Dallas County

By: Lisa C. Maxwell

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: June 18, 2021

Dallas County, in north central Texas, is bordered by Kaufman and Rockwall counties to the east, Tarrant County to the west, Denton and Collin counties to the north, and Ellis County to the south. Dallas is the county seat and largest city. The county's center point is at 32°46' north latitude and 96°48' west longitude. Dallas County comprises 902 square miles of the primarily flat, heavy Blackland Prairie. Elevations in the county range from 382 to 850 feet above sea level. The Elm Fork and West Fork of the Trinity River meet near downtown Dallas. The county is drained by the Trinity River and its tributaries, including White Rock, Mountain, Fivemile, Tenmile, Muddy, Duck, Turtle, and Mesquite creeks. These streams feed reservoirs for municipal water and recreational use, including Lake Ray Hubbard, Lake North, Joe Pool, Mountain Creek and White Rock Lakes. The terrain is generally undulating. The eastern two-thirds of the county and the land along the western border is surfaced by slightly acidic clayey soils with loamy topsoil. The rest of the county's soil is alkaline and loamy. The county has tall grasses with pecan and oak trees along streams and mesquite on the prairies. Though the rich soil is the main mineral resource of Dallas County, gravel and sand have been mined from the Trinity floodplain, cement has been made from the local soft limestone, and bricks have been manufactured from the county's clay. Temperatures range from an average high of 95° F in July to an average low of 36° in January. The average rainfall is thirty-six inches a year. The growing season lasts 235 days. Interstate highways 20, 30, 35E, and 635 and U.S. highways 67, 75, 80, and 175 cross the county, in addition to other prominent roads, and the area is also served by several railroad lines, including the Union Pacific, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and the Kansas City Southern

The primary Indians in the region were the Anadarkos, a Caddoan group, who settled in villages along the Trinity River. Probably the first European contact with the area occurred when the Moscoso expedition entered the northeastern corner of the future Dallas County in 1542. In the eighteenth century French explorers and traders were in the vicinity. In 1760 a missionary from Nacogdoches, José Francisco Calahorra y Saenz, made treaties with the Indians throughout the area. In 1819 or 1820 sixty Cherokee warriors and their families arrived from Arkansas under the leadership of Chief Bowl, a Scots-Indian. After a three-year battle with prairie tribes, during which the Cherokees lost a third of their warriors, the Cherokees withdrew. In 1837 rangers from an expedition under the command of Lt. A. B. Van Benthuysen camped on Turtle Creek after an engagement with Indians fifty miles to the north. By 1840 American explorers had begun to enter the area. The first to remain was John Neely Bryan, who arrived in November 1841 with his dog and a Cherokee friend, Ned.

The future Dallas County east of the Trinity was then part of Nacogdoches County, and the part west of the Trinity belonged to Robertson County. The area was an ideal place to settle because of its rich soil and ample water. The Republic of Texas was planning to build the Military Road from Austin through the site of future Dallas to the Red River. Other roads leading to Jefferson, Houston, and the Gulf Coast soon crossed at Dallas. The underlying Austin chalk made a firm foundation for roadways. The location on the Trinity was even more valuable because at the time it was thought that the river was navigable from the Gulf of Mexico (see RIVER NAVIGATION). Settlers found useful trees, including post oak, bois d'arc, pecan, and mesquite. The available game included deer, buffalo, bear, and jackrabbits. Settlers in the area had difficulties with Indians, however, and many had settled for protection at Fort Bird or Bird's Fort, located near the site of present-day Euless. In 1841 the Republic of Texas had authorized the Texas Emigration and Land Company, also known as W. S. Peters and Associates or the Peters colony to recruit settlers for a 1,300-square-mile area. The land claims of the Bird's Fort settlers were blocked by the Peters colony grant, and in the spring of 1842 Bryan invited several families to join him at his dugout site. Deed records referred to this site as the new town of Dallas by August 1842. Indians continued to attack outlying settlements in the vicinity, and in 1843 Sam Houston, president of the Republic of Texas, went to Grapevine Springs, later called Coppell, to meet with Indian leaders. When the chiefs failed to show up, the meeting was rescheduled at Fort Bird, and in 1843 a treaty was signed that kept the Indians west of the site of present-day Fort Worth. By the mid-1840s there were several other communities in the area in addition to Dallas. Farmers Branch, near the Peters colony field office in Stewartsville, had more residents than Dallas at the time. Cedar Springs, 3½ miles northwest of Dallas, and Hord's Ridge, the predecessor of Oak Cliff, were competing with Dallas for settlers.

