Live Oak County
March 2014

Steve Wilkening & Kathy Wilkening

LIVE OAK COUNTY. Live Oak County, in South Texas, is bordered by McMullen, Atascosa, Karnes, Bee, San Patricio, Jim Wells, and Duval counties. George West, the county's largest town and seat of government, is in south central Live Oak County at the intersection of U.S. highways 59 and 281.

By the early 1800s the Coahuiltecan Indians of the area had been squeezed out by Lipan Apaches and other Indians who were migrating in, and by the Spanish, who were moving up from the south. Some of the Coahuiltecans from the future Live Oak County might have been taken by the Spanish to San Juan Bautista in Coahuila. Though the major Spanish roads through South Texas bypassed the area now known as Live Oak County, Spaniards did travel across it at various times. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca may have passed through the area as early as 1535, and Alonso De León went through during his 1689 and 1690 expeditions. At least one ranch was established in the area in Spanish Texas. According to a petition later submitted to the Mexican government, two brothers, José Antonio and José Victoriano Ramírez, cleared land and built ranch buildings and corrals during the early 1800s on a parcel of land near Ramireña Creek. The ranch was abandoned in 1813 after Spanish troops were withdrawn from the area and left the settlers defenseless against Indian attack.

After the Mexican War of Independence the Mexican government used colonization contracts and land grants in what is now Live Oak County to promote the settlement of Texas. In 1825, the state of Coahuila and Texas granted a colonization contract to Benjamin Drake Lovell and John G. Purnell for a tract of land that included most of what is now Live Oak County. In 1828, at Lovell's request, the same land was assigned to John McMullen and James McGloin,qqv who agreed to settle the area with 200 Irish Catholic immigrants. Between 1828 and 1834 shiploads of Irish immigrants were brought to Texas by McGloin and McMullen, and in 1835 the Coahuilan government issued at least thirty-five land grants along the banks of the Frio, Nueces, and Atascosa Rivers in what is now Live Oak County. Most of the newcomers preferred to remain in the Corpus Christi and San Patricio settlements rather than risk the hardships and dangers of the inland frontier. Nevertheless, some settlers began to move into the southeastern section of the future Live Oak County. Irish immigrants Thomas and Margaret Pugh, for example, established a home near the Nueces about 1835.

The Texas Revolution brought violence and instability to the area, as Mexican punitive expeditions passed through present-day Live Oak County; at least four men from the area died during the fighting. Afterward, between the Texas Revolution and the end of the Mexican War in 1848, much of what is now Live Oak County lay in the disputed area between the Rio Grande and the Nueces. Neither the Republic of Texas nor the Mexican government could establish firm control over this strip of contested land, and it became a haven for fugitives and scofflaws. When William Bollaert, an English land speculator, traveled through the area between the Nueces and Frio Rivers in 1844, for example, the only people he encountered were convicts who had escaped from a prison in Laredo. Asserting its claim to the disputed strip, the Republic of Texas sent John J. H. Grammont and a contingent of Texas Rangersqv to the area in 1839 to parcel out land grants along the Nueces; and during the late 1830s and early 1840s Irish immigrants attracted to Texas by the McMullen-McGloin colonization project continued to filter into the inner frontier. A crude road called the San Patricio Trail was cut northeast from Corpus Christi along the Nueces to the vicinity of modern Oakville, where the road turned north to San Antonio. This road, developed further by American troops during the Mexican War, became a conduit for settlement in the area after the war was over. By the late 1840s it was being used by Henry L. Kinney, a Corpus Christi businessman, to carry freight and passengers between Corpus Christi and San Antonio; as early as 1846 a stagecoach stop was established on the road at Sulfur Creek. By 1852 Irish immigrants had opened another stage stop known as Fox's Nation (later called Gussettville) in central Live Oak County; and by the late 1850s, perhaps earlier, the stage also stopped at Echo, about twenty miles southeast of Fox's Nation. Settlement particularly picked up after 1850, when the United States Army established Fort Merrill to help against Indian attacks. The outpost, situated on the Nueces between Echo and Fox's Nation, was abandoned in 1855, but by that time the number of settlers had grown enough that they needed their own government.

After the state Secession Convention voted in 1861 to leave the Union, Live Oak County citizens approved the measure; of 150 voters, only 9 opposed secession, and at least 114 residents subsequently swore their allegiance to the Confederate cause. The federal blockade of the Texas coast and a lingering drought combined to make the years of the Civil War difficult for county residents. Wartime conditions did help to regularize the cattle business in the county, however, and made it more profitable. Local ranchers drove their herds south to Mexico, gaining valuable experience that served them well during postwar drives to northern markets. From the years immediately following the war to the 1890s, ranching continued at the center of the county's economy. In 1867, Rep. Samuel T. Foster boasted that Live Oak County was "one of the finest stock raising areas in the state," and reported that ranchers sold most of their cattle in Matamoros. In 1870 almost 63,000 cattle were counted in Live Oak County, a figure almost triple the count in 1860. During the 1870s a number of ranchers established operations in the county and accumulated large landholdings. In 1870 the county had only 31 ranches and farms, and only one of these was larger than 1,000 acres. By 1880 there were 171 ranches in the area, and 37 were larger than 1,000 acres. During the 1880s, when barbed wire was introduced, some of the smaller ranchers were squeezed out of business. Some of the ranchers accustomed to free use of the range resorted to fence-cutting to give their herds access to water and forage; one group, after cutting a fence, also dug a grave, hung a noose over it, and left a sign that read: "This will be your end if you rebuild this fence." After 1884, when the state legislature passed a law making fence-cutting a felony, however, the practice gradually ended, and within a few years the era of the free range was over. Census figures for 1890 demonstrate that smaller ranches were disappearing and larger operations becoming the norm. In 1890 only 16 of the county's 161 ranches and farms were smaller than 100 acres; 57 were larger than 1,000 acres, and some were considerably larger.

