the cultivation of winter vegetables. Temperatures in winter are generally mild; summers are hot and humid, with temperatures often above 100° F. The topography of the county consists of generally flat land and slightly undulating plains. Elevations range from 580 feet above sea level in the south to 964 feet in the north. The northern part of the county is surfaced by light-colored, well-drained soils, and the southeast and most of the southern section has deep to moderately deep light-colored loamy surfaces over clayey subsoils, with limestone within forty inches of the surface. Marsh life, both of flora and fauna, predominated in prehistoric times. Fauna reported in early historic times that no longer inhabit the region include buffalo, witnessed by the Bosque-Larios expedition in 1675 and by the expedition of Domingo Terán de los Ríos in 1691, and bear and antelope, noted by William Bollaert in northeastern Zavala County in the 1840s. Mesquite, black brush, retama, guayacan, and huisache dominate the vegetation; oak, elm, ash, hackberry, pecan, and persimmon trees grow beside the streams. The native fauna includes whitetail deer, javelinas, coyotes, rabbits, turkeys, quail, hawks and other birds, snakes, lizards, and tortoises. The proliferation of nutritious grasses, including the grama, buffalo, and mesquite species, form the basis for Zavala County's successful ranching industry.
Evidence of early human habitation has been discovered at the Holdsworth Site, northeast of Crystal City. At the Stewart Site, in southwestern Zavala County, people of the Archaic period ate mussels and snails from nearby springs and creeks. More than 100 archeological sites have been identified by researchers of the University of Texas at San Antonio at the Chaparrosa Ranch near La Pryor. Many Coahuiltecan Indian groups lived in the vicinity. Tonkawans were also known to have ventured into the area from Central Texas, and Lipan and Mescalero Apache Indians escaped into the region in the 1700s ahead of fierce Comanches. In 1716 Domingo Ramón recorded a large deserted ranchería (Indian village) near the site of present La Pryor. The Old San Antonio Road traversed the county from west to east. The Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo is believed to have stopped at Comanche Creek in southwest Zavala County in 1720. On his way to the Alamo in 1836, Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna crossed the Nueces River near the site of present-day Crystal City.
Zavala County is in an area of Texas that was disputed territory after the Texas Revolution. The Mexican government and the Republic of Texas both laid claim to the land. In an attempt to reinforce the choice of the Rio Grande as the Texas boundary with Mexico, the state legislature in 1846 established a county between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande and called it Zavala County, named for Lorenzo de Zavala, a Mexican colonist and one of the signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence. Until 1858 the area was attached to the municipality of San Antonio, then to Kinney County, and later to Maverick County. In 1858, when the county was organized, the name was misspelled "Zavalla" by the legislature. A bill entitled "knocking the `L' out of Zavalla" was introduced and passed in the Texas legislature in 1906, but was rejected by the federal government. Not until 1929 was the mistake corrected. The development of the Old Presidio Road, the introduction of cattle, and the herds of mustangs in the region provided the commercial and economic foundation for mid-nineteenth-century settlement of Zavala County. The border area of the Rio Grande Plain was from the earliest period of occupancy a livestock domain, where pioneer stockmen grazed their herds on free range. Beales's Rio Grande colony (1832), which included land in Dimmit and Zavala counties, used the Upper Presidio Road as a reference point. In 1860 Zavala County had an estimated population of twenty-six and consisted primarily of small ranches. Espantosa Lake, in the southwestern part of the county, was a favorite campground for travelers from Mexico to San Antonio. By 1870 large herds of longhorn cattle and mustangs roamed the area. Both cattle and sheep were raised, especially along the larger streams. The earliest permanent settlement occurred in the eastern half of the county along the Leona River; ranches there included the Woodward, Hill, and Bates; Batesville was established in 1870. Early settlement of the county also began along the Upper Presidio Road at Murlo (1871), a family-run trading post in northwest Zavala County, and at the ranching community of Cometa (1872) in southeastern Zavala County. The population in 1880 was 410, and the county seat, Batesville, was a town of only thirty-eight inhabitants. In 1880 there were 3,284 cattle and 7,046 sheep in the county. An estimated 21,800 pounds of wool was produced in 1890, by which time the number of cattle had risen to 32,726 and the number of sheep to 14,722. The first Zavala County Commissioners Court was held on March 20, 1884. The first road approved by the court was from Bates City south to the Comanche Ditch Farm, one of the oldest irrigation projects in Texas, thence to Dimmit County by way of Loma Vista.