In 1845 voters in the future Dallas County approved the annexation of Texas to the United States by a vote of 29 to 3. On March 30, 1846, Dallas County was officially formed by order of the state legislature from portions of Nacogdoches and Robertson counties, and named probably for George Mifflin Dallas, vice president of the United States under James K. Polk (see DALLAS, TEXAS). At Dallas, the temporary county seat, a log cabin was built to serve as a courthouse. In 1850 an election was held to find a permanent county seat. A runoff election was held after the first vote yielded 191 votes for Dallas, 178 for Hord's Ridge, and 101 for Cedar Springs. Dallas beat Hord's Ridge 244 to 216 in the runoff. By 1850 Dallas County had a population of 2,743, and by 1860 the number of residents had almost tripled to 8,665. Though the slave population rose faster than the White population, Dallas County had fewer slaves than some other Texas counties. In 1850 the 207 slaves were 8 percent of the population, but by 1860 slaves constituted 12 percent of the population. These 1,074 slaves were owned by 228 slaveholders. In 1850 the county had two churches and ten one-teacher public schools with a total of 170 pupils. The population resided on 278 farms with a value of $175,502. The largest crop was corn, with 94,870 bushels, and cotton was a minor crop with only 44 bales. Cotton was originally grown primarily for home use, but by 1849 Farmers Branch had the first cotton gin in the county. By 1860 wheat was a major Dallas County crop, and many gristmills had been constructed to grind the grain. In 1850 stockmen raised more hogs (6,089) than cattle, but by 1860 cattle numbered 35,431 and sheep 20,974, while hogs numbered only 16,113.

In 1861, Dallas County's citizens voted overwhelmingly for secession. The area was not invaded during the Civil War, but ten companies were mustered in the county and 1,300 Dallas County men fought for the Confederacy. The county population rose during the war, however, in spite of the exodus of soldiers. In 1861, since Dallas County was the food-producing center for North Texas, the Confederate government established a general quartermaster's and commissary headquarters for the army of the Trans-Mississippi Department there. Officers and their families moved to the county. Slaveholders from other areas of the South moved into Dallas County with their slaves in order to avoid attack by Union troops. Lancaster, in southern Dallas County, was the site of a pistol factory. After the war came a prosperous era. The population rose from 8,665 in 1860 to 13,414 in 1870, with the Black population growing more rapidly than the White. Dallas residents were urged by newspapers to comply with their conquerors as the best way to recover from the loss of the war. People from other areas of the South, primarily Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi, moved to Dallas, for they saw North Texas as a new land with plenty of opportunity to grow wheat, which did not require slave labor as cotton did.

After Reconstruction Dallas County voted Democratic until 1928, when it voted overwhelmingly for Herbert Hoover, the Republican candidate, who faced the "wet" Catholic Alfred E. Smith in the election. Subsequently, Dallas County voters maintained their Democratic voting habits until 1952, when they voted for Dwight D. Eisenhower. Afterwards, until the 1990s the county voted overwhelmingly for the Republican candidate, including Richard Nixon in 1960. The exception was the 1964 election, when Texan Lyndon B. Johnson won the county.

