Donley County, in the eastern Panhandle just east of the Llano Estacado, is bordered on the north by Gray County, on the west by Armstrong County, on the east by Collingsworth County, and on the south by Briscoe and Hall counties. It was named for Stockton P. Donley, a pioneer lawyer. The center of the county is at 30°00' latitude and 100°50' longitude. Clarendon, the county seat, is near the center of the county, seventy miles southeast of Amarillo. The county occupies 929 square miles of rolling prairie and broken rangeland. Its sandy clay, deep loam, and sandy loam support a variety of native grasses as well as cotton, grain sorghum, wheat, and corn. Oak, cottonwood, elm, mesquite, and other trees can be found near the rivers and streams in the county. The Salt Fork of the Red River rises to the west in Armstrong County, runs eastward across the center of Donley County, and is fed by Beckard, Allen, Carroll, Saddler's, and Whitefish creeks. Several tributaries, including Mulberry, McCullum, Hall, Big Sandy, Brush, West and East Bitter, Oaks, Indian, and Buck creeks, head in Donley County and flow southward toward the South Fork of the Red River. Most of these streams are intermittent, and those that flow year-round do so in a trickle. Elevations in Donley County range from 2,200 to 3,200 feet above sea level, and the average annual rainfall is 20.74 inches. The average minimum temperature is 26° F in January, and the annual average maximum is 96° in July. The growing season averages 206 days per year.
The area that is now Donley County was part of the domain of the Plains Apaches until the eighteenth century, when Comanches and Kiowas entered the region. Several Spanish and American explorers came through the area; in 1787 Pedro Vial crossed the county, and in 1788 Santiago Fernández followed Vial's route. Americans did not enter the region until 1852, when captains Randolph B. Marcy and George B. McClellan led their military surveying exploration of the Red River system into the area. The region remained the Indians' domain until the Red River War of 1874–75. On September 7, 1874, during Col. Nelson A. Miles's campaign, Lt. Frank D. Baldwin and a scout fought their way out of a Cheyenne ambush on Whitefish Creek in the northeastern section of what is now Donley County. The subsequent defeat of the Indians and their confinement to reservations in Indian Territory left the area open to White settlement. In 1876 the area was separated from the jurisdiction of the Bexar District, briefly assigned to Wegefarth County, and finally designated Donley County.
That same year Charles Goodnight and John Adair established the huge JA Ranch in Palo Duro Canyon. The entire southwestern part of Donley County fell under the control of this operation, which covered all or part of six Panhandle counties. Soon other ranchers and settlers arrived to claim land. The first group of settlers, Methodists from the New York area, moved into Donley County intending to set up a colony. The colonists were sponsored and led by Lewis Henry Carhart, a young Methodist minister, who purchased 343 sections of the newly formed Donley County and established his colony at the junction of Carrol Creek and the Salt Fork of the Red River. The small settlement was organized in 1878 and named Clarendon, for Carhart's wife, Clara; it came to be called Saints' Roost by local cowboys, who disdained its prohibition regulations. Clarendon grew slowly. By the early 1880s it was one of only three towns in the Panhandle and was a small regional trade center. According to the census, seven ranches or farms had been established in Donley County by 1880, and 160 people lived there. No cattle were reported in the area that year, but the agricultural census did count 14,620 sheep and 7,592 horses. The county was politically organized in 1882, when residents formed a local government and chose Clarendon as the county seat. Ten other unorganized West Texas counties were attached to it for judicial purposes at one time.
Other ranchers followed the Methodist colonists into the county. The RO Ranch occupied much of the eastern part, while Carhart's Quarter Circle Heart Ranch filled a large area in the center. The Diamond Tail and Spade ranches, headquartered elsewhere, owned large acreages in the central and southeastern parts of the county. Lesser ranches like the Morrison brothers' Doll Baby and Bill Koogle's Half Circle K, as well as stock farms, filled the gaps between larger cattle outfits.
The county remained largely unchanged until the arrival of the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway in 1887 as it built westward from Fort Worth to Colorado. As the railroad crossed the county, it passed five miles south of Clarendon, prompting that settlement's residents to move the town to a new site on the tracks in October 1887. By 1888 little remained of the old Clarendon; the site was later inundated by Greenbelt Reservoir. The relocated Clarendon was a division point on the railroad until 1902. Shops and offices were built there in 1887–88, and in 1887 Clarendon College, a Methodist School, was established.
