by Christopher Dow
Lavaca County, created in 1846 and named for the Lavaca River, comprises 971 square miles. It has three cities—Yoakum, Shiner, and Halletsville, which is the county seat. The population of the county grew from 1,571 in 1850 to a peak of 28,964 in 1920 but declined gradually after that. The 2010 Census put it at 19,263. The county’s principal waterways are the Lavaca and Navidad Rivers, neither of which is navigable this far inland.
Lavaca County’s flat to undulating terrain has an elevation of 150 to 350 feet and lies in the claypan region of Central Texas. Claypan is a dense, compact layer in the subsoil that has a much higher clay content than the topsoil, which is loamy and light-colored in the southern area of the county and alkaline and clayey to the north. The claypan layer slows the downward movement of water, which causes water to collect on the surface after rains. Claypan is hard when dry and sticky when wet.
The vegetation over this soil, especially in the northern part of the county, is typical of the Blackland Prairie, while to the south it is Post Oak Savannah. Both regions are covered in tall grasses and various sorts of trees, including mesquite, oak, pecan, and elm. Beneath are oil and gas.
Humans have inhabited the area for at least 10,000 years. At the time Europeans began to encroach on the area, it was inhabited by Coahuiltecans, Karankawas, Tonkawas, Apaches, and Comanches, though by 1850, most were gone. Some were killed by conflict or disease, while others migrated elsewhere.
The earliest Europeans to visit the area are said to have been Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and three companions, survivors of a portion of the Pánfilo Narváez Expedition whose ship was wrecked off the coast at what is now Galveston in 1528. Their visit to what would become Lavaca County was incidental, however, as the four men were just traversing the region during their eventually successful trek to reach Mexico City.
The first deliberate European expedition to the area was in 1685, led by by the Frenchman René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. La Salle is supposedly the one who named the Lavaca River. He called it Les Veches, which means “the cattle,” for the huge herds of bison living in the region. Later Spanish explorers kept the meaning of the name, transliterating it to La Baca, which eventually morphed into Lavaca. After the Spanish explorations, it wasn’t until 1820 that people of European extraction returned to the area, when the region was part of the land grants of Empresarios Stephen F. Austin and Green DeWitt.
Many early settlers were driven out by the Indians, mostly Comanche and Tonkawa, but even so by 1831, several settlements had been established, of which two—Hallettsville and Petersburg—later became towns. In addition, there were Zumwalt’s Mill and William Millican’s cotton gin, the latter foreshadowing the presence of what would become one of the Blackland Prairies’ most important crops. During the Texas Revolution, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s army passed through the area after their slaughter of the defenders of the Alamo and the mission at Goliad.
Indian raids continued after the Texas Revolution, but by 1841, the Indians had suffered enough defeats that they abandoned the area. The residents of the county weren’t done fighting, however. Ten years after the establishment of Lavaca County in 1842, Hallettsville was elected to be the county seat, which didn’t sit well with the citizens of Petersburg, who refused to relinquish the county records. The men of Hallettsville had to resort to force of arms to take possession of the records.
Most of the incoming settlers were from the Old South. They brought their slaves with them and established a plantation economy with cotton as the dominant crop, though cattle ranching also was prevalent. It’s no surprise that the men of Lavaca County joined the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
Map of Lavaca County by Charles W. Pressler, 1853. (Source: Portal to Texas History)
The Lavaca County Courthouse. (Source: Bing Images)
The end of the Civil War brought financial disaster to the county, which had, until then, relied on slave labor to shore up its economy. The former slaves fared no better, often becoming agricultural laborers or sharecroppers. However, by 1870, the economy had improved due to a surge in cattle ranching, though cotton farming remained important. And gradually, other farm products, such as corn, potatoes, sugar cane, beans, onions, tomatoes, and others, filled in some of the agricultural gaps.
During the last half of the 19th century, a huge influx of immigrants entered the area. Most of these immigrants were Germans and Czechs who established new farming communities. They also brought their cultures with them, and while the Germans had a little more influence in the county, the Czechs, particularly the Moravian Czechs, came to be an important cultural element in much of the Blackland Prairies region to the north.
Until 1887, all farm produce had to be shipped out by wagon, and ranch stock—often longhorn cattle—was driven north on trail drives along the Chisholm Trail. But that year marked the establishment of the first railroad line through the county, giving farmers and ranchers a better means to ship their produce and stock, which began to include swine and poultry, to ports on the Gulf Coast and inland to San Antonio and Austin.
Depletion of the soil and predations by the boll weevil virtually destroyed the cotton industry by the first two decades of the 20th century, and the Great Depression of the 1930s seriously damaged the economy. Much of the reduction in Lavaca County’s population during these decades was due to the departure of African Americans, who could no longer find economic security once cotton production was reduced and mechanization began to be implemented by farmers.
One shining light in the ensuing economic night was the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, and another was leather goods. Then oil came to the fore in when it was discovered n 1941, giving Lavaca County an economic boost. Today, oil and gas, along with ranching and farming are the principal economic drivers in the county.