The Courthouse Square in Texas

[ Regional/Texas ]

The Courthouse Square in Texas

By Robert E. Veselka

Edited by Kenneth E. Foote

How the layout of courthouse squares reflect the different town-planning traditions that settlers brought to Texas from Europe, Mexico, and the United States.



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6 x 9 | 260 pp. | 108 b&w photos, 32 tables

ISBN: 978-0-292-78736-0

With its dignified courthouse set among shade trees and lawns dotted with monuments to prominent citizens and fallen veterans, the courthouse square remains the civic center in a majority of the county seats of Texas. Yet the squares themselves vary in form and layout, reflecting the different town-planning traditions that settlers brought from Europe, Mexico, and the United States. In fact, one way to trace settlement patterns and ethnic dispersion in Texas is by mapping the different types of courthouse squares.

This book offers the first complete inventory of Texas courthouse squares, drawn from extensive archival research and site visits to 139 of the 254 county seats. Robert Veselka classifies every existing plan by type and origin, including patterns and variants not previously identified. He also explores the social and symbolic functions of these plans as he discusses the historical and modern uses of the squares. He draws interesting new conclusions about why the courthouse square remains the hub of commercial and civic activity in the smaller county seats, when it has lost its prominence in others.

  • Foreword
  1. The Courthouse Square in Texas
  2. From Land Policy to County Seats and Squares
  3. Anglo-American Courthouse Squares
  4. Origins of the Anglo-American Courthouse Squares
  5. Squares Derived from Spanish Precedents and Other Planning Traditions
  6. Origins of Squares Derived from Spanish Precedents and Other Planning Traditions
  7. The Centripetal Role of the Courthouse Square
  8. Symbolism and Social Activity at the Courthouse Square
  9. Afterword
  • Appendix 1. Texas Counties and County Seats
  • Appendix 2. Block Patterns, Features, and Roles of Texas Courthouse Squares
  • Appendix 3. A Note on Sources and Methods
  • Bibliography
  • Index

The county seat exemplifies one of the more self-conscious expressions of American urban design, both spatially and symbolically. The courthouse square was designed explicitly to express community values and to serve as a focal point of community life. Through time, the square often assumed even greater importance as a symbol of a town's social, political, and economic prosperity. For these reasons, the courthouse square offers an interesting window on American town planning traditions and the relationships between these traditions and the social meaning of civic space. Town planning, land use, social activity, and architectural symbolism are interwoven at the square in ways matched by few other elements of American urban design (Figure 1).

Texas, perhaps more than any other state, offers unparalleled opportunities for considering these relationships. The state is divided into 254 counties that range across diverse cultural and physical landscapes (Appendix 1). As the second most populous state in the nation, Texas provides an urban landscape ranging from small towns to major metropolitan areas. Due to its size and period of settlement, Texas reflects many of the same forces that shaped the American urban landscape at large, including a variety of competing town planning traditions, different notions of local government, and complex interactions among diverse cultural groups. As a result of this diverse settlement history, Texas is the only state that employs all major survey and land tenure systems found in the United States, including long-lots, metes and bounds, its own township-and-range system, and irregular rectangular surveys (Arbingast et al. 1976). In addition, Texas is also the only state in the union to have retained ownership of its vast public lands, a significant factor in the state's settlement and later development (McKitrick 1918, 7). During Texas' primary period of settlement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rapid expansion in population and town building led to the increasing importance of county government. Many counties erected elegant and symbolic buildings on their squares. Since many Texas towns were planned and settled during a period of widespread urbanization in America, they provide valuable insight into urbanization and planning processes in a broader national context. In the use of open plazas, some county seats still bear the stamp of early Hispanic influence or the mark of Central European settlers. Others reflect the dominance of Anglo-American planning traditions that favored a central courthouse square. This legacy of diverse cultural elements during a formative period of expanding settlement and the concomitant planning and building of numerous county seats make the Texas courthouse square so valuable for investigation. To explore these issues, this study begins by describing the urban morphology of the state's 254 county seats in terms of block patterns and town planning traditions. Then it examines explicit linkages between built form and social meaning by considering land uses, symbolic features, and social activities concentrated at the courthouse square. These lines of analysis lead to a broader appreciation of the role of the courthouse square in community life, one stressing the centripetal power of the square to attract specific land uses, activities, and civic functions. Just as important, however, are centrifugal factors such as changing economic conditions and population growth that have altered or diminished the square's influence through time. This study benefits from previous research on the courthouse square and, in return, offers the first complete classification of Texas' courthouse squares, including the description of patterns never before discussed in the literature. It departs from previous studies in both scale and focus as well as in its desire to call attention to important connections between civic space and a community's sense of identity. After all, the courthouse square offers an unparalleled opportunity to study how early decisions about urban design shape landscapes and human activity for generations. To set the context for interpretation, it is useful to consider previous studies of courthouse squares and town planning traditions and the settlement history, cultural landscape, urban development, and land policy of Texas.


