Bell County
May, 2016

Steve Wilkening, Kathy Wilkening

BELL COUNTY. Bell County, in east central Texas, is located along the Balcones Escarpment approximately forty-five miles north of the Capitol in Austin and is bordered by Coryell, McLennan, and Falls counties on the north, on the east by Falls and Milam counties, on the south by Milam and Williamson counties, and on the west by Lampasas and Burnet counties. Belton, the third largest town in the county, serves as the county seat The earliest known historical occupants of the county, the Tonkawas, were a flint-working, hunting people who followed the buffalo on foot. During the eighteenth century they made the transition to a horse culture and began to use firearms. Lipan Apaches, Wacos, Anadarkos, Kiowas, and Comanches also frequented the land that become Bell County. The Lipans camped by the rivers and streams, and early white settlers had friendly relations with them. Early settlers also recorded that the Indians fired the prairie each spring to burn off the matted winter grass and facilitate new growth. But by the late 1840s the Lipans, Tonkawas and other groups who had customarily camped and hunted in the Bell County area had been decimated by European diseases and driven away by white settlement. Comanche raiding parties continued to strike into the county until 1870. The area was first settled in 1834 and 1835 by the families of Goldsby Childers, Robert Davidson, John Fulcher, Moses Griffin, John Needham, Michael Reed, William Taylor, and Orville T. Tyler, who settled as colonists along the Little River. The settlements were deserted during the Runaway Scrape, reoccupied, and then deserted again after the Indian attack on Fort Parker in June 1836. In their retreat from the fort several of the settlers were overtaken by Indians and killed. The area was reoccupied in the winter of 183637. By the census of 1850, the population of what would shortly become Bell County was approximately 600 whites and sixty black slaves. Bell County was formed on January 22, 1850, and named for Peter H. Bell. The election held to organize the county took place in April at the "Charter Oak," near the center of the county at the military crossing on the Leon River. Nolan Springs was chosen as the county seat and named Nolanville. On December 16, 1851, the name was changed to Belton. Reconstruction in Bell County was a troubled and violent period. Federal troops were quartered in Belton in 186566 to support Hiram Christian, newly appointed chief justice of the commissioners' court, but they were powerless to prevent a series of feuds between political factions that resulted in murders and lynchings. Horse and cattle thieves thrived in the unsettled conditions of the time and contributed to the anarchy that prevailed in the county. During the brief return to self-government under Governor James W. Throckmorton in 186667, Bell County sent X. B. Saunders to the Constitutional Convention of 1866, and a Belton mob helped to discredit Throckmorton's administration by lynching several pro-Union men who were being held prisoner for feud-related murders. Attracted by economic opportunities in ranching and farming, large numbers of immigrants swelled the population of Bell County in the later nineteenth century. Both the cotton and cattle booms were aided by the improved communications available in the county in the later nineteenth century. The Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe, the first railroad to be built in Bell County, reached Belton in 1881 and established Temple as its headquarters that same year. Temple quickly surpassed Belton to become the largest town in the county by 1890. In 1882 the Missouri, Kansas and Texas crossed the county, and Belton secured a branch line of this railroad from Echo. By 1930 Bell County had an ethnically mixed population of 50,030. The county economy was still overwhelmingly agricultural, with only 41 manufacturing establishments employing some 565 workers in operation that year. While cotton production was near its peak in terms of percentage of cropland, the cotton industry was already undergoing a rapid transformation. The combined effects of soil depletion, overproduction, and the boll weevil had already damaged the industry by the mid-1920s, and the situation of cotton growers was further worsened by the depression. Though cotton continued to be an important crop in eastern Bell County, the county's farmers increasingly turned to such other crops as sorghum and wheat and to livestock raising in the later twentieth century. A more permanent change in county life brought about by World War II was the establishment of the military base at Fort Hood in the western part of the county; this large installation continues to function as a military training center. In the 1980s much of western Bell County lay within the boundaries of the military reservation, and the fort's estimated 160,000 military personnel, dependents, military retirees, and civilian employees exerted a tremendous economic and social influence on the civilian communities bordering the base. In 2014 the census counted 329,140 people living in Bell County. About 48.9 percent were Anglo, 22.4 percent were African American, and 23.2 percent were Hispanic. About 75 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and almost 20 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century the presence of Fort Hood remained a central element of the area's economy, but local firms also manufactured a wide variety of products, including computers, plastic goods, furniture, and clothing.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:
Bertha Atkinson, The History of Bell County, Texas (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1929). Bell County Historical Commission, Story of Bell County, Texas (2 vols., Austin: Eakin Press, 1988). Oscar Lewis, On the Edge of the Black Waxy: A Cultural Survey of Bell County (Washington University Studies, St. Louis, 1948). George Tyler, History of Bell County (San Antonio: Naylor, 1936).