History of Jefferson County, TX

History of Jefferson County, Texas

The history of Jefferson County, Texas can be divided into three basic political and cultural periods: Colonial (1520-1836); Independence, Rebellion, and Statehood (1835-1900); and Oil Boom (1900-1941).

The Colonial period (1520-1835) saw the long process of contact and conflict between the Native Americans (Atakapa) of the Neches River basin and the various groups of European traders, missionaries, shipwreck survivors, and military expeditions over a three hundred year period. Contact between the Natives and the Europeans was sporadic until the early eighteenth century. The first European to visit the Jefferson county area was Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and other survivors of the De Narvaez expedition, who in 1528 were washed ashore near Galveston Island. Spanish interest in eastern Texas was strengthened by the Hernando de Soto expedition that passed near the Jefferson County area during 1540s. Challenging claims for this region were made by the French based upon the explorations of Robert, Sieur de La Salle in 1685 and Louis Juchereau de Saint Denis in 1713.

During 1777, Father Augustin Morfi, a Spanish priest, described the Atakapa Indians as being economically and culturally tied to the Louisiana Native American groups, "'They live at the mouths of the Nechas and Trinidad rivers, along whose banks they wander, without a fixed domicile; they neglect the cultivation of their fertile lands, occupy themselves with and live from robbery when they can manage to do so, or from the game which abounds in the forests'" (quoted in Block 1976:5). The Atakapa population at the beginning of the eighteenth century has been estimated at approximately 1300 to 2000 persons (Aten 1983: Table 4.3). Aten (1983:55) concluded that Native American groups along the Gulf coast had lost up to 95 percent of their pre-columbian populations, through diseases such as small pox and measles, within one century of contact with the Europeans.

French traders were quite active in the Gulf region during the eighteenth century . A 1745 Spanish military expedition noticed a large quantity of French-supplied firearms and trade goods in Native villages along the Neches River. Another account from 1772 recorded that a French trader maintained a "rancheria" about two to four days journey east from Neches River. During the mid eighteenth century the Spanish tried to reduce the French influence in the region by establishing a military presence in presidios along the eastern Texas coast near the Trinity River. The Gulf coast rivalry between France and Spain was symbolized by the secession of Louisiana from the French to the Spanish in 1763 and its return in 1800.

With the Louisiana purchase of 1803 the United States replaced France as Spain's chief colonial rival in the region. The Sabine River was established as the border between the Louisiana and Texas territories in 1819. Spanish and American officials attempted to create a "neutral ground" between the two territories in order to reduce conflicts (Stevens and Holmes 1989:15). As an international border, the region became a haven for illegal slave traders trying to circumvent the end of slave importation into the United States after 1808.

When Mexico became independent from Spain in 1821, settlement by French, English, Mexican and other nationalities expanded in the region. A census in 1826 recorded that there were 331 free citizens and 76 slaves in the Atascosita District, which included the area of present-day Jefferson County. At this time the Tevis family settled along the Neches River at the site of present-day Beaumont (Tevis Bluff) and established ferry service across the river and bayous.

During the 1820s and 1830s, land grants were issued to settlers by the Mexican government: at least sixty persons received lands during 1835 (White 1984). Most early settlement occurred east of the Sabine River, with grants near Tevis Bluff and along the bayous in its vicinity beginning only in the mid-1830s. By 1636, Tevis Bluff, now called Beaumont, had only three or four houses standing, but "'its situation is said to be one of the most delightful in Texas and it has already commenced improving at a rapid rate'" (Federal Writer's Project 1939:7). Cartographic sources for eastern Texas depict Tevis/Beaumont as being an important stopping point on the road from Louisiana to Orange and central Texas or to Galveston and the southern Gulf coast (Tanner 1836; Morse 1844). Many of Jefferson county's early settlers were involved in the Texas revolt against Mexico which was resolved by General Sam Houston's victory at San Jacinto.

The Independence, Rebellion, and Statehood period (1836-1900) began with the formation of the Texas Republic in 1836. With independence, the residents of the newly established Jefferson County sought to foster increased settlement of the new nation.

Beaumont was incorporated as a town in 1839 (Isaac n.d.). Numerous land development companies attempted to establish towns along the shores of the region's many bayous and rivers. Regional geography dictated that water-borne transportation routes were quite important during the mid-nineteenth century. Steamboats, sailing ships, and poled bateaus plied the channels and waterways carrying goods between the United States and the new Republic. Railroad service began only after the Civil War with the establishment of the Texas and New Orleans Railroad running from Houston to Orange and into Louisiana.

Livestock, timber, and cotton were the primary goods transported through Jefferson County. Several lumber- or livestock-related industries were also established before the Civil War, such as, shipbuilding, barrel-making, and tanning. Several sawmills dotted the shoreline of the county: one mill produced over 1,000,000 feet of planking during 1856 (Block 1976:56). Shingle-making was an important "cottage" industry that could be practiced part-time by farmers to supplement their incomes.

Cotton-farming was never an important agricultural pursuit in Jefferson County. Livestock, corn, sweet potatoes, and rice were the primary products of the region's farms. Cattle were especially significant: almost 7,000 cattle were noted in a 1839 census; by 1850 over 25,000 animals were recorded. Cattle were slaughtered locally or driven overland to markets in New Orleans. Block (1976:69) defined two types of farmers in Antebellum Jefferson County: "sodbusters," poor farmers who grew only crops for their own subsistence; and "cattlemen," ranchers who relied on diversified agriculture to supplement livestock as primary economic pursuit.

