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Panhandle and South Plains

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The Texas Panhandle and South Plains region corresponds to the Llano Estacado, or “Staked Plains,” a vast, level, treeless grassland bounded on the north by the Canadian River, stretching into eastern New Mexico and western Oklahoma, merging with the western Great Plains in the vicinity of Midland, and eroding into the Caprock Escarpment in the southeast quadrant near Post. The Llano was home to vast herds of bison (frequently misnamed buffalo) and was traversed or inhabited by various Indian bands until the 1870s.

The present geographical limits of the Texas Panhandle are primarily political, however, and reflect the dominance of the national grid over natural frontiers. The Republic of Texas had claimed the Rio Grande as its western frontier all the way to its headwaters in southern Wyoming. Following annexation by the United States in 1845 and the territorial concessions resulting from the U.S.-Mexico War of 1846–1848, the status of this boundary became subject to negotiation. State boundaries reset by the Compromise of 1850 formed the “Panhandle,” defined by meridians of latitude and longitude as in most of the western United States. Texas’s western boundary was set at 103 degrees west longitude, and the northern boundary was set at 36 degrees 30 minutes, the Mason Dixon Line established in the Missouri Compromise of 1820 as the demarcation line between free and slave states (Texas had entered the Union as a slaveholding state). This boundary lay north of the Canadian River, the natural northern frontier of the Llano Estacado. The eastern edge was fixed at 100 degrees west longitude, the legendary frontier of agriculture and the beginning of the “Great American Desert.” Intersecting the Red River, this longitude formed the Panhandle proper.

The Llano Estacado is traversed by three principal rivers that all flow eastward: the Canadian, the Red, and the various branches of the Brazos. The canyons of the Canadian River contained flint quarries visited by nomadic food gatherers even before the recession of the last ice age about 8500 BCE. This lively commerce in flint was continued by later Indian groups. The Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument (TP10) preserves this history.

The Apache were probably the first indigenous people encountered by the Spanish in the sixteenth century in this region. The initial Spanish encounter with the Llano Estacado was Francesco Vazquez de Coronado’s expedition of 1540–1542, but the Spanish did not occupy the Llano. Only after the arrival in the 1870s of the pastores, New Mexican sheep breeders who organized small settlements, and the comancheros, New Mexicans who traded with the Comanche, was the Llano sparsely inhabited. Sheep grazing in the Panhandle peaked in the 1880s and then declined. All traces of the pastores’ settlements are on private property, and access is restricted. Each “plaza,” as those settlements were called, consisted of a line of rock and adobe houses and a stone sheepfold.

The most significant contribution of Spanish Mexicans to the culture of the Llano was the introduction of horses to North America. Spanish horses made possible the flourishing culture of the Plains Indians, who utilized the bison as the primary source of food and material culture. The Comanche, from their appearance on the High Plains about 1725 until the surrender of chief Quanah Parker at Palo Duro (see PH18) in 1875, were the masters of the southern bison plains.

Following the Civil War, buffalo hunters invaded the Llano stimulated by eastern markets for hides, railroad transportation available in Kansas, and the U.S. Army’s efforts to relocate the Indians on reservations by eliminating their source of life. The Indians’ final assault to claim their hunting grounds was led by Comanche chief Quanah Parker in 1874 at Adobe Walls (see Adobe Walls [Hutchinson County], p. 355). The U.S. Army’s campaign, known as the Red River War, resulted in 1875 with Quanah Parker leading his people onto the reservation in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).

With the Llano cleared of Indians and denuded of bison, the Panhandle was open to Anglo-American settlement. Ranchers came first. Charles Goodnight brought 1,600 head of cattle from Colorado to the Palo Duro Canyon in 1876, introducing cattle ranching to the Panhandle. Goodnight’s JA Ranch (see PH12) and other large land companies commanded the capital resources to fence the range in barbed wire, thus ending the open range and the epic cattle drives of the post–Civil War period. The largest of the great ranches was the XIT (TP3), three million acres in ten counties.

The railroads arrived in the 1880s. The Texas and Pacific (T&P) Railway, building west from Fort Worth along the route today followed by I-20, crossed the South Plains in 1881, platting Sweetwater and Big Spring. The Fort Worth and Denver City Railway, parallel to today’s U.S. 287, passed northwesterly through the Panhandle, generating settlement at Clarendon, Amarillo, Dalhart, and other points. The Chicago and Rock Island Railroad traversed the Panhandle from east to west, and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway system assembled a southwesterly route. The convergence of three of these railroads at Amarillo led to its ascendancy as the Panhandle’s principal city. With their aggressive promotion of agriculture and town settlement, the railroads brought people and development to the Panhandle and South Plains.

