Denton, the county seat of Denton County, is on Interstate Highway 35 where it forks to become 35E to Dallas and 35W to Fort Worth near the center of the county. Less than forty miles north of the cities, Denton has become closely associated with the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. The city was not an early settlement. It was founded in 1857 in order to become the county seat, because residents wanted one located near the center of the county. Hiram Cisco, William Woodruff, and William Loving donated 100 acres as the site for the town, which, like the county, was named in honor of John B. Denton. A commission composed of Otis G. Welch, sometimes known as the "Father of Denton," county surveyor Charles C. Lacy, and Joseph A. Carroll laid out the city. Although it was established in 1857 and a courthouse was built on the north side of the square, Denton was not incorporated until 1866. The charter provided for election of a mayor and five aldermen. J. B. Sawyer was elected the first mayor.
In its early years Denton grew slowly from 361 persons, thirty-two of whom were Black, in 1870, to 1,194 in 1880. But in the decade of the 1880s the city experienced its largest percentage growth in any decade up to the 1980s. The population more than doubled, to 2,558 in 1890, as the Texas and Pacific Railway from Sherman to Fort Worth and the Missouri, Kansas and Texas to Dallas, both completed in 1881, gave the city a rail outlet. The Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe, built in 1887 across western Denton County through Valley View, Krum, and Sanger, missed Denton and was not connected to it until about seventy years later. Since Denton had only north-south rail connections, the town did not develop as a manufacturing and wholesale center.
The city's growth in its first century depended on its position as the county seat, its role as a local agricultural trade center, and its function as a center for light agriculture-related manufacturing concerns, like flour mills and cottonseed oil mills, and small cottage industries, like pottery kilns and blacksmith shops. After 1890, however, Denton did have a feature to distinguish it from the seats of other agricultural counties. It became a college town when North Texas Normal College (now the University of North Texas) was established in 1890 and the Girls' Industrial College (now Texas Woman's University) was established in 1903. Although the colleges' influence was slight for several years, they ultimately did more to establish the character of Denton than any other single influence. By the 1980s, with a total enrollment of almost 25,000 students, the two universities provided half the city's population and greatly influenced its cultural and economic life.
As in most other small towns in their early days, subscription schools in Denton were taught in churches and in the Masonic lodge building. But in 1884 the first public school, which was secondary as well as elementary, opened in a two-story building near downtown. Ten years later the public school received the equivalent of accreditation by becoming affiliated with the University of Texas. The earliest city newspaper, the Denton Review, which first appeared in 1864, was succeeded by the Denton Monitor in 1868. The Monitor was joined by several other short-lived papers in the 1890s, including the Denton County Record, and the Denton Chronicle. In 1899 the latter two combined as the Denton Record and Chronicle, which was still published in the 1990s as the only daily newspaper, the Denton Record-Chronicle.
The city's water supply depended entirely upon deep artesian wells up to the 1950s. In 1927, after Lake Dallas was constructed, Denton refused to make a contract with Dallas for water storage in that reservoir, but three decades later the picture had changed. Denton obtained water storage in Lewisville Lake after its dam was constructed in the 1950s. In the 1980s Denton contracted for water from a new reservoir, Lake Ray Roberts, under construction by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Since 1905 both water and electric utilities have been owned by the city.
From 1914 to 1959 Denton was governed under a charter that provided for a mayor-city commission form of government, but a new charter adopted in the latter year provided for a council-manager form of government, which continued in existence into the 1980s. City politics were often enlivened by the fact that in the 1970s about 1,000 university professors resided in Denton. Most of the time, however, town-gown conflict has been minimal.
Because the Denton area was settled mostly by small subsistence farmers who owned few slaves and because it is far from the Mexican border and without large agricultural demand for hand labor, Denton has had relatively few Black or Hispanic residents. By the 1980s, however, both universities enrolled a significant number of Black students as well as about 2,000 international students.
Denton grew rapidly from 1960, when the population was 26,844, to 1980, when it was 48,063. Proximity to Dallas and Fort Worth, with good interstate highway connections, played a major role. Steady and at times rapid growth of enrollment at the two universities was important also. In 1960 the city gained a third large state institution when the Denton State School, a school for the intellectually disabled, was established. By 1983 it had 1,014 students and several hundred employees. In 1954 the regional office of the Federal Civil Defense Administration moved from Dallas to Denton, and a few years later a large underground shelter was completed. For a time it was the only FCDA underground shelter and was designated as the place from which the president of the United States and other federal officials would direct the country in case of attack. After 1974 the city added many new residents as a result of the opening of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, which is closer to Denton than to many parts of Dallas and Fort Worth. Many airline employees and executives who traveled for major companies took up residence in southeast Denton, the most rapidly growing residential area of the city by the 1970s. Furthermore, such older manufacturing firms with significant employment as Moore's Business Forms and Morrison Milling Company were joined during the 1960s and 1970s by heavy manufacturing companies like Victor Equipment Company and Peterbilt, along with several additional light industrial concerns. All of them provided increased employment for local labor. The opening of Golden Triangle Shopping Mall in 1980 began drawing shoppers from surrounding areas. Agriculture, while proportionately declining in significance as an economic stimulus, nevertheless remained important to the city. In 1990 the population in 1990 was 66,270, and in 2000 it was 80,537.