Between 1880 and 1920, Dallas County remained primarily rural and agricultural, although manufacturing was growing. Cotton peaked in 1900, when the county produced 41,012 bales. After 1900 the cotton crop declined every year. Hogs, horses, and cattle other than dairy cattle were also at their peak in 1900. Wheat and oats had their largest crops in 1920—584,399 and 1,448,541 bushels, respectively. In 1920 the county had its largest number of farms, 5,379. After that year, farms became less numerous every decade as farming became less important in Dallas County and manufacturing became increasingly significant. In 1860 the county had fifteen manufacturers that produced $341,239 worth of products; in 1920 the 492 manufacturers produced more than $116 million worth of products and employed 8,708 people. The population kept pace with the rapid expansion of manufacturing. It rose sixfold, from 33,477 in 1880 to 210,551 in 1920. By 1900, 70 percent of the population resided in Dallas, Oak Cliff, Carrollton, Lancaster, Garland, Grand Prairie, Mesquite, and Richardson. The proportion of Black to White residents remained stable at around 15 percent Black and 85 percent White.

The lack of transportation in Dallas County during the antebellum period slowed the county's growth. From 1843 to 1850 Houston, Texas, and Shreveport, Louisiana, were the nearest markets, and goods had to be shipped by oxen. By the 1860s Jefferson, Texas, was the nearest market and port. In spite of its great distance from markets, Dallas County had the advantage of being at the crossroads of two Republic of Texas roads, the Military Road from Austin to the Red River, completed in 1842, which crossed the Trinity at Dallas, and Preston Road. In 1846 Dallas County Commissioners approved the building of roads to contiguous counties. The easy fordability of the Trinity River in Dallas County increased the trade traffic. Optimistic attempts to make the river navigable failed, however. The Trinity had seven or eight crossings in the antebellum period, including Dawdy's Ferry, Record Crossing, California Crossing (used by Forty-niners on their way to California), and Eagle Ford, where a community was founded. But later, even the fords could not prevent the river from becoming a barrier to growth of the Dallas County economy. The first bridge across the river in Dallas County was built by Alexander Cockrell in 1855, but it survived only a few years before it was washed away in one of the Trinity's frequent floods. In 1872 a toll bridge was built. When purchased by the county in 1878 it became a free bridge. Dallas County also needed a railroad to ship its agricultural goods to market and continue its growth. In 1872 the Houston and Texas Central Railroad built through Dallas County from south to north, and such communities as Hutchins, Oasis, Wilmer, and Richardson were founded on the line. In 1873 the Texas and Pacific Railroad ran through Dallas from east to west and gave rise to many other communities, including Grand Prairie and Mesquite. By 1885 Dallas County had five railroads. Two of them, the Dallas and Wichita, which had become part of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas line in 1881, and the Dallas, Cleburne and Rio Grande, originated in Dallas. Dallas had tracks running in every direction, and they changed hands and names frequently. Other communities—Rowlett, Carrollton, Irving, Rylie, Simonds, Seagoville, Sachse—were founded on the railroad lines. Farmers Branch and Kleberg grew as a result of their contact with the railroads, and other communities disappeared as the tracks bypassed them. By 1910, Dallas County had ample transportation, with 1,200 miles of public roads and 295.36 miles of railroads. Four years later fourteen railroads served the county, including ten steam and four electric. Two of the steam lines, the Missouri, Kansas and Texas and the Texas and Pacific, had their general offices at Dallas. Four electric interurban railways provided transportation between Dallas County communities and other nearby towns, such as Fort Worth and Sherman, beginning in 1902. Only one interurban remained by 1935, as automobiles increased in number.

Throughout its history Dallas County had a vigorous Hispanic population, but it was difficult to detect in official records because until the 1960s Mexican Americans were listed as White in the census and were not enumerated as a separate group. In 1839 Mexican traders were in the Dallas area, and in 1850 Dallas County had its first Hispanic resident listed in the census. Downtown Dallas had Hispanic businesses by 1875. The arrival of the railroad attracted Mexican settlers both as railroad workers and as passengers on their way to agricultural jobs. The Mexican-American population increased from 2,838 in 1920 to 5,901 in 1930.