With vastly improved transportation, agriculture joined ranching in the economy of the region. In good years of plentiful rainfall and mild winters, farming and cereal cultivation flourished, as attested by the numerous grain elevators, feed silos, and cotton gins that today dominate the landscape. In bad years of blizzard and drought, ranchers and farmers alike suffered. In the twentieth century more intensive development of the region began. Several ranching structures have been assembled at the National Ranching Heritage Center (LK17.7) in Lubbock.

By 1910, the population of the eighty-eight counties of the Panhandle and South Plains (as defined for this volume) varied from around 5 to 25 percent settlers of European extraction, with most newcomers arriving with mid-western agricultural backgrounds. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 and national restrictions on European immigration following World War I altered this pattern. Braceros, farm laborers from Mexico, were recruited as seasonal field labor in this increasingly agricultural region. With the catastrophes of the 1930s, displaced sharecroppers from East Texas began to compete with the braceros for employment in the Llano’s cotton fields.

In the 1920s oil added to the region’s economy and culture. The West Texas oil fields stimulated the economy of Big Spring, provoked a boomtown at Borger, and catalyzed the growth of Pampa, previously a cattle town. In this period of prosperity communities matured, manifested most prominently in the founding of schools and colleges. Public schools are often the largest and most imposing buildings. Institutions of higher learning were established: West Texas University (now West Texas A&M) (PH17) at Canyon, Amarillo College (AO25) in Amarillo, and Texas Tech University (LK17) at Lubbock.

The period of prosperity ended with the Great Depression, further exacerbated by the “Black Blizzards” of 1934 and 1935, which turned the Panhandle into part of America’s Dust Bowl. The region had been overfarmed, and the protective ground cover of native grass was plowed into loose topsoil to be blown away by the voracious winds. Of the New Deal agencies, the Public Works Administration (PWA) subsidized courthouses, post offices, and new construction at Amarillo College. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) developed the state park at Palo Duro Canyon (PH18). Other programs, such as the Rural Electrification Administration, had their impact on the region, more so after World War II, when electrification supplied energy for irrigated agriculture. Also significant was the Rural Resettlement Administration’s Farm Workers Community (SL23) at Lamesa.

War-related activities helped revive the economy in the 1940s. Flying fields were located at Dalhart, Pampa, Childress, Lubbock, Big Spring, Sweetwater (SL5), and Amarillo, prisoner of war camps at McLean and Hereford, and a munitions plant at Amarillo. The Panhandle became a major center of helium production for the war effort.

The postwar era was epitomized by the increasing scale and mechanization of agriculture, augmented by irrigation from the Ogallala Aquifer, and by stock farming and feedlot operation in lieu of ranching. As one drives the Panhandle and South Plains today, the mobile irrigation rigs and green and gold John Deere dealerships at the entrance to every town rival, if not quite supplant, the grain elevators and abandoned Santa Fe stations of the previous era. Wind farms of three-hundred-foot-tall turbine generators, extending from horizon to horizon, are the newest addition to a landscape that is both agricultural and highly industrial.

Late-nineteenth-century buildings reflect the availability of materials and national stylistic trends brought by the railroads. Catalog-order houses and box-and-strip construction are similar to buildings found elsewhere in Texas from the same period. The earliest Anglo-American structures, dugouts and half dugouts, are found only in museum collections (LK17.7). Modern architecture came to the region in the 1930s.

The development of the national highway system in the 1920s and 1930s was a stimulus to modern architecture, and U.S. 66, “America’s Main Street,” passing through the Panhandle provides a case study of roadside architecture from the late 1920s to the early 1950s. Texas-based architects were joined by others of national and international reputation: Frank Lloyd Wright, Edward Durell Stone, Harwell Hamilton Harris, and Paul Rudolph. The attempt of Texas architects to integrate modern functional and regional themes is demonstrated at Texas Tech University (LK17) in Lubbock.

Despite its perceived remoteness, the Panhandle and South Plains region of Texas contains works that reflect all the cultural and architectural trends of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Writing Credits

Gerald Moorhead et al.

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