Albert Demangeon once wrote, "It is permissible to say that the entire history of civilization is reflected in present forms of human establishments" (Demangeon 1962, 506). The geographical perspective adopted in this research subscribes to this view as it has come to be expressed in four interrelated themes in the geographic literature: (1) study of urban morphology and planning; (2) fascination with the landscape as offering clues to the diffusion of cultural groups; (3) concern for the symbolic or social meaning of urban landscapes; and (4) interest in the courthouse square as a uniquely American landscape form. All four themes are addressed in this study, but it is the last that serves as its starting point.

Scholars have long been interested in the architectural and historical significance of the courthouses of individual states (Radoff 1960; Brasseaux, Conrad, and Robinson 1977; Johnson and Andrist 1977; Pare 1978; Santos 1979; Whisenhunt 1979; Jackson 1980; Jordan and Puster 1984; Peet, Keller, and Brink 1984; Perry 1984; Peveto 1984; Hines 1986). Other studies have focused on the courthouse as an important American building type (Handler 1983) and on the competition that took place among towns vying for county seats (Schellenberg 1987). A number of studies have combined architectural analysis of the courthouse proper with concern for the square's physical form (Robinson 1972; Burns 1978). Noting the importance of this relationship, one research team concluded that "the physical prominence and visibility of the courthouse site is crucial in endowing the courthouse itself with significance" (Burns 1978, 84). Studies in Texas have varied greatly in scope and subject, including collections of county histories, photographic essays on courthouses, studies of squares, histories of architectural styles, and analyses of how county seats were selected (Carroll 1943; Coursey 1962; Anderson 1968; Price 1968; Goeldner 1971; Chipley 1985; Jackson 1996).

Of those studies that have focused specifically on the square itself, it is fair to say that their primary interest has been in what has been termed the "central courthouse square" (Pillsbury 1968; Price 1968; Francaviglia 1973; Ohman 1982). This was an idea developed by E. T. Price (1968) in his influential study of the spread of the courthouse square from Pennsylvania to Texas. Central squares were characterized by a prominent courthouse set in a parklike central block created by streets converging on the square and surrounded by a town's major business district (Price 1968, 29). Price was one of the first to attempt a classification scheme for major prototypes, and his terminology is still used by researchers today.

Two interesting studies that included Texas county seats were based on Price's original classification of central courthouse squares. One interdisciplinary project analyzed squares in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas. That study surveyed 137 county seats in Texas and identified 73 central courthouse squares (Aikins et al. 1971). In addition, the researchers conducted interviews with local residents that allowed them to identify over one hundred features that influence a square's use and role. The depth of information collected was impressive, but only ten Texas squares were studied in detail. The results of this research suggested clear connections between courthouse architecture, urban morphology, and a central focus on the square. T. G. Jordan (Arbingast et al. 1976, 42) conducted a far more extensive survey of Texas courthouse squares that concentrated exclusively on central squares. Jordan's work considerably expanded the available information for Texas. His study located 136 "traditional" squares, so-called because they were based on known prototypes of central courthouse squares. He found another 64 county seats to be "lacking a true courthouse square"--that is, they did not fit the traditional patterns identified by Price. A group of 54 county seats was listed as "undetermined" due to lack of data, and a further 19 were described as "uncertain" (Arbingast et al. 1976, 42).

Together these studies resulted in the classification of roughly half of the state's county seats. As many as 137 sites remained unclassified or unconfirmed. Because these previous studies targeted traditional central courthouse squares, very little attention focused on squares derived from other planning traditions. The present work serves to redress this situation by studying all 254 Texas county seats. Archival research and site visits to 139 county seats were used to collect data on town plans as well as to gather information on courthouse architecture and on social activities, monuments, and memorials located at the square.

This book employs the nomenclature of earlier courthouse square studies where possible, but develops new terms to identify previously undescribed patterns found in Texas. It also diverges from previous studies that used the courthouse squares primarily as an index of cultural diffusion. Although the main objective of the present study is to classify the state's county seats, it cannot overlook the centripetal role played by the square in civic life as well as its social and symbolic significance. Many squares remain the central focus of their communities, while the importance of others has eroded through time. The question of how and why this has occurred lies at the heart of this book. As case studies of how urban design is used to represent, reinforce, and sustain the ideals and identity of a community, courthouse squares offer insight into the past, present, and future of the Texas landscape. To begin, it is useful to set the courthouse square in the context of the overall settlement history of Texas and the emergence of the state's cultural and urban landscape.

