Harrison County

Kathy Wilkening & Steve Wilkening

HARRISON COUNTY. Harrison County is located in northeastern Texas along the Louisiana border. Marshall, the county seat and largest town, is 152 miles east of Dallas Harrison County comprises 894 square miles of the East Texas timberlands, an area that is heavily forested with a great variety of softwoods and hardwoods, especially pine, cypress, and oak.

The settlement of the area was well under way by the time of the Texas Revolution in 1836. A dozen Americans received land grants there from Mexican authorities in the fall of 1835. After the revolution the area filled up so rapidly that the Congress of the Republic of Texas officially established Harrison County in 1839. It was drawn from Shelby County, organized in 1842, and named for Texas revolutionary leader Jonas Harrison. Marshall, founded in 1841, became the county seat in 1842.

The 1930s and 1940s, years of the Great Depression and World War II, marked the beginning of changes in Harrison County at least as significant as those brought on by the Civil War. Depression hit the county hard. The value of farm property fell 30 percent between 1930 and 1935, and there were almost 1,500 fewer farms in 1940 than in 1930. For the first time, a majority of workers depended on nonagricultural occupations, and unemployment became a problem. During the depths of the depression in 1935, 1,114 heads of families in Harrison County were on government relief. As late as 1940, 850 workers were employed on public emergency works, and another 838 were without jobs. World War II ended the economic disaster of the thirties, but it also brought about a significant emigration of blacks from the county. Between 1940 and 1950, although they continued to constitute a majority, blacks decreased by 17 percent in number while whites increased 8 percent. The total population rose from 48,937 to 50,900 during the 1930s and then fell to 47,745 by 1950. The trends that originated during the years of depression and war continued for another twenty years after 1950. The white population increased, but the number of blacks declined so rapidly that the county showed an overall population loss in each census, dropping to 44,841 by 1970. Agriculture occupied fewer workers each year, and cotton planting virtually disappeared. The agricultural census of 1978 reported only one farmer growing cotton in the county, which in 1860 had produced the third largest crop in the state. Those who stayed on the land depended on mixed farming and cattle raising; others left the area or moved to town. In 1960 and 1970 a majority of the county's people lived in Marshall. No single industry was dominant. Small-scale manufacturing of metal, wood, and clay products gave employment to nearly half of the work force; retail businesses occupied about 10 percent of workers; oil and gas production employed only a few hundred people.

Between 1930 and 1970, as the county lost population and saw its agricultural economy decline, other developments occurred. First, the automobile revolutionized transportation. Harrison County had only 7,396 motor vehicles registered in 1930. By 1950 the total stood at 12,571, and in 1970 there were 26,912. The county had eighty miles of paved roads on January 1, 1937; by 1970 it was crisscrossed with federal and state highways, including Interstate Highway 20, the major artery from Shreveport to Dallas. Second, rural electrification brought electricity to farms and rural homes. The Panola-Harrison Electric Cooperative, begun in 1937, increased its clientele from 332 customers in 1938 to 2,802 in 1950 and 7,416 by 1970. Oil was discovered in the county in 1928, and the production of petroleum and natural gas would continue to contribute to the area's economy into the twenty-first century. Almost 871,000 barrels of oil and 59,392,335 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 88,982,056 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since production began. Finally, education advanced significantly. In 1950 only 23 percent of those aged twenty-five or older were high school graduates. By 1970, however, 42 percent met this standard. Developments during the 1970s indicated that the downward trends of the years since 1930 were being halted and even reversed. After three decades of decline, the population rose to 52,265 in 1980, the largest in the county's history. Whites accounted for this increase. The black population remained stable in numbers but continued to decline as a percentage of the whole. In 1980 Marshall also reported its largest population ever—24,921. The decrease in the number of farms slowed, while the value of agricultural property rose to more than $100 million. Nonagricultural economic activities, with the exception of retail marketing, remained at 1970 levels through the decade. Retail work, however, employed more than twice as many people in 1980 as in 1970. By the early 1980s county workers earned a total of $434 million per year in retail business, petroleum and lumber processing, pottery manufacture, and other businesses. The growth of Marshall and increasing development along Interstate 20 suggested a trend toward significant commercial development in the county. Advances in education continued, and in 1980, for the first time, a majority of residents aged twenty-five or older were high-school graduates. By 1990 the population had increased to 57,483.
The census counted 67,336 people living in Harrison County in 2014.


James C. Armstrong, History of Harrison County, Texas, 1839–1880 (M.A. thesis, University of Colorado, 1930). Randolph B. Campbell, A Southern Community in Crisis: Harrison County, Texas, 1850–1880 (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1983).