Explain Texas Counties to Me

Take a gander at this county map of Texas. I have 2 questions:

  1. What is up with the layout? Look at north Texas and into the panhandle; the counties are so uniform it’s nearly a perfect grid. Check out the first 4 “rows” of counties from the northern tip of the panhandle down…they’re identical!

Now look to the east. Suddenly the map takes on a mosiac quality. The counties are no longer neat 4-sided entities; they take on more globular, polyagonal qualities. And they are angled, as if the counties are attempting to surround something (DFW?) or are being sucked into a black hole.

  1. Why so many small counties (254!), as opposed to fewer large counties (California, by comparision, is made up of only 58 counties)?

Non-Texans demand answers!

Presumably the counties that are in a grid pattern are in a flat area that has few natural boundaries such as mountains and rivers. They also tend to lack people.

But once you get mountains and rivers, you need to draw the boundaries around them.

As for California, most of the county lines were drawn in the 19th century and do a good job of reflecting where people settled after the Gold Rush and such. Some of California’s counties along the Sierra Nevada are almost impassable from the California side of the mountains in the winter. You really need to go through Nevada to get to some of them.

It was roughly decided by land grants and where the most colonists first settled. Where the counties are jumbled is basically where the area was first settled. A lot of the boundaries were determined by early land grants. By the time anybody got around to dividing up the largely unsettled Panhandle area, organization was in effect and the boundaries were more orderly.

This is an overly broad explanation, but Texas history is slightly complex.

You can browse a few of the links Here and maybe figure some more of how and why it’s like it is.

The phenomenon of overly small counties is common to all of the Great Plains states, from North Dakota through Texas. The Plains were settled, and surveyed into counties, by Midwesterners who assumed that they would support population densitites comparable to those back home. Accordingly, counties of roughly 20 miles by 20 miles were deemed appropriate. As it turned out, rainfall on the Plains is insufficient to support anything more than livestock grazing on huge ranches, and the Plains never attained population densitites comparable to the Midwest. Many of the counties have laughably small populations, as for example Loving County on the west Texas plains which has a population of 100.

So in Texas you have large and densely populated east Texas, which deserves a large number of counties, and large and sparsely populated west Texas, which has a large number of counties due to the misplaced optimism of its early settlers. The result = 254 counties.

Traditionally, a county was only large enough so that a man could travel from its farthest edge to the county seat to do business there (voting, filing deeds, etc.) and return home with, ideally, no more than a day’s journey. This was to protect the outlanders from being fleeced in one way or another by those courthouse sharpies.

As the arid West was developed, the land couldn’t support enough outlanders to make them a political force worth protecting.

Also lookup gerrymander

Yes, you might want to look up chinchilla as well, as long as we are looking up words that have absolutely no bearing on the OP.

Well, in fairness, I did consider if the concept of gerrymandering was related to the topic when I typed my inital post, but while gerrymandering is the tactic of dividing up the map into artificial representational districts based on self-serving political goals (link):


That’s really not why Texas came to look as it does:


Like a house that someone started to paint with elaborate trim and rosemalling, but towards the end said to hell with it and slapped on vinyl siding. A related topic to this is how the Civil War was caused by the issue of slave vs. free territory beign added as the West was settled. As Robert Caro points out in his first book on LBJ, geography itself dictated the answer, since the new lands are too arid to support labor-intensive agriculture no more than they can support closely-contained counties. Sute, the land can support grazing, but if you try to use your slaves as cowboys, you have to give them horses and guns, and that’s the last you’ll see of them.

Is that not for congressional districts (either for state or national legislatures)? I realize you could ‘pack’ or ‘dilute’ a population by the county lines, but counties are usually determined before a majority of the population settles, so it would be useless to draw county lines for polical purposes.

Not to mention that political districts are drawn based on the most recent census data, and one district can encompass more than one county, and can also involve parts of counties. See this map for specifics. (Caution: PDF file)


It might have made sense to have odd county lines back in the days when state legislatures would have one chamber based on counties instead of population, but I don’t know that any state consciously ever did that.

In California, where there are more counties in the northern half than the southern half, the State Senate was dominated by northern interests for much of the 19th Century. Until the 1960s, I believe that Los Angeles County, which probably had 4-5 million people, received just one or two state senators.

Southern California counties are all pretty big, including the nation’s largest, San Bernardino.

Exactly. Gerrymandering is the grouping of (already established) counties into voting districts. It has nothing to do with the formation of county lines.

I don’t have a cite handy, I would have thought the * Handbook of Texas* link would have some answers, but it’s been my understanding that the jumbled-up SE part of the state is where people were concentrated and settled back even when Texas was part of Mexico, and those boundaries were made up from land ownership and population densities rather than geometric precision. After a central state goverment was established, the rest of the mostly unpopulated parts of the state were divided in a much more organized manner and the un-organized looking county lines were just kept as they were.

Even today, the jumbled-up part of Texas is felt to be “real Texas” or “original Texas”, where the organized part is more of a red-headed stepchild.

There is an occasional historical connection between county boundaries and gerrymandering, since county boundaries almost always doubled as legislative district boundaries in the Nineteenth Century and in some cases into the Twentieth. The particulars varied from state to state, and within a state over time.

For example, the antebellum Georgia Constitution allowed the legislature to create new counties, and guaranteed each county at least one state House member. This is the reason why Georgia has so many small counties–the Legislature would divide friendly counties in half to increase their representation.

The limitations of this process for gerrymandering should be noted–because counties, unlike modern House districts, have real-world significance, it wasn’t easy to move land from one county to another. The most the legislature could do was usually to split a county in half. Or, existing counties could be regrouped into friendlier districts.

In any case, this was not a factor in county proliferation in Texas. The postwar Texas Constitutions of 1869 and 1876 specified that sparsely populated counties would be aggregated into state House and Senate districts, so creating new counties didn’t automatically increase representation.

You’re missing the real scandal in Texas. Yes, we have 254 counties, but the real question is why do we have over 1100 public school districts.

For about 15 years, the panhandle area was “Young’s Territory” and it was nearly rectangular in shape. In 1876 or so, about 50 counties were formed from it, the same year IIRC.

The county lines in the SE were influenced by the settlement patterns of the earlier Mexican towns.

Barring natural features like mountains and rivers, county boundaries through much of the midwest tend to be retangular, due to surveying techniques.

California has only 985 school districts and still a sizeably larger population than Texas.

Presumably Texas has more separate school districts for elementary and high school than California does. And the size of Texas plays a factor too I imagine.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is bigger than the City of Los Angeles. It actually includes other cities.

Presumably school districts in Texas are established by the State, not the local governments.

I will revive this thread some 18 years later, rather than opening a new one. Some of my possible questions were answered, but some not.

Texas - with its 254 counties, ranging from Harris county (Houston) with 4.5 million people, to Loving county, with 57 or 83 people - depending on what source you use. Half of the counties have populations of 20,000 or less.

Does each county have to maintain and staff its county seat’s courthouse? Suppose someone commits a crime in Loving county. Are they tried there? Would a jury have to be selected from the 57 residents?
Why not redefine the county borders and cut down on the numbers (and/or add counties to the large cities)? Has any state redefined its county borders (or can they legally do so)?

That would depend on state law.
If a Federal case, the only requirement is that the jurors are from the same district and state as the crime occurred (see Yellowstone Zone of Death)

“Bexar” is pronounced “bear”. Just FYI.

Loving county:

Here is a picture of the county offices:


and the staff:


I note the sheriff and the tax assessor/collector are the same person.