Museum & Visitor Center of the Bastrop County Historical Society
904 Main Street, Bastrop, Texas 78602
Museum (512) 303-0057
Visitor Center (512) 303-0904
Open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm
The History of Bastrop County, Texas
The following history of Bastrop County is taken from The New Handbook of Texas published by the Texas State Historical Association
The McCormick site near McDade has produced archeological evidence of human life in the area during the Neo-American period, a thousand years ago. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Tonkawa Indians inhabited the area and Comanche Indians came to hunt along the river each autumn.
El Camino de los Tejas
With an early road between Nacogdoches and San Antonio running through the region, in 1804 Spanish governor Manuel Antonio Cordero y Bustamante established a fort at the Colorado River crossing where the City of Bastrop now stands.
The “Royal Road,” El Camino Real de los Tejas, connected a series of Spanish missions and posts, from Mexico City to Los Adaes (first capital of the Texas province), now in northwestern Louisiana. Routes used by Spanish explorers that became the camino real followed established Indian trails and trade routes; the road’s development had irreversible impacts on the native people of Texas and Louisiana. It linked unconnected cultural and linguistic groups, and served as an agent for cultural diffusion, biological exchange and communication.
Spanish entradas and the establishment of missions and presidios along the Camino Real routes indicated Spanish claims to the region, part of the larger 17th century power struggle among Spain, France and England to control North America. It served as an agent of change, being a conduit for exploration, trade, migration, settlement and movement of livestock.
The camino real provided access to armies on the move for more than 150 years, including Spanish, French, Mexican, Republic of Texas, and American – and helped determine the southern and western boundaries of the United States and Mexico. Thousands of American immigrants into Texas arrived via a section of the camino real known as the San Antonio Road. Their presence and activities led to revolt against Mexico, and to Texas independence and eventual statehood.
Use of El Camino Real de los Tejas fostered the mix of Spanish and Mexican traditions, laws, and cultures with those of America, resulting in a rich legacy reflected in the people, natural and built landscapes, place names, languages, music and arts of Louisiana and Texas today.
We do know that El Camino Real came through Bastrop; however, we are just now beginning our work to chart the actual river crossings.
The Baron de Bastrop Philip Hendrick Nering-Bogel, known as the “Baron de Bastrop” planned a German community at the site, but it was not until after Stephen F. Austin obtained a grant for a "Little Colony" from the Mexican government in 1827 that settlement began. The Baron died in 1829. Pioneers met with intense Indian resistance, but by 1830 the town of Bastrop, named for the Baron, had been founded and settlers from Austin's lower colonies were clearing farms over the southern portion of the county. In 1831 Austin received a second land grant; the two grants, Mina Municipality, took in almost all of what is now Bastrop County. The district was presumably named in honor of Spanish general Francisco Xavier Mina. In 1834, the vast municipality, comprising all or part of sixteen present-day counties, was established by the government of Coahuila and Texas, and the town of Bastrop also took the name Mina. When Texas became a republic, Mina Municipality assumed its place as one of twenty-three original counties. In 1837 the Congress of the Republic of Texas changed the county name to Bastrop in honor of the Baron and allowed the town to revert to the name as well. Congress also began whittling away at the boundaries of the huge county; in 1840, when Travis County was formed, Bastrop County shrank almost to its present dimensions.
Cotton and Lumber The year 1837 had seen the arrival of slaves and cotton cultivation in the county. Though Bastrop County was never a leader in cotton production, this crop was favored over others for the next 50 years. In 1838 another significant industry began when the Bastrop Steam Mill Company started operation. It initiated Lost Pines lumbering activity that reached a peak in the early 1840s, as Bastrop mills supplied lumber to Austin, San Antonio, Houston and other settlements. Lumber production continued for decades until available timber declined, but agriculture remained the predominant means of making a living. In 1850 the county had a population of 2,180, including 919 slaves. The county produced about 1,500 bales of cotton that year and harvested, in addition, 148,360 bushels of Indian corn and 18,552 bushels of sweet potatoes.
