The Panhandle of Texas

by Frederick W. Rathjen

The 25,610-square-mile Panhandle of Texas was shaped by the Compromise of 1850, which resolved the state's controverted territorial claims. It is bounded on the East by the 100th meridian, on the North by parallel 36°30', and on the West by the 103rd meridian. It comprises the northernmost twenty-six counties of the state; the line forming the southern boundary of Swisher County in the central Panhandle marks the southern boundary. The elevation declines from about 4,700 feet in the Northwest (Dallam County) to about 2,000 feet in the Southeast (Childress County). The growing season increases from 178 days a year to 217 days over the same distance. The average annual precipitation ranges from about 21.5 inches in the eastern counties to about seventeen inches in the western counties.

Thus the dry Panhandle climate ranges narrowly from subhumid to semiarid. The High Plains cover all but the gently undulating southeastern third of the Panhandle, where the Rolling Plains begin. The two are separated by the scenic eastern High Plains escarpment commonly called the Caprock. The upper tributaries of the Red River and the Canadian River drain the region. The Canadian cuts across the High Plains to isolate the southern part, the Llano Estacado, which has little drainage and a reputation as one of the world's flattest areas of such size. Beneath the High Plains lies the enormous store of relict water held by the Ogallala Aquifer-unquestionably the region's most valuable resource.

High Plains soils are loamy, clayey, deep, and calcareous; those of the Rolling Plains are loamy and sandy; and those of the canyonlands and river valleys are loamy, clayey, shallow, and calcareous and support woody species including juniper, cottonwood, hackberry, mesquite, elm, willow, and plum. Scrub oak, grape, and stretchberry grow on the escarpments. Grasses found on the uplands include mainly the bluestems, gramas, buffalo grass, and, around playas, western wheat grass. Especially on the Llano Estacado short grasses have protected the surface from erosion and, along with subhumidity and fire, have inhibited tree growth. In sum, Panhandle physiography produced a primordial grassland that supported the southern buffalo herd and a buffalo-hunting Indian culture, invited a grazing economy introduced by Americans, and eventually gave rise to a farming economy that displaced much of the grassland.

Human presence in the Panhandle dates from the time of Paleo-Indian hunters of Pleistocene animals, whose presence is verified by their exquisitely knapped Folsom and Clovis projectile points found in situ with datable materials. Thereafter, occupation ebbed and flowed with environmental variations until the eve of historic times, when an elaborate archeological complex, the Panhandle Aspect, occupied the Canadian River and nearby streams. Panhandle Aspect culture appears to have crested from roughly A.D. 1350 to 1450, but was nowhere to be found when Indians of the Panhandle were first observed by persons who left documentary evidence. The entrada of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado crossed the Llano Estacado in 1541 in a futile quest for wealth, and found a culture of pedestrian, buffalo-hunting nomads whom the Spaniards called "Querechos," identified by modern scholars as Athabaskan ancestors of the Apaches.

Apacheans evidently controlled the Panhandle and surrounding territory uncontested until after 1700, when Comanches, now mounted, appeared, challenged the Apaches, and eventually dispossessed them. By 1800, along with their Kiowa and Kiowa Apache allies, Comanches dominated the Great Plains south of the Arkansas River and held Comanchería against all comers for a century and a half. Besides providing the first documented observations of the Llano Estacado, the Coronado expedition established the orientation of the whole region toward the Hispanic Southwest, an orientation reinforced by the expedition of Juan de Oñate, who traveled along the Canadian River in 1601.

In subsequent years, Spaniards and Pueblo Indians entered the region for a variety of purposes and regarded it as a part of New Mexico. Commercial ties between the Plains and the river valleys of New Mexico were probably the strongest bonds between the two. In time, trade shifted from New Mexico to prearranged sites in West Texas such as Palo Duro and Tule canyons, Tecovas Springs, and Quitaque Creek, while Comancheros emerged as the principal agents of commerce. Though innocent enough in its early days, the Comanchero trade acquired sinister characteristics in the nineteenth century, as it dealt increasingly in stolen livestock and human traffic.

In any event, the southwestern orientation of the Panhandle stood for 180 years after Coronado, until the pivotal year 1821 brought forces reorienting the region toward the United States and introducing a succession of more-or-less separate but overlapping phases through which regional history evolved. In 1821 the successful Mexican War of Independence opened Santa Fe to legal trade with United States citizens and Maj. Stephen H. Long explored the Canadian River valley, thus initiating the Anglo-American exploratory phase of Panhandle history. Between 1821 and the 1853 the Pacific railroad survey of the thirty-fifth parallel, led by Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple, and expeditions led by United States Army officers explored and described the Canadian valley, the Rolling Plains, and the upper tributaries of the Red River.

