History of Wilson County

The first Europeans to reach the territory were Spanish explorers, who traveled through the area in the early eighteenth century. In September 1718 Martãn de Alarcãn crossed the area on his way to explore the bay of Espãritu Santo, and in 1727 Pedro de Rivera y Villalãn went north across the territory on his tour of inspection between La Bahãa and Bexar. In 1766-67 the Marquãs de Rubã included the area in his inspection of the Spanish frontier, and the 1798 explorations of the coast by Francisco Văzquez de Coronado probably crossed the territory. Ranchers from nearby San Antonio began grazing cattle in the region in the first half of the eighteenth century, and temporary settlements for vaqueros and herdsmen began around the middle of the century. The first two land grants in the area were to Luis Menchaca and Andrãs Hernăndez, who established ranches extending across the southern portion of the present county. County land was also traversed from the northwest to the southeast by La Bahãa Road, a major travel route from the Alamo to the Nuestra Seãora del Espãritu Santo de Zãiga Mission at Goliad. Later, this route served as a major road for cattle drives and transportation. Permanent settlement in the area began before 1830. Francisco Flores de Abreyo established his hacienda six miles northwest of the site of present Floresville; Manuel Barrera secured a land grant in 1833; Juan and Simãn Arocha settled in 1834; Juan Josã Marãa Erasmo Seguin built a home two or three miles from the site of Floresville in the later 1830s. In the immediate vicinity of the Flores ranch were the ranches of Chapoya, Pataguilla, Cabras, and Las Mulas; several other ranches were located along Cibolo Creek.

The first Anglo settlers arrived in the region in the late 1840s, settling along the Ecleto and Cibolo creeks. Between 1850 and 1860 planters from the Southern states moved into the area, as did German immigrants from Guadalupe County and Polish immigrants from Karnes County. Wilson County was established by an act of the legislature on February 13, 1860. It was cut from Bexar and Karnes counties and named for Somervell expedition member and legislator, James C. Wilson. Sutherland Springs was designated the county seat, and Dr. G. J. Houston, one of the first residents of La Vernia, was appointed as commissioner to organize the new county. William Sutherland became chief justice, S. W. Barker was sheriff, and John Irwin's storehouse became a temporary courthouse.

By the eve of the Civil War Wilson County had a population of 1,500. Because of the emphasis on cattle-raising rather than a plantation economy, the number of slaves remained small; in 1860 there were only a few hundred slaves in the county. Nevertheless, Wilson County residents voted for secession and most actively supported the Confederate cause. Several companies of militia were organized. A protracted period of drought lasting from 1862 to 1865 further compounded wartime hardships. Because of the relatively small number of slaves, however, abolition did not affect the fortunes of Wilson County residents as severely as it did in other counties, and the economy rebounded more quickly than in many other parts of the state.

In the years after the Civil War, Wilson County experienced a period of flux. John W. Longsworth, appointed judge and county clerk by the military government during congressional Reconstruction, moved the county records to Lodi in 1867, beginning a controversy about the location of the county seat that lasted for more than a decade. The county seat was returned to Sutherland Springs in March 1871 but moved back to Lodi in July 1871. An election was finally held in November 1873 to determine the location of county government, and the new town of Floresville, near the geographic center of the county, was selected as the new county seat. The citizens of Sutherland Springs called for a new election in 1883, but Floresville once again won by a margin of 250. The courthouse at Floresville was destroyed by fire in 1883, but the records were saved. The same year officials appointed noted San Antonio architect Alfred Giles to design a new courthouse in Floresville.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1868-69 legislators voted to alter the boundary between Wilson and Guadalupe counties. The legislature also approved a measure to change the name of the county from Wilson to Cibolo County, but the name was never applied. Another boundary adjustment in 1874 increased the area of the county, and the name was changed back to Wilson County. By 1867 Wilson County had three schools, five churches (two Protestant and three Catholic), and two mills.

Crops included cotton, corn, sugar cane, tobacco, and potatoes. But the mainstay of the economy, as before the war, remained livestock, principally horses, cattle, and sheep. Beginning in 1866 large numbers of cattle were driven to nearby DeWitt County, and from there up the Chisholm Trail to railroads and markets in Kansas. Among the leading contractors driving cattle up the trail were John O. Dewees, whose ranch covered portions of western Wilson and eastern Atascosa counties, and Jim F. Ellison, a rancher from Lockhart, who formed a partnership in 1869. Dewees and Ellison averaged 20,000 to 40,000 cattle per year in the 1870s and before their partnership dissolved in 1877 drove over 400,000 cattle up the trail. After the Civil War the population began to grow rapidly. In 1870 it was 2,556; it reached 7,118 by 1880 and was reported as 10,655 in 1890.

The greatest spur to the county's growth came from completion of the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway, which reached Floresville in 1886. The railroad not only brought new settlers, but also increased access to markets, which in turn helped to bolster the growth of the economy and encourage more diversified farming. Nonetheless, during the 1870s and early 1880s cattle ranching remained the most important segment of the economy. During the immediate postbellum period, as before, ranchers continued to use the wide expanses of open prairie to graze large herds of cattle, horses, and sheep. The practice, however, came to end with introduction of wire fencing in the early 1880s. At first, many of the fences were cut by landless cattlemen who sought land for their stock. Fence cutting became a conflict during the drought of 1883. It took place throughout the county, but the 40,000-acre ranch of Houston and Dilworth in the eastern portion of the county became the focal point. When the controversy threatened to escalate into open violence, the state legislature passed a measure in 1884 making it illegal for anyone to cut fences. Tensions gradually subsided, and wire cutting gradually ceased.

