Archer County is located in north central Texas, bounded on the North by Wichita County, on the west by Baylor County, on the south by Young County, and on the east by Clay and Jack counties. Archer County's center is at 98°30' west longitude and 35°30' north latitude, twenty-five miles south-southwest of Wichita Falls. The county comprises 900 square miles of the Central Rolling Red Plains, Central Rolling Red Prairies, and Western Cross Timbers. Soils range from sandy loams and clays to stony soil on the plains and prairies and sand or loams in the timbers. Major deposits of oil and gas, copper deposits, and beds of sand and gravel make up the natural resources of this generally agricultural county. The Big Wichita, the Little Wichita, the West Fork of the Trinity, and the Brazos rivers drain Archer County. The Big Wichita River touches the county's northwestern corner, and the diversion dam of the Wichita Valley irrigation system is located at this point. Lakes Wichita, Kickapoo, and Arrowhead furnish soft water for county towns as well as Wichita Falls. The altitude ranges from 900 to 1,400 feet, the yearly rainfall averages 25.26 inches, the temperature averages range from 28° to 98° F, and the growing season lasts 220 days.
Before White settlement, Apaches, Wichitas, Tawakonis, Kichais, Caddoes, Comanches, and later Kiowas camped and hunted in the area now known as Archer County. Spaniards and Anglos crossed through the area at various times, and in the eighteenth century French traders operated a post close to the two small mesas in the west central area later called Little Arizona. Kichais defeated the Texas Rangers in the battle of Stone Houses in southeastern Archer County in 1837, and Kiowas led by Kicking Bird defeated United States cavalrymen led by Capt. Curwen B. McLellan in the battle of the Little Wichita River in the northwestern part of the county in 1870. On January 22, 1858, the Texas legislature marked off Archer County from Clay County and named it in honor of Republic of Texas commissioner Branch Tanner Archer. No settlers had yet arrived. By 1875, however, the United States Army had driven all the Indians from North Texas and the area was open to settlement.
In 1874 the first American settler, Dr. R. O. Prideaux, originally from England, settled on the West Fork of the Trinity River in southeastern Archer County. He had observed that the buffalo he had shot there were fat. Soon other cattlemen and farmers moved in, and scattered herds of longhorn cattle were introduced to different parts of the county's grasslands. Along with buffalo hunters, the pioneer cattlemen led the way for other American settlers by eliminating great herds of buffalo and antelope. Imaginary lines were drawn and agreed upon between herd owners. Cowboys rode these lines daily to drive stray animals back to their respective territories. Barbed wire was introduced in the fall of 1880, and great pastures were fenced. Herd owners divided the county into three portions. The T Fork and 99 pastures controlled the north section, the OX Ranch and Circle Ranch (see PIERCE, ABEL HEAD) pastures formed the central part, and the LM, TIP, JJ, CLA Bar, Mule Shoe, GAR, Figure 3, Lazy H, and other smaller ranches occupied the southern portion.
Meanwhile, farmers were also moving into the area. Colonists located vacant or unpatented lands throughout the county and built dugout or log, board, or stone houses. By 1880, 596 people lived on fifty-three ranches and farms in Archer County. Over 56,000 cattle were counted by the United States agricultural census in the county that year, along with 1,423 sheep. Over 400 acres was planted in corn in the county in 1880, and smaller areas were planted with oats and wheat. Cotton, grown on about 100 acres, produced forty-three bales.
In November 1879 farmers combined with the small ranchers in Archer County and presented a petition to the commissioners' court of Clay County calling for the political organization of Archer County. Larger cattle interests, bitterly opposed to organization, protested and delayed the process, but in the spring of 1880 the court ordered an election. Archer County was organized on July 27 of that year.
When election results designated Archer City the county seat, Dr. C. B. Hutto, a dentist from South Carolina and founder of the town, gave the county a one-story box house with four small rooms and one large room to be used as a courthouse.The large room served as a courtroom and office space for the county attorney. The county clerk, sheriff, tax collector, surveyor, and treasurer each used a smaller room. Many of the early county officials were Republicans, since numerous early settlers had migrated from old Union states, particularly Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio; but many county Democrats voted for them, anyway, on the basis of ability. Settlers active in county politics included W. B. Hutcheson, T. M. Coulson, William Hutton, and A. J. Ikard.