The Bastrop County Courthouse In 1853 a county courthouse was constructed in Bastrop to replace the rented building that had been serving the purpose. The next year 23 common-school districts were reported in the county. Settlement was spreading through the southern two-thirds of the county, with many immigrants arriving from the southern United States. In addition, hundreds of German emigrants were joining the Americans or establishing their own communities, such as Grassyville. Between 1850 and 1860 the population of Bastrop County more than tripled, reaching 7,006, with 2,248 slaves making up almost a third of the total and foreign-born residents totaling 700. The county had 596 farms in 1860, and the livestock trade was growing; the number of cattle increased from about 12,000 in 1850 to over 40,000 in 1860. Six churches were reported in an 1860 survey: two Methodist, two Lutheran, one Christian and one Baptist. Despite the fact that the county possessed a large slave population and a growing cotton economy, Bastrop County residents voted 352 to 335 against secession, but they rallied for the Confederate cause, arming and equipping military companies and providing for soldiers' families. Reconstruction brought tensions similar to those experienced across the South, with racial confrontations flaring around the community of Cedar Creek. In 1870 Bastrop County's population topped 11,000, and it had 34 manufacturing establishments. The following year brought a further stimulus to growth in the form of the Houston and Texas Central Railway, completed through the northern part of the county to connect Austin and Brenham. Towns soon sprang up along the railroad, the most substantial being Elgin. Now many farmers had a freight outlet for their harvests of corn and cotton. In 1874 Bastrop County assumed its present size with the establishment of Lee County. Nine years later, the Bastrop County Courthouse burned and a new one, still in use more than 100 years later, was built. Further railroad development occurred in the 1880s and 1890s, when the Taylor, Bastrop and Houston Railway connected the Bastrop County towns of Smithville and Bastrop with Lockhart, Waco, San Antonio, and Houston. In 1894 the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad, which had taken over the Taylor, Bastrop and Houston route, selected Smithville as the site of its central shops. This move soon made the community rival Bastrop and Elgin in size.
The Turn of the Century Bastrop County had 26,845 residents and was still primarily agricultural, with a peak number of farms (3,509) and peak production of cotton (41,730 bales) reported in the 1900 census. In this year the county also reported its largest number of manufacturing establishments, though the 87 concerns employed only 293 people. The discovery of oil in the county in 1913 led to years of oil testing and drilling at various sites. The pool found at the Yost farm four miles east of Cedar Creek in 1928 was representative of those discovered–productive but unspectacular. In the 1920s, however, oil was not the only resource being developed. County coal belts were being mined, with the Winfield mines providing lignite to various state institutions. Clay deposits around Elgin were making the town the "Brick Capital of the Southwest," and the lumber industry around Bastrop was reviving. At the same time, changes were occurring in Bastrop County agriculture. Farmers had continued to raise corn and cotton primarily, and 1920 was a peak year for corn, with almost a million bushels harvested. Although most of the county's cultivated land was still set aside for cotton, the county picked only 14,250 bales that year. A farm depression that began in 1920 forced changes in land use, with greater agricultural diversification and increased cattle production. The 1920s farm depression was followed by the general economic depression of the 1930s. The number of farms in Bastrop County dropped between 1920 and 1940 from 3,325 to 2,473, and farm value decreased from over $17 million to $7,246,372. Population, too, was sliding. In 1920 the county reported a population of 26,649. In 1940 the population was 21,610.
