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Population Ranks

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Hard to imagine today, but back in 1850 residents of New Braunfels could brag that they lived in the fourth-largest city in Texas.

That year, barely a half-decade after Texas joined the union, U.S. Census enumerators found 212,592 people in the state, including slaves. The census recorded the population of only 23 cities and towns with all other head counts listed by county.

Galveston stood as Texasí largest city in 1850. In fact, for the next four decades, the island city remained in the top four. Only the catastrophic 1900 hurricane ended Galvestonís reign in the biggest-city league. But New Braunfels once having been Texasí fourth city seems stranger than Galvestonís early-day rankings, considering its status as a major seaport.

With work already under way on the 2010 census, Austin is currently Texasí fourth-largest city, behind Houston, San Antonio and Dallas in that order. For most of its history, however, the capital city never even made the top five population-wise.

That said, twice census returns have shown Austin as bigger than Dallas. Of course, in various decades, Fredericksburg, Galveston, Gonzales, Marshall, New Braunfels, Victoria, and Waco all were larger than the capital city.

Since 1850, only four Texas cities have enjoyed the distinction of being the stateís largest. While Galveston was Texas biggest city in three federal head counts (1850, 1870 and 1880), San Antonio held the top spot in 1860, 1900, 1910 and 1920. Dallas has hit the top of the list only once, in 1890. Houston became the biggest city in 1930 and has not relinquished the title since.

Finding decade-by-decade federal population numbers for Texas cities and towns in not hard, but if anyone has ever put together a population ranking of Texas largest cities per decade, Iíve never seen it.

So, for historians, genealogists, and anyone interested in a little Texas trivia, Iíve compiled the historic urban population hierarchy and population figures dating back to 1850. The 1850 and 1860 listings contain the top 10 cities, since there are some surprises. From 1870 on, only the top 5 cities are listed:
1850:
1. Galveston (4,177)
2. San Antonio (3,488)
3. Houston (2,396)
4. New Braunfels (1,723)
5. Marshall (1,180)
6. Gonzales (1,072)
7. Victoria (802)
8. Fredericksburg (754)
9. Austin (629)
10. Corpus Christi (533)

Itís interesting to note that while 3,758 people lived in Nacogdoches County in 1850, they were scattered. That kept the county seat of Nacogdoches, one of the stateís oldest towns, off the top 10 list.
1860:
1. San Antonio (8,235)
2. Galveston (7,307)
3. Houston (4,845)
4. Marshall (4,000)
5. New Braunfels (3,500)
6. Austin (3,494)
7. Brownsville (2,784)
8. Sulfur Springs (2,500)
9. Dallas (2,000)
9. Victoria (1,986)
1870:
1. Galveston (13,818)
2. San Antonio (12,256)
3. Houston (9,332)
4. Waco (3,008)
5. Dallas (3,000)

By the 1870s, the cities that would be the stateís major metropolitan areas had grown to a point where they remained in the top 5 list from there on out, with the exception of Galveston and Waco. The seat of McLennan County dropped off in 1880 following one decade as the fourth-largest city. Fort Worth joined the municipal big boyís club in 1890 and El Paso in 1910.
1880:
1. Galveston (22,284)
2. San Antonio (20,550)
3. Houston (16,513)
4. Austin (11,013)
5. Dallas (10,358)
1890:
1. Dallas (38,067)
2. San Antonio (37,653)
3. Galveston (29,084)
4. Houston (27,557)
5. Fort Worth (23,668)
1900:
1. San Antonio (53,321)
2. Houston (44,633)
3. Dallas (42,638)
4. Galveston (37,789)
5. Fort Worth (26,668)
1910:
1. San Antonio (96,614)
2. Dallas (92,104)
3. Houston (78,800) 5.
4. Fort Worth (73,312)
5. El Paso (39,279)
1920:
1. San Antonio (161,379)
2. Dallas (158,976)
3. Houston (138,276)
4. Fort Worth (106,482)
5. El Paso (77,560)
1930:
1. Houston (292,352)
2. Dallas (260,475)
3. San Antonio (231,542)
4. Fort Worth (163,447)
5. El Paso (102,421)
1940:
1. Houston (384,514)
2. Dallas (294,734)
3. San Antonio (253,854)
4. Fort Worth (177,662)
5. El Paso (96,810)
1950:
1. Houston (596,163)
2. Dallas (434,462)
3. San Antonio (408,442)
4. Fort Worth (278,778)
5. Austin (132,459)

The 2000 Census data held some surprises for long-time Texans, including the ascendance of Arlington and Plano into the top 10 list. But while thatís a notable change, itís hardly history yet.


© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
November 19 , 2009 column

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