Between 1900 and 1930 Live Oak County experienced a period of energetic growth and development. The number of farms regularly increased, growing from 278 in 1900 to 487 in 1909 and 572 in 1920; by 1930 the county had more than 1,140 farms. During this same period, the population almost quadrupled, from 2,268 in 1900 to 8,956 in 1930. A primary reason for this growth was the rapid spread of cotton culture. Though the number of cattle in Live Oak County dropped by almost 35 percent between 1900 and 1910, land planted in cotton jumped from about 3,800 acres in 1900 to almost 56,000 acres in 1930. The cotton boom came to play an important role, as eventually it extended into most parts of the county, raised land prices, encouraged ranchers to subdivide their lands, and brought new wealth and residents to the area.

The railroad tied the county more closely to state and national markets, but in bypassing every town that had been established in Live Oak County up to that time, it also helped to shift the population. After the arrival of the railroad, the older towns—Ramireña, Lagarto, and Oakville—began to decline, while new townsites—such as George West, Kitty West, Ike West, Three Rivers, and Mikeska—began to appear along the tracks. George West and Three Rivers especially prospered, and after an election in 1918, the county government was moved from Oakville to George West. Mineral resources also contributed to the county's development during this period. The discovery of oil in neighboring McMullen County during the early 1920s benefited northwestern Live Oak County, as the newly developed town of Three Rivers became the chief trading center for the Calliham oilfield. Natural gas fields were discovered near Three Rivers and Mount Lucas in 1921 and 1922, and in 1926 a gas pipeline was built from Live Oak County to Houston. New school construction reflected the county's rapid development between 1900 and 1930. By 1934 five independent school districts, and almost thirty common-school districts, had been established in Live Oak County, providing instruction for more than 3,000 students. New western districts included the Mountain View, Mapes, Lyne, and Spring Creek schools; in the eastern and northern parts of the county, schools appeared in such new communities as Argenta, Ray Point, Toms, and Fant City.

By 1950, however, the population was 9,054. During and after World War II, cattle herds steadily increased, and ranching again came to dominate the county's economy. Farmers shifted away from cotton and turned to such new crops as grain sorghums, peanuts, and truck vegetables. By 1954 about a third of the county was cultivated, but the farms were larger than before and supported fewer farmers. By 1960 only 7,846 people lived in the county, and by 1970 the population had dropped to 6,697. At the same time, most of the small towns and communities established in the county before the depression shrank or disappeared. During the 1940s many of these places lost their schools through a series of district consolidations, especially in 1943 and 1947. In 1943, for example, the schools in Fant City, Mountain View, Nell, Simmons, and a few other small communities were consolidated into the Three Rivers Independent School District, while ten other common-school districts—including those of Lagarto and Oakville, two of the county's oldest towns—were consolidated into the George West Independent School District. By the 1970s, when much of the county's old farmland had reverted to pasture, many of the old communities no longer existed.

Between the late 1960s and the early 1980s the economy became more diversified. After 1967 Live Oak County became an important source of uranium, which is mined in several parts of the county, particularly near Ray Point. Oil and gas production also increased during this period; in 1984 crude oil production reached almost 2,986,000 barrels. Tourism in the county increased in the early 1980s after the completion of Choke Canyon Dam. During the 1970s the county population began to increase again after decades of decline, and by 1982 an estimated 9,900 people lived in the county. Reflecting the origins of the county, 24 percent of county residents that year were of Irish descent and 32 percent were of Mexican descent. The dramatic drop in oil prices that afflicted Texas producers during the mid-1980s, along with declining uranium production, created serious economic difficulties for the county's residents, however. Though the opening of Choke Canyon State Park in 1987 helped to bring in new tourist dollars and a new federal prison was constructed near Three Rivers, the county continued to feel the effects of the economic downturn begun in the 1980s. By 1990 the population had declined somewhat, to 9,581. The largest towns were George West (2,568) and Three Rivers (1,889). Attractions include Lake Corpus Christi, Mathis Lake, Choke Canyon Reservoir, and Tips State Recreation Area.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Thomas Hester, Digging into South Texas Prehistory: A Guide for Amateur Archaeologists (San Antonio: Corona Press, 1980). Live Oak County Historical Commission, The History of the People of Live Oak County (George West, Texas, 1982). David Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836–1986 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987). Edwin Herbert Stendebach, An Administrative Survey and Proposed Reorganization of the Schools in Live Oak County, Texas (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1939).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article. John Leffler, "LIVE OAK COUNTY," Handbook of Texas Online