McMullen County History

by Renee Pierce Smelley

McMullen County, Texas was created on February 1, 1858 from parts of Bexar, Live Oak and Atascosa Counties, and was named for John McMullen, the Irish Empresario.  McMullen County is located in Southern Texas and is surrounded by Atascosa County to the North, Live Oak County to the East, Duval County to the South, and La Salle County to the West.  In 1858 Yarbrough Bend was the first known settlement in the county and was located in the North-eastern part of the county along a broad curve in the Frio River.  This settlement was named after  John Swanson Yarbrough, one of the first settlers in the county.  Among other family members that settled in the Yarbrough Bend area were John S. Yarbrough's sons Alfred and Dow, and step sons James Tope and John Moore.  Others known to have also settled in Yarbrough Bend were N. H. Walker, Joe Walker and Benjamin Winters.  Later that same year another small settlement, Rio Frio, was started in the central part of the county, located about 10 miles west of Yarbrough Bend where Leoncita Creek met the Frio River.  The first settlers in Frio Rio were Green Holland and his three sons, Warner and E. H. Crain, Dr. George Dilworth, James Lowe, Green Alford and Billy Franklin.  Most of the early settlers were from the southern states and these early settlements on the Texas frontier grew very slowly.

In 1862 the county was organized, but was soon abandoned because of bandit activities in the thicket area during the civil war.  By 1870 Frio Rio had become the main settlement and had taken the name Dogtown.  This settlement was later moved to the Frio River Crossing where Tilden now stands.  There are 2 versions of how the town became known as Dogtown.  One story says that the name derived because area ranchers used dogs to herd cattle and sheep.  The other story, probably legend and not fact, says that Dogtown got its name because drunkn' cowboys had once shot up the town and left an assortment of dead dogs behind.  In the 1870's There were occasional threats of Indian and bandit raids from the west and south.  The "Brasada", or brush country, between the Frio and Nueces Rivers, to the south of Dogtown, was a refuge for bandits, Indians, outlaws, rustlers, gunmen and petty criminals.  During the 1870's a vigilante group was formed to protect the citizens and drive out these fugitives from other parts of the USA and Mexico.  The vigilantes did a great deal of good, but they also hung many innocent men.  If they caught a horse thief or cattle rustler or even someone they just thought to be a suspect of these crimes, they were hanged right then and there.  Some members even used personal grudges to have someone punished.  When the vigilantes were finally disbanded, many honest men breathed a sigh of relief. 


In 1871 John C. Ross, the district clerk of Live Oak County, established the first county court in Dogtown and Dogtown's name was changed to Colfax.  The court met for about five months and was disbanded, because the people in the county refused to use it.  Until 1876 all legal affairs were conducted in Oakville through the Live Oak County Courts.  All records prior to this time are found in Live Oak County and some in Atascosa County.  In 1873 a petition was signed by 153 citizens requesting that the county be organized, but it wasn't until 1877 that the county became officially organized.  In 1877 when the county was officially organized Colfax was formally surveyed and the town's name was changed to Tilden and chosen as the county seat.  The town was named after the 1876 Democratic presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden, then governor of New York, who arrived in town on the stagecoach during his campaign trail to speak to the local citizens.  Mr. Tilden never became president, but lost the presidency to Rutherford B. Hays.


Click the photos for a larger view.

Photo of the Original McMullen County Courthouse.  Click here to view a larger photo.

First McMullen Courthouse

Photo of Dogtown Jail House.  Click to view a larger photo.

Dogtown Jail

Old McMullen College Postcard.  Click to view a larger image.

McMullen College

In January 1877 McMullen County held its first Commissioners Court, officers were elected or appointed and the first McMullen County Courthouse was built.  Some time after the first settlement of Dogtown, "Boothill Cemetery" was started and was officially designated by this early court, but it was abandoned  in favor of Hilltop Cemetery, originally called Graveyard Hill in 1877.  The Dogtown Jail, first county jail, was built in 1880 at a cost of $2,800.  In 1881 the county's first private school, McMullen College, was built and the Masonic Lodge was organized.  In 1883 the First Baptist Church in Tilden was built and in the late 1890's a Catholic church was organized.

In 1930 a new courthouse was erected and still serves as the courthouse today, although there have been some renovations to the building since then.  In 1934, the first 4-H Club was started.  In 1940 electricity was brought to McMullen County and in 1943 the first paved highway was built from Jourdanton in Atascosa County, to Tilden (Hwy. 16).  About this time a water well was drilled on the courthouse square and the first water district was formed.  The first Lions Club was started in 1948, and the Garden Club in 1955.  During the 1960's the Garden Club was changed to the Cenizo Study Club.  In 1977 a bank and health clinic were opened.

Even though Rio Frio has gone through three name changes; Dogtown, Colfax, and Tilden, the town is still often referred to as Dogtown by local citizens. The 1870 census, the first census taken in the county,  shows 39 families were living in the county consisting of 230 people.  By 1980 the population had risen to 701 and by 2000 the US Census Bureau reported that the population of the county was 851.


Bibliography: The Handbook of Texas Online; McMullen County, TX and Tilden, TX. McMullen County History (n.p. McMullen County History Book Committee, 1981). Historic 'Dogtown' Tilden, Texas (A Public/Private Partnership helping to develope a literate and skilled workforce in the Coastal Bend area). McMullen County Texas Historical Marker (Texas Historical Commission, 1964). Yarbrough Bend Texas Historical Marker (Texas Historical Commission, 1968). John Swanson Yarbrough Texas Historical Marker (Texas Historical Commission, 2001). A priest, a poem, a president's brother begot area names (Murphy Givens, Corpus Christi Caller-Times, 2001). McMullen County Quick Facts (US Census Bureau, 2002).



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