by Christopher Dow
Bell County is named for Peter Hansborough Bell, the third governor of Texas, and Belton, its county seat, also is named for Bell. The county has 1,088 square miles, 37 square miles of which are covered by water. As with most of the other counties along our route, Bell County lies between the Texas Blackland Prairies to the east and the Edwards Plateau to the west and straddles the Balcones Fault. The elevation ranges from about 450 feet above sea level in the southeast to about 1,200 feet in the west. The former is mainly flat to gently rolling countryside, and the latter has rocky-sloped highlands cut by streams.
Waterways include the Leon and Lampasas Rivers and Salado Creek, all of which flow from the west and merge in roughly the center of the county at the historic Three Forks to form the Little River. The Little River eventually drains into the Brazos River well to the east of Bell County. An impoundment of the Leon River northwest of Belton, creates Belton Lake, and an impoundment of the Lampasas River southwest of Belton creates Stillhouse Hollow Lake. Both lakes offer recreational opportunities, though a large portion of the southwestern shore of Belton Lake is reserved for military personnel from Fort Hood, in Killeen.
Archaeological sites at several locations in the county have uncovered late prehistoric campsites, kitchen middens, and burial mounds that show that human habitation of the county goes back at least 8,000 years. Thanks to the limestone karst topography, there are many caves, rock shelters, and springs in the area, which undoubtedly attracted early peoples. The earliest known inhabitants of the area were the Tonkawa Indians, whose traditional buffalo hunting techniques helped create the Blackland Prairies. Later tribes included Lipan Apache, Waco, Anandarko, Nadoco, Kiowa, and Comanche.
Spanish advancement into the region resulted in missions along the Little River to the east of Bell County, but Anglo settlement of the area didn’t begin until 1834. Much of that early settlement occurred in the area now occupied by Little River-Academy, near Three Forks, but settlement was hit-and-miss throughout the 1830s. Prior to the Texas Revolution, frequent Indian raids often drove the settlers out, and during the revolution, the settlers also had to flee during the Runaway Scrape. In 1836, right after the Texas Revolution, a fort was constructed at what is now Little River by rangers under the direction of George B. Erath. (See Little River Fort)
The presence of the fort helped draw more settlers, most of whom were from Nashville, Tennessee, and the area became known as the Tennessee Valley. Despite the presence of the Little River Fort, the settlers’ tenancy was tenuous due to continuing Indian raids. These raids culminated in three battles during the late 1830s, in which rangers garrisoned at the fort engaged with the more dangerous tribes. These battles helped push the tribes out, and European diseases decimated many others among the Indian populations. By the 1840s, the time of Indians dominance was at an end, though skirmishes with the Comanches continued into the early 1870s.
Regardless of the youth of the civilization in the area, the Republic of Texas founded Baylor Female College—now the University of Mary Hardin Baylor—in Belton in 1845. Five years later, the area was officially designated as Bell County, and its population stood at 660. But with the departure of the Indians and the dangers they posed to settlers, the population blossomed, and by 1860, it had grown to 4,799, most of whom came from Eastern Texas and the Southern States.
Surprisingly, the county did not heavily rely on a plantation economy, and most farms were generally small, with cotton and corn being the main crops. However, a serious drought in the mid 1850s seriously damaged agriculture, and much of the land was then converted to pastureland, with cattle and sheep becoming the major export.
The Civil War brought economic hardship and social unrest, and Union sympathizers had to retreat to northern Bell County at a place called “Camp Safety” to avoid being lynched. After the war, with the economy in disarray, lawlessness dramatically increased, and corruption, racial divides, and family and faction feuding wracked the county. The violence grew so bad that federal troops had to be stationed in Belton. The violence reached a peak on May 25, 1874, when a vigilante mob broke into the Belton jail and killed eight men accused of horse thievery and a ninth accused of murder.
Map of Bell County by the Texas General Land office in 1879. (Source: Portal to Texas History)
Bell County Courthouse. Source: Bing Images)
But things eventually settled out as farmers and ranchers in the county rebuilt their respective industries. The former was boosted by a boom in cotton during the post-war years, and corn, wheat, oats, and other food crops filled in the gaps. The latter was bolstered by a major feeder of the Chisholm Trail that entered the county near Prairie Dell, ran through the center of Salado and eastern edge of Belton, then off north toward Waco. This gave the ranchers a ready means to drive their stock to railheads in Kansas and Missouri.
Immigration from the Southern states continued, and was the largest single population driver until 1880. Prior to that, the foreign-born population was a mere 84 out of a little more than 20,000, but a large influx of Europeans—primarily Germans, Czechs, and Austrians—caused a dramatic increase in the population. By 1900, the population had more than doubled.
The coming of the railroads in 1881 gave farmers and ranchers a more ready way to ship their products. The first railroad in the region was the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway. Initially, the rail company wanted to site its headquarters in Belton, but property values were too high there, and the city wouldn’t lower the rates for the rail company. In response, the rail company bought land to the northeast and established its headquarters there. Around it grew the new town of Temple, which, by 1890, eclipsed Belton in both population and economic importance.
Surface roads also became more important. In 1935, there were nearly 12,000 automobiles in the county, but roads were poor until large road-improvement projects initiated in 1930 resulted in the blacktopping of major roads, facilitating travel throughout the county. However, some major roads or routes did not see completion until the late 1970s.
The Great Depression and predations by the boll weevil seriously damaged Bell County’s economy through the 1930s, and with the collapse of cotton, farmers turned to other crops, such as corn, sorghum, and wheat, while livestock raising took up much of the economic slack. Poultry raising also became a major resource. Other resources in the county, mostly toward the west, are limestone, oil and gas, sand and gravel, and dolomite.
Today, Killeen, lying about 30 miles west of Temple, is now even larger than Temple, having received definite population and economic boosts in 1942 with the establishment the U.S. Army installation Fort Hood, the western part of which lies in Coryell County. The site was chosen due to the presence of wide open spaces with a variety of terrain needed to test and train troops for World War II tank destroyers. Now Fort Hood covers 214,000 acres, making it one of the largest military bases in the free world by area. Its more than 45,000 assigned soldiers and 8,900 civilian employees also make it one of the most populous. Only Fort Bliss is larger in area, and only Fort Benning is more numerous in personnel.
Suburbanization of the county followed during the decade after WWII. With the Cold War in swing, Fort Hood continued to provide strong economic support for the Killen area, and the growth of the rail system, manufacturing, and important regional medical facilities in Temple solidified the economy there. However, the county also has seen more than its share of mass shootings: the Luby Cafeteria shooting of October 16, 1991, which killed 23 and wounded 20 others; the Fort Hood shooting of November 5, 2009, which killed 13 people and wounded 30; and the second Fort Hood shooting of April 2, 2014, which resulted in three deaths and 16 injured.
Bell County currently boasts a population of a little more than 350,000.