The years of the Great Depression and World War II accelerated changes in Dallas County that had actually begun in the 1920s. After 1920 the county became less rural and more urban, as manufacturing became the primary source of employment. The number of Dallas County farms sharply declined, from 5,379 to 4,830, between its peak in 1920 and 1930. The depression hastened the decline; by 1940 the number of farms had declined 35 percent from its 1920 high, and their value had dropped 61 percent. Agricultural production had declined drastically as well, though cotton declined less than other crops. Between 1940 and 1950 agriculture remained primarily stable. Livestock became much less significant. Between 1920 and 1950, however, cattle raised for nondairy uses more than tripled in number. While agriculture was declining, manufacturing was seeing rapid development. People were leaving farms in rural Dallas County and surrounding counties to move to Dallas and other Dallas County communities. During the Great Depression unemployment became a problem in the county, and the city and county government applied to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation for relief. In 1933 the County Board of Welfare and Employment reported fewer cases than before. Manufacturing became increasingly important from 1920 to 1947. The number of manufacturers more than doubled to 1,068 by 1947, with 38,936 employees—more than four times the number of 1920—and products valued at almost $2.5 million. World War II brought defense factories to Dallas County that supplied jobs for young people from rural areas. Communities such as Grand Prairie, grew up around these plants. The county had two airports in 1931 and twenty-one by the late 1940s. The population almost tripled between 1920 and 1950, when it reached 614,799. The percentage of African Americans dropped only slightly, from 15 percent to 13 percent. Dallas remained the largest community, with a population of 432,927, but other communities were expanding rapidly. In 1950, Dallas County was 89.8 percent urban.

As Dallas County became more urban and industrialized the education of its residents improved. In 1940, 34 percent had received at least a high school education, but by 1990, 77 percent had completed high school. The number of high school graduates continued to rise until the 1980s, when it began to level off. Although the number of schools and students increased, the number of school districts dropped from thirty-five in 1948 to fifteen in the 1980s. These comprised 284 elementary, 69 middle, and 62 high schools, as well as special-education and vocational schools. In the 1990s the Dallas County Community College District operated seven campuses. By 1949 public and private colleges in the county included Southern Methodist University, Dallas Theological Seminary, and Baylor College of Dentistry. Others, such as the University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson, the University of Dallas in Irving, and Amber University in Garland were founded later. Besides the colleges there were a variety of technical and vocational schools teaching almost every conceivable skill.

Farming became insignificant in Dallas County compared to manufacturing. The number of farms declined from 3,519 in 1950 to 927 in 1987, though the average value of each farm rose more than twentyfold. Wheat production increased through the mid-1980s and began to fall again, but still remained above the 1950s level. Other crops dropped dramatically, especially cotton, which declined to its lowest level since 1850. The number of horses remained stable, at around 3,000 from 1950 to the 1980s, but all other livestock decreased dramatically. Manufacturing, in contrast, grew rapidly. The number of manufacturers in Dallas County more than tripled between 1947 and 1987, from 1,068 to 3,616. The number of employees in manufacturing grew even more rapidly, from 38,996 to 182,500. In addition to manufacturing, other businesses were burgeoning as well. Every major industry at least tripled its number of employees between 1953 and 1989. The three largest employers in 1953 were manufacturing, retail trade, and wholesale trade. By 1989 jobs in the service industry, primarily hotels, were employing the most people—314,777. Retail trade followed with 189,678, and manufacturing employed 184,698. This boom time lasted into the early 1980s for all types of employers. Subsequently, between 1980 and 1989, construction fell off by 33 percent and manufacturing declined.