Only the interior of the Llano Estacado lay beyond the ken of the Americans. Meanwhile, in 1840 Josiah Gregg found the South side of the Canadian an advantageous trade route, and in 1849 Capt. Randolph B. Marcy, closely following Gregg's tracks, specifically marked the Fort Smith-Santa Fe Trail so that ties of commerce and travel, along with exploration, pulled the Panhandle toward the American orbit.

Until after 1865 the southern Plains Indians remained essentially undisturbed, mainly because of the sectional controversy and the Civil War, but in the early 1870s professional buffalo-hide hunters entered the Panhandle from western Kansas. Normal Indian resentment toward this incursion was heightened by their understanding that the Medicine Lodge Treaties of 1867 guaranteed them exclusive hunting grounds south of the Arkansas River. In retaliation, resentful warriors led by Quanah Parker and the charismatic medicine man Isa-tai plotted an attack upon the buffalo hunters' trading post at Adobe Walls in what is now Hutchinson County.

The attack failed to overrun the post and cost heavy losses, although it sent both hide men and merchants scurrying for the safety of Dodge City and temporarily interrupted the buffalo-hunting phase of Panhandle history (see ADOBE WALLS, SECOND BATTLE OF). Most importantly, Second Adobe Walls goaded the government into the climactic campaign against the southern Plains Indians, the Red River War of 1874-75. Earlier efforts to deal militarily with the southern Plains tribes won some battles, but resolved very little. On November 26, 1864, a 500-man force under Kit (Christopher) Carson had engaged several villages in the vicinity of the Bent brothers' old adobe trading post on the Canadian on November 25. Doubtlessly the Indians were hurt considerably, but Carson achieved little of strategic consequence.

Rather more successful was the Winter War of 1868, in which a strategy contrived by Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan directed four converging columns upon the Indians' haunts to catch them unsuspecting in their winter camps. No column came from the South, however, and many camps simply dropped southward out of the encirclement. The 1874 campaign added a column of the Fourth United States Cavalry led northward by Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie to complete the encirclement. The Red River War saw some dramatic pitched battles, most famously Mackenzie's victory in the battle of Palo Duro Canyon on September 28, but mainly it was a campaign of harassment that gave the Indians no rest until, near starvation, they accepted their inevitable move to reservations.

By early 1875 the military phase of Panhandle history was over. The hide men quickly felled most of the remaining buffalo with relatively minor interference from Indians, and the region lay essentially empty awaiting its next phase. Fort Elliott, placed in Wheeler County as a hedge against Indian outbreaks, supported white settlement with numerous essential services. In 1876 the Texas legislature marked off the twenty-six Panhandle counties from the Bexar Land District, thereby essentially completing the transformation of the region from a southwestern Hispanic cultural domain to an Anglo-American one.

The empty grassland was attractive to the pastores, led by Casimero Romero, who initiated the grazing phase of Panhandle history by bringing their sheep to the western Canadian basin, where Charles Goodnight found them when he moved his cattle from Colorado in the spring of 1876. Leaving the Canadian to the New Mexican sheepherders, Goodnight moved on to Palo Duro Canyon where, in partnership with James Adair, he built the JA Ranch. Almost simultaneously, Thomas Sherman Bugbee arrived in Hutchinson County and established the Quarter Circle T Ranch. Other pioneers soon followed, and the towns of Tascosa, Mobeetie, and Clarendon developed as the centers from which settlement, commerce, and political organization emanated.

Their counties, Wheeler, Oldham, and Donley, were organized in 1879, 1881, and 1882, respectively. The federal census of 1880 counted 1,607 persons in the Panhandle, including 1,198 Anglos concentrated in Wheeler, Hemphill, and Donley counties; 358 Hispanics concentrated in Hartley, Oldham, and Deaf Smith counties; and fifty-one African Americans, thirty-six of whom lived near Fort Elliott. Of adults over age fifteen, 365 were born in former Confederate states, while 364 were born in Union states or territories. The region's foreign-born represented eleven nations.