In 1884 the discovery of the first of many artesian wells in the area opened up the possibility of more intense farming in Zavala County. The number of farms jumped from twenty-one in 1880 to 145 in 1890. By the turn of the twentieth century Zavala County was gaining a reputation for fertile soil, mild climate, and an abundance of pure water; ranchers recognized the potential for irrigated farming on their land and speculated about future farming communities. Development strategies were devised by the owners of the Cross S, one of the largest ranches in the United States at the time, and the Pryor ranches; the ranches were subdivided into small farm tracts surrounding the planned communities of Crystal City and La Pryor. Two land speculators, E. J. Buckingham and Carl Groos (brother of F. W. Groos), had purchased all 96,101 acres of the Cross S Ranch in 1905. By 1907 the ranch had been surveyed into sections and each section divided into ten-acre farms. Purchasers of a farm gained title to a town lot in Crystal City. Buckingham and Groos instructed their engineers to place the town near the Nueces River. Extensive advertising encouraged people from all over the United States and a number of foreign countries to settle in Crystal City. The building of the Crystal City and Uvalde Railroad through La Pryor in 1910 assured access to outside markets and bolstered the county's colonization efforts. A rail trunkline was constructed from Crystal City to Gardendale on the Crystal City and Uvalde Railroad in 1911. Bermuda onions became a major crop. During the winter of 1917–18 spinach was introduced. A marked transition from livestock raising to grain, fruit, and vegetable farming occurred during the 1920s; the number of cattle dropped from 39,803 in 1920 to 26,392 in 1930, as ranchers began to raise goats (primarily Angora), which grew in number from 1,558 in 1920 to 20,020 in 1930. Nevertheless, the cattle industry remained a vital part of the economy throughout the 1920s; one cowhand recalled a line of cattle waiting to be shipped at Crystal City that extended eight miles and when loaded filled 150 boxcars. Farm size averaged 2,741 acres in 1920 and 1,518 acres in 1930; the number of farms rose from 102 in 1900 and 150 in 1910 to 304 by 1930. Part of the growth in the latter was tied to the development of cotton. In 1910 only 449 acres of cotton were planted in the county, but by 1920 that number had risen to 5,763 acres. Though cotton acreage planted in the county fluctuated from year to year, it remained an important crop. The trend towards vegetable and fruit farming between 1910 and 1930 coincided with growth of the county's urban centers, particularly Crystal City. By 1930 Crystal City was overwhelmingly composed of Mexican Americans and was larger than Eagle Pass, Uvalde, Kerrville, or New Braunfels. Although many of the Hispanic residents were seasonal migrants, the certainty of work during the winter prompted most of them to return to Crystal City in the fall.
The overthrow of Porfirio Díaz in Mexico and the coming of the Mexican Revolution (1910-) helped provide the workforce to cultivate vegetable crops. Although ranchers and other land owners welcomed the thousands of Mexican laborers, trouble came with them. In 1917 and 1918 Francisco (Pancho) Villa was causing a good deal of anxiety among Zavala County residents by sending raiders across the Rio Grande to pilfer. Crystal City had to organize home guards for protection. Still, with the twenty-fold increase in the number of acres farmed in the county between 1919 and 1929, the population grew rapidly. By 1930 there were an estimated 7,660 residents of Hispanic descent in the county, whereas only 239 had lived there in 1910. The Anglo population, previously the ethnic majority in Zavala County, accounted for only 27 percent of the total population in 1929. The greatest population increase in Zavala County history occurred between 1920 and 1930, when the number of residents grew from 3,108 to 10,349. In the 1920s and 1930s boss rule, a political patronage system, was widely practiced and caused a failed attempt by Crystal City to supplant Batesville as county seat in 1926. Greater attention to controlling Mexican-American voters in 1928 provided Crystal City's margin of victory (978 to 446) in a county-seat election. Accusations of illegal and improper voting led to one indictment, but the accused was later acquitted. In 1930 Zavala County had the highest percentage of laborers (1,430 per 100 farms) and the lowest percentage of tenants (33 per 100 farms) of all counties in South Texas. Owner-operators were primarily Anglo, whereas sharecroppers and farm laborers were Hispanic.
