The first Anglo-American settler in Hays County, Thomas G. McGehee, was granted a league of land in 1835 by the Mexican government. In 1846, he established a farm north of the site of present-day San Marcos.
On March 1, 1848, after the annexation of the Republic of Texas by the United States, the Texas state legislature carved Hays County from territory that had been a part of Travis County. They named it after John Coffee Hays, a captain in the Texas Rangers, a military officer in the army of the Republic of Texas, and a very well-known hero in his day.
Early Stages of Growth and the Edwards Aquifer
A stage line from Austin to San Antonio crossed the county in 1848 and was a significant factor in the county’s growth, exploding from just fewer than 400 settlers in 1850 to more than 2,100 in 1860. In 1867, George Neill drove the first herd of cattle from Hays County to Kansas along what would become the well-worn Chisholm Trail in 1867. In 1880, the first Hays County rail line was completed. It ran from San Marcos to Austin and was later extended to San Antonio.
Later, during the 1970s and 1980s, the expanding Austin metropolitan area and the developing urban corridor along I-35 between Austin and San Antonio fueled growth in the northern and eastern parts of the county.
While Hays County’s geographic location has been key to its popularity, its position along critical trade and transportation routes are only part of what made the county so successful. Located on the border between the Edwards Plateau and the southern Black Prairie region, it is divided between hilly, tree-covered ranch country and grassy, agricultural plains.
The Edwards Aquifer lies beneath the eastern portion of the county and is the source of the springs at San Marcos. The San Marcos Springs are the second largest collection in Texas and produce over 102 million gallons of water per day, contributing to the San Marcos River. The springs are critical to the municipal water supply in the city of San Marcos, which is also the county seat.
Prehistoric Times and the San Marcos Springs
The many springs in the area have attracted people through the ages. Archeological findings indicate the presence of Paleo-Indian people near San Marcos Springs at least 11,000 years ago, and Tonkawa Indians were living here 800 years ago. This means the area may be one of America’s longest continuous settlements. Since early this century, Hays County has enjoyed a steady influx of tourists attracted by the caves, springs, and spas located in Wimberley and San Marcos.
Long ago, the springs watered a large number of fruit- and nut-bearing plants and supported a complex ecosystem. Recently, in the 1990s, the springs caught the attention of environmentalists. Ten rare animal and plant species were discovered, several of which have only been found in watery caves or the headwaters of the springs in San Marcos. These have been declared endangered species. Texas wild rice is one of San Marcos Springs’ plants on the endangered list. The plant is found nowhere else outside a small area on the San Marcos River’s banks near the springs.