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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
This page was last updated June 9, 2004.