The World War II Era The World War II years brought an acceleration in cattle production and an economic upsurge for Bastrop, Elgin and other communities. After much lobbying by the Texas members of the House and Senate, Camp Swift was chosen in July of 1941 to be one of the 14 new military camps to be built. However, in September of that year, Lyndon B. Johnson announced that, due to lack of funds, the camps would probably never be built. It took the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 to force the building of the camp. Fifty-two thousand acres were purchased for the construction of the camp. It was located 28 miles due east of Austin, Texas, halfway between Bastrop and Elgin. The general topography of the site’s 52,000 acres was hilly uplands and flat lowlands. In June of 1942, Camp Swift opened its doors to the first troops. Camp Swift was bordered by Highways 95, 21 and 290, seven miles north of Bastrop in Bastrop County. It initially had 2,750 buildings designed to accommodate 44,000 troops. The camp was named after Major General Eben Swift, a World War I commander and author. During World War II it reached a maximum strength of 90,000 troops and included, at different times, the 95th, 97th and 102nd Infantry Divisions, the 10th Mountain Division, the 116th and 120th Tank Destroyer battalions and the 5th Headquarters, Special Troops, of the Third Army. Swift was the largest army training and transshipment camp in Texas. It also housed 3,865 German prisoners of war. The war also drew residents off farms to work in war plants, and many did not come back. In the late 1940s, Bastrop County faced an economic decline. Camp Swift was phased out, the coal mines were closed, and lumbering had exhausted the remaining commercial timber. Cotton cultivation occupied only one-sixth its 1920 acreage. After the war, much of the site was returned to former owners. The government retained 11,700 acres as a military reservation. (This land now houses parts of the Texas National Guard, a medium-security federal prison and a University of Texas Cancer Research Center. Environmental-impact studies and development plans for the mining of extensive lignite deposits under Camp Swift began in the 1970s. On April 21, 2007, the Texas Army National Guard officially opened the 136th Combat Arms Training Regiment and Texas National Guard Training Center of Excellence at Camp Swift. The economic impact to the area is projected to be $5,000,000 annually.) The remaining farmers began diversifying. Sorghum was being produced in large quantities, watermelons were a significant cash crop, and increasing crops of peanuts and pecans were being produced. In 1950 alone, Bastrop County farmers harvested 1,719,200 pounds of peanuts. More significantly, the number of cattle in the county had grown to 41,529 in 1950 as agricultural emphasis shifted from crop production to the beef-cattle trade and more land was set aside for pasture. Only 14 manufacturing establishments employing 387 workers were reported in the county in 1947; the steadiest industry was probably brick and tile manufacturing at Elgin, where two large plants were operating in the 1940s, to be joined by a third in the 1950s.
The 1960s to Present Day Bastrop County population continued to decline, hitting a low of 16,925 in 1960. The number of farms continued to decline as well, reaching a low of 1,029 in 1969. But by then, population was gradually rising. The number of cattle continued to rise, too, with 68,769 reported in that year. The beef industry remained strong through the 1970s and early 1980s, with 70,066 cattle reported in the 1982 census. But pasturelands were being taken over by suburban development as the growth of nearby Austin produced growth as well in Elgin, Bastrop and such smaller communities as Cedar Creek and Red Rock. By 1980 the county population had risen to 24,726 and was soon to surpass the 1900 high of 26,845. The county population in 1990 was 38,263. In 1982 the county reported 1,507 farms. Over one-third of these were producing hay; 97 were harvesting nuts and fruits, while only 28 were producing vegetables for sale. In the same year, the county had 28 manufacturing establishments employing 700 workers. Wages paid were over $9.5 million, and product value was almost forty million dollars. Industries ranged from two brick plants still operating in Elgin to an oil-well supply in Bastrop. Both towns had furniture plants. Bastrop had a tourist industry stimulated by historical preservation efforts and by the proximity of Lake Bastrop and Bastrop and Buescher State parks. In the early 1990s, residents of Bastrop County were coping with the challenges of growth brought on by the suburban development of nearby Austin and were seeking further opportunities for agricultural and industrial diversification. From the 1970s to present day, scenes in more than 30 movies have been filmed in Bastrop County, from “Hope Floats,” starring Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick, Jr. to “Fireflies in the Garden,” starring Julia Roberts and Ryan Reynolds. “Bernie,” starring Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine, featured the Bastrop County Courthouse and Old County Jail. “Tree of Life,” filmed primarily in Smithville, stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. “When Angels Sing” stars Harry Connick, Jr., Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett and Kris Kristofferson and features the 1914 E.S. Orgain House in Bastrop. In September 2011, Bastrop County experienced a wildfire which burned 36,000 acres including 95 percent of Bastrop State Park, 1,700 homes and property valued approximately $265 million. It was deemed the most destructive fire in Texas history. In turn, volunteers from across the country came to help. The fire, thankfully, did not reach the nearby historic cities of Bastrop or Smithville.