Williamson County
November 2008

Tom & Sharon Douglas, Frank & Joanie Wyatt, Steve & Kathy Wilkening

WILLIAMSON COUNTY. Williamson County occupies 1,137 square miles and is divided into two regions by the Balcones Escarpment, which runs through the center from north to south along a line from Jarrell to Georgetown to Round Rock. The western half of the county is an extension of the Western Plains and is undulating hilly brushland with an average elevation of 850 feet, while the eastern region is part of the Coastal Plains and is flat to gently rolling with an average elevation of 600 feet. Williamson County is drained in the center and south by the San Gabriel River, which is the only river in the county, and in the north by creeks that run into the Lampasas and Little rivers north of the county line. Soils in the eastern part of the county are mostly dark loamy to clayey "blackland" soils, while those west of the Balcones fault are light to dark and loamy with limey subsoils. The southeast corner of the county has light colored soils with sandy surfaces and clayey subsoils. Vegetation west of the fault is characterized by tall and mid grasses, post and live oak, mesquite, and junipers. The eastern part of the county, which has been extensively utilized for agricultural purposes, is still wooded along its streams with mesquite, oak, pecan, and elm trees. About 30 percent of the land is prime farmland. Mineral resources include dolomite, limestone, sand, gravel, oil, and gas.

The earliest known historical occupants of the county, the Tonkawas, were a flint-working, hunting people who followed the buffalo on foot and periodically set fire to the prairie to aid them in their hunts. During the eighteenth century they made the transition to a horse culture and used firearms to a limited extent. Decimated by European diseases and by warfare with Cherokees and Comanches, the Tonkawas were generally friendly towards the early settlers of Williamson County but were nevertheless removed from Central Texas by the 1850s.

Anglo settlement began during the Texas Revolution and the early days of the Republic of Texas, when the area was part of Milam County. In 1835, in an attempt to strengthen the frontier against Indian attack, a military post was built near the headwaters of Brushy Creek in what would become southwestern Williamson County and was named for Capt. John J. Tumlinson, Jr., the commander of the company of Texas Rangers who garrisoned the post. The post was abandoned in February of 1836, when its garrison was withdrawn to deal with the Mexican invasion. In 1838 the first civilian settlement was established by a Dr. Thomas Kenney and a party of settlers who built a fort, named Kenney's Fort, on Brushy Creek near the site of the present-day crossing of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. Several other sites on Brushy Creek were settled soon after, but Indian raids kept white settlement in check, and a number of the early pioneers, including Kenney, were killed by Indians over the next few years. In 1842 many of the early farms were abandoned when Governor Sam Houston advised settlers to pull back from the frontier. The Indian threat eased after 1846, and part of the influx of settlers who came to Texas after its annexation traveled to the frontier along Brushy Creek and the San Gabriel River. By 1848 there were at least 250 settlers in what was then western Milam County, and in the early months of that year 107 of them signed a petition to organize a new county. Recognizing that the petitioners needed a seat of local government that was considerably closer to them than Milam County's, the Texas legislature established Williamson County on March 13, 1848, naming it for prominent judge and soldier Robert M. Williamson. Georgetown, the county seat, was laid out during the summer of that year, and the district court was in session by October.

On the eve of the Civil War Williamson County had moved beyond the frontier stage and was a populous, agriculturally diverse county. Agricultural pursuits were quite varied and reflected the county's geographical diversity. Farmers were using the rich blackland soils in the eastern half of the county to grow wheat and corn. Cotton was introduced in the 1850s, but only 271 bales were grown in 1860, and it was not an important cash crop for most farmers. The early settlers had found large herds of wild cattle in the 1840s, and cattle ranching, both for home consumption and for market, was widespread throughout the county by 1860.

