Dickens County, in Northwest Texas, is bordered on the north by Motley County, on the west by Crosby County, on the south by Kent County, and on the east by King County; its center point is 33°38' north latitude and 100°45' west longitude fifty miles east of Lubbock. The county was named for J. Dickens, who died at the Alamo. The broken terrain is surfaced by sandy, chocolate, and red soils. Croton and Duck creeks drain the county. The flat northwest part of Dickens County is above the Caprock on the Llano Estacado, and the rest, with rolling terrain, is below. The altitude over the county's 931 square miles varies from 2,000 to 3,000 feet. Trees include mesquite, hackberry, and cottonwood. Grasses are blue grama, sideoats, grama, white tidena, vine mesquite, and Indian grass. The average annual rainfall is 20.24 inches. The average minimum temperature in January is 28° F; in July the maximum is 95° F. The growing season is 217 days. Dickens County produces about $21.5 million worth of goods annually, mostly from beef cattle, horses, cotton, wheat, and sorghums. The county has no manufacturing and only a modest amount of oil. The road network includes U.S. Highway 82 (west to east) and State Highway 70 (north to south).
The Wanderers Who Make Bad Camps Band of the Comanches dominated the region before White settlement. The Comanches became fine horse-mounted warriors and hunters after they adapted their culture to the utilization of Spanish horses in the seventeenth century. The Comanche Indians hunted buffalo in summer and fall to provide most of their material needs. They met in an informal general assembly to decide the organization of their communal hunts, and war leaders made final decisions. A historian writes, "The buffalo was the lifeblood of Comanche culture; its near-extermination sounded the death knell for the kind of life Comanches had come to know." White hunters cleared the land of buffalo and wild horses in the 1870s, while Colonel Ranald S. MacKenzie's Fourth United States Cavalry subdued the Comanches in 1874 and 1875. MacKenzie's base of operations against the Indians was located at Anderson's Fort, also called Soldiers Mound, an army supply camp located near the site of present-day Spur. In 1876 the Texas state legislature formed Dickens County from land previously assigned to Bexar County.
Until the first years of the twentieth century, settlers shunned the area because of its remoteness and slight rainfall. Instead of farms, huge cattle ranches (the Spur, Pitchfork, and Matador, took up most of the land. The Spur Ranch was started, for example, in 1878, with 1,900 head of cattle that Jim Hull drove from Refugio County. In 1880 only three homes, a schoolhouse, and twenty-eight people were in the county; most of the residents were apparently ranchhands.
The owners of the Spur, however, attempted to encourage settlement; in 1884, for example, S.W. Lomax, manager of the ranch, conducted an agricultural experiment on company lands. Cheap land-sold at two dollars an acre-inspired settlers like A. J. Hagins, who moved by covered wagon to Dickens County in 1889. Hagins joined other settlers such as W. L. (Bud) Browning, J. L. Gates, the Wilmores, and the Crawfords, and established a farm near old Fort Griffin. Hagins housed his wife and six children in a one-room dugout. Wood and water were readily available, and the pioneers grew corn. In 1890 the census counted 295 residents in the county.
In 1890 Hagins planted the first cotton in Dickens County on school land obtained from the state for fifteen cents an acre and 5 percent of the valuation. To avoid the 100-mile haul he had to make to Jones County for ginning of his first crop, Hagins built a gin in 1891. That same year, the county was politically organized, with the town of Espuela (located on land belonging to the Espuela Land and Cattle Company, which now owned the Spur Ranch) initially designated as the county seat. Many of the settlers objected, however, because the Espuela Company refused to turn the townsite over to the county. Of course, the underlying issue was whether the county and its government would exist for the benefit of the company or the nesters who were moving into the area in increasing numbers. The nesters commanded more votes, however, and in 1892 successfully forced an election to challenge the company on the issue. Dickens was subsequently chosen as the county seat, and by 1893 the town had a courthouse, a hotel, two stores, and a wagonyard. By 1900, 197 farms and ranches had been established in the county, and the population had increased to 1,151. About 1,500 acres of county land was planted in corn, about 400 in cotton, and about 16 in wheat. Local farmers also raised poultry; 9,180 fowl of all kinds were counted in Dickens County that year by the United States agricultural census. Meanwhile, the cattle industry continued to dominate the local economy, as almost 58,750 cattle were counted in the county.