The Great Plains environment tested Archer County's new settlers early with a blizzard-drought-blizzard series in 1885–87. The bitter winter of 1885–86 killed thousands of cattle in the county; the Circle Ranch was bankrupted because of its losses. Then, in the summer of 1886, hot west winds dried up vegetation and water sources, and a severe drought followed. Cattle drifted down dry creeks to the West Fork of the Trinity River. Some of these animals were scattered as far as Fort Worth, and many were lost permanently. Another severe winter then followed the drought. A state census revealed that the county's population declined from 596 in 1880 to 521 in 1887.
Growth resumed almost immediately, however, as farmers continued to move into the area. By 1890, 2,101 people were counted in Archer County, living on 278 ranches and farms; by 1900, 356 farms had been established in the county, and the population had increased to 2,508.
Railroads played an important role in attracting settlers to the county during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1890 the Wichita Valley Railway crossed northern Archer County, giving rise to the towns of Holliday, Mankins, and Dundee. In 1908 the Wichita Falls and Southern Railway pushed south through Archer City on its way to the coal supply of Newcastle in neighboring Young County. In 1909 the Henrietta and Southwestern began to serve Scotland and Archer City, and the next year the Gulf, Texas and Western built through Megargel on its way to Seymour. This railroad construction helped to tie the county to the national marketplace, and encouraged immigration into the area. By 1910, 6,525 people lived in Archer County and 792 farms had been established. Ranching declined somewhat during this period, but continued to be a crucial mainstay of the local economy. In 1890 more than 75,000 cattle were counted in Archer County; in 1900, 65,627 were counted; in 1910, there were just over 41,000 cattle in the county, and about the same number in 1920.
Meanwhile, farmlands expanded dramatically, and crop production helped to balance the economy. Between 1890 and 1920 farmers in Archer County opened tens of thousands of acres to the production of forage crops as well as such cereal crops as corn, wheat, and oats; by 1920, wheat culture occupied more than 37,000 acres; wheat was the county's most important crop at that time. Cotton culture also expanded significantly. In 1890 cotton acreage totaled 221 acres, and in 1900, 2,150. Cotton was one of the county's most important crops by 1910, however, when more than 18,000 acres was given to its production. After dropping significantly between 1910 and 1920, cotton experienced another brief boom after 1920; in 1930, more than 20,000 acres of Archer county land was planted in cotton.
In spite of significant increases in wheat production between 1910 and 1920, however, general farming activity in Archer County had already begun to decline by 1920. The number of farms in the county dropped from 792 in 1910 to 760 in 1920, and in spite of the 1920s cotton boom their number dropped to 692 in 1930. The hard times of the Great Depression in the 1930s shook out many farmers and cut seriously into the county's crop production. By 1940 only 501 farms remained in Archer County; only 4,391 acres was planted in cotton. Dairy products, marketed in Wichita Falls, had already become an important part of the economy, along with poultry production. The county's population dropped from its all-time high of 9,684 in 1930 to only 7,599 in 1940.
But before and after the onset of the depression, agricultural fluctuations were offset by petroleum production. Oil was discovered in Archer County in 1911, and by 1930 the county was a major shallow producer. The production in 1940 was 4,124,500 barrels, and World War II helped to stimulate oil activity further; in 1944 more than 8,162,000 barrels was produced, and almost 12,000,000 barrels in 1950. Production in the county gradually declined, however; 3,760,086 barrels were produced in 1979, 2,814,915 in 1990, and 1,510,840 in 2000. By January 1, 2001, more than 489,066,000 barrels of oil had been taken out of Archer County lands since 1911.
The voters of Archer County favored the Democratic candidate in every presidential election from 1900 through 1968. After 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon carried the county over Democrat George McGovern, the area began to trend Republican. Though Democrat Jimmy Carter carried the county in 1976, the area went Republican in every presidential election from 1980 through 2004.
The population of Archer County steadily declined after 1930 until the 1970s. The number of people living there dropped to 7,599 in 1940, 6,816 in 1950, 6,110 in 1960, and 5,759 in 1970. During the 1970s the county's population began to rise again. In 1980 7,266 people resided in Archer County; by 1990 the population had increased to 7,973, and in 2000 there were 8,854 people living in the area. As of 2014, the population of the county was 8,811 Postwar dairy production increased, though grazing remained strong. The county's population centers, Archer City, Holliday, Windthorst, Megargel, Lakeside City, Scotland, Mankins, Dundee, and part of Wichita Falls, are connected by U.S. highways 281, 277, and 82, and by Texas highways and roads. An annual rodeo, a livestock show, and a rattlesnake roundup provide entertainment. Archer County has produced two fiction writers of national stature, Benjamin Capps and Larry McMurtry.