Though the Civil War had caused little material damage in the area, the county was a much poorer place in 1870 than it had been in 1860. Various feeder routes to the Chisholm Trail passed through Williamson County, and many cattle drives passed through or originated in the county from the 1860s through the early 1880s. With the coming of the railroads to the county in the 1870s, Taylor, in the eastern part of the county, became an important rail center for the cattle trade. Cattle raising, after declining somewhat in importance in the early twentieth century, was again a major part of the agricultural economy by 1950, and in 1969 ranchers owned a record 65,093 cattle. Sheep and goat raising followed a similar pattern. The industry revived in the 1930s and reached a new high of 59,919 sheep and 336,494 pounds of wool in 1959. Mohair became a significant agricultural product by 1930 and reached a peak in 1959, when some 44,668 goats produced 209,098 pounds of mohair. Cotton, the second boom industry in Williamson County, also developed about the same time as the cattle industry. Farm tenancy rates began to decline during the Great Depression with the shift away from cotton and other staple crops and by 1959 had dropped to 36 percent of the county's farmers. Both the cattle and the cotton booms were aided by the improved communications available in the county in the later nineteenth century. The International-Great Northern Railroad, which later was consolidated with the Missouri Pacific, was built across the eastern part of the county in 1876 and led to the founding of Taylor (now Williamson County's third largest city) and Hutto and to the relocation of Round Rock. It also opened up large areas in eastern Williamson County to commercial farming. The Taylor, Bastrop and Houston Railway, which was eventually consolidated with the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway, was built in the 1880s and aided in the development of Taylor, Granger, and Bartlett. Roads were generally poor throughout the county in the early twentieth century. There were 11,882 automobiles in the county by 1930, and extensive improvements, including blacktopping, of all major roads took place in the 1930s.

The county also became more ethnically diverse in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While there were only 111 inhabitants of foreign birth out of a population of 6,368 in Williamson County in 1870, significant numbers of Scandinavians, Germans, Czechs, Wends, and Austrians moved to the county in the 1880s and 1890s. The proportion of foreign born in the county population remained at about 10 percent from 1890 to the 1930s. Mexican immigration reached a significant level about 1910, just as Europeans stopped arriving in the county. There were 294 Hispanics in 1900, 732 in 1910, and 4,967, or 11 percent of the population, in 1930. In 1980, 9,693 residents, or again 11 percent, were of Hispanic origin. By the time of the Civil War, Williamson County had a number of Baptist and Methodist churches and several different factions of the Presbyterian Church. Churches of other denominations were built after the war, and the new emigrants established Lutheran, Catholic, and Czech Moravian congregations. By 1930 Williamson County had a culturally diverse population of 44,146 inhabitants. The economy was still overwhelmingly agricultural; only twenty-nine manufacturing establishments employed 347 workers 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 influx of the boll weevil had already injured the profitability of the industry by the late 1920s, and the situation of cotton growers was further worsened by the depression.

The agricultural diversification of the middle decades of the twentieth century was followed by significant social and economic changes in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The black population, which had remained at between 15 and 18 percent of the total in the early and mid-twentieth century, began to decline, both proportionately and in real numbers, from the 1940s on and had fallen to 4,111, or about 5 percent, by 1980. As in other areas of Texas, blacks were relegated to segregated and inferior housing and educational facilities until the 1960s, when some improvements were brought about by federal desegregation policies. Along with changes in racial composition, Williamson County experienced a dramatic increase in population in this period, growing from 37,305 inhabitants in 1970 to an estimated 85,700 inhabitants in 1982, making it thirty-fourth in population growth among counties in the United States in the decade 1970-80. Much of the growth in population was related to the development of new housing communities in the area of the county bordering Austin. Urbanization, or rather "suburbanization," increased the population of Round Rock from 2,811 in 1970 to 11,812 in 1980. Cedar Park went from 125 to 3,474 inhabitants over the same period, and even Georgetown's development was affected by the growth of Austin's area of influence. In 1980 almost 60 percent of the county's inhabitants lived in urban areas. In 1990 the population reached 139,551, an increase of over 60 percent during the 1980s. Population growth benefitted from and contributed to economic diversity in Williamson County. In 1982 some 3,500 residents were employed in factories, five times as many as in 1967, and other major areas of employment in the 1980s were construction, agribusiness, trade, services, and local government.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY: W. K. Makemson, Historical Sketch of First Settlement and Organization of Williamson County (Georgetown, Texas, 1904). Clara Stearns Scarbrough, Land of Good Water: A Williamson County History (Georgetown, Texas: Williamson County Sun Publishers, 1973).