A Brief History of Kings County


Prepared by Jeff Crosby, Kings County Library

Located in the south central San Joaquin Valley, Kings County, California has remained a predominantly agricultural area since its first settlement in the 1850s. The elevation varies from 250 feet at the county seat in Hanford to 775 feet in the west side community of Avenal. The climate is dry and mild in the winter, with the high temperature ranging from 55 to 65 degrees. Fog is not uncommon during the winter months, and can settle in for periods of up to two weeks. The summers are hot, with an average high temperature of 97 or 98 degrees in July and August. Annual precipitation is approximately 10 inches, most of the rain falling between November and April.

When the first white settlers arrived, the indigenous population consisted of the Tache tribe of the Yokut Indians. The Yokuts controlled the entire San Joaquin Valley, from the Delta to Tejon Pass. There is no history of Indian troubles in the county as the Tache tribe was not belligerent, and has continued to live in the region.

The first settlement was a ferry situated on the south bank of the Kings River where the Overland Stage route crossed. Known as Kingston, this town was the only settlement on the stage route between Stockton and Visalia. Kingston was part of Tulare County (which had been incorporated in 1851). A bridge replaced the ferry in 1873, and the town went into decline. By the 1890s Kingston was abandoned.

A few small settlements followed, but the first incorporated community was Lemoore. The town site was surveyed by Dr. Lovern Lee Moore in 1872. The success of the town was assured with the arrival of the Southern Pacific railroad in 1877. The second permanent community was begun in 1877 along the railroad tracks at the site of Perry Phillip's sheep camp. Named for James Madison Hanford, the paymaster of the Southern Pacific, the second town was incorporated in 1891. Hanford became the county seat two years later, when Kings county was formed from the western half of Tulare County.

While the arrival of the railroad bolstered the economies of the local communities, it also led to conflict. In 1880 a group of settlers who had laid claim to land designated as part of the Southern Pacific right-of-way openly opposed the prices being affixed to the land by the railroad. The conflict climaxed in a gun battle between settlers and federal marshalls at the Henry D. Brewer homestead on 11 May 1880. Seven men were killed and eight wounded during what has become known as the Mussel Slough tragedy. This even led to legal reform regarding railroad lands and settlement policies.

The early economy of the county was centered around ranching and farming. The first vineyard was established in 1890 and grapes continue to be an important crop in the region. The first dairy came three years later in 1893. Dairy farming continues to be a major part of the Kings County economy. In addition, cotton, fruit, and nuts have all become important crops in the region.

Settlement in Kings County remained modest throughout much of the county's first century. The third incorporated community, Corcoran, was established on the San Francisco and San Joaquin Railroad in 1905. The fourth incorporated town, Avenal, was established in 1929 on the west side after oil was discovered in the hills. A number of unicorporated communities also exist, including Armona, Grangeville, Kettleman City and Stratford. The county population was 35,100 in 1940. The population rose to 73,700 by 1980.

Today, Kings County remains primarily an agricultural area. The county has four incorporated communities, Avenal, Corcoran, Hanford and Lemoore. In 1996 the population of the county was estimated to be 118,000. The largest community is Hanford, with a population over 38,000. Kings County is also home to the Lemoore Naval Air Station and three California State Correctional facilities, two in Corcoran and one in Avenal.

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