by Christopher Dow
Sandwiched between the Edwards Platea and the Blackland Prairies and straddling the Balcones Fault, Travis County was established in 1840, it is named for William Barret Travis, the leader of the forces at the Alamo. With a population of one and a quarter million, it is one of the most populous county in Central Texas, though that is not surprising considering it contains the city of Austin.
Travis County comprises 1,023 square miles—990 square miles of land and 33 square miles of water. Most of that water lies in Lake Travis, Lake Austin, and Lady Bird Lake, all of which are created by dams along the Colorado River, which runs through the county from west to east.
Thanks to the numerous springs and caverns that exist in Travis County due to the limestone karst geology, human habitation in the region goes back at least 11,000 years. There are known Paleolithic sites at Levi Rock Shelter in southwest portion of the county and Smith Rock Shelter in the southeast. Between that time and the coming of settlers to the area, it was home to Tonkawas and occasionally Comanches, Kiowas, and Lipan Apaches. Despite being claimed by the Spanish in the 1600s, there wasn’t much early exploration of the region, much less settlement, with the exception of several missions founded by Spanish friars. The area proved too rugged and untamed, however, and the friars moved to the area of modern-day San Antonio to locate their missions along the San Antonio River.
After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the new Mexican government issued land grants to American Empresarios such as Stephen F. Austin, and by 1830, a few American settlers had established homesteads. Three years after Texas fought its revolution against Mexico in 1836 and gained its own independence, Texas Vice President Mirabeau B. Lamar, after buffalo hunting in the area, proposed a site on the Colorado River as the location for the new capital of the Texas Republic. Originally named Waterloo, the new city was renamed Austin in honor of Stephen F. Austin. Travis County was officially established one year later. At the time, the population of the county was a mere 856.
Soon after, however, settlers returned to the area. Even though the county was on the edge of the frontier and the settlers faced serious resistance from the Indian tribes that already inhabited the region, by 1850, the population of the county had grown to 3,138. Only ten years later, the population had more than doubled.
Despite the fact that only about one-third of the county’s land was arable, farming increased with the growth of settlement. Corn and wheat were the major crops, and much of the land not amenable to farming was taken over by cattle and sheep ranching. With the increasing urbanization of Austin, education began to take a larger role, with schools for men, women, the blind and visually impaired, and the deaf springing up. The University of Texas was established in 1881, and other colleges and universities followed suit during the next few decades.
Railroads came to the county in 1852, easing the transportation burden for farmers and ranchers, but the Civil War disrupted the growth of the rail system. The post-Civil War years saw a significant increase in lawlessness, which was quelled by federal troops. During the post-war years, the county—along with all the other counties in Central Texas—suffered economic hardship. But also as with the other counties, Travis County experienced an upswing in its economic prospects during the following two decades. Railroad companies returned and created a large network of tracks throughout the region, increasing shipping capacity as well as providing ready transportation for travelers.
As with the other counties of Central Texas, much of the population growth during the post-Civil War eras came from Europe, with a massive influx of Germans, Czechs, and Swedes, many entering through the now vanished port at Indianola. By 1890, the county had a population of more than 36,000, about half of whom lived in Austin. This number was again augmented by another large influx that came from Mexico as a result of the political unrest there during the early 20th century.
Crop diversity also increased, with cotton being the major crop until soil depletion reduced its output. Although cotton and corn remain important crops, others, such as sorghum, small grains, pecans, and nursery crops, have increased in importance. And cattle and sheep ranching and hog farming now have taken over much of the former farmlands.
Travis County residents’ economic prospects were bolstered during the Great Depression years by large New Deal public works projects. Dams were built along the Colorado River to generate hydroelectric power and control the serious flooding that frequently plagued the region, fortuitously creating the Highland Lakes, which have become major recreational and tourist attractions. Additional New Deal projects built bridges and other infrastructure systems throughout the county. All this activity created an economic boom during a time when most of the country was suffering, drawing more people to the county.
Military bases—notably Bergstrom Air Force Base and the Texas National Guard’s training center, Camp Mabry—also added to the county’s economic prospects. More recently, Travis County’s economy is further supported by its site as the seat of the Texas State Government, centers of higher education such as the massive University of Texas at Austin, manufacturing, and burgeoning high-tech and healthcare industries.
Today, the population of Travis County stands at about 1.2 million, most of whom reside in Austin and nearby communities. Even so, farming and ranching still occupy much of the land outside of the larger cities and towns.
Map of Travis County by the Texas Land Office, 1894 (Source: Portal to Texas History)
The Travis County Courthouse, then, above, and now, below. (Source: Bing Images)