Marketing problems had hampered farming but were eliminated during the 1920s with an improved transportation and road system, better packing procedures utilizing ice, and the increased cultivation of winter spinach. Rancher Ike Pryor received national recognition as the "Pecan King" for producing more than 400,000 pounds of pecans in 1928; Pryor's ranch included one of the largest native pecan groves in the world. County farm production peaked in 1930 when a reported 3,959 cars of spinach, 443 cars of onions, 397 cars of mixed vegetables, 214 cars of vegetable plants, and 140 cars of livestock were marketed from railroad depots in Crystal City. The spinach boom lasted only a decade, however, from 1919 to 1929. A fungus disease known as blue mold attacked crops just as the demand plummeted with the onset of the Great Depression. At the same time technological improvements began to bring mechanization to the fields and an increased demand for processed and frozen vegetables, rather than fresh crops. These developments meant the decline of farming and the need for farm labor. In 1940 Mexican Americans were 2,442 of the estimated 11,603 county residents. By 1938 cattle feed crops, such as alfalfa and sudan grass were cultivated in greater quantities in order to finish cattle for market and provide feed for the emerging dairy industry. The economy of Zavala County was now dominated by ranching, and ranchers stocked their rangeland with thoroughbred Hereford cattle. Overgrazing began to destroy the natural grasslands, and brush increased as cattle spread brush seeds. A new crop emerged at this time; Zavala County is credited as the first county in Texas to grow flax commercially. Flax production contributed to the development of a cigarette-paper industry (the paper was made of flax straw). A large migrant camp built outside Crystal City by the Work Projects Administration in the late 1930s was converted to an internment camp for Japanese and Germans during World War II (see WORLD WAR II INTERNMENT CAMPS). In 1942 the San Antonio, Uvalde and Gulf Railroad extended a line north to south, paralleling U.S. Highway 83, through the central part of the county. In 1939 Governor W. Lee O'Daniel claimed that there were more cattle in Zavala County than in any other county in Texas, and in 1942, though oats had become an important crop, 92 percent of Zavala County was still ranchland. During the spring cattle buyers from all over the United States traveled to Zavala County, and the county had landowners from almost every state in the United States and almost every country in Europe. With the coming of World War II and an increased demand for vegetables, the Crystal City area returned to farm prosperity. More than 25,000 acres of farmland in the county was irrigated with river and well water in 1942. In 1946 the California Packing Corporation, later renamed the Del Monte Corporation, purchased 3,200 acres of prime farmland north of Crystal City and established a highly mechanized farm, cannery, and shipping facility. Coincident with this venture was the completion of repairs to the nearby Upper Nueces Reservoir, with its irrigation potential. Del Monte quickly became the region's most important economic institution. This postwar period exhibited a marked decline in the number of small, owner-occupied farms in the county because of corporate farming competition, droughts, marketing problems, and rising costs.
Education in Zavala County began when George C. Herman organized a private school in the southwestern section of the county in 1883. During the first half of the twentieth century Mexican Americans were enrolled on school census lists for the purpose of increasing state revenues to benefit the White schools; Anglo county residents claimed their substantial property-tax liability justified this practice. Facilities in the Mexican schools were far inferior. In 1928 school children were segregated through the fifth grade in Crystal City. In 1934 Senovio Sandoval became the first Mexican American to play varsity football and graduate from a Zavala County high school. In 1939 the schools numbered eight for White, eleven for Hispanics, and one for Blacks. Though segregation continued at the lower levels, the number of Hispanic students attending high school continued to rise. In 1940 three out of a graduating class of thirty-one high school students were Mexican American. By the late 1950s a majority of those graduating from high school were Mexican American. The development of a Hispanic middle class accompanied advances in education and in political influence. The Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations and the Teamsters Union became involved in Crystal City politics in 1962–63. In 1963 the Mexican Americans of Crystal City organized and elected an all-Hispanic slate to the city council, a feat that attracted statewide and national attention in what was commonly referred to as the Crystal City Revolts. Teamster and PASSO strategists utilized the large number of Mexican-American cannery and farm laborers from the small Teamsters union at the Del Monte cannery to alter the political makeup of Crystal City. The electoral takeover by the Raza Unida party of Crystal City and Zavala County in 1970 disturbed White residents throughout South Texas and prompted Governor Dolph Briscoe to call Zavala County a "little Cuba".