But the triumph of fencing spelled the end of ranching and the beginnings of a shift toward a farming economy. The number of farms grew from 290 in 1870 to 1,785 in 1900 and 2,297 in 1920. In the 1890s cotton emerged as the most important cash crop. The fertile soil of the northern portion of the county produced as much as one bale per acre, and by 1900 Stockdale had five cotton gins in operation. In 1898 the San Antonio and Gulf Railroad (later the Texas and New Orleans) was extended to Stockdale, allowing the cotton to be shipped directly to market. Insects destroyed the 1902 and 1903 crops, but the size of the crop continued to grow during the 1910s and 1920s: in 1906, 17,625 bales were produced, in 1916, 25,839 bales, and in 1926, 20,677 bales.

During the early years of the century, however, Wilson County farmers began to turn more and more toward diversified farming, growing a wide variety of crops, including peanuts, watermelons, flax, peas, and sugar cane. The trend became even more pronounced during the 1930s, when falling prices and the boll weevil combined to sharply reduce the size of the cotton crop. By 1939 cotton production had fallen to only 1,552 bales. The growth of farming during the early decades of the twentieth century also brought with it the rise in farm tenancy. Prior to 1900 most farmers and ranchers had owned their land, but by 1930 nearly half of the county's 2,500 farms were worked by tenants. The hardships of the Great Depression of the 1930s forced many to abandon the land, and the period since 1950 has seen a shift toward larger farms worked by agricultural laborers. After World War II Wilson County farmers continued to diversify their production. The county became a leading grower of flax and peanuts; other crops included corn, vegetables, fruits, and pecans. In the early 1950s, 10,000 acres were irrigated. Ranching, which had declined during the early years of the century, made a comeback in the postwar era, and poultry raising and dairying were also developed. By the early 1950s the county's 1,767 farms earned $10,000,000 annually.

Manufacturing was also introduced after the turn of the century. Brick and tile clay, found in abundance in the western portion of the county, had been used since early colonization. In 1910 the San Antonio Sewer Pipe Company opened a factory, using the red clay for the manufacture of tile products, on the north bank of the San Antonio River near the Wilson-Bexar county line and founded the town of Saspamco. By the 1950s the plant was among the nation's largest makers of sewer pipe and other clay products. Oil was discovered in 1941, but only one well was in production in 1946. Since that time, however, the oil business has expanded gradually. Between 1941 and January 1, 1991, the county produced 37,111,56 barrels of crude oil. In 1990 production of crude was 1,973,734 barrels, and in the early 1990s oil, gas, and oilfield services still formed an important segment of the county's economy.

Between 1890 and 1930 the population of Wilson County grew steadily. In 1890 the number of residents was 10,655, in 1900 it was 13,961, in 1910 it was 17,066, and in 1920 it was 17,289. The population peaked in 1930 at 17,606. It then began a long decline to 17,066 in 1940, 14,641 in 1950, 13,267 in 1960, and 13,041 in 1970. In recent years, however, the trend has reversed, and in 1990 the population stood at 22,650. In 1990, 8,054, or 35.6 percent of county residents, were Hispanic; 242, or 1.1 percent, were black; 45, or 1.1 percent, Native American; and 2,689, or 11.9 percent, other. The largest ancestry groups are Hispanic (36 percent), German (23 percent), Irish (15 percent), and English (13 percent). There are also a sizeable number of persons of Polish decent in the southeastern portion of the county. Nearly 74 percent of the residents lived in rural areas.

In the early 1980s the county had four school districts with five elementary, three middle, and four high schools. The average daily attendance in 1981-82 was 3,617. Fifty-one percent of the 146 high school graduates planned to attend college. From the time the county was established in 1860 until the 1950s, Wilson County voters remained solidly within the Democratic party fold, deviating only for Harding in the election of 1920. Republican candidates won in the elections of 1952, 1956, 1972, and every presidential election thereafter.

In the early 1990s Wilson County was a highly diversified farming area, with an average annual farm income of $16 million. Major agricultural produce included grain sorghums, coastal bermuda, vegetables, peanuts, and watermelons; cattle (both beef and dairy), hogs, and poultry contributed two-thirds of the farm income. A watermelon jubilee is held each June in Stockdale, and a peanut festival is held each October in Floresville. In 1982, 85 percent of the land was in farms and ranches, with 24 percent of the farmland under cultivation and 8 percent irrigated. Wilson County ranked sixty-eighth in the state in highest agricultural receipts, with 75 percent from livestock and livestock products, mainly cattle and hogs. The total number of businesses in the county in the early 1980s was 228. In 1980, 14 percent of the labor force was self-employed, 12 percent was employed in professional or related services, 13 percent in manufacturing, 21 percent in wholesale or retail trade, 18 percent in agriculture, forestry, fisheries, or mining, and 49 percent in other counties, and there were 1,270 retired workers. Leading industries included agribusiness, oil and gas field services, and the manufacture of structural clay products and fabricated metal plate work.

Christopher Long

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Maude Gilliland, Wilson County Texas Rangers, 1837-1977 (1977). Marker Files, Texas Historical Commission, Austin. Louise Stadler, ed., Wilson County History (Dallas: Taylor, 1990). Vertical Files, Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas at Austin. Wilson County Centennial (Floresville, Texas: Wilson County Centennial Association, 1960).  See "Handbook of Texas Online."