The population increased rapidly from 1950 to the 1990s, as it had throughout the county's history. By 1950, 89.8 percent of Dallas County was considered urban. In 1950 the whole county was officially classified as the Dallas Metropolitan Statistical Area by the census bureau. The population tripled between 1950 and 1990, from 614,799 to 1,852,810. While both the Black and White populations increased, the percentage of Blacks in the population grew from 13 percent in 1950 to 20 percent in 1990. In 1980 the Hispanic population made up 9 percent of the population, but by 1990 it was 17 percent. In the 1980s the county had thirty-one district courts, twenty-one county courts, and twelve justices of the peace, as well as twenty-five fire departments, twenty-four police departments, and four jails. Thirty-five hospitals were in operation. A number of lakes provided recreation or supplied water within the county, including Bachman, Ray Hubbard, Mountain Creek, Texaco, Vilbig, and White Rock. The county had more than 28,000 acres in parks—one county park and 572 municipal parks.

In elections before the Civil War, the voters of Dallas County supported the Democratic candidates for president in 1848, 1852 and 1856; in 1860 John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party received most of the area’s votes. In 1872, the first year after Reconstruction that county voters could participate in a national election, Democrat Horace Greeley carried the county, and thereafter the Democratic candidates won majorities in Dallas County in almost every presidential election from 1876 through 1944. The only exception occurred in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover won there. The county’s political loyalties began to shift in 1948, however, when Democrat Harry Truman won only a plurality of the county’s votes, partly because that year the States Rights Party captured many votes that otherwise might have gone to the Democrats. In the next presidential election in 1952, Republican Dwight Eisenhower carried the county; and the Republican presidential candidates won there in almost every election from 1956 through 2004. The only exception occurred in 1964, when native-son Democrat Lyndon Johnson took most of the county’s votes.

The U.S. census counted 2,518,638 people living in Dallas County in 2014. About 31.7 percent were Anglo, 39 percent were Hispanic, and 23.1 percent African-American. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 75 percent had completed high school, and 27 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century Dallas County was a hub for national telecommunications and transportation networks, and data processing and electronics firms were also important elements of the local economy. In 2004 the Dallas-Fort Worth area was ranked as the seventh-largest media market in the United States. Meanwhile agriculture continued to decline in importance. In 2002 the county had 730 farms and ranches covering 89,112 acres (46% fewer than in 1997). About 54 percent of the county’s agricultural land was devoted to crops, 34 percent to pasture, and 7 percent to woodlands. Farmers and ranchers in the area earned $18,986,000 in 2002; crop sales accounted for $16,780,000 of the total. Horticultural crops, wheat, corn, and horses were the chief agricultural products.

Dallas (population, 1,255,343), the second-largest city in Texas, is the county’s seat of government; other sizeable cities include Garland (235,508), Irving (230,662), Mesquite (144,330), part of Richardson (104,037, with 70,654 in Dallas County), and Rowlett (59,203). A number of museums were located in Dallas County, including the Dallas Museum of Art, the Science Place, and the Mexican American Cultural Heritage Center. The county had a plethora of special events, including the State Fair of Texas, the Dallas Grand Prix, the Cotton Bowl Classic football game, and the Byron Nelson Golf Classic. Interstate highways 20, 30, 35E, and 635 and U.S. highways 67, 75, 80, and 175 crossed the county, in addition to other prominent roads.

Darwin Payne, Dallas: An Illustrated History (Woodland Hills, California: Windsor, 1982). Anne Stark, A History of Dallas County (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1935). WPA Texas Writers' Project, Dallas: Guide and History (1940).

  • Counties
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas
  • North Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Lisa C. Maxwell, “Dallas County,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 09, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/dallas-county.

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June 18, 2021

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Dallas County
Currently Exists
Place Type
Altitude Range
350 ft – 870 ft
Civilian Labor Counts
People Year
1,368,022 2019
Land Area
Area (mi2) Year
871.3 2019
Total Area Values
Area (mi2) Year
908.6 2019
Per Capita Income
USD ($) Year
58,993 2019
Property Values
USD ($) Year
293,207,253,090 2019
Rainfall (inches) Year
37.6 2019
Retail Sales
USD ($) Year
49,142,694,624 2019
Temperature Ranges
Min (°F) Max (°F) Year
37.3 96.0 2019
Unemployment Percentage Year
8.9 2019
USD ($) Year
32,384,232,494 2019
Population Counts
People Year
2,635,516 2019