By 1890, 1,056 people were living in Donley County, and the population increased to 2,756 by 1900. This growth can be attributed to the expansion of ranching, railroading, and, after 1890, farming. As early as 1890 fourteen farms existed in the county, but these were more stock farms than crop farms. By 1900, however, 188 farms and ranches were in operation in the county; "improved" land comprised 14,504 acres, with 1,716 acres devoted to corn production and much smaller areas planted in wheat and cotton. Farming became firmly established in the area between 1900 and 1910, when 601 farms and ranches could be found in the county, with almost 20,000 acres devoted to corn and almost 5,000 acres planted in cotton.
This trend continued for the next two decades, as the cultivation of cotton, forage crops, and fruit trees rapidly expanded in the area. By 1920 cotton was cultivated on 18,240 acres and various cereals on more than 68,000 acres; sorghum culture occupied 51,000 acres, and the county's new orchards were cultivating more than 30,000 fruit trees, mostly peach. Poultry was also rapidly becoming an important part of the county's economy; by 1920 local farms had 57,683 chickens and produced 262,431 dozen eggs. Cotton culture continued to expand rapidly in the 1920s, and by 1929 took up about 77,600 acres of county land. Meanwhile, cattle farming remained an important part of the county's economy: about 32,000 cattle were counted in the county in 1920, and almost 35,500 in 1930. The rise in the number of county farms between 1910 and 1930 clearly illustrates the trend: 601 farms had been established in the area by 1910, 810 by 1920 and 1,364 by 1930. Population trends followed the rise of the farmers' fortunes. The county had 5,284 residents by 1910 and 8,035 by 1920. The population peaked as the farming economy reached its zenith in 1930, when 10,262 residents were reported.
Many local farmers suffered devastating losses during the Great Depression, and their hardships were aggravated by the extended drought of the early 1930s. Cotton production dropped significantly during these years—by 1940 it occupied only about 38,500 acres—and many farmers were forced off their land. By 1940 only 877 farms and 7,487 residents remained in Donley County.
Since the 1940s the mechanization of agriculture has combined with other trends (such as the severe droughts of the 1950s) to continue depopulating the county. Small farming declined, and agribusiness replaced the small family farm. Between 1940 and 1970 the population dropped steadily, to 6,216 in 1950, 4,449 in 1960, and 3,641 in 1970. The population rose slightly during the 1970s to hit 4,075 by 1980, but then began to drop again: by 1992, an estimated 3,696 people lived in the county. By 2000 the county's population had grown slightly to 3,828.
Since the early twentieth century Donley County has acquired a network of roads that has contributed to its development and made transportation more convenient for the area's residents. By the mid-1920s U.S. Highway 287 (originally U.S. 370) linked Fort Worth to Amarillo via Wichita Falls, Vernon, Childress, Memphis, and Clarendon. State Highway 70, from San Angelo to Perryton, runs north and south through the county and intersects U.S. 287 at Clarendon.
Educational and recreational facilities have also enhanced the county's economic and social life to a certain extent. Clarendon College, originally established in 1887, was placed under the supervision of the city of Clarendon in 1905. In 1927 the school closed, but local citizens reopened it in 1928 as a publicly funded junior college. Recreational facilities were built in 1966 when Greenbelt Reservoir, on the Salt Fork of the Red River, was completed. Although the principal use of the reservoir is to provide municipal and industrial water, recreation has developed as a major secondary use. Howardwick, a small resort settlement, was developed on the shores of this lake in the late 1970s and 1980s.
The voters of Donley County favored the Democratic candidate in virtually every presidential election from 1884 through 1948; the only exception occurred in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover took the county. After 1952, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower carried the county over Democrat Adlai Stevenson, the area began to trend Republican. Though Stevenson narrowly took Dallam County in 1956, Lyndon Johnson beat Republican Barry Goldwater among the county's voters in 1964, and Jimmy Carter carried the area in 1976, the Republicans dominated the area during the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first; Republican presidential candidates won a majority of the county's voters in every election from 1980 through 2004.
By the 1980s Donley County had become an agricultural center based on both cattle raising and farming, with supplemental income from the college, the lake, and some small distribution companies. The county produces a small amount of natural gas. In the 1980s agricultural income averaged around $28 million a year, of which 65 percent came from cattle, hog, and horse production. Cotton, corn, sorghum, wheat, and alfalfa revenues constituted the rest of the agricultural economy. In 2002 the county had 440 farms and ranches covering 584,340 acres, 83 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 15 percent to crops. In that year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $73,614,000; livestock sales accounted for $64,736,000 of the total. Cattle, cotton, peanuts, wheat, alfalfa, and hay were the chief agricultural products. As of 2014, the majority of the county's 3,543 residents live in its towns. Clarendon (population, 1,944) is the county's largest town and its seat of government, and supports the Saint's Roost Museum. Other towns include Hedley (318), Howardwick (393), and Lelia Lake (70).