The History of Texas Counties: How Were They Formed?

Learn about how counties were formed in Texas and their history under Spanish rule, Mexican rule, and after gaining independence from Mexico.

The History of Texas Counties: How Were They Formed?

Texas counties have a long and interesting history, rooted in Spanish law and the history of the Republic of Texas. When the Republic of Texas gained independence in 1836, the 23 municipalities that had been established under Spanish and Mexican rule became the first counties in Texas. The Texas Legislature is responsible for creating counties, which are considered legally organized after a county seat has been established and a court of commissioners has been elected and established. Rockwall County is an example of a county that was created from Kaufman County in 1873 due to poor access to the former seat of Kaufman County.

It is the smallest county in Texas, with 149 square miles. When the Republic of Texas was established, the boundaries of existing municipalities as new counties were vague and not well defined. Counties formed from those already organized had to be at least 700 square miles in size and no parent county could be reduced to less than that minimum. Once Texas became a state in 1845, the new Texas Constitution stipulated that no existing county could be reduced to less than 900 square miles without the consent of a two-thirds majority of the Legislature.

Brewster County in West Texas is the largest at 5,935 square miles, three times the size of Delaware and more than 500 square miles larger than Connecticut. When Texas sold land to the United States as part of the Compromise of 1850, nine other counties were added. In some cases, the Republic or later the State of Texas imposed the name of the new county, while in others, no one knows with certainty how the county got its name. At least 32 counties established by Texas law no longer exist, since they disappeared due to changes in the Texas constitution, and were eliminated because of their designation as judicial counties or because of political party disputes during the Reconstruction after the Civil War.

The Constitution of 1876, which is what much of today's Texas state legislation is based on, established requirements for Texas counties. During 1876, the Texas Legislature created 4 new counties in the Panhandle and the lower plains of West Texas in anticipation of growth as railroad construction spread throughout the region and had an almost square boundary configuration. This Constitution also stated that new counties of less than 900 square miles could not be formed from unorganized land, and that these counties should be as square as possible. The first counties in Texas history were called municipalities and date back to Spanish rule, according to the Texas Association of Counties. The Congress of the Republic of Texas established Bowie County to include the entire region that stretched from Texarkana to Wichita Falls and from the Red River south to Longview in a north-south direction.

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