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North Central Texas

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The North Central region of Texas could be described as the weaving of rivers crossing northwest to southeast (the Red, Trinity, Brazos, and Colorado rivers) and soil/vegetation regions (Plains, Cross Timbers, Grand Prairie, and Blackland Prairie) running north–south across these rivers. This diverse topography along with building materials and technologies has resulted in an unusually rich and varied architecture. Prior to European American occupation of the region, wildlife exhibited an equal diversity: bear, bison, deer, turkey, and prairie chicken. Rainfall levels are low and cyclical, thus making the survival of plant and animal life difficult.

Evidence of the earliest occupation during the Paleo-Indian period of 9200–6000 BCE is found at several sites, such as the Lewisville Site in Denton County and the Kyle and Blum Rock Shelters in Hill County. Such evidence consists primarily of residual debris discovered along the edges of streams, limestone bluffs, and village sites, which archaeologists have interpreted as being inhabited by peoples who subsisted on bison, small game, plants, and, later, corn crops.

Numerous peoples existed here in historic times. The Wichita Indians occupied the area between the Red and Brazos rivers, while the Tonkawa resided in the region between the Brazos and the Colorado to the south. Engagements with the Indians were documented by the French and Spanish in their movements through Central and North Central Texas in the seventeenth century. The Taovaya Indians, a Wichita tribe, were pushed southward by the Comanche and Osage from Kansas and southern Nebraska into settlements along the Red River. Spanish Fort was the site of a Taovaya rancheria and a trading point with French trappers as early as 1719, and Spanish expeditions in the second half of the eighteenth century encountered the tribe. Smallpox killed most of the tribe by 1812, and the few survivors merged with the Wichita.

The first real intrusion by Anglo-American settlers is considered to be the fourth trip that Irish-born Philip Nolan made in 1800 from his home in Natchez to acquire horses for the New Orleans market. He built Fort Nolan on Nolan’s Creek in the northwestern corner of present Hill County and was killed in 1801 by Spanish soldiers sent to arrest him. In the early 1800s, such nomadic tribes as the Lipán Apache, Kiowa, Kickapoo, and particularly the Comanche moved into this region from other areas. Until forcibly removed to reservations in Oklahoma in the 1860s, and even after relocation and until their final suppression in 1875, these Indian tribes raided deep into North Central Texas to obtain horses, buffalo meat, and weapons.

Various governmental entities attempted to colonize North Central Texas by contracting with empresarios to settle families in this area. A Mexican empresario grant was awarded to John Cameron of Scotland on May 21, 1827, to settle 100 families on the Colorado River, and another grant was awarded in 1828 to settle land south of the Red River. In 1841 the Republic of Texas awarded English immigrant W. S. Peters and his associates more than 16,000 square miles of North Central Texas for a proposed Peters Colony, which failed by 1848 despite having settled over 2,000 families, including 70 followers of the French utopian socialist Etienne Cabet. Structures of the period were predominantly small log buildings.

Conflict with Indians in the period between 1837 and 1845 caused the U.S. Army to establish a line of forts in 1849 for the protection of the new settlers. Fort Worth on the Trinity River and Fort Graham on the Brazos River were among the first line of defensive installations. Almost immediately a second line of forts was erected to the west of the original line, including Fort Belknap (1851) on the Brazos River and Fort Phantom Hill (1851; SB11) north of present Abilene. In the mid-1850s, such towns as Granbury, Stephenville, Comanche, Weatherford, Jacksboro, and Decatur were founded within this protection. A number of well-used trade routes benefited from this infrastructure. The architecture of the region until the 1860s was primarily log structures built of the predominant oaks. Farther west in the plains where trees were far fewer, structures might be of stone or, more commonly, dugouts with brush roofs. Expediency was the rule.

During the Civil War (five of the forty-one counties in this region voted against secession), frontier regiments were established by the State of Texas to perform the duties of the withdrawn federal troops, but the Indians remained relatively quiet during the war. With renewed settlement pressure after 1866, the U.S. Army initiated a new effort to neutralize the Indians. Colonel Ranald Mackenzie’s campaigns between 1871 and 1874 succeeded in forcing them from Texas and back onto reservations in Indian Territory (Oklahoma).

Cattlemen operated immediately behind the advancing line of the frontier, and a few miles behind them, a frontier line for farming was defined. The slaughter of the bison and their replacement by cattle (almost exactly by number) saw hide markets giving way to beef markets. In Chicago, cattle sold for $20 a head, and in Texas they sold for $2 a head. This disparity created the market for the massive cattle drives that came to define North Central Texas. By the late 1860s, over a quarter million South Texas cattle crossed the Red River each year on the way to markets and railheads in Dodge City, Kansas City, and Denver, substantially boosting the depressed postwar Texas economy. In the late 1870s and 1880s, the Fort Worth and Denver City and the Texas and Pacific railways constructed across the region completely changed the delivery of materials, livestock, information, and the development of land for new rural and urban uses.

Oil was discovered in the region in 1902 in Henrietta in Clay County, near Wichita Falls, by a farmer who was drilling for water. Other oil fields discovered over the next two decades transformed the region with sudden wealth, a process occurring concurrently across the entire state. Industrial-scale development of service and supply companies, pipelines, and refineries was implemented by an expanding rail network. Boomtowns of tents, box-and-strip houses, saloons, and drilling rigs quickly expanded and just as quickly collapsed as ill-managed fields played out. The decline in North Texas oil production occurred just as the first years of drought brought agriculture to a standstill on the eve of the Great Depression.

Although the economic effects of the Depression hit Texas as elsewhere, the state’s delegation in Washington, D.C., was strongly positioned to influence New Deal legislation and bring benefits back home. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Works Progress Administration (WPA), National Youth Administration (NYA), and Public Works Administration (PWA) brought an estimated $350 million to Texas by late 1936, much of it in North Texas in the form of drought relief and projects that provided jobs, such as CCC parks, post offices, and federal courthouses. Defense activities in support of World War II, including training bases and airfields, brought rapid urbanization and a general decline in small towns. This trend has continued into the twenty-first century, and such urban centers as Fort Worth and Arlington have expanded with new industries and residential subdivisions spreading out across the prairie from their old centers. At the same time, they have flourished with cultural and educational institutions, and Fort Worth in particular has garnered worldwide recognition for its numerous first-class art museums and other urban amenities.

Writing Credits

Gerald Moorhead et al.

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