BOWIE COUNTY. Bowie County is in the far northeastern corner of the state, bordered by the Red River on the north, with Arkansas and Oklahoma across its northern boundary and Arkansas to the east. Boston, the county seat, is located near the center of the county.
The time of the earliest European exploration of the county cannot be conclusively determined. The northernmost of the numerous routes attributed to the Moscoso expedition in 1542 crosses Bowie County; if the expedition actually took this route, the area was among the earliest explored parts of the state. The first European contact with this region more likely occurred, however, between 1687, when Henri Joutel traveled north in search of Henri de Tonti, and 1690, when Tonti returned to Texas in search of survivors of the La Salle expedition.
American exploration of the area began in 1806, when President Thomas Jefferson, eager to strengthen the American claim to the area, dispatched Thomas Freeman and Dr. Peter Custis to explore the area. Following the Red River, the Freeman and Custis expedition reached Spanish Bluff, almost due north of the site of present New Boston, before being forced to turn back by Spanish soldiers.
Because the area of Northeast Texas encompassing present Bowie County was considered by many to be part of Arkansas, it was the site of some of the earliest white settlement in Texas. Hunters and traders were active in the area by 1815, and in contiguous Red River County permanent settlement was underway by 1818. Although the details of earliest settlement in Bowie County are not clear, the area was probably settled around 1820, when Miller County, Arkansas, was organized. This county encompassed not only what is now Bowie County, but all of the Red River settlements.
Although the early settlers seem to have regarded the area as part of the United States, when the United States government refused to issue them land titles many of these settlers turned first to the Mexican government and then to Arthur G. Wavell's agent, Benjamin R. Milam, in an attempt to obtain valid land titles. While doing so, they continued to send representatives to the Arkansas legislature. When the Convention of 1836 met at Washington-on-the-Brazos, the Red River settlements were represented by Richard Ellis, Samuel P. Carson, Robert Hamilton, Collin McKinney, and Albert H. Latimer. Three of these men—Ellis, Carson, and McKinney—were living within the confines of the future Bowie County. That year Red River County, which included all the territory now in Bowie County, was established.
Bowie County was demarked in December of 1840 and named for James Bowie. As originally delineated, the county included all or part of the territories of present Cass, Titus, and Morris counties. In 1846 the county was reduced to its present size and boundaries with the establishment of Cass and Titus counties. DeKalb, in the western part of the county, was designated temporary county seat, while a commission was appointed to choose a more appropriate permanent site. The commission chose the town then named Boston, which became the county seat in 1841. In the mid-1880s the citizens of Texarkana conducted a successful campaign to make Texarkana the county seat. About five years later residents of the western and central parts of the county campaigned successfully for yet another county seat, this one to be at the geographic center of the county. The new courthouse was constructed in 1890, and the town that grew up around it was named Boston. The county seat has remained at this location. Shortly before Texarkana ceased being the county seat, the courthouse burned and almost all the county records were destroyed.
Though agriculture was the foundation of the county's economic base, the county was never exclusively agricultural. Manufacturing provided jobs for a small portion of the labor force in 1850, when fourteen persons were employed to make products valued at $12,100. Between 1880 and 1890 the county experienced a small boom in manufacturing. In 1880, 185 people were employed to make products valued at $417,840. By 1890 the number of people employed had jumped to 1,157, and the annual product was valued at $1,757,425. The depression of the 1890s was probably responsible for a serious decline during the next ten years, as the number of people employed dropped to 500. Afterward, manufacturing expanded steadily; in 1930, 1,583 people were employed at wages totalling $1,568,500 to make products valued at $11,919,153.
In addition to an expansion in manufactures, the county was also becoming more urban. This change was largely due to the coming of the railroad. When the Texas and Pacific Railway was constructed through the county, beginning in 1873, towns along its route began to garner an increasingly larger share of the market activities of area farmers. The railroad also was responsible for a new town, Texarkana, which, almost from its founding, served as a major market center and shipping point for farmers in the surrounding three-state area. By 1900 the 5,256 people who lived on the Texas side of Texarkana comprised almost 20 percent of the population of the county. By 1930 the 16,602 people in that part of the town amounted to 34 percent of the population of the county. In 1930 the county's four largest towns had a population of 19,071, a little over 39 percent of the county's total population.
