"Why does Texas have so many counties? A history lesson." was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, made news this summer for achieving a long-held goal in his campaign for U.S. Senate — visiting all of Texas’ 254 counties.
That’s a lot of travel time, and the news made us — and our readers — wonder why Texas has so many counties. Texas is the second-largest state in both area and population, but it has 95 more counties than any other state.
Georgia, with 159, has the second most. Delaware, with three, has the fewest. California, which has the largest population, has just 58 counties.
So why does Texas have so many?
Basically, Texas is big, and the state's founders wanted to keep its local governments small. In the state’s early days — Texas became a state in 1845 — Texans needed to be close to those local governments, which were responsible for courts, jails, schools and roads, said lawyer David Brooks, who specializes in Texas county government.
Brooks said counties needed to be small enough that residents could travel to and from their courthouse in a day on horseback to do business. Most farmers couldn’t afford to take more than one day off to travel to the county seat.
As the state expanded throughout the years and the population increased, the number of counties did, too. The earliest counties in Texas history were called municipios and date back to Spanish rule, according to the Texas Association of Counties. There were 23 municipios in what’s now the southeastern part of the state.
Texas became independent in 1836, and the municipios became counties. As settlers moved west, Texas added 14 new counties in under 10 years. When Texas joined the United States, the number of counties went from 37 to 67.
When Texas sold land to the United States as part of the Compromise of 1850, another nine counties were added. By 1860, there were 152 counties in the state.
Growth slowed during the Civil War and picked up again after Reconstruction, according to Kathryn Siefker, curator at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.
The Constitution of 1876, which is what much of Texas state law today is based on, set requirements for Texas counties. New counties had to be at least 900 square miles and, whenever possible, laid out like a grid.
Land known as the Young Territory in the Panhandle plains was split into 54 counties that year, which is why northwest Texas counties are squares and rectangles. The borders of older counties in the southern part of the state follow natural boundaries such as water basins, Brooks said.
During the end of the 19th century, Texas’ larger counties in the western part of the state were split into smaller units as the population grew.
“They found it would be better to go smaller or increase the amount of counties,” Siefker said.
The state’s last county, Loving County, was added in 1931.
The bottom line: Texas has 254 counties because it’s so big — with about 28 million people and over 268,00 square miles, it’s the second largest state in both population and area. Texans followed a guideline that no one should be more than a day’s travel from their courthouse, keeping the counties relatively small.
Disclosure: The Texas Association of Counties and the Bullock Texas State History Museum have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.