Cochran County, on the southern High Plains, is bordered on the west by New Mexico, on the north by Bailey County, on the east by Hockley County, and on the south by Yoakum County. It was named for Robert Cochran, who died at the Alamo. The center point of the county is 33°35' north latitude and 102°50' west longitude, some fifty miles west of Lubbock. Cochran County covers 783 square miles of level prairie with elevations varying from 3,500 to 3,800 feet above sea level; loamy or sandy soils predominate. Many small lakes dot the county, including Silver Lake, a small salt lake known to Spanish explorers as Laguna Quemado. Rainfall in the area averages 15.62 inches a year; the average minimum temperature in January is 23° F; the average high in July is 92° F. The growing season lasts 189 days. Mesquite and grama grasses provide much of the ground cover. State highways 214 (north–south), 114 (east–west), and 125 (east–west) serve the county.
According to archeological evidence, Indians hunted in the area that is now Cochran County 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. In the 1600s Kiowas and Apaches made war and hunted in the region after acquiring horses from the Spanish. In the 1700s, Comanches of the Quahadi or Antelope band took the area in battle; relying on buffalo hunting and raiding of other Indians and Whites, they were dominant until the United States Army subdued them in the 1870s. In 1880, a detachment of Texas Rangers led by George W. Arrington stopped at Silver Lake on the way from Yellow House Canyon to New Mexico in search for the legendary "Lost Lakes."
In 1876 Cochran County was formed by the Texas legislature from land previously assigned to Bexar and Young counties. It was a land of grass, sand hills, mesquite, jackrabbits, coyotes, bison, and pronghorn antelope. Until the 1920s, when farmers began to move into the area, the county's economy was dominated by ranches; the huge XIT Ranch controlled much of the land. In 1879 and 1880, the Capitol Reservation was surveyed, and in 1885 its land title passed to the XIT, which covered about 3,000,000 acres of land in the region. In 1887 XIT manager A. G. Boyce divided the XIT into seven divisions; Cochran County was within the southernmost division (known as Las Casas Amarillas, or Yellow Houses). The Yellow House division was used as the XIT's breeding range.
The 1890 census does not show any residents in the county, and in 1900 only twenty-five people lived there. In 1901 George Washington Littlefield bought 238,858 acres, including some of Cochran county, for his great ranch; other parts of the county were ranched by C. C. Slaughter. The first headquarters of Slaughter's ranch was established in 1898 near the site of present-day Lehman, but was moved a year later to a site two miles southwest of Morton. For all his interest in cattle breeding to produce crossings of Herefords and shorthorns of record size, Slaughter foresaw other economic developments for West Texas. In 1907 he predicted that "the fertile Plains...will become the breadbasket of the great Southwest."
Nevertheless, as late as 1920 only fourteen ranches and farms had been established in the county, and only sixty-seven people lived there. During these first years of its existence, the judicial administration of the area was assigned to Hockley and Lubbock counties. A post office was located in the county at Mexline, now a ghost town, from 1903 to 1905. Another post office was established at Edwards in 1905, and named for the county's first storekeeper, Edward P. Kirkland, the postmaster. This post office closed in 1913. Until the 1920s, county residents got their mail from the Yoakum County post office of Bronco.
Cochran County began to grow rapidly after 1921, when Slaughter's heirs dissolved the Slaughter Cattle Company and began to sell its ranchlands to farmers. The area's limited rainfall had helped to deter settlement of the county for many years, but the new farmers tapped into underground water supplies a shallow depths. By 1925, there were fifty-six farms and ranches in Cochran County, which was now experiencing a minor farming boom. By 1930, 285 farms and ranches had been established in the county, and the population had increased to 1,963.
In 1924, after the influx of new farmers had begun, the county was formally organized, and a spirited political struggle ensued between Morton J. Smith, a rancher, and the Slaughter heirs. The Slaughter family, having failed on two earlier attempts to secure rail connections to their ranch, had founded Ligon four miles south of the site of Morton, in hopes that Ligon would become the county seat. Smith, meanwhile, was pushing to have the new town of Morton made county seat. In the 1924 election, Morton received seventy-nine votes to Ligon's twenty and thus became the county seat.
