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Friday, June 12, 1987

Houston County, Texas

Established June 12, 1837, named for President Sam Houston, and located on the El Camino Real Highway. The El Camino Real is recognized as one of the state's oldest and most significant of the trans-Texas routes, and the most famous of the early historic trails.

Houston County, the first county established by the Republic of Texas, is east of Waco in the East Texas Timberlands region.

  • It is bordered on the north by Anderson County, on the east by Cherokee, Angelina, and Trinity counties, on the south by Walker and Madison counties, and on the west by Leon County.
  • Its center lies at 31°20' north latitude and 99°25' west longitude.
  • Crockett is the county seat and largest town.
  • In addition to U.S. Highway 287 the county's transportation needs are served by State highways 7, 19, and 21 and the Union Pacific Railroad.
  • Houston County covers 1,234 square miles, with elevations ranging from 200 to 300 feet.
  • The Neches River forms the northeastern boundary of the county, and the Trinity River is the western boundary.
  • The terrain is gently rolling to hilly. Soils are generally light colored and loamy, with very deep reddish clayey subsoils. In the southwest and west the soils are sandy with clayey subsoils.
  • The predominant vegetation is mixed pine and hardwood forests. Between 21 and 30 percent of the land in the county is considered prime farmland.
  • The climate is subtropical and humid, with cool winters and hot summers. Temperatures range in January from an average low of 36° F to an average high of 58°, and in July from 71° to 94°. The average annual rainfall is 42 inches. The average annual snowfall is less than one inch.
  • The growing season averages 260 days a year, with the last freeze in early March and the first in late November. . . .

In 1837 the boundaries of Houston County were laid out and its government was organized. It was named for President Sam Houston, who signed the order establishing the county on June 12, 1837. Upon its formation from Nacogdoches County in 1837, Houston County included the territory that later became Trinity and Anderson counties and part of Henderson County. Land was donated for the county seat by Andrew E. Gossett, who named it for his father's friend and former Tennessee neighbor, David Crockett. . . .

During the early years of the county's existence, there were frequent hostile encounters between settlers and Indians. In October 1838 an Indian band attacked the home of John Edens on San Pedro Creek, where a number of women and children had taken refuge while the men of the area were away combating the Córdova Rebellion. In what became known as the Edens-Madden massacre, more than a half dozen people were killed and a number of others were wounded. Many early families constructed forts or blockhouses for protection, but sporadic attacks continued until the early 1850s.

During the early 1840s the population of the county grew rapidly. In 1847 the number of residents reached 1,929, and by 1850 it stood at 2,721. Many of the early settlers were planters from the Old South who brought their slaves with them, and the early tax rolls of the county show that the number of bondsmen increased steadily during the decade, rising from 308 in 1840 to 545 in 1850.

Much of the early settlement was along the Neches and Trinity rivers. Linking the two rivers was the Old San Antonio Road, which provided the main overland route to and through the county. Farming in Houston County was originally conducted on a subsistence basis, but by the late 1840s a thriving plantation economy, based primarily on cotton, had developed.

In 1850, Houston County plantations produced 740 bales, and the figure grew rapidly over the next decade. During the 1850s Alabama and Hall's Bluff, both on the Trinity River, became important shipping sites for the county's cotton crop. Planters hauled the heavy bales overland to the river and then transported them by flatboat to Galveston for sale and export to New Orleans and other sites.

In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, Houston County had a population of 8,058, including 2,819 slaves. Despite the rapid population growth of the previous decade and a half, the area remained sparsely settled. Arable land amounted to less than 40,000 acres, and Crockett was the only sizable town. Alabama, Augusta, Randolph, Hall's Bluff, and several other sites had post offices, but most of these communities were little more than villages.

The Civil War and its aftermath brought profound changes to the county. Its citizens voted overwhelmingly for secession, 552 for and only 38 against, and county men volunteered for the Confederate Army in large numbers. Despite having a white population of little more than 5,000, the county provided nearly 1,000 men to the war effort. Many of these spent long periods away from home during the war, and those who remained behind were forced to deal with the lack of markets and wild fluctuations in the value of Confederate currency, as well as concern for their relatives and friends on the battlefield.

The end of the war brought wrenching changes in the county's economy. For many Houston County residents, the abolition of slavery meant devastating economic loss. Before the war slaves had constituted nearly half of all taxable property in the county, and their loss, coupled with a sharp decline in property values, caused a profound disruption for most planters. The value of farms in the county dropped from $1,154,435 in 1860 to $57,180 in 1870.

The black population fared no better. Many black farmers left the farms owned by their former masters to seek better working and living conditions, but for the vast majority the change brought only marginal improvement. Most ended up working on the land on shares, receiving one-third or one-half of the crop for their labors.

Politically, however, Houston County blacks fared somewhat better than freedmen in other counties; as late as 1873, largely as a result of black voters, Republican gubernatorial candidate Edmund J. Davis won a narrow majority of the county's votes. As was the case elsewhere in the state, however, the introduction of the white primary and other discriminatory voting practices eventually served effectively to disfranchise African Americans until the 1960s.

Although Houston County witnessed little of the violence that many other counties experienced during Reconstruction, the effects of the war were felt for some time, and the economy did not begin fully to recover until 1872, when the Houston and Great Northern Railroad was built through the county. The new railroad provided improved access to markets outside of Texas and brought in large numbers of new settlers, who helped to reinvigorate the county. Between 1870 and 1880 the population grew from 8,147 to 16,702. Many of the new residents settled along the tracks, where numerous new communities, among them Grapeland, Latexo, and Lovelady, were built.

The influx of new settlers had a dramatic impact on the agricultural economy. Between 1870 and 1880 the number of farms in the county increased from seventy-five to 1,698, and the number of improved acres grew from 6,746 to 73,884. Corn, cotton, and cattle were the leading products. In 1880 the county's farmers produced 283,402 bushels of corn and 9,730 bales of cotton; the agricultural census counted 14,368 cattle. . . .

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Armistead Albert Aldrich, The History of Houston County, Texas (San Antonio: Naylor, 1943). Frontier Times, May 1929. Houston County Historical Commission, History of Houston County, Texas, 1687–1979 (Tulsa, Oklahoma: Heritage, 1979). Thomas Nelms Mainer, Houston County in the Civil War (Crockett, Texas: Houston County Historical Commission, 1981). Gifford E. White, The First Settlers of Houston County, Texas (Austin, 1983). Albert Woldert, "The Location of the Tejas Indian Village (San Pedro) and the Spanish Missions in Houston County," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 38 (January 1935).

Eliza H. Bishop

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. "," (accessed August 4, 2010).

(NOTE: "s.v." stands for sub verbo, "under the word.")

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