In the 1950s and 1960s cattle remained important to the county economy, with a total of 56,050 in 1950 and 60,365 in 1970. The number of sheep was 6,952 in 1950 and 15,347 in 1959, although it fell to 2,827 in 1970. Spinach, sorghum, and cotton were the three biggest crops. In 1950, 19 percent of the acreage planted was in cotton; in 1970, 11 percent. Ten percent of the acreage planted in 1950 was in sorghum, but by 1970 that figure had risen to 38 percent. Spinach planted in 1950 accounted for 12 percent of the cropland harvested, and this remained the same in 1960. The population of Zavala County remained static between 1930 (10,349) and 1982 (12,000) and reached its peak in 1960 (12,696). Progress was made during the 1950s to convert from railroads to trucks as the principal mode of transporting vegetables and livestock, as farm and ranch roads were constructed. In 1942 there were six Anglo-American, two Mexican, and two Black churches in Crystal City; Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic churches in Batesville; and Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, Catholic, and Lutheran congregations in La Pryor. The largest communions were Catholic and Southern Baptist. The Crystal City Chronicle, the county's first newspaper, was published by A. D. and Grover Jackson in 1907; its offices and equipment burned around 1920. In May 1913 J. H. Hardy started the Zavala County Sentinel at La Pryor; it was purchased by Jack Stinebaugh around 1920 and moved to Crystal City around 1926. The Batesville Herald was published by W. T. Childress between 1912 and 1915. The La Pryor New Era, started by Austin Campbell around 1925, was discontinued during World War II. The Zavala County Sentinel, a weekly publication based in Crystal City, was the only newspaper operating in Zavala County in 1982. In 1990, 89.4 percent of the county population of 12,162 were Hispanic. Education levels have generally been quite low. As late as 1980 the percentage of adults aged twenty-five and over with a high school education was 25.9 and with a college education was 7.5, and the situation improved little in the 1980s. Petroleum remained a major industry. In 1990 the county produced 7,424,941 barrels of crude oil. In the mid-1980s Zavala County ranchers and farmers periodically controlled brush by plowing or by chemical application. However, since wild game had become an important addition to ranch economy, sufficient brush for shelter and browse was left undisturbed. A shortage of professional labor led ranchers to turn increasingly to helicopter services for herding cattle. Marketing procedures were changing at this time as well; small sales were typically handled by auctions located in Uvalde and Frio counties, and larger numbers of cattle were sent to feed lots (see CATTLE FEEDING). Tanks had replaced wells as water sources for livestock. In contrast to the trend of subdividing large ranches into smaller ranches or farms, by the mid-1980s high operating costs had forced the smaller ranches to consolidate.
In 1989 Crystal City hosted its eighth Annual Spinach Festival; celebrants paraded one of the city's three Popeye statues and proclaimed their community the "Spinach Capital of the World." The principal crops grown in Zavala County in 1989 were spinach, cotton, pecans, corn, and onions.
Zavala County has voted Democratic in most presidential elections; exceptions were the elections of 1928, 1952, 1956, 1960, and 1972. From 1980 through 2004the Democratic candidates for president carried the county easily.
In 2014 the U.S. Census counted 12,267 people living in Zavala County; about 92.9 percent were Hispanic and 6.4 percent Anglo; other ethnicities accounted for about 3 percent of the area’s residents. Of residents twenty-five and older, 53 percent had completed high school and 8 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agriculture and food packaging were important elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 257 farms and ranches covering 707,383 acres, 82 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 14 percent to crops. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $48,694,000; crop sales accounted for $37,878,000 of the total. Cattle, grains, vegetables, cotton, and pecans were the chief agricultural products. More than 567,890 barrels of oil, and 1,274,321 thousand cubic feet of gas well gas, were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 46,287,131 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1937.
Crystal City (population, 7,454) is the county’s largest town and its seat of government; other communities include Batesville (1,115) and La Pryor (1,747). Attractions in Zavala County include hunting, fishing, and the annual Spinach Festival. See also MEXICAN AMERICANS AND EDUCATION, TEJANO POLITICS.