The area presently occupied by Refugio County was originally occupied by the Karankawa Indians, a nomadic and cannibalistic tribe whose favorite camping ground was the present location of the town of Refugio. The first Europeans in the area was likely the party of the Spanish explorer, de Vaca around 1520.
In 1793 Spain established a mission at the junction of the San Antonio and Guadalupe rivers in order to minister to the local Karankawa Indians and to establish a claim to the entire surrounding area. After a disastrous Indian raid in 1793 the mission, called Nuestra Senora del Refugio, was eventually moved to a location on the Mission River at the southern end of the present town of Refugio. The mission remained active until 1830. By that time a small village had taken root and approximately 100 Mexicans lived on small ranchos in the surrounding area.
Anglo-American immigration in the area was limited by Mexico until after 1836; however, an exception was the contract held by empresarios James Power and James Hewetson. Under the terms of this contract, they proposed to settle Irish Catholics and Mexican families in the region from the Nueces River to the south all the way north to the Guadalupe River.
Despite the terms of the contract, many of the families brought in were not Catholic; however the little community began to grow and the municipality of Refugio was established at the site of the old mission. From its inception the municipality was troubled by political disputes including what the area should be called. The name was briefly changed to Wexford in honor of the Irish county from which many of the settlers had come. The name was never accepted by many residents and was eventually dropped.
There was divided loyalty among the county residents during the war with Mexico that eventually led to the independence of Texas. However, most were in favor of independence. In 1836 a badly outnumbered Texan force commanded by Amon King and William Ward were defeated by Mexican General Urrera at the 1836 battle of Refugio. Most of Ward's men escaped; however, many of King's contingent were either killed of captured. Those captured were later executed in the Goliad Massacre.
After independence from Mexico, Refugio was organized as one of thirteen original counties of the new Republic of Texas and occupied considerably more area than today. By 1858 much of the original area had been granted to the surrounding counties of Goliad, Calhoun, San Patricio, and Victoria counties. By the 1850's Refugio County became a center for hide and tallow factories. The town of Refugio itself had 3 dry-goods stores, 2 public hotels, 1 private boarding house, 3 churches, 2 schools, 2 doctors, 1 dentist, and 1 lawyer. By 1860 the county population was 1,748 including 234 slaves and six free blacks.
Residents of the county staunchly supported the confederacy and many resident males served in gray. Overall, the Civil War had a dramatically negative effect on the economy of the county. In the decade after the war a darker aspect of Refugio County history occurred. Most of the Mexican-American population was driven out either through direct violence or intimidation. Vigilante groups were largely responsible after the murder of white ranchers. By the twentieth century, only a handful of Mexican-Americans ranchers were left.
Vast deposits of oil and gas were discovered and produced beginning in the 1920's. By 1936 production had risen to almost almost 10 million barrels of oil annually and by 1944 it was 25 million barrels. Exploration and production still continue.
Refugio County covers 771 sq miles of essentially flat land covered with tall prairie grass spotted with some areas of mesquite, live oak, prickly pear, and huisache. Elevations range from 0 at the coast to 100 feet in the northwest corner of the county. The region is drained by the converging Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers to the north and to the south by the Aransas River.
The county has a humid, subtropical climate with 37 inches average rainfall. Temperatures often climb into the 90's in the summer and average 45 degree in January. Freezes are rare but do occur. A wide variety of wildlife inhabits the county including deer, javelina, bobcat, quail, fox, turkey, duck, geese, and sandhill cranes. The most well known of the wildlife is the endangered whooping crane now under federal protection. The Aransas National WIldlife Refuge where these cranes nest is partially in Refugio County.