Nomadic Coahuiltecan Indians inhabited the region for 11,000 years. The Karankawa Indians lived along the coast. Willacy County is in the area of Texas first known to white men. In 1519 the coast was mapped and named Amichel by Alonzo Álvarez de Pineda. In the 1530s it was crossed by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. In 1554 a fleet of twenty ships was wrecked on South Padre Island, which is within the borders of Willacy County. The area of the county was under the jurisdiction of Nuevo Santander, and a survey was made as early as July 1790. Extant records show that three land grants were made in the Willacy County area by the Spanish and Mexican governments. The earliest Spanish land grant was El Agostadero de San Juan Carricitos, made to José Narciso Cabazos on February 22, 1792. Cabazos immediately settled the land and stocked his ranch with 900 cattle; his grant contained more than a half million acres and included much of the area of future Willacy County and parts of Hidalgo and Kenedy counties. Two other land grants in the Willacy County area were made to Vicente de Ynojosa by Spain in 1798. At the time a salt lake known as La Sal Vieja supplied all of the area of what is now South Texas and northern Mexico with salt. When Cabazos died he left his property to his heirs, who kept the land under their control until about 1811, when hostile Indians drove them off. Indians were a problem for those grantees farthest away from the river. In 1821 a trade road was built from Matamoros through the future Willacy County to San Patricio. The county area fell within the territory between the Rio Grande and Nueces River, disputed after the Texas Revolution. Gen. Zachary Taylor crossed the Arroyo Colorado at Paso Real when he was in the area during the Mexican War. The route he took to cross the lower Rio Grande valley became known as "General Taylor's Road" to area residents. This road and the Old San Antonio Road west of La Sal Vieja were the only routes overland into the lower Rio Grande valley. During the Civil War Paso Real became an important crossing point for Confederate cotton exports. When federal coastal blockades cut off imports and exports for the entire South, this road moved cotton down to Matamoros, where it was exchanged for guns, ammunition, medicines, cloth, shoes, blankets, and other vital goods. When Philip H. Sheridan reached the area with his cavalry in May 1865, he quipped, "If I possessed both Texas and Hell, I'd rent out Texas and live in Hell."
Oranges were introduced to the Willacy County area by a ranchman named Cantú, who brought seeds from Montemorelos, Nuevo León, to his ranch near La Sal Vieja around 1886. Ranching was introduced to the region in the early nineteenth century by Spanish settlers. The Ballí family was particularly successful in this enterprise. The few nineteenth-century Anglo settlers in the area socialized and intermarried with the leading Hispanic families, learned Spanish, and joined the Catholic Church. Most of these new settlers were welcomed by the ranchers in the region. The real surge of Anglo settlement came after the building of the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway into the lower Valley in 1904. Close behind the tracks came the land promoters, who worked enthusiastically to convert pastures to plowed fields. Among them were W. A. Harding, Samuel Lamar Gill, Uriah Lott, and Adam Davidson. The Gulf Coast Irrigation Company, the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Kleberg Town and Improvement Company, and the Rock Island line also participated in settling the area. The railroad companies, more aggressive than land promoters, bought large tracts of land, subdivided them, and sold them to customers they recruited elsewhere. Magazines, pamphlets, and brochures with photographs of the happy and easy life that awaited the new settler in the area were scattered throughout the Mississippi valley. Between 1905 and 1910, on the first and third Tuesday of the month, prospective farmers could purchase thirty-day round-trip tickets from St. Louis and Kansas for twenty dollars and from Chicago for twenty-five. The excursions would take them to investigate the possibilities of the "Magic Valley." They bought land, settled in communities planned by ranchers or land developers, chose the most profitable cash crop that could be cultivated, and began to recruit Mexican day laborers.
In 1911 Willacy County was formed from Cameron and Hidalgo counties; the county seat was Sarita. Milt White introduced the Bermuda onion to Willacy County in 1912, and it gradually became the most important crop. As late as 1920 the county still had no paved roads, and La Sal Vieja was still supplying the area with salt. The region that is now Willacy County had become Anglo territory by the early 1920s. Its population was 1,032 in 1920 and 4,515 in 1930. Unlike their nineteenth-century predecessors, the newcomers who poured into the area after 1904 had no inclination to learn Tejano customs or become incorporated in the older culture. Labor and race relations changed as the new Anglo farmers attributed the widespread poverty of the region to a lack of industriousness and ambition on the part of Mexican laborers. County officials forbade Mexicans from holding dances and fiestas, kept them under surveillance, and passed laws making Willacy County dry. Race relations worsened during the raids of the early 1900s.
