Although the area was part of the Department of Nacogdoches, the Spanish never built any permanent settlements in it, and today very little Spanish or Mexican influence can be seen in the county except for the names of a few streams. The first Anglo-American settlers came into Rusk County as early as 1829. The earliest land grant within the present-day borders of the county was issued to William Elliott on March 22, 1829; other early grantees included the brothers Thomas and Leonard Williams, Joseph Durst,q and Henry Stockman. By 1834 white settlers began to arrive in large numbers; between May 2 and November 23, 1834, the Mexican government issued forty-three land grants in the area, the majority of them to recent American immigrants. After the Texas Revolution, the population grew rapidly, as new settlers arrived by way of Trammel's Trace, the Nacogdoches Road, and the Green Grass Trail. Cherokee and Shawnee Indians under the leadership of Chief Bowl occupied the western part of the area during the 1820s and 1830s, but with their removal after the Cherokee War in 1839 the way was opened for white settlement.
After Texas independence the territory was originally a part of Nacogdoches County, but upon an act of the Congress of the Republic of Texas, Rusk County was formed on January 16, 1843, and was named for Thomas Jefferson Rusk, who had been secretary of war under President Sam Houston. The county seat was established as near the center of the county as possible by the five commissioners appointed to acquire land for the purpose. Gen. James Smith donated the original townsite of 65.5 acres, and he later sold 69.5 acres more to the town. Later, William B. Ochiltree donated five acres north of the town square and in the deed named the town for his friend James Pinckney Henderson.
At the end of the decade Rusk County remained chiefly agricultural, with cotton still the leading crop. But in October of that year Columbus M. (Dad) Joiner discovered oil on the Daisy Bradford lease. Attempts to locate oil in the county had started as early as 1911, when O. P. Boynton drilled a well near Millville. Boynton, however, failed to reach oil, and the search was taken up by Dad Joiner, who defied the "expert" opinion that there was little or no oil in the area and drilled his first well, Daisy Bradford No. 1, in 1927. On his third attempt, three years later, his discovery opened the East Texas oilfield, which proved to be one of the richest oil finds in the United States.
Although oil brought new riches, it also brought disaster. In March 1937 a powerful explosion caused by a natural gas leak blew up the New London School, killing nearly 300 children and teachers. Moralists saw the disaster as a result of excesses brought by so much new wealth and wondered whether the oil money was worth such a catastrophe.
The county is nearly 50 percent forested, and as late as 1968 there were five lumbermills operating there. Subsequently, however, the industry declined, though it still remains among the leaders in the county's payroll.
In the 1980s Rusk County also remained a significant producer of livestock and poultry. In 1982 it ranked 140th among Texas counties in agricultural receipts, with 90 percent coming from livestock and livestock products. Approximately 50 percent of the land in the county was in farms and ranches, with 12 percent of the farmland under cultivation.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Garland Roscoe Farmer, The Realm of Rusk County (Henderson, Texas: Henderson Times, 1951). Vertical Files, Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas at Austin. Myrtis Watkins and Pax Watkins, In Old Rusk County: Being a Sketch of Some of the Early Houses and Pioneer Families (Henderson, Texas, 1940). Dorman H. Winfrey, A History of Rusk County (Waco: Texian, 1961).