Before the arrival of the first European settlers, the San Benito county area was inhabited by the Mutsun sub-group of the OhloneNative Americans. In 1772 Father Juan Crespí conducted an brief expedition into the area and named a small river which he found in honor of San Benito de Nursia (Saint Benedict), the patron saint of monasticism. The county was later named after the San Benito Valley, the valley surrounding this river. Thus it was from the Spanish version of the saint's name that the county eventually took its name.
In 1797 Spanish missionaries founded the first European settlement in the county as the San Juan Bautista mission. In 1848 the United States government gained control over what would soon become the state of California, which included the area now known as San Benito county. The town of New Idria was the next town to develop in the area, and was founded ca. 1857. New Idria was centered around the New Idria Mercury Mine. When the mine played out fairly recently in 1972, New Idria was abandoned, and the town is now one of California's many ghost-towns.
In October 2019, the Bureau of Land Management ended a five-year moratorium on leasing federal land in California to fossil fuel companies, opening 725,000 acres (1100 sq. miles; 29,000 ha) to drilling in San Benito County, Monterey County and Fresno County.
There were 15,885 households, out of which 46.3% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 65.7% were married couples living together, 10.5% had a female householder with no husband present, and 18.8% were non-families. 14.1% of all households were made up of individuals, and 5.4% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 3.32 and the average family size was 3.64.
In the county, the population was spread out, with 32.2% under the age of 18, 8.8% from 18 to 24, 31.5% from 25 to 44, 19.3% from 45 to 64, and 8.1% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 31 years. For every 100 females there were 102.5 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 99.6 males.
The median income for a household in the county was $57,469, and the median income for a family was $60,665. Males had a median income of $44,158 versus $29,524 for females. The per capita income for the county was $20,932. About 6.7% of families and 10.0% of the population were below the poverty line, including 11.4% of those under age 18 and 8.5% of those age 65 or over.
The San Benito County Sheriff provides court protection, jail management, and coroner service for the entire county. It provides patrol and detective services for the unincorporated areas of the county. Hollister (the County Seat) has a municipal police department.
San Benito is a Democratic-leaning county in Presidential and congressional elections. The last Republican to win a majority in the county was George H.W. Bush in 1988. San Benito is also considered a bellwether county for California in presidential elections; since 1904 the solitary candidate to carry the state without winning this county has been Harry S. Truman in 1948. Before 1904, however, it was a solidly Democratic county whilst the state leaned Republican, voting Democratic in every election from its creation in 1876 up to and including 1900, although California only voted Democratic in 1880 and 1892.
Presidential elections results
San Benito County vote by party in presidential elections
As of May, 2010, the California Secretary of State reports that San Benito County has 34,562 eligible voters. Of those 24,736 (71.57%) are registered voters. Of those, 11,959 (48.35%) are registered Democratic, 7,477 (30.23%) are registered Republican, 565 (2.28%)are registered American Independent, and 116 (0.47%) are Green Party. The two incorporated municipalities of Hollister and San Juan Bautista have Democratic majorities on their voter rolls, whereas the unincorporated areas of San Benito County have a small Republican plurality in voter registration.
The economy is statistically included in metro San Jose, though the dominant activity is agriculture. Agritourism is growing as the county has destination wineries, organic farms and quaint inns with views of cattle grazing. With concerns about how oil and gas operations could impact this sector of the economy and agriculture in general, the county voters approved a measure in 2014 that bans well stimulation techniques such as fracking, acidizing and steam injection, along with conventional drilling in some areas. In the 1950s, the oil drilling industry had many wells and the county is over the Monterey Shale formation but there is very little activity now.
According to the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce, the top employers in the county are:
The county also has several media outlets that serve the local community:
CMAP TV - Community Media Access Partnership, based in Gilroy, operates Channels 17, 18, 19 & 20 on Charter/Spectrum Cable as well as streaming online, offering public access and educational programming to Gilroy and San Benito County as well as offering live civic meetings, including county government.
The Hollister Free Lance, founded in 1873, is published weekly on Thursdays. The Freelance is now owned by New SV Media, Inc.and its main office is in Gilroy. New SV Media owns Good Times, Metro Silicon Valley, Pajaroan, Gilroy Dispatch, SantaCruz.com, King City Rustler and California Wheelin'.
Mission Village Voice is a monthly paper based in San Juan Bautista. It is oriented toward arts, culture and community-wide events.
BenitoLink is a nonprofit news website covering San Benito County, run by local and regional residents.
San Benito Live is a local news website, primarily focused on culture-related media.