Typical of early Jefferson County settlements is the John Jay French farmstead located 3.5 miles north of Beaumont. In 1845 French, a successful merchant-trader, tanner, and farmer who had migrated from Connecticut, seated his family on a ca. 300-acre farm. There French built a two-story frame dwelling with a dogtrot plan and Creek Revival architectural details, and later a second home for one of his sons on the same property.

The character of Jefferson County during the mid-nineteenth century may be illustrated by analysis of the 1850 and 1860 federal census (see Table 1). Despite a period of rapid economic growth, the County's population remained relatively stable. In 1850, approximately one-third of the free residents were native Texans, with another third born in Louisiana, and 13 percent from the lower south. By 1860, many of these southerners had been replaced by northern and European immigrants, who combined to represent onequarter of enumerated residents. Slaves made up less than 25 Percent of the total population.

Table 1
Population of Jefferson County in 1850 and 1860
(adapted from Block 1976)
Number of 1850 1860
white males 827 1,006
white females 681 717
free colored males 33 1
free colored females 29 0
slaves 437 309
total population 2,007 2,033

Table 2
Jefferson County Occupations in 1850 and 1860
(adapted from Block 1976)
Occupation 1850 1860
farmer 176 57
farm laborer 38 40
stockman 38 20
stock laborer 11 1
laborer 59 168
carpenter 8 6
ship carpenter 8 6
Merchant 11 21
Physician 2 6
Lawyer 2 6
Shingle-maker 5 5
Saddler 5 0
Blacksmith 5 8
Railroad contractor 0 8
Hotel or related 2 6
Engineer 0 25
Teacher 6 13
Editor/printer 0 5

The occupational structure of Jefferson County reflected its economic make-up (see Table 2). In 1850, over 200 residents recorded their occupation as farmers or farm laborer. The County reported only 1,900 acres of improved farmland, Almost 50 persons managed the county's livestock herds that were ranging portions of the 42,000 acres of unimproved farmland. The 1860 occupational figures were dominated by the presence of large railroad construction gangs in the county. One railroad under construction prior to the Civil War ran along a right-of-way east of the project area from Beaumont south towards Sabine Pass (Zlatkovich 1981). During the Civil War, eastern Texas was forced to provide for its own defence. Because of its position on the recently completed railroad from Houston to Louisiana, Beaumont served as an important supply depot during the conflict. Over the course of the war, several forts were constructed along the shores of Sabine Lake and near Sabine Pass in order to deter any Union naval or amphibious attacks, Confederate ships were unmolested along the Sabine until mid-1862 when a Union blockade ship took position off Sabine Pass. Also in that year, Jefferson county lost many residents to a yellow fever epidemic. The Union Navy attempted an invasion of Jefferson County during September of 1863 that was unsuccessful. Blockade running continued throughout the war and the Sabine was described by a Confederate military inspector as "'our most important seaport'" (Block pg. 102). No military action took place near the project area, although the Confederates did maintain a camp near Spindletop (Skarbowski 1990).

After the Civil War, Jefferson County's economy continued as before: focusing on livestock and timber as its principal products. Rebuilding of railroads, housing, and bridges during Reconstruction caused an increased demand for the County's vast timber resources. Many older sawmills were rebuilt and new ones established during the 1870s. Labor shortages were met by new immigrants from New England and foreign lands. By the 1880s, Beaumont, with population of about 2,500, boasted six country stores, two hotels, eight saloons, and two churches and was known as "Mill City" (Federal Writer's Project 1939:87, 89).

To supply emerging urban markets in Beaumont and throughout eastern Texas, experiments in "truck farming" of fruits and vegetables were attempted. In addition, large scale commercial rice farming became a successful enterprise during the late nineteenth century. The first large rice milling plant opened in Beaumont during 1892 and the first rice-related irrigation canals appeared in the 1890s (Federal Writer's Project 1939:91).

Jefferson County was transformed by the discovery of oil by Anthony Lucas at Spindletop on January 10, 1901 (Clark and Halbouty 1952). Almost overnight, Beaumont became a boomtown; its population grew from 9,000 to about 20,000 persons. The area around Spindletop and its environs was immediately converted from farmland to oil exploration fields. The oil boom was a stimulant to the lumber industry and agriculture. Oil derricks, railroads, and refineries used enormous amounts of lumber, while the expanding County population required more agricultural products. Over two hundred new buildings were constructed during the first boom year and almost 6,000 acres of rice was planted in Jefferson County (Federal Writer's Project 1939).

The Oil Boom period (1900-1941) is best represented by the McFaddin-Ward House, located in Beaumont. Built in 1906, the McFaddin-Ward House is a Beaux Arts Colonial style mansion comprising over 12,000 square feet. This home reflects the lavish lifestyle of prominent southeastern Texas families that was made possible by cattle ranching, rice agriculture, and oil exploration and refining.

The oil boom at Spindletop lasted through the Great Depression. By 1930 the county population had grown to over 133,000 persons (East 1961). At the height of the Depression, there were almost 2,000 wells in the County with production totalling 1,000,000 barrels, Six of the largest refineries were located in the Beaumont area producing ten percent of the nation's refined products. In addition, cattle, rice and lumber continued to be major economic endeavors in Jefferson County. The proposed project area has been utilized as a cattle and rice farm since World War II.

Historical Commission

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