Although sheep ranching initiated the grazing phase, its dominance quickly gave way to cattle, which first came in herds of as few as 100 head, owned by cattlemen who took the best grass and water. Few followed Goodnight's lead when he purchased 12,000 acres of JA range. Individual enterprise soon gave way to corporate enterprise because the attraction of low-cost stocker cattle, low labor costs, the subsidy of free grass, and high market prices infused large amounts of capital from both the East and Europe. The first corporate giant was the Prairie Cattle Company of Edinburgh, Scotland. Another, the Capitol Freehold Land and Investment Company, Limited, is the best known as the XIT Ranch.

Corporate financial resources brought barbed wire fencing, deep-drilled wells, and windmills, thus enabling more effective use of pasturage away from surface water and the upgrading of herds through selective breeding. Conversely, barbed wire enclosed much state-owned land and the state's insistence on grazing fees bred bitter controversy, which was eventually resolved peacefully. Early corporate ranching contained the seeds of disaster, however, because its very success attracted excessive investment, overstocking, bad management, and depressed prices, thereby making the industry vulnerable to any dislocation.

The first rather feeble attempts at farming, which came in the early eighties, were equally vulnerable. Both were devastated by unusually severe winters and summer droughts in the mid-eighties. Farming had to wait another generation for a new start. Though many ranches failed, well-managed ones survived, and a far better-organized industry emerged. It became the foundation for a ranching industry that remains integral to the economy and culture of the Panhandle.

Every phase of regional development profited by completion of the Fort Worth and Denver Railway in 1888. In time, the Rock Island and Santa Fe joined the FW&D in providing a region-wide rail network. Because the escarpments of the Staked Plains partly dictated routes, the rails crossed in the central Panhandle at the point where Amarillo was fortuitously located and made the town the center of regional cultural, social, and commercial life. Railroads determined the location of townsites, ranchers got far easier access to supplies and markets, and promoters of various sorts, especially railroad men, ardently boosted the Panhandle as the new garden for farmers. Not until well into the twentieth century, however, did improved dry-land farming techniques and the first stirrings of modern irrigation, both backed by emerging technology, assure permanence of an agricultural foundation for the region.

By 1917 beef, wheat, and cotton emerged as the basics of commercial production. Unusually favorable weather, markets impelled by World War I, and technological improvements blessed the efforts of producers who expanded acreage and increased production. The artificial demand and prices raised by the war, however, encouraged excessive production and cultivation of marginal lands better left to grazing, a fact that portended disaster in the 1930s. Fortunately for the Panhandle, a new and unanticipated industry burst upon the economic scene and permeated the whole fabric of regional life.

Drawing upon the research of geologist Charles N. Gould, a group of entrepreneurs led by grocer Millard C. Nobles organized the Amarillo Oil Company, leased 70,000 acres of ranchland, and began drilling. Their first wells produced only natural gas, but on May 2, 1921, Gulf-Burnet No. 2 produced the first Panhandle oil and encouraged further exploration. In 1925 Dixon Creek Oil Company hit a vast reserve in Hutchinson County that yielded 10,000 barrels a day. Oil spawned numerous collateral industries and towns, of which Borger was surely the most chaotic.

The place eventually became so lawless that only martial law brought it stability. Other communities such as Lefors, Pampa, and Dumas profited from oil but avoided such tumult. Amarillo became the corporate center of major oil companies. Abundant natural gas brought plants for extraction of carbon black, helium, and zinc smelting, while the marketing of petroleum products required construction of refineries and pipelines. The availability of moderately priced automobiles and cheap fuel brought a demand for better roads, and in the 1920s the Panhandle led Texas in the development of highways, including the legendary Route 66. Farm-to-market transportation flourished under the Rural Roads Act, and the combination of gasoline-powered transportation and paved roads strengthened Amarillo's position as the tri-state (Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico) trade center.

The arrival of the complex of oil-related industries could scarcely have been more timely, since they provided some economic diversification and activity after the events of September 1929. In fact, during the Great Depression they prospered and the oil counties grew in population. Agriculture, by contrast, had to contend with the economic dislocations of the time as well as an ecological calamity induced by land abuse, unsuitable farming methods, severe drought, and abnormally high winds: the Dust Bowl.

Many farmers, especially tenants, were driven from the land. Between 1935 and 1940 both the number of farms and property values declined sharply. Six agricultural counties lost more than 25 percent of their residents between 1930 and 1940; ten others lost more than 10 percent. The stark reality of human suffering found expression in poignant images recorded by Farm Security Administration photographers, while the environmental crisis was nowhere made more vivid than in the graphic paintings of Alexandre Hogue. Immediate relief for depression victims proved to exceed the resources of localities, despite valiant efforts by such leaders as Mayor Ernest O. Thompson of Amarillo.

