Armstrong County, in the central Panhandle on the eastern edge of the Texas High Plains, is bounded on the east by Donley County, on the north by Carson County, on the west by Randall County, and on the south by Swisher and Briscoe counties. It is named for one of several pioneer Texas families named Armstrong, though the sources are unclear about which one. The center of the county lies approximately at 34°58' north latitude and 101°20' west longitude. Claude, the county seat, is in the north central part of the county thirty miles east of Amarillo. Armstrong County occupies 907 square miles of level plains and canyons. The northern half is generally level, as is the far southwest corner. The rest of the southern half of the county is covered by the great Palo Duro Canyon. The eastern end of Palo Duro Canyon State Scenic Park is in Armstrong County. The soil surface of rich deep gray and chocolate loams supports abundant native grasses as well as wheat and grain sorghums in some areas. The county is crossed by three streams, the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River in Palo Duro Canyon, the Salt Fork of the Red River, and Mulberry Creek, all of which run year-round to some degree. Elevation ranges from 2,300 to 3,500 feet, and the average rainfall is 19.98 inches per year. The average minimum temperature is 19°F in January, and the average maximum is 92° in July. The growing season averages 213 days per year.
The Panhandle was occupied by Paleo-Indians perhaps as early as 10,000 B.C. The Apaches were supplanted by the Comanches around A.D. 1700, when the area became a part of the Comanche homelands; Palo Duro Canyon was a favorite haunt of the Comanches. After the Comanche incursion, some Kiowa and Cheyenne Indians also moved into the area. Anglo-Americans have been resident here only since the 1870s. The Red River War of 1874 led to the final removal of the Comanches to Indian Territory. The campaign culminated in the battle of Palo Duro Canyon, fought on both sides of the present Randall-Armstrong county line. With the Indian threat removed, ranchers soon arrived.
Ranching came to Armstrong County and the Panhandle with Charles Goodnight and John Adair. In 1876 Goodnight brought a herd of 1,600 cattle into the Palo Duro Canyon. A short time later, in 1877, he formed a partnership with John G. Adair from Ireland. Their ranch, the JA, grew to encompass over 1,335,000 acres by the early 1880s. This included most of Armstrong County and parts of five surrounding counties. Although the partnership ended and the assets were divided in 1886, the two ranches continued to dominate the area well into the twentieth century. During 1887 the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway built across the county as it extended its line from Fort Worth across North Texas to New Mexico and Colorado. This provided the local ranchers with improved access to markets and eventually encouraged settlers to enter the area. Homesteaders, intending to raise stock and crops, began to trickle into the county in the late 1880s. They initially settled near the townsites laid out by the railroad: Washburn, Claude, and Goodnight.
Still, the county remained almost totally devoted to ranching throughout the rest of the century. While the area's population rose from 31 in 1880 to 944 in 1890 and 1,205 in 1900, the bulk of this population engaged in ranching or stock farming, or worked for the railroad. The 1890 census, for example, counted 104 ranches and farms in the area encompassing more than 413,000 acres of land, but less than 100 acres was devoted to growing staple cereals such as corn, oats, and wheat. In 1900, only 933 acres was devoted to corn, oats, wheat, and cotton combined. Meanwhile, the number of cattle grew. About 15,000 cattle were counted in Armstrong in 1880, while about 54,000 cattle were counted in both 1890 and 1900.
Although the county was marked off from Bexar County in 1876, it remained unorganized until 1890, when the growing population felt the need for a local government. Accordingly, the county was organized in March of that year, with Claude as the county seat.
In the early years of the twentieth century, the great ranches began to be broken up and land was sold to newly arriving farmers. Between 1900 and 1910, the number of farms in Armstrong County grew from 172 to 384. Many newcomers planted cotton; by 1910, cotton was grown on more than 18,000 acres in the county. Cotton culture dropped precipitously between 1910 and 1920, however, and a number of farmers went broke. Between and 1920 and 1930, however, the number of farms increased again from 373 to 472, as more than 40,000 acres was turned to wheat production. Meanwhile, the large ranches, though reduced in size, continued to dominate the local economy. The number of cattle in the county declined to fewer than 35,000 in 1910 and about 23,000 in 1920, but rose again to almost 46,000 in 1929.
The county's population statistics during these years mirrored its agricultural developments. The number of people in the county rose from 1,205 in 1900 to 2,682 in 1910 and to 2,816 by 1920. Then the demand for wheat led to another spurt in population so that by 1930 the number had reached 3,329.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the agriculturally based economy suffered; only 408 farms remained in Armstrong County by 1940, and the county required many years to recover. County population dropped from 3,329 in 1930 to 2,495 in 1940 and 2,215 in 1950. This drop in population, first caused by the depression and subsequently spurred on by advances in agricultural mechanization and technology, continued into the 1970s. In 1960 only 1,966 people lived in Armstrong County, and the 1970 total was 1,895. During the 1970s the area's population began to increase again, rising to 1,994 by 1980, to 2,021 by 1990, and to 1,955 by 2014.
The towns in the county have now seen more than a century of growth and decline. Goodnight, laid out in 1887, flourished in the 1890s and early 1900s, even maintaining a college, Goodnight College, from 1898 to 1917. By 1980 only twenty-five people lived in the hamlet, and by 2000 its population had dropped to eighteen. Likewise, Washburn prospered in the 1890s and early decades of the twentieth century. It was established in 1887 and included a railroad section house on the Fort Worth and Denver City line, a depot, stock pens, and a coal chute. By 1888, the Panhandle line from Washburn to Panhandle had been finished. This community, which had been so active in the 1890s, had only seventy residents in 1980; in 2000, 120 people lived there. Wayside, a farming community in the southwest corner of the county, has grown but little since the 1920s, and had only forty people in 1980, and thirty in 2000. Like Washburn, Claude, the county seat, was also laid out in 1887. It grew into the leading town in the county, yet only numbered 1,112 people in 1980 and 1,199 in 1990. In 2014, 1,219 people lived there.
The voters of Armstrong County favored the Democratic candidate in virtually every presidential election from 1892 through 1964; the only exception occurred in 1952, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower took the county. After 1968, when Republican Richard Nixon carried the county over Democrat Hubert Humphrey, the area began to trend Republican. Though Democrat Jimmy Carter carried the county in 1976, the area went Republican in every other presidential election from 1972 through 2004.
The transportation system of the county reflects the nature of the local ranching-farming economy. U.S. Highway 287, originally 370, follows the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway from Fort Worth to Colorado. It was built in the early 1920s and remains the county's only major highway. State roads and farm-to-market roads built between the 1930s and 1950s converge on Claude. State Highway 207, which runs north from Post to Perryton, passes through Claude, and local farm roads link Claude to other communities in the county.
The economic structure of Armstrong County reflects its evolution and its ranching-dominated economy. Ranches, including the JA Ranch (which still operated in the area in 2005), occupied about 68 percent of the land in the county in 2005; most of the rest was devoted to crops, including wheat, sorghum, cotton, and hay. County leaders were also working to attract tourists into the area, and the Texas Department of Agriculture chose Claude as one of the state's "Texas Yes! Hardworking Rural Communities." No meaningful amounts of oil and gas are produced in Armstrong County. Recreation and tourist attractions include Palo Duro Canyon State Scenic Park, the pioneer Goodnight Ranch Home, the Old Settlers Reunion, and the Caprock Roundup, which is held each year in July.