All of the towns presently in the county were established in the 1920s. When the Santa Fe Railroad built into Cochran County from Lubbock in 1925, the towns of Whiteface, Chipley, Lehman, and Bledsoe sprang up, and Ligon was moved four miles south to become Lehman. The railroad made Bledsoe Cochran County's largest town in the 1920s, but its population declined afterward as most of the county residents moved to Morton.
During the 1930s many residents were hurt by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The county had some of the worst sandstorms ever seen; new sand dunes as high as twenty-eight feet were reported. Nevertheless, the number of farms in the area increased to 431 by 1940, and cropland harvested in the county increased from 28,045 acres in 1929 to more than 90,500 acres in 1940. Many farmers in the county were turning to cotton during the 1930s, as land devoted to cotton production increased from about 5,300 acres in 1929 to almost 24,500 acres in 1940. By 1940 sorghum, which became the county's other important crop, was sown on more than 52,000 acres.
The discovery of oil in 1936 also helped to provide jobs and to stabilize the economy during this period. The first producing well in the county was drilled in 1936 at the Duggan ranch, south of Whiteface, and in 1938 Cochran County produced 95,458 barrels. Reflecting this growth during the 1930s, the county's population also increased significantly during this period, rising to 3,735 by 1940. The oil business boomed in Cochran County during World War II; production was 5,087,237 barrels in 1944. The area's agriculture also continued to grow; by 1947 county farmers worked on 108,000 producing acres, compared with 38,647 acres in 1935. Girlstown, U.S.A., was established on Duggan ranchland near Whiteface in 1949, and a Lehman gasoline plant started operations in 1954. As the county economy continued to develop in the 1940s and 1950s, the population grew to 5,928 in 1950 and to 6,417 in 1960. After the 1960s, however, it declined. The population was 5,326 in 1970, 4,825 in 1980, and an estimated 4,377 in 1990.
The decline is largely traceable to the trend toward larger farms and does not necessarily indicate poor economic prospects for the future. Most Cochran County farm families live in Morton and commute to their jobs. Prosperity since the 1960s owes much to the tapping of underground water for irrigation, mostly for cotton raising. By 1986 the county included about 300,000 acres of cropland, 110,000 of which was irrigated. . That year the county's agricultural income averaged $50 million a year, derived from cotton, sorghums, wheat, and cattle. Cattle range comprised almost 191,500 acres of county land, and the county had a feed lot and a horse-meat packery. By the mid-1980s the Santa Fe Railroad had abandoned its tracks in the county.
Oil production has continued to be significant for the local economy since World War II. County wells produced almost 6,902,000 barrels in 1948, almost 7,348,000 barrels in 1956, more than 6,215,000 barrels in 1960, and more than 12,315,000 barrels in 1978. Production dropped in the 1980s before rising slightly again in the early 1990s. In 1990, it was almost 8,266,000 barrels. The cumulative total was more than 428,357,000 barrels by 1991.
Most voters in Cochran County supported the Democratic candidates in virtually every presidential election from 1896 through 1964; the only exception occurred in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover carried the area. The area’s sympathies began to shift in 1968, when Democrat Hubert Humphrey won only a plurality of the county’s votes, and in 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon easily carried the area. Democrat Jimmy Carter won most of the county’s votes in 1976. Thereafter, however, the Republican candidates carried the county in every presidential election from 1980 through 2004.
The U.S. census counted 2,935 people living in Cochran County in 2014. About 38.2 percent were Anglo, 56.3 percent were Hispanic, and 4.8 percent African-American. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 63 percent had completed high school, and 10 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century oil production and agriculture were important elements of the local economy. More than 3,827,500 barrels of oil were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 503,034,125 barrels of petroleum had been taken from county lands since 1936. In 2002 the county had 292 farms and ranches covering 439,252 acres, 88 percent of which were devoted to crops and 31 percent to pasture. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $39,536,000; crop sales accounted for $37,239,000 of the total. Cotton, sorghum, wheat, peanuts, and sunflowers were the chief agricultural products.
Morton (population 1,885) is the county's largest town and its seat of government. Other communities include Whiteface (420) and Bledsoe (126). Local attractions include Last Frontier Days in July, a rodeo, and a museum.
State highways 214 (north-south), 114 (east-west), and 125 (east-west) serve the county. The county's communities include Whiteface (population, 420) and Bledsoe (126). Morton (population, 1,885) is the county's largest town and its seat of government. Cultural events include a rodeo, county fair, and a museum.