In the long term, two absolute necessities emerged: stabilization of the agricultural economy and healing of the land. In 1932 Panhandle voters turned to the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who carried all twenty-six counties with 87 percent of the popular vote. Four years later, Roosevelt gleaned 96 percent of the Panhandle vote. Through various New Deal agencies, federal aid came in a variety of projects ranging from multiple agricultural programs to construction of Palo Duro Canyon State Scenic Park, to the building of curbs, streets, and gutters in towns, to documenting and recording regional history, to producing public art.

Of enormous advantage to the region was its United States representative, Marvin Jones, who chaired the House Agriculture Committee beginning in 1931 and heavily influenced the New Deal's agricultural legislation. Doubtless through Jones's influence, but also through dire need, the Panhandle was among the first areas in the nation to receive New Deal aid and became something of a proving ground for its programs. Of all programs affecting the Panhandle, and especially rural life, few, if any, could match the depth and permanence of the Rural Electrification Act, which brought electric power first to the rural Panhandle in Deaf Smith County in 1937.

As the "Dirty Thirties" waned and the effects of the Great Depression subsided, Panhandle citizens' attention turned outward toward Europe and Asia. Tangible portents of a new, unpleasant world became evident on November 25, 1940, when units of the Texas National Guard mobilized at Amarillo. Though guard personnel served world-wide, the Second Battalion, formed from the 131st Field Artillery under Col. Blutcher S. Tharp of Amarillo, was immortalized as the Lost Battalion of Java.

Two Panhandle men, John C. "Red" Morgan and Charles H. Roan, won the Medal of Honor, while former representative Jones served throughout the war as war food administrator. Because of the large number of days per year suitable for flying, the Army Air Corps placed training fields at Dalhart, Pampa, and Amarillo. Only the Amarillo installation remained after the war. McLean and Hereford hosted German and Italian prisoners of war. The Pantex Army Ordnance Plant, established in 1942 in Carson County to produce bombs and artillery shells, assumed a conspicuous role in the Cold War as the assembly plant for nuclear warheads (see PANTEX, TEXAS).

The demands of global war combined with ample rainfall sent Panhandle wheat and beef production soaring; cotton culture production also significantly increased, though less dramatically. Largely because of the leadership of Ernest O. Thompson in his position on the Railroad Commission, the Panhandle oil and gas fields had been developed and were poised to fuel and lubricate the machines of war. In March 1943 the Exell Helium Plant in Moore County began extracting helium from natural gas to provide lifting power for the blimps that escorted transoceanic convoys; also, completely without the knowledge of Exell personnel, the plant provided helium for the Manhattan Project. The number of peaceful applications of Helium later increased, although it was Cold War demands for nuclear weaponry that kept the Exell Plant in operation after the armistice.

The post-World War II years sustained the prosperity stimulated by the war, although it still rested mainly upon its traditional foundations, agriculture and petroleum. The Korean War bolstered the demand for both and introduced a pivotal decade in regional history, the 1950s. In the five years following 1952, Amarillo recorded less rainfall than in any comparable period of the 1930s, and emerging dust clouds evoked fears of another Dust Bowl. The happy fact that the worst did not happen may be attributed to expanding irrigation and the soil-conservation practices and technologies learned twenty years earlier.

During the 1930s as the number of farms decreased, the size of farms increased. The average of almost 1,000 acres by 1940 reflected advanced mechanization and especially widespread irrigation, the number of irrigation wells having increased from a mere forty-one in 1930 to more than 700 in 1940. Recurring drought in the fifties encouraged irrigation all over the High Plains, but especially north of the Canadian River, where the Ogallala Aquifer had previously been considered too deep for feasible irrigation. Technology changed that, however, and over the High Plains the number of wells increased from 14,000 in 1950 to 27,500 in 1954. Irrigated acreage expanded from 1.86 million acres to 3.5 million in the same period. The irrigation boom peaked in the middle 1970s, subsided, and stabilized about 1980.

It assured a measure of agricultural prosperity and stimulated a pervasive agribusiness that remains a dominant force in the regional economy-especially in cattle feeding. An explosion of feedlots in northwestern Texas came about through the chance presence of Paul Engler, a Nebraska cattle buyer, in Hereford in 1960. Engler noticed an abundance of components: space, favorable climate, cattle, and massive irrigated hybrid sorghum culture. Far-sighted bankers, especially Henry Sears of Hereford, provided capital for the infant industry, which quickly grew into a obstreperously youthful industry. The early 1970s brought a sobering collapse and eventual reordering into a more sound, scientifically managed enterprise.