Settlement History

The first European settlers in Texas were the Spanish, who occupied towns beginning in the 1730s; but these settlements remained small and few. Texas in 1803 contained only three active civil settlements: San Antonio (Béxar) with a population of 2,500; Nacogdoches with 770 people; and Goliad (Bahía) with 618 inhabitants (Hatcher 1927, 67). By 1820 these numbers had declined to around 800 persons each in Béxar and Bahía. Nacogdoches was all but abandoned, with only ten families reported in the area (Hatcher 1927, 355-356).

The number of towns increased under Mexico's empresario program, but by the time of Texas independence in 1836 there were only about a dozen communities. The vast majority of Texans lived in rural settings, so town populations remained small. Estimates of Texas' population in 1820 placed the number around 4,000, which climbed to 25,000 by 1836 (Wheeler 1968, 16).

After independence in 1836, settlers encouraged by land grants and new opportunities migrated in increasing numbers. Most of these were Anglos. However, Hispanics and African-Americans also inhabited the Republic, along with groups of Europeans. Following statehood the total population in 1850 was 215,700: 57 percent Anglo-Americans, 6.5 percent Hispanics, 27 percent African-Americans, and 7.5 percent Europeans (Jordan 1986, 418).

In terms of growth rates, Texas witnessed dramatic change as soon as it was opened to settlement by Mexico in 1821. From that year to annexation in 1845, the population exploded by almost 2,000 percent (Harris 1972, 2). As a state, Texas saw its greatest increase between 1850 and 1860, when the population increased by 184.2 percent, from 212,592 to 604,215 (Harris 1972, 54).

Another large percentage gain occurred from 1870 to 1880, when the population went from 818,579 to 1,591,749, an increase of 94.5 percent (Harris 1972, 54). In 1887 Texas' population exceeded 2 million, of which 64 percent were Anglo-American, 4 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African-American, and 11 percent European (Jordan 1986, 418). These figures indicated strengthening Anglo-American and European presence at the expense of Hispanics and African-Americans during the years 1850 to 1887. The proportion of Hispanics to African-Americans increased drastically in the twentieth century, reversing the trend of the previous century.

The primary source of population increase in Texas during these periods was migration (Table 1). The decades with the greatest immigration include 1870 to 1880, when more than 308,500 entered the state, and 1920 to 1930, when 243,500 immigrated. Figures of that magnitude were not surpassed until the 1970s and 1980s (Davies 1986, 522). There have been only two periods of net loss in migration: 1930 to 1940 and 1955 to 1960 (Davies 1986, 521).

The average rate of increase for the twelve decades from 1860 to 1980 has been 31.5 percent for each census period (Harris 1972, 54; Davies 1986, 498; see Table 2). In 1990 the population of Texas was almost 17,000,000. In that same census year the Hispanic population stood at 26 percent of the state's total, while African-Americans constituted only 12 percent. In addition, British-descended Anglo-Americans lost their majority status, dropping to 45 percent in 1980 (Jordan 1986, 418). Interestingly, the European proportion of 12 percent in 1980 nearly echoed the 11 percent of 1887 (Jordan 1986, 418). In absolute terms, growth in the current century has been significant, especially with respect to urban development. Yet it was nineteenth-century settlement that formed many of the patterns of the cultural and urban landscape in Texas.

The Cultural Landscape

The cultural landscape of Texas is one of diversity and change, yet persistent patterns reveal linkages between material culture, social custom, and urban form. Two cultural geographers, in separate but related studies, traced the cultural imprint of various Anglo-American groups along with Hispanics and Germans. Both D. W. Meinig (1969) and T. G. Jordan (1967) have published maps describing these culture areas in Texas (Figure 2).

Jordan's study was based upon patterns of nineteenth-century rural material culture as well as mid-twentieth-century town plans. He determined the influence of six subcultures: Midwestern, Lower Southern, Upper Southern, Spanish-Mexican, German, and Mixed.

Jordan characterized the Lower Southern subculture, located in east Texas and along the upper Gulf coast, in terms of three subgroups. A plantation culture in east Texas was composed mainly of an Anglo aristocracy transported from Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi and a large African-American population. A more concentrated area was made up of "poor whites" and a few African-Americans. A third region occupied the coastal plains. It, too, was based upon a plantation economy, but in this case derived from the Louisiana area.

