Baylor County, in North Central Texas, is bounded on the south by Throckmorton County, on the east by Archer County, on the north by Wilbarger County, and on the west by Knox and Foard counties. Its center is 30º37' north latitude and 99º12' west longitude, fifty miles southwest of Wichita Falls. The county is level to hilly. It comprises 845 square miles with an average elevation of 1,250 feet. The land is drained by the Salt Fork of the Brazos and the Big Wichita rivers. The soils vary from sandy to loam and red, and the ground cover is largely grasses, mesquites, and junipers. The average annual rainfall is 26.36 inches. Temperatures range from an average high of 98º F in July to an average low of 28º in January. The growing season averages 214 days.
Before it was settled, the area that is now Baylor County lay within the range of the Wanderers, a nomadic Comanche band, who relied upon buffalo for food, clothing, shelter, tools, and ornaments. In 1848 special Indian agent Robert S. Neighbors found 250 Comanche, fifty Tonkawa, and ten Wichita lodges on Lewis Creek at the site of present-day Seymour. When the first surveys were made in the area in 1853 the Indians were still using it as a major hunting ground for buffalo, a fact that made settlement nearly impossible. This continued until the final defeat of the Comanches in 1874 by the United States Army and their removal to a reservation in Indian territory (see RED RIVER WAR). Baylor County was separated from Fannin County in 1858 and named for Henry W. Baylor, a surgeon in a regiment of Texas Rangers during the Mexican War. The county was attached to Jack County for administrative and judicial purposes.
The first settlement was at Round Timber, nineteen miles southeast of the site of present Seymour. Tradition holds that the first settler was Col. C. C. Mills, who may have been at Round Timber during the Civil War and was certainly there by 1870. He was driven out by Indian raids, but returned by 1875 to join J. W. Stevens, who had arrived a year earlier.
This was the era of free-grass ranches, a time in which farmers and ranchers sometimes violently contested for land. Settlers from Oregon, led by Col. J. R. McClain, moved to the site of Seymour in 1876, for example, but were driven off when cowboys ran cattle over their corn. In 1879 the Millett brothers—Eugene C., Alonzo, and Hiram—came from Guadalupe County to begin ranching in Baylor County. They ran a tough outfit and used their armed cowhands to intimidate would-be settlers and the citizens of newly founded Seymour. Violence and contention plagued the county during the first years of settlement. Baylor County's first two county attorneys were forced to resign, and in June 1879 county judge E. R. Morris was shot and killed by saloon keeper Will Taylor. Later the Texas Rangers gradually brought peace.
Baylor County was formally organized in 1879 with Seymour as county seat. That same year both Seymour and Round Timber were assigned the county's first post offices. By 1880, fifty farms and ranches encompassing 13,506 acres had been established in the county, supporting a population of 708 people; more than 13,506 cattle were counted in the county that year. Baylor County's first newspaper was the Cresset, which began publishing in 1880 and lasted for several years. It was followed by the Seymour Scimeter, which failed in 1886. Early settlers were tested by a drought and severe winters in 1886 and 1887, but these hard times were followed by seasons of bumper wheat crops, which led to a settlement boom. By 1890 there were 169 farms and ranches in the county, and the population had climbed to 2,595.
In 1890 county residents raised $50,000 to insure the completion of the Wichita Valley Railway, which linked Seymour to Wichita Falls, fifty-two miles to the east. By 1892, the Texas Gazetteer reported that Seymour was a thriving town, with two newspapers (the Monitor and the News), the First National Bank, two physicians, and a dentist. The town also had three hotels and was home to a number of lawyers, storekeepers, shoemakers, saddlers, and county officials who served its population of 1,900. In 1895 another newspaper, the Baylor County Banner, printed its first edition; it was still being published in the 1990s. By 1900 the county had 327 farms and the population had grown to 3,052. Ranching was still a crucial component of the local economy, and the number of cattle in Baylor County had increased to almost 45,000. But crop farming was quickly rising in importance as more and more farmers moved to the area to grow wheat, oats, corn, and, increasingly, cotton.