As the hot war in Korea intensified the Cold War, Amarillo Army Air Field reopened as Amarillo Air Force Base in 1951 to train technicians and to base units of the Strategic Air Command. The Atomic Energy Commission claimed the Pantex plant in 1950 and added manufacture of nuclear warheads to the installation's former functions. Operated by private contractors under the Department of Energy, Pantex became the nation's sole assembly plant for nuclear warheads in 1975. As early as 1926, visionary individuals considered harnessing Canadian River water for domestic and industrial use.

Austin A. Meredith made a virtual life's work of promoting an impoundment, and his efforts and those of many others led to the formation of the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority in 1953. Eleven Panhandle and South Plains cities joined the authority, secured federal financing, and constructed Sanford Dam. The resulting Lake Meredith impounds up to 821,300 acre-feet of water. Excessive salinization plagues Lake Meredith waters, however, and requires remedial treatment. The 1950s also featured a remarkably rapid reversal in the traditional Democratic politics of Panhandle voters who, after overwhelmingly supporting Franklin Roosevelt through four elections, gave President Harry Truman a decisive victory in 1948 and helped Democratic senator Lyndon B. Johnson defeat his Republican opponent.

Four years later Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower won twenty-four Panhandle counties, although he took only sixteen in 1956. In 1960 it became evident that the 1950s had witnessed a political transition-in-progress, for Richard M. Nixon won twenty-two Panhandle counties and carried the region with 62 percent of the popular vote. Except for Johnson's narrow regional victory in 1964, no Democratic presidential candidate has carried the Panhandle since 1948. The shift has reflected a general conservative trend, for local, state, and congressional Republican candidates have become increasingly successful.

Deactivation of Amarillo Air Force Base in 1968 shook the entire regional economy, but was turned to account when the base facilities were purchased by the state of Texas and made the campus of Texas State Technical Institute, which officially opened on June 15, 1970, and has since supplied skilled labor to the regional workforce. The runways built to accommodate B-52 strategic bombers opened the way for construction of a new air terminal to accommodate an expanding economy. Accordingly on May 17, 1971, a new air terminal opened to serve the three-state area. Because of its exceptionally long runway, Amarillo Air Terminal was designated a port of entry to the United States.

At the end of the Cold War, Pantex turned aboutface and started dismantling nuclear warheads. The plant is promoted as the center of a research consortium for finding peaceful applications for nuclear materials. The possibility implies great economic impact for the region, but also raises concerns among residents who are concerned about potential dangers of plutonium storage, as well as possible contamination of the Ogallala Aquifer. Population trends of the 1980s and 1990s suggest that the Texas Panhandle is in a transitional, and somewhat confusing, phase. Between 1970 and 1980 the regional population grew by nearly 60,000, or about 18 percent.

In the 1980s, although the overall population loss was slightly less than 6 percent, only two counties had statistically significant population gains: Moore County (including Dumas) and Randall County, which grew by nearly 20 percent because of Amarillo's southwestward expansion beyond the Potter County line, and the emergence of Canyon as a virtual suburb of Amarillo. Of the remaining counties, four lost more than 20 percent of their population, and thirteen lost from 9 to 19 percent. All of these are agricultural counties or oil and gas producers or both. The decline of formerly reliable industries has compelled a search for alternatives, among which tourism and prisons are promising. The Ogallala Aquifer remains the Panhandle's most precious resource, however, and although the threat of its depletion appears to have subsided, its finitude necessitates earnest consideration and planning if the economic well-being of the region is to endure.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Stefan Kramar, Stefan Kramar's Panhandle Portrait (Austin: Pemberton Press, 1974). Willie Newbury Lewis, Between Sun and Sod (Clarendon, Texas: Clarendon Press, 1938; rev. ed., College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1976). B. Byron Price and Frederick W. Rathjen, The Golden Spread: An Illustrated History of Amarillo and the Texas Panhandle (Northridge, California: Windsor, 1986). Frederick W. Rathjen, The Texas Panhandle Frontier (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973). Saga of the South Plains: Forty Years of "Settlin' up" the Prairie, 1879-1919 (Lubbock: Texas Technological College Museum, 1955?). F. Stanley, Story of the Texas Panhandle Railroads (Borger, Texas: Hess, 1976). Union Pacific Railroad Company, The Resources and Attractions of the Texas Panhandle (St. Louis: Woodward and Tiernan, 1891).

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This page was last updated January 30, 2003.