by Christopher Dow
Fayette County, comprising 960 square miles, was founded in 1837, just one year after the Texas Revolution. The county was named for French nobleman and hero of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette’s home was called La Grange, hence the name of the county’s seat and largest town.
The terrain of Fayette County includes flatlands and steep slopes and is made up of Blackland Prairies, post oak savannah, and Texas claypan, across which the elevation varies from 200 to 600 feet. Three rivers run across the county—the Colorado River to the northeast, and the East and West Navidad Rivers to the south—each fed by major creeks. The Colorado frequently floods, and its waters have left gravelly but fertile soil in its valley. Groundwater is supplied by relatively shallow aquifers.
Grasslands and belts of oak and elm are the most common vegetation, but there also are other types of trees, among them hickory, walnut, mesquite, and loblolly pine, the latter of which is more predominant in the north.
The county was long-inhabited by Apaches and Tonkawa before a few early settlers moved into the area near La Grange. In 1822, those hardy souls were augmented by settlers who were members of Stephen F. Austin’s colony. The settlers built several forts—Wood’s Fort, Moore’s Fort in La Grange, and Burnam’s Blockhouse. Burnam also ran one of several ferries that crossed the Colorado River until a publicly funded bridge was built at La Grange.
The forts were a necessity due to frequent Indian raids, those these didn’t come from the predominant Apaches and Tonkawa. Initially, those tribes were friendly with the settlers and helped defend them from raids by marauding Comanches, Wacos, and Kichais.
Men from Fayette County were a major force in the Texas Revolution, with more than 50 of them involved in the Battle of San Jacinto, which successfully finalized the revolution. One of them—Joel Walter Robinson—was with the party that captured General Santa Anna after the battle. After being defeated at San Jacinto, Santa Anna signed a treaty relinquishing all lands north of the Rio Grande, but as soon as he was released and back in Mexico, he repudiated the treaty. Aided by Cherokee guerrillas, he sent incursions into poorly defended South Texas.
In 1842, this led to the Battle of Salado Creek, just outside of San Antonio, in which 200 Texans, faced off against 1,600 Mexican troops. While the Texans proved victorious overall, one engagement between 54 men, mostly from Fayette County and led by Captain Nicholas Dawson, wasn’t so successful The one-hour battle turned into a massacre, and though two men managed to escape, 36 Texans were killed and the rest captured. It wasn’t until 1848 that the remains of the dead were brought back to Fayette County. They are now interred in the Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historic Sites located just south of La Grange.
For a short time after the revolution, Fayette County was designated as the site of the Texas State capital, but that suggestion was overruled by Sam Houston, who located the capital at the future site of Austin.
For these early settlers, the Old South plantation life predominated, and the newly arrived German and Bohemian Czech immigrants quickly adapted to this agrarian lifestyle. In fact, the first Bohemian Czech settlement in Texas—Dubina, founded in 1856—was located in Fayette County. The influx of immigrants grew the population to nearly 4,000 and created dozens of towns. The farmers prospered by shipping out cotton and corn in such quantities that Fayette County became one of the top producers of both. Tobacco and wool were other important products.
As happened throughout settled Texas, the Civil War wrought massive changes in the economy and social structure of Fayette County. Reconstruction passed the county by, and in 1870, thanks to another influx of immigrants from Germany and Slavic countries, which included Bohemian Czechs and Wends, the latter coming from Lusatia, a region in Central Europe, the population had grown to just under 17,000. During this time, the large, pre-Civil War plantations were parceled out and sold to these immigrants, who created numerous smaller farms.
The population of Fayette County peaked in 1900 at 36,542 but has since declined to about 25,000. The development of railroads through the county in 1872 caused some of the smaller towns to suffer and others, such as Flatonia and Schulenberg—to suddenly emerge as railroading centers. Today, Flatonia has a railroading museum and an historic railroad tower marking this development.
By 1900, Fayette County had become prosperous, and cattle and dairy products were added to to a growing list that includes peanuts, sorghum, timber, lignite, sand, gravel, bleaching clays, volcanic ash, and oil and gas. However, cotton remained the predominant cash crop, although the boll weevil and the Great Depression hampered this industry for a time.
Another important resource was electric power, and the Lower Colorado River Authority’s Fayette Power Project is now the single-largest employer in the county. Today, tourism also is an important economic driver.
One final claim to fame, among many: Fayette County was home to the notorious Chicken Ranch, which spawned the musical and movie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and the ZZ Top song, "La Grange."