For many thousands of years, Native Americans — including the Tachi-Yokut tribe — lived in the area that later became Kings County. A Spanish expedition, probably led by Army Lt. Gabriel Moraga, charted the region and named the area’s river El Rio de los Santos Reyes (River of the Holy Kings). When the United States took control of the region in 1848, the new government redesignated it Kings River; that name was subsequently picked up for the new county.
One of the county’s earliest conflicts was in 1880 between settlers and the Southern Pacific Railroad, which culminated in a bloody gun battle on a farm about 5 miles northwest of Hanford. Seven men were killed in what became known as the Mussel Slough Tragedy.
Kings County was officially formed in 1893 from the western part of Tulare County. In 1909, the state Legislature redesignated 208 square miles of Fresno County territory as the northwest portion of Kings County.
Settlers staked claims to Tulare Lake and its wetlands for agricultural development and choked off the four rivers feeding the lake, which consequently went dry and remains so, except when deluges flood the rivers. It had been the largest freshwater body of water west of the Great Lakes and supported a huge population of migratory birds, local birds and other wildlife.
In 1928, oil was discovered in the Kettleman Hills in southwestern Kings County, creating some of the most productive oil fields in the U.S.
During the Great Depression, about
3,500 cotton pickers went on strike in 1933 on the outskirts of Corcoran. Ultimately, the federal government intervened to force both sides to negotiate a settlement.
U.S. involvement in World War II led to the establishment of Lemoore Army Airfield for training and defense. In 1961, the U.S. Navy opened NAS Lemoore about 10 west of the earlier site.
The completion of the California Aqueduct in the early 1970s brought needed water for agriculture and household use to the west side of the county.
To the northeast, the area now known as Fresno County was explored and claimed by early Spaniards looking for mission sites. The region was attached to the United States in 1846 after the U.S.-Mexican War, and the county was officially formed in 1856 from parts of surrounding Mariposa, Merced and Tulare counties. It gets its name from the Spanish “fresno,” for the ash trees that grew abundantly along the San Joaquin River. The original county seat was Millerton, on the San Joaquin River, but the county government was then transferred to the rapidly growing town of Fresno on the newly built Southern Pacific Railroad line.
In Fresno County’s early days, floods and fires plagued the settlers. At the same time residents brought irrigation, electricity and extensive agriculture to the area. Moses Church developed the first canals, called “Church Ditches,” for irrigation. Francis Eisen began the raisin industry in 1875, when he accidentally let some of his grapes dry on the vine. A.Y. Easterby and Clovis Cole developed extensive grain and cattle ranches. These developments made Fresno County one of the nation’s leading agricultural regions.
The discovery of oil in the western part of the county brought an economic boom in the 1900s, though the field’s existence had been known since the 1860s. By 1910, Coalinga Oil Field, the largest in Fresno County, was the most productive oil field in California. The Coalinga field continues to produce oil and is one of the largest in the state.
More than 30 structures in Fresno County are on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Fresno Water Tower, the Meux Home and the Kearney Mansion.