As more settlers came in from northern states and transformed ranches to farms, ranchers (early white settlers) sided against farmers (newcomers); the division led to the reorganization of the county. The original Willacy County extended along the coast from the Nueces River to Cameron County. When reorganization occurred in 1921, the ranching area in the northern regions of the county became Kenedy County, and a small strip of land on the southern border was made the new Willacy County. John Gregory Kenedy donated a strip of land 1.42 miles wide across the southern border of Kenedy County, and the east line of the county was moved to include part of South Padre Island. Raymondville was chosen as the county seat, amid much protest from Lyford residents. The first county judge of the reorganized Willacy County was Samuel Lamar Gill. By the early 1930s farmers were in control of the area. Relations between Anglos and Mexicans became even more antagonistic during the late 1920s, as evidenced by the Raymondville peonage cases of 1927, which showed that Mexicans were controlled by the Anglo minority and that the caste system of the early-nineteenth-century ranches was preserved in the social structure of the twentieth century. At the time, the county also had laws regulating the travel of Mexicans, aimed particularly at laborers, who were not allowed to travel within or outside of the county if they did not have signed passes. Cases like the murder of Tomás Núñez indicate that race relations were very tense. Allegedly, Núñez, his two sons, and two other men were killed because they were thought to have murdered two county peace officers. In July 1927 the Arroyo Colorado Navigation District of Cameron and Willacy counties was formed. Willacy County subsequently became famous for its onions and held an annual onion festival with the slogan, "The Breath of a Nation." The Willamar oilfield was brought in in Willacy County in 1940. As early as 1940 a migrant labor camp operated near Raymondville, where farmers would hire seasonal laborers to pick their crops. A chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens was formed in Raymondville on June 12, 1941. By May 1946, Willacy County had 200 wells producing in three oilfields.
Cattle had continued to grow in importance through the Mexican period and the Civil War, when the area had an economic boom due to the Union blockade. Two innovations in the transport of cattle helped to strengthen the industry in South Texas. During the 1870s the Chisholm Trail was blazed ran from Brownsville to Kansas, and in 1906 railroad lines were completed to Brownsville. The county had 14,210 cattle in 1920, and the number fluctuated from 1930 to 1945, when it was 23,296. After that, cattle declined to 12,783 in 1954 and rebounded to 18,533 in 1964. Other important livestock included hogs and poultry. Since its reorganization, Willacy County's main industry has been agriculture. In 1925, 413 farms covered 74,995 acres; by 1930 the number of farms had increased to 814 with 259,783 acres. The main crops produced in 1930 were corn, sorghum, cotton, and potatoes. In 1936 George S. Trout received permission to grow hemp plants and purchased land near Raymondville, where he established a hemp-products factory. Unfortunately, his business failed, when in mid-1937 it was discovered that his crops were being stolen and sold as marijuana. In February 1938 the county was producing 1,000 to 1,200 cases of Bermuda onions and 15,000 bales of cotton annually and supporting seventeen gins. The number of farms steadily increased to 1,052 in 1945, when the primary crops remained the same, though onions had become the county's best-known product. The farms grew in size and shrank in number, from 946 in 1950 to 550 in 1969. Sorghum production increased from 389,750 pounds in 1950 to 5,278,875 pounds in 1969, while cotton production decreased from 110,043 bales to 50,492 bales. Citrus fruit culture became important. In 1980 county farms comprised 287,000 acres, of which 164,000 acres was planted in crops. In 1982, 322 farms harvested 1,441,100 acres, and 200,000 boxes of grapefruit and 208,000 boxes of oranges were grown in Willacy County. An estimated 13,000 cattle were being raised in the county that year.
Willacy County had a population of 10,499 in 1930 and 20,920 in 1950. After that, the population remained about the same until 1970, when it was 15,570. By 1982 the decline that had occurred between 1960 and 1970 was reversed, and the population increased to an estimated 18,112 before falling slightly to 17,705 in 1990. The major communities in the county in 1990 included Raymondville, Lyford, Sebastian, and Port Mansfield. During the twentieth century Willacy County has changed from a predominantly Anglo population to a predominantly Mexican-American population. In 1920, 99 percent of the population was white, but by 1930 only 43 percent was white. In the 1980s Willacy County ranked thirteenth among all United States counties in the highest percentage of residents of Hispanic origin. From the county's reorganization in 1921 through 1992 the majority of Willacy County residents voted Democratic in presidential elections, with the exception of 1952, 1956, and 1972. There are three airports in the county, and waterborne commerce is served by Port Mansfield. Recreation facilities in the county include Padre Island National Seashore. The Texas Tropical Trail runs through Willacy County. Hunting opportunities are extensive. Special events include the Willacy County Livestock Show, the Our Little Miss Rio Grande Valley Pageant, the Sidewalk Art Show, the Port Mansfield Fishing Tournament, and the Winter Fun Festival. In the early 1990s the descendants of Spanish land grantees of Willacy County in the Asociacíon de Reclamantes were involved in a suit against the Mexican government for the loss of property and money allegedly resulting from government negligence.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Frank Cushman Pierce, Texas' Last Frontier: A Brief History of the Lower Rio Grande Valley (Menasha, Wisconsin: Banta, 1917; rpt., Brownsville: Rio Grande Valley Historical Society, 1962). Gilberto Rafael and Martha Oppert Cruz, A Century of Service: The History of the Catholic Church in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (Harlingen, Texas: United, 1979). Florence Johnson Scott, Spanish Land Grants in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1939). J. Lee and Lillian J. Stambaugh, The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas (San Antonio: Naylor, 1954).
Alicia A. Garza