Collingsworth County, on the eastern edge of the Texas Panhandle, is bordered on the east by Oklahoma, on the north by Wheeler County, on the west by Donley County, and on the south by Childress and Hall counties. The county is named for James Collinsworth, the first chief justice of the Republic of Texas, whose name was misspelled in the legislation that established the county. The center of Collingsworth County is located at approximately 100°15' north longitude and 34°57' west latitude, about five miles north-northwest of Wellington, the county seat. Wellington is ninety miles east-southeast of Amarillo. Collingsworth County occupies 894 square miles of rolling prairie and riverbreaks located to the east of the Texas High Plains. The county terrain is such that about half of its area is not suitable for farming. Therefore ranching remains strong in the county, balanced but not displaced by farms. The county's sandy and loam soils support a variety of native grasses as well as cotton, wheat, and grain sorghums. A small amount of oil and gas is produced in the northern part of the county. The land is broken by the Salt Fork of the Red River, which meanders eastward across the central portion of the county, as well as by its many tributaries, including Elm, Wolf, Spiller (or Buck), and Sand creeks. The elevation of the county ranges from 1,800 to 2,600 feet above sea level, the average annual maximum temperature is 99° F in July, the average annual minimum is 26° F in January, the average annual precipitation is 22.03 inches, and the growing season averages 212 days per year.
The area that is now Collingsworth County was occupied by Apaches from prehistoric times until about 1700, when Comanches and Kiowas moved in. These tribes dominated the Panhandle until they were militarily defeated by the United States Army in the Red River War of 1874 and removed permanently to reservations in Indian Territory. The Panhandle was thus opened for settlement. In 1876 the Texas legislature formed Collingsworth County of land previously assigned to Bexar and Young counties.
Buffalo hunters who occupied the area during and just after the Indian wars slaughtered the great herds and opened the frontier for cattlemen. Ranchers first appeared within the borders of Collingsworth County during the late 1870s; the Rowe Brothers Ranch established its large holdings in southwestern Collingsworth county during 1878. In 1880 the United States census reported six people (three White and three Black) living in Collingsworth County.
During the early 1880s a few huge ranches were formed and controlled most of the land in the county. In 1880 William and James Curtis claimed the southeastern part of the county for their Diamond Tail Ranch. During 1883 the Rocking Chair Ranch, an English venture like that of the Rowe brothers, bought alternate sections of most of the remaining land in the northeastern part of the county, as a means of controlling twice as much land as it actually owned.
During the late 1880s and early 1890s, however, great changes occurred in the ranching industry. The severe drought of 1885–87 and the even more destructive blizzard of 1886 wiped out many large ranches, while changes in Texas land laws made it more difficult for ranchers to control state lands desired by settlers. As a result the large ranches began to break up in the late 1880s and early 1890s and smaller spreads were established by newcomers, some of whom began farming on a limited scale. In 1890 there were eighty-nine farms and ranches in the county, eighty-seven of them 500 acres or smaller. About 19,800 cattle were counted in the area that year, while about 335 acres were devoted to the cultivation of wheat, corn, oats, and cotton. The census counted 357 people living in the county that year.
Immigration and economic development led to the county's political organization in 1890, when the growing population felt the need for local political control. In August of that year a petition of organization was circulated, and in September an election was held to choose county officers and a county seat. The site of a proposed town, Wellington, was elected over its competitors as the county seat. In 1891 the new city was platted, and the construction of a courthouse began.
County voters went Democratic in the presidential election of 1892, and, with three exceptions in 1928, 1952, and 1960, continued to vote for Democrats through 1968. The county then supported Republican candidates, with the exception of Jimmy Carter in 1976, through the presidential election of 2004.
