Briscoe County is on the edge of the Texas High Plains along the eastern Caprock escarpment, which separates the Llano Estacado from the rolling plains. It is bordered on the east by Hall County, on the west by Swisher County, on the north by Armstrong County, and on the south by Floyd and Motley counties. Briscoe County was separated from the Bexar District in 1876, organized in 1892, and named for Andrew Briscoe, a soldier in the Texas Revolution, who during the period of the republic became a judge and railroad promoter. The county comprises 887 square miles of irregular terrain ranging up to 3,300 feet in altitude; the elevation drops in Tule Canyon as low as 1,000 feet. The annual precipitation averages 10.5 inches, and the growing season averages 214 days a year. The average annual minimum temperature is 26° F in January, and the annual maximum is 94° in July. Silverton, the county seat, is five miles southwest of the center of the county, which is at 101°15' west longitude and 34°30' north latitude, sixty miles southeast of Amarillo.
Soils vary from gray and chocolate loams to light sand in the valleys of the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River and its tributaries, including Tule Creek. These streams have formed the canyons and breaks crossing the county's northern and eastern portions. Abundant native grasses grow in the broken areas, as do mesquite and cedar trees; cotton, wheat, and grain sorghums are raised on the arable lands above the Caprock.
Geologists have found evidence of occupation by pre-Columbian people throughout Briscoe County; ruins of irrigation canals or of stockades attest to a high degree of civilization. Plains Apaches followed these Indians and were displaced around 1700 by the Comanches, who found the canyon recesses abundant with buffalo, antelope, and other wild game. José Mares and Pedro Vial led trading expeditions through the vicinity in the late 1780s, as did Francisco Amangual in 1808. The advance party of the Texan Santa Fe expedition passed by the Quitaque country in 1841, and in 1852 captains Randolph B. Marcy and George B. McClellan followed the Prairie Dog Town Fork through the area of the present county. Since the breaks west of the site of present Quitaque contained springs, that area became a favorite haunt of Comanchero traders. White captives of Comanche raiders were often separated and traded to other Indian bands or Comancheros in the notorious Valley of Tears. That ended after Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie's Fourth United States Cavalry crisscrossed the county in pursuit of the "Mongols of the West" in 1872, and again after they battled the Indians at Tule Creek on September 25–27, 1874. On September 29 Mackenzie's troops slaughtered over 1,000 Indian horses at Tule Canyon after their crucial victory at Palo Duro Canyon the day before (seeRED RIVER WAR).
With the power of the Comanches broken, Briscoe County was open for White settlement. Although the "dean" of Comancheros, José Piedad Tafoya, had maintained a trading post at Los Lenguas Springs (Los Lingos Creek) between 1865 and 1867, no real settlement occurred until open-range cattle raising came to the area. In 1878 the Baker brothers and O. J. Wiren established the Quitaque (Lazy F) Ranch, which was added to the JA Ranch properties in 1882 and fenced the following year. The Quitaque, owned by Charles Goodnight and L. R. Moore after the former terminated his partnership with Cornelia Adair in 1887, was a primary influence on the county's early economy. The JA and Shoe Bar ranches owned land in the northeastern part of the county. By 1890 a few stock farmers and small ranchers had begun taking up lands on the periphery of the Lazy F.
The town of Quitaque began in 1890 as a stage stop. Merchants and other businessmen also trickled in; in 1891 Thomas J. Braidfoot laid out the townsite of Silverton and led the movement for the organization of the county. By the spring of 1892 enough settlers had arrived to bring Braidfoot's plan to fruition. A petition was circulated, and on March 15, 1892, the electorate officially organized the county and chose Silverton as its seat. J. N. Stalbird was elected the first county judge, F. D. Fisher county attorney, R. I. Hanna treasurer, T. L. Anderson clerk, and Miner Crawford sheriff. By 1900 the population had grown to 1,253, and six school districts had been established. Immigrant farmers introduced various crops to the region before World War I, the most promising of which were wheat, sorghum, and cotton. Cotton was first grown in Briscoe County on an experimental basis but became one of the county's most important crops by 1930. In 1900 only eight acres of Briscoe County land was planted in cotton; in 1910 over 3,400 acres were devoted to the fiber, then 7,535 acres in 1920, and over 36,000 acres in 1929. The county's first gin was built in 1912.
Between 1900 and 1930 ranches gave way to farms, until most of the arable lands were under cultivation by the early 1930s. The number of farms in the county grew from 170 in 1900 to 307 in 1910, then to 397 in 1920 and 679 in 1930. As farming expanded, the population grew, from 2,162 in 1910 to 2,948 by 1920 and to 5,590 by 1930.
Agricultural growth in the South Plains finally brought a railroad into the county. Until the 1920s all freight came in wagons, and later in automobiles, from Amarillo or Estelline. In 1925, however, the Fort Worth and Denver Railway decided to build into the region. A branch line was completed from Estelline westward to Quitaque and Silverton by 1927, then southward from Quitaque to Plainview and Lubbock in 1928. Also during this time graded auto roads replaced many of the old wagon routes; State Highway 86 was completed from Tulia via Silverton and Quitaque to Turkey, in Hall County. Later, State Highway 256 linked Silverton with Memphis and Clarendon.
During the Great Depression the agricultural economy suffered and contracted. The number of farms in the county dropped from 679 to 516 between 1929 and 1940, and cotton production dropped by more than 30 percent. Losses associated with the depression were also responsible for a drop in the county's population; 5,590 people lived in Briscoe County in 1930 but only 4,056 in 1940. The consolidation and mechanization of agriculture after World War II resulted in further dislocation of the farm populace, and the county's population dropped to 3,528 by 1950. A slight rise to 3,577 in 1960 was followed by sharp declines to 2,794 in 1970, 2,579 in 1980, and 1,971 in 1990. In 2014 there were 1,536 people living in the county. In that year Silverton and Quitaque had populations of 661 and 378, respectively; the remainder of Briscoe County's population resided on farms and ranches.
The voters of Briscoe County favored the Democratic candidate in virtually every presidential election from 1892 through 1968; the only exception occurred in 1952, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower took the county. 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 favored Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Democrat Michael Dukakis took the area in 1988, and Democrat Bill Clinton won a plurality of the county's votes in 1992. But the area's voters favored Republican Bob Dole in 1996, and George W. Bush easily carried the county in both 2000 and 2004.
In the early twenty-first century Briscoe County continued to rely heavily on agriculture as a major source of revenue. In 2002 approximately 66 percent of its land was dedicated to ranching and about 33 percent to crops; about 65 percent of its cropland was irrigated. Cotton, wheat, grain sorghums, peanuts, and hay were its most important crops. The county's agricultural income that year totaled $14,579,000, and crops accounted for $7,870,000 of that total. The Haynes Boy Scout and Girl Scout camps, named for N. W. (Mammie) Haynes, an area hotel owner and civic leader, are located in the breaks east of Silverton. Recreation facilities are available at Lake Theo, built in 1962 and named for rancher Theo Geissler, and at Mackenzie Reservoir and Caprock Canyons State Park, both opened in the 1970s.
Briscoe County Historical Survey Committee, Footprints of Time in Briscoe County (Dallas: Taylor, 1976). S. G. Reed, A History of the Texas Railroads (Houston: St. Clair, 1941; rpt., New York: Arno, 1981). Vertical File, Southwest Collection, Texas Tech University. Ernest Wallace, Ranald S. Mackenzie on the Texas Frontier (Lubbock: West Texas Museum Association, 1964).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Donald R. Abbe and H. Allen Anderson,
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed September 20, 2021,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.