Throughout most of Texas history the question "why counties matter" would be silly but today the average citizen underestimates the importance of county government because the federal government is so ubiquitous, state government is more newsworthy than we want it to be, and we are mostly urban dwellers where city government and school districts are more visible—and collect more taxes. Yet until well into the 20th Century, the county was the government that most mattered for most people. When a person was born (1873-1876 and from 1903 forward) the county clerk recorded the event.1 The county school superintendent (often in the person of the county judge) oversaw his or her education except for the few who lived in cities or attended parochial schools. Upon reaching 21 years of age most men were required to work without pay on the county roads 5 days a year (8 if they failed to pay the poll tax) until their 46th birthday. When a couple married the county clerk issued the license and often a justice of the peace performed the ceremony. Land transactions were recorded in the deed records and noted by the tax assessor. When they took out a loan on their crops or personal property the terms were recorded in the chattel mortgage record.
Most civil disputes were adjudicated by the local justice of the peace or, if it was a more serious matter, in the county or district court at the county courthouse. If a person ran afoul of a criminal law the constable or sheriff would investigate and make the arrest. Justices of the peace handled most of the routine cases but the county or district judge would preside over more serious matters in the county courthouse. The constable or the sheriff would execute any sentence from collecting a fine to hanging the condemned.
Throughout a man's life (women were pretty much ignored) the county could call him out to work on the roads (as noted above), act as a juror, serve on a jury of view to lay out roads, judge elections, etc. And when death came, irrespective of gender, the county judge would probate the estate and after 1903 the county clerk would enter the name into the death register.
The most prominent building in a community was inevitably the county courthouse (usually with doors on all four sides so that one could approach justice from any direction). Although some counties constructed jails before the courthouse, jails were less impressive but still important monuments to a community's wealth, and dedication to the peace and dignity. Architecturally they were roughly comparable with the mid-size churches, schools, and stores.
Counties also collected taxes, educated children, and provided welfare to the indigent by direct appropriations or through poor houses and orphanages. When the times or the Legislature called for it, they also took censuses,2 provided for the public defense, and issued circulating money.3
Contrast this with the average person's relations with the federal and state government. Unless one lived in a territory or near a federal installation the only national officials regularly encountered were the post master (often the proprietor of the local general store) and, once a decade, the census taker. For much of the 19th century most of the money in circulation was often issued by some authority other than the U. S. Government—private banks for currency or foreign governments for specie. Indeed in 1845 Dr. John Leonard Riddell, melter and refiner of the U. S. Mint in New Orleans wrote "More than 90 per cent. of the Dollars in general circulation in the country, bear the Mexican stamp."4
Republic of Texas and, subsequently, state officials were not much more common. Although district court personnel were (and are) technically state officials, they were elected and officed in the courthouse. Austin ran the eleemosynary institutions, a few colleges after 1876, and the prison system. It has usually had a hand full of Rangers for trouble shooting and during Reconstruction a strong militia but until well into the 20th Century most officials were in Austin.
Even though county government is not as high profile as it once was, it is still relevant. The sheriff and constables still enforce the law. The county clerk still the recorder for the most important public records of our lives. Justice is still dispensed in the courthouses and the offices of the justices of the peace. And the tax assessor collector still collects property taxes, registers voters, and, now, automobiles.
1Sometimes a justice of the peace or a city secretary was the registrar of vital statistics, but it was usually the county clerk.
2Texas required county tax assessor/collectors to take censuses is 1847, 1851, and 1858 but only a few have survived. I identified the returns of the 1847 Grimes County census in the RHRD holdings at Sam Houston State University and the 1858 Austin County Census in the County Clerk's office and it is now microfilmed and available through the State Archives.
More systematically, Scholastic Censuses (of school age children) were taken periodically from 1854 to the 1880's when it became an annual event until 1970. Initially to equitably divide the available school fund, long after that money was spent the surviving census cards and consolidated rolls have value to document family history and, more critically for our most under-documented citizens, prove birth facts required to prove immigration status, for the issuance of delayed birth certificates and to qualify for Social Security and other retirement benefits.
It is a mystery of what happened to the Scholastic Censuses for Harris County. Houston ISD has them from 1925 but no other agency seems to have any. They should be at the Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) but when I inquired about them in the early 1980's I ran into a dead end. Dennis McGuire also was unable to find out anything. When HCDE hired a Records Manager, Adam Feldman, he promised to get to the bottom of the mystery but later reported that coudl learn nothing. Their fate or whereabouts remain a mystery.
3Bob Medlar Texas Obsolete Notes and Scrip, San Antonio: Society of Paper Money Collectors, 1968. During the Civil War at least 86 Texas counties issued scrip (a.k.a. shinplasters) but county warrants (similar to a check but could not be redeemed for cash until the county treasurer actually had money on hand) circulated at a discount until well into the 20th Century.
4John Leonard Riddell Monograph of the Silver Dollar, Good and Bad, New Orleans: 1845, Plate 120. If this was so in the United States, it was even more so for Texas which was even nearer Mexico and in 1845 was still a Republic. Mexican coins remained in circulation long afterwards. When I was working as a field archivist for the State Library I inventoried a records storage room in the Austin County Courthouse and found an envelope containing money that a justice of the peace had left with the county treasurer during the 1880's. Writing on the envelope explained that the judge had decided a civil suit and collected the $1.50 judgment but could not find the plaintiff. County Judge Leroy Grebe, a commissioner, and I opened it to find an U. S. half dollar and a Mexican 8-reale coin.