Between 1900 and 1910 Baylor County had another boom as old ranchland was divided up into hundreds of new farms. By 1910 there were 1,040 farms in the county (616 of them operated by tenants), and cotton had replaced wheat as the most important crop. Only seventy-seven acres of Baylor County land was planted in cotton in 1880, and only 3,065 in 1900. But by 1910, cotton cultivation had expanded to more than 38,000 acres in the county. During that same period, land devoted to wheat production had dropped from about 9,500 acres to 2,621 acres. Meanwhile, the number of cattle in the county also dropped from almost 45,000 to about 25,000. The cotton boom brought with it a marked increase in the county's population, which rose from 3,052 in 1900 to 8,411 in 1910. That same year the Gulf, Texas and Western Railroad reached Seymour. Droughts and falling prices after World War I helped to put an end to this boom, however, and the local economy contracted. By 1920 only about 29,600 acres was planted in cotton, and the number of farms had dropped to 811. The population of the county also fell; by 1920, 7,027 people remained in the county. During the 1920s Baylor County had another brief but intense cotton boom. By 1929 more than 66,000 acres was devoted to cotton, and the number of farms in the county had increased again to 867. Meanwhile, the population rose to 7,418 by 1930. The Great Depression of the 1930s put an end to this expansion, however, and by 1940 only about 27,000 acres was planted in cotton in Baylor County; the number of farms had dropped to 718.
Petroleum production helped diversify the local economy and nurse it through the depression. Oil was discovered in Baylor County in 1924; in 1938 more than 520,000 barrels of crude was pumped from county lands. In 1948, production was 507,268 barrels; in 1958, 1,658,508 barrels; and in 1963, 2,073,000 barrels. By the 1980s production ranged between 300,000 and 400,000 barrels a year; in 1990, 313,912 barrels was produced. By 2001, however, production had declined to 146,751 barrels. By that year more than 57,407,611 barrels had been taken from Baylor County lands since discovery in 1924.
Until recently Baylor County has been predominantly Democratic. Since the elections of 1952 Republicans have outpolled Democrats in Baylor County in seven presidential races—in 1972, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004—and since 1986 Republicans have beaten the Democrats in every gubernatorial race.
The population of the county dropped steadily after World War II. From its 1940 population of 7,755, the number of people in Baylor County declined to 6,875 in 1950, to 5,221 in 1970, to 4,919 in 1980, to 4,385 in 1990, and to 4,093 in 2000. As of 2014, the population was 3,592. The county remained fundamentally agricultural. The United States agricultural census for 2002 reported that the county harvested 636,391 bushels of wheat that year. The census also credited the county with 195,800 bushels of oats and 65,225 bushels of sorghum. Cotton production was 5,870 bales, and 73,079 cattle and lesser numbers of other livestock were reported to round out a fairly well-diversified agricultural economy. The total agricultural income for the county averaged nearly $20 million in the 1980s and increased to an average of $40 million in the 1990s. In 2002 the arable land included 18,000 irrigated acres. The county had three banks with total assets of $73,205,000. Except in Seymour there is little industry in the county, and employment in towns is mainly for local enterprises.
Baylor County is served by the Fort Worth and Denver Railway (Burlington Northern). U.S. Highway 183/283 runs from north to south across the county, and U.S. 82/277 goes from southwest to northeast. These are supplemented by several farm-to-market and local roads. Baylor County communities include Bomarton, Red Springs, Round Timber, Westover, and Seymour. Recreation in the county is —mainly outdoor activities. The oldest event is the annual Cowboys' Reunion, which was first held in 1896 and in its early years featured Indians; it has been renamed the Settlers' Reunion. Lake Kemp, on the Wichita River, was opened in 1924 behind its new dam and in the 1980s provided recreational as well as irrigation water for Wichita Falls and other towns.