The Upper Southern subculture was also divided into three subgroups. The northeastern part of the state consisted of an area of middle-class Anglo-Americans who came to Texas from Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, and southern Illinois. More centrally located was an area populated by "poor whites" from Appalachia and the Ozarks. In west Texas an area of farming and ranching was composed of Anglos who originally inhabited the eastern part of the state.

In southwestern Texas Jordan found a large borderland of underlying Spanish-Mexican influence. He also noted a small area of Midwestern influence in the extreme north of the Panhandle and a small area of persistent German culture in the Hill Country. A final area located in central Texas was characterized by a mix of Europeans, including Germans, Czechs, Scandinavians, Wends, and Poles (Jordan, Bean, and Holmes 1984, 270).

These patterns have proven to be somewhat durable in terms of reported ancestry as recently as 1980 (Jordan 1986, 391). The customs practiced by these groups contributed directly to the urban landscape and built form of Texas towns and county seats.

The Urban Landscape

The primary periods of Texas settlement and town building occurred during the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. During most of its history, Texas was rural and dominated by small towns and county seats. Urbanization as defined by population living in towns and cities occurred late; urban dwellers did not exceed rural inhabitants until around 1950 (Davies 1986, 443). However, small towns have long been a part of the landscape, especially county seats that were established after Texas independence in 1836. The planning of many other county seats did not take place until later as counties were formed in frontier areas.

The settlement of the American West has been the subject of much discussion. In the case of town building and urbanization, John Reps challenged Frederick Jackson Turner's "modes of advance" in westward expansion, which assumed a gradual evolution from trapper, to farmer, to villager, and later to town builder (Reps 1979, ix). Instead, Reps noted that the founding of many towns in the West "stimulated rather than followed the opening of the West" (Reps 1979, ix). This was especially true of Texas, which reflected similar frontier themes. The railroad, land speculation, and town development schemes all played their part.

However, predating these events, an older pattern of presidios, missions, and pueblos had preceded rural settlement. In many cases, the colonial towns of Texas were laid out with both town lots and farm lots, indicating simultaneous development of urban and rural landscapes. To be sure, towns did follow farming or ranching interests, such as Laredo and other towns along the Rio Grande that were founded by local ranchers and land owners; but many Texas towns were newly etched lines in the frontier landscape. Reps reiterated this point and quoted an observer of Texas in 1837:

a mania for towns is characteristic of all new countries and is especially so here. Many enterprising men have gone to Texas to seize upon the advantages which a new country affords to acquire wealth, and many of these have some city in prospect as the speediest means to effect their object. Should they all succeed, they will no doubt at someday make Texas as famous for her cities as Thebes was for her hundred gates. (Reps 1979, 134)

Unlike Turner's basic premise of evolving phases of settlement, urban development in Texas was characterized by "episodic" changes rather than gradual growth (Davies 1986, 450). Such episodes would reflect periods of great immigration as well as developments in economies, transportation, and land policies. During the nineteenth century, large-scale immigration and widespread town building were concomitant factors in the settlement of Texas. "Texas' urban history," one scholar noted, "is the history of small towns" (Davies 1986, 484).

Spanish and Mexican land grants resulted in a tenuous urban landscape. These included the Spanish-founded towns at San Antonio, Goliad, and Nacogdoches. Another dozen or so small towns were established under Mexico's rule, such as Gonzales and San Felipe de Austin. However, most of the urban landscape in Texas resulted from rapid Anglo-American immigration following independence and statehood. Reps described the period:

It was an era of massive change in the pattern of town location, planning, and development. Uniform laws governing town design were eliminated; individual town site promoters now decided these matters. Some of the older towns, badly damaged during the Texas revolution, either vanished or lost their initial impetus for growth. (Reps 1979, 127)

Indeed, towns such as San Felipe de Austin, Harrisburg, and Gonzales had been destroyed during battles with Mexico. Places like Gonzales would recover; the other two would not. In all of this the county seat played an important role, both in recording the impress of diverse cultural groups and in creating a distinctive signature on the Texas cultural and urban landscapes.


By Robert E. Veselka

The late Dr. Robert E. Veselka was a professional geographer and native Texan with lifelong interests in the state’s architecture, landscape, and history.

"This book breaks new ground in the interpretation of Texas townscapes.... It could serve as a 'field guide' to Texas courthouse squares."

—Richard V. Francaviglia, author of Main Street Revisited: Time, Space, and Image Building in Small Town America