Like most other areas of the country, Bowie County was hit hard by the Great Depression. For the agricultural sector of the county the effects of the depression were becoming apparent by 1930, when the average value of county farms fell from the 1920 value of $3,498 to $2,373. The effect of the depression on manufacturing is not so obvious because that segment of the county's economy was not really depressed until after the census of 1930 had been taken, and by the census of 1940 recovery was underway. Still, the census of 1940 registered a drop in number of employees (from 1,583 to 1,536), wages paid (from $1,568,500 to $1,041,528), and value of products (from $11,919,153 to $7,175,535).
World War II brought the same trauma to residents of the county that other wars had brought, as hundreds of the county's citizens fought overseas. But it was also the beginning of more positive and lasting changes in the county's economy. In 1941 two massive military installations were constructed in the county, the Lone Star Army Ammunition Plant and Red River Army Depot. These two installations, which occupy almost 40,000 acres, employed thousands of people in building and storing war supplies. By 1945, 769,977 tons of matériel had been shipped from these two locations. After the war, operation of the plant and depot continued; in 1992 more than 8,000 people, civilian and military, were employed at them.
During the period after World War II, though agriculture remained vital, it was replaced as the cornerstone of the county's economy by manufacturing and wholesale and retail trade. These two industries employed 48 percent of the county's labor force and headed a list of nonfarm occupations that generated almost $683 million in earnings in 1981. Agricultural receipts in 1982 were $30,491,000. After oil was discovered in the county in 1944, petroleum and natural gas production also became part of the area's economy. More than 221,500 barrels of oil and 331,712 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2000; by the end of that year 5,821,773 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1944.
The changes in the county's economic base were reflected in other areas. The proportion of urban residents in the county continued to increase through the census of 1980, when 64 percent of the county's residents lived in urban areas as defined by the United States Census Office. Texarkana, situated on Interstate Highway 30 and U.S. Highway 82, remained a major market center and the county's largest city. The changing nature of employment opportunities had led to an emphasis on the importance of formal education. In 1950 only 26 percent of all residents of the county over twenty-five had completed high school. By 1980 that figure had risen to almost 60 percent; by 2000 more than 77 percent had completed high school, and more than 16 percent had college degrees.
Bowie County is home to various types of recreation and entertainment. The Bowie County Courthouse and Jail in Boston is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, along with seven sites in and around Texarkana, including the Draughn-Moore House, the Offenhauser Building, the Saenger Theater, the Hotel McCartney, the Rialto Building, the Whitaker House, and the Roseburough Lake Site. There are seven major lakes in the county, the largest being the 20,300-acre Wright Patman Lake. Game and fur animals include deer, squirrel, quail, muskrat, beaver, otter, opossum, mink, ring-tailed cat, badger, fox, raccoon, skunk, and civet cat. Texarkana supports a museum and a zoo as well as various cultural events sponsored by Texarkana College. Finally, the county serves as a major point of entry into the state of Texas because of its location on Interstate 30.
In 2014 the census counted 93,275 people living in Bowie County. In the early twenty-first century agribusiness, lumbering, government services, and some manufacturing were key elements of the area's economy.
Bowie County Historical Commission, Bowie County, Texas, Historical Handbook (Texarkana, Texas: Smart Printing Company, 1976). Barbara S. Overton Chandler, A History of Bowie County (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1937). Barbara Overton Chandler and J. E. Howe, History of Texarkana and Bowie and Miller Counties, Texas-Arkansas (Texarkana, Texas-Arkansas, 1939). Emma Lou Meadows, DeKalb and Bowie County (DeKalb, Texas: DeKalb News, 1968). Rex W. Strickland, Anglo-American Activities in Northeastern Texas, 1803–1845 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1937). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Tom Wagy, comp., An Historical Bibliography of Bowie County, Texas and Miller County, Arkansas (East Texas State University at Texarkana, 1987).