Good wheat crops in 1889 and 1890 had indicated the land's agricultural potential, and newly arriving farmers and stock farmers eagerly purchased lands in Collingsworth County. By 1900 there were 218 farms in the area encompassing 584,692 acres (with 21,494 acres classified as "improved"), and the population had increased to 1,233. In the first years of the twentieth century agricultural development accelerated, and by 1910 the county had developed a mixed ranching and farming economy based on small and medium-sized ranches and cotton, corn, milo, and wheat farms. That year the census counted 806 farms in the county. Corn culture occupied more than 26,000 acres, and cotton culture took up almost 17,500; improved acres on the farms totalled almost 105,000 acres. The population of the county, 5,224, was quadruple that of 1900. By 1920 the county had 1,139 farms and ranches, with more than 49,500 acres planted in cotton and 80,200 acres devoted to various cereals, especially corn. By the late 1920s, all the land in the county suitable for farming was occupied, and in 1930 Collingsworth County maintained a mixed agricultural economy, with numerous cattle ranches and over 246,000 acres of farmland. Almost 26,400 cattle were counted in Collingsworth County that year, while local farmers planted corn, wheat, oats, alfalfa, milo, and, especially, cotton; about 162,000 acres was devoted to cotton production alone. In 1930 the census enumerated 2,112 farms and 14,461 residents in the county.
During the 1920s a dispute arose between Texas and Oklahoma over the actual location of the eastern boundary of the Texas Panhandle. After resurveying, and after a United States Supreme Court decision, the line was moved 3,800 feet to the east. Thus Lipscomb, Hemphill, Wheeler, Collingsworth, and Childress counties of Texas all grew slightly, at the expense of Harmon, Beckham, Ellis, and Roger Mills counties of Oklahoma (see BOUNDARIES).
Rail and highway systems that developed during the first half of the twentieth century helped to tie the area to national markets and to encourage economic development. In 1910 the Wichita Falls and Wellington Railway Company of Texas (which a year later became a Missouri, Kansas and Texas subsidiary) built a line from the Oklahoma-Texas border to Wellington. In 1932 the Fort Worth and Denver City Northern Railway Company built a line from Childress to Pampa via Wellington and Shamrock. Following the Federal Highway Aid Act of 1916 and the establishment of the State Highway Commission in 1917, many Texas counties began to build auto routes. Collingsworth County began its first road projects in 1917 by building unpaved roads. By the mid-1920s, good roads linked Wellington to Childress, Shamrock, Clarendon, and Memphis, while lesser routes tied the outlying towns and ranches to the major road system. During the 1930s and 1940s, paving and upgrading of the system began. Today a network of federal, state, and farm roads crisscrosses the county (see HIGHWAY DEVELOPMENT).
The Great Depression and Dust Bowl interrupted Collingsworth County's expansion during the 1930s. The number of farms in the county fell from 2,112 to 1,358 between 1929 and 1940, and the population of the county dropped from 14,461 to 10,331 during the same period.
Since World War II the population of the county has continued to decline steadily, partly due to the mechanization and consolidation of agriculture. Collingsworth County's population dropped to 9,139 in 1950, 6,276 in 1960, 4,755 in 1970, 4,648 in 1980, and 3,206 in 2000.
Oil and gas reserves were discovered in the county in 1936, but only modest production resulted: in 1956 petroleum production totalled only 795 barrels, and in 1960, 779 barrels. Since the 1970s production has been more impressive but still quite limited. In 1978 about 19,120 barrels of oil were pumped from Collingsworth County lands, and 13,106 in 1982; in 2000 the county produced 3,480 barrels. By that year, almost 1,227,000 barrels of oil had been produced in Collingsworth County since 1936.
By 1982 the number of cultivated acres in Collingsworth County had declined to 156,000, as marginal lands were returned to ranching. During the 1980s agricultural production in Collingsworth County averaged around $28 million annually, with a healthy mix of cotton, grain, and beef production. By 2000 peanuts had emerged as an important local crop, and the county was second in the state in acreage planted in peanuts that year. In 2004 some 113,900 acres were planted, of which almost 30,000 were irrigated, and cotton, peanuts, and wheat were the primary crops. That same year the county reported 32,000 head of cattle. In 2014 county communities included Dodson (106), Samnorwood (51), and Quail (17). The bulk of the county's 3,017 inhabitants resided in Wellington (2,077), the county seat.