Growth in agriculture and population accelerated during the early twentieth century. In 1906 E. P. and S. A. Swenson headed a syndicate to purchase the Spur Ranch and encourage colonization. Under the administration of manager Charles A. Jones, the Spur sold excellent farm acreage to farmers at reasonable prices. The Stamford and Northwestern Railway initiated service in 1909, thus ending the county's isolation and encouraging marketing; that same year, Oran McClure began publishing the Texas Spur in Dickens for county-wide subscribers. By 1910 there were 349 farms and ranches in Dickens County, and the population had increased to 3,092.
Windmills, a characteristic landscape feature throughout West Texas, provided water for thirsty livestock, cooling for various purposes, and irrigation for the garden. Several of Dickens County's windmills became well known to county residents, including the Poison, where a nester had apparently tried to poison a cowboy; the John's (1889), said to be the county's first; and the Courthouse Windmills, which dominated the courthouse square from 1890 to 1935. In 1910 Texas A&M established an agricultural experiment station on land donated by the Spur Ranch. The station came to contribute significantly to water and soil conservation, brush control, range management, and livestock production (see AGRICULTURAL EXPERIMENT STATION SYSTEM).
Between 1910 and 1930 the area developed rapidly, as thousands of new farmers moved into the county, encouraged by a cotton boom. Cotton farming took only 400 acres of county land in 1900, and only 5,481 as late as 1910; by 1920, however, a total of 35,494 acres was devoted to the crop, and by 1929 cotton cultivation in Dickens County had expanded to 95,525 acres. Production of cereal grains, especially sorghum, also increased during this period, and poultry production grew; in 1929 county farms raised more than 52,000 chickens and sold 158,773 dozen eggs. Meanwhile, the number of farms in the area steadily increased to 705 in 1920, to 967 in 1925, and to 1,228 in 1929; the population rose to 5,876 in 1920 and to 8,601 in 1930.
Many local farmers suffered devastating losses during the depression years of the 1930s, however, and their hardships were aggravated by the intense drought of 1934 and the failure of livestock feed crops. Farmers and cattlemen applied for federal aid to feed cattle and hogs, or accepted twelve dollars each for sickly animals that were destroyed as unfit for marketing. Meanwhile, the cotton boom collapsed; by 1940, cotton was raised on only 49,364 acres. Many farmers were driven out of business. By 1940 only 920 farms and ranches remained in Dickens County, and the county's population had dropped to 7,847.
Since the 1940s the mechanization of agriculture has combined with other factors (such as the severe droughts of the 1950s) to continue depopulating the area. After 1940 the county's population dropped to 7,177 by 1950; to 4,963 by 1960; to 3,737 by 1970; and to 3,539 in 1980. In 1992, an estimated 2,571 people lived in Dickens County. Oil production in 1982 was 93,179 barrels, valued at over $3 million.
The U.S. Census counted 2,218 people living in Dickens County in 2014. About 63.2 percent were Anglo, 29.6 percent were Hispanic, and 5.7 percent African American. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 71 percent had completed high school, and 8 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agriculture, hunting leases and a prison unit were important elements of the county’s economy. In 2002 the county had 396 farms and ranches covering 567,000 acres, 75 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 24 percent to crops. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $11,777,000; livestock sales accounted for $6,853,000 of the total. Cattle, cotton, forage, small grains, and horses were the chief agricultural products. More than 1,660,600 barrels of oil were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 17,167,369 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1953, when oil was discovered in the area.
Dickens (population, 265) remains the county seat; other communities include include Spur (1,247), McAdoo (75), Afton (15). County attractions include hunting, fishing, and the Soldiers Mound site.