History of Texas Counties

The origin of Texas county government can be found in "municipality," the local unit of government under Spanish and Mexican rule. The municipalities were large areas embracing one or more settlements and the surrounding rural territory. In 1821, there were four major Spanish settlements in Texas—San Antonio, Bahía (Goliad), Nacogdoches, and the Rio Grande Valley—and three areas of light settlement and ranching and four major roads.

Prior to the revolution of Texas against Mexico, there was no political subdivision at the county level. In 1835, Texas was divided into departments and municipalities. Three departments were established—Bexar, Brazos and Nacogdoches—along with 23 municipalities.

Under the new Republic in 1836, the 23 municipalities became counties. When Texas became a state in 1845, there were 36 counties.

Under the state constitution of 1845, county government varied little from that under the Republic. The only major change was one that made all county offices elective positions.

When Texas entered the Confederacy in 1861 and adopted a new state constitution, there were 122 counties.

Ten years after Reconstruction from the Civil War, the Constitution of 1876 was adopted. It is the present state constitution and contains much detail concerning the governmental organization of the county. The number of counties increased steadily until there were 254 counties in 1931.

The Function of Texas County Government

Today there are 254 counties serving the needs of more than 26 million Texans. The counties range in size from just under 100 residents to more than three million.
Major responsibilities include building and maintaining roads, constructing and operating jails; operating the judicial system; maintaining public records; collecting property taxes; issuing vehicle registration and transfers; and registering voters; proving emergency management services, providing health and safety services.

Increasingly, county governments are playing a vital role in the economic development of their local areas.

About Texas County Officials

County officials are your neighbors – they pay the same taxes you pay and drive the same roads you drive. It’s a good system that leaves your neighbors in charge of the decisions that determine how much you pay in taxes to support the your roads, your court system, your local criminal law enforcement and your public records, including the records establishing ownership of property and the records that tell your family’s story, documenting its births, its marriages and its deaths.

A fundamental fact of life for county officials is that they live in a fishbowl. All of the records and meetings of governmental bodies are available for public inspection and, if residents do not go to the meetings, they can find the county official in the grocery store, or at church or at the café. People talk a lot about transparency; county officials live it. County government not only is government by the people and for the people, it is government among the people.

Nothing we say in these brief summaries can convey how difficult and complex the work of a county official is, or how encumbered it is by a web of laws, regulations and limitations. Still we hope the information we provide gives you a better understanding of how your county government operates.

In Texas, county government delivers services through a variety of elected officials rather than through one central authority. In order to prevent any one office from having too much authority, the Texas Constitution carefully crafted a system in which none of the county’s elected officials is controlled by any other elected official; they answer only to the voters. The elective offices found in a typical county include the county judge, four county commissioners, the county attorney, the county clerk, the district clerk, the county treasurer, the sheriff, the tax assessor-collector, the justices of the peace and the constables. As a part of the checks and balances system, most counties have a county auditor appointed by the district courts.