Hansford County, on the northern edge of the Panhandle, is bordered on the north by Oklahoma, on the west by Sherman County, on the south by Hutchinson County, and on the east by Ochiltree County. The approximate center of the county lies at 36°15' north latitude and 101°20' west longitude. Spearman, the county seat, is in the southeastern part of the county, about ten miles from the county center and approximately eighty miles northeast of Amarillo. The county, named for John M. Hansford, comprises 907 square miles of level and rolling prairies cut by the intermittent Frisco, Coldwater, Palo Duro, and Horse creeks. The region's black, sandy, and loam soils support abundant native grasses as well as wheat, corn, sorghum, oats, and other small grains. Hansford County, on the High Plains, ranges from 2,950 to 3,300 feet in altitude and receives an average annual rainfall of 22.16 inches; it has an average maximum temperature of 94° F in July and an average minimum of 20° in January. The growing season averages 186 days year.
An Apachean culture occupied the Panhandle-Plains area in prehistoric times; the modern Apaches emerged subsequently but were pushed out of the region about 1700 by the Comanches, who dominated the area until the mid-1870s. During the early 1870s buffalo hunters traversed the area from the east, slaughtering the great southern herd as they went. In 1873 James H. Cator and his brother Robert, both buffalo hunters from England, established an outpost in what became Hansford County. They named this semipermanent camp Zulu, and it soon became known as Zulu Stockade. Over the next four years the buffalo were wiped out. In the Red River War of 1874 the Comanches were conquered; they were removed to Indian Territory in 1875 and 1876.
The two Cator brothers and their sister Clara, together with some other hunters, remained to take up ranching and were soon joined by others seeking new ranges for beef cattle. In 1876 the Texas legislature marked off Hansford County from land previously assigned to Young and Bexar districts; the new county was administered by authorities in Wheeler County. By 1880 the United States census counted eighteen people living in the county. That same year the county's first town, Farwell, was established near the center of the county; in 1887 Hansford, a stage stop on the old Tascosa-Dodge City Trail, was established near Farwell on Palo Duro Creek. In 1889, when the county was politically organized, Hansford outpolled Farwell in a county-seat election.
Though ranching early became the mainstay of the county's economy, it did not develop as quickly or on as large a scale as in other counties of the western and southern Panhandle. As late as 1890 only twenty-three ranches were in operation in the county; the agricultural census reported 4,704 cattle that year. By 1900 the number of ranches had dropped to twenty-two, with 15,715 cattle and nineteen sheep reported. No crops were mentioned in the census. Much of the county was at one time owned by the huge Turkey Track Ranch, while the rest was occupied by more modest ranching operations that cultivated farm crops in the creekbottoms. The census counted 133 residents in 1890 and 167 in 1900. Farwell and Hansford were still the only towns in Hansford County at the beginning of the twentieth century.
After 1900 farmers began to move in. Land speculation and the foundation of several local land companies after 1900 led to the arrival of both Anglo-American and immigrant farmers. In 1909, for example, the Anders L. Mordt Land Company began to bring in Norwegians from the upper Midwest. For the next two decades these farmers settled the northern part of the county, centering around a rural community they called Oslo. A Lutheran church, a school, and the Norwegian-language Oslo Posten (printed in Guymon, Oklahoma) formed the nucleus of the community. By 1910 Hansford County had 152 farms and ranches and the population had increased to 935. The agricultural census reported 11,239 cattle and more than 6,300 sheep in the county that year. Crop farming was slowly being established. Wheat was planted on about 3,900 acres and sorghum on 3,942 acres. By 1920, 221 farms and ranches had been established in the county, and almost 32,500 acres was devoted to wheat culture. This agricultural expansion was reflected in population growth: by 1920, 1,354 people were living in the county.
The arrival of farmers led to major changes in the economy and structure of the county. In 1920 the North Texas and Santa Fe Railway built a line from Shattuck, Oklahoma, to its new townsite of Spearman in southeastern Hansford County, and more and more farmers arrived to buy promising lands. Spearman soon became the leading town in the county; it absorbed both Farwell and Hansford by the mid-1920s, and in 1929 it became the county seat. As the agricultural economy grew, the local railroad network expanded across the county. In the late 1920s the Chicago, Rock Island and Gulf Railway built southward from Liberal, Kansas, to Amarillo. Construction of the Rock Island line across the county led to the foundation in 1927 of Gruver, a railroad and farming community that eventually became the second largest town in the county. In 1931 the Santa Fe Railroad extended its line from Spearman to the southern edge of the county to link up with the Rock Island. The two railroads joined at a new townsite, Morse, which had been laid out in 1928. In the 1920s and afterward a highway system was developed within the county to supplement the railroads. In 1927 only one state highway, running north from Spearman to Guymon, Oklahoma, crossed the county; only dirt roads connected Spearman to Stratford, Perryton, and Dumas. By the end of the 1940s, however, a network of farm roads crisscrossed the county, and paved State highways 117 and 282 (now 15 and 207) linked Hansford County to the rest of the state.
By 1930, 430 farms and ranches, encompassing more than 415,000 acres, had been established in the county, and wheat occupied almost 63,000 acres. The population had grown to 3,548. The grim days of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression of the 1930s set the area back, however. More than 20 percent of the local farmers moved off their lands, and by 1940 only 335 farms remained. As a result, the population of the county dropped to 2,783 by 1940.
Oil was discovered in Hansford County in 1937, and significant production began in the 1950s. In 1956 production totaled almost 548,000 barrels; in 1960, almost 1,342,000 barrels; in 1974, about 590,000 barrels; and in 1990, 463,833 barrels. About 202,000 barrels were produced in 2000, and by the end of that year 38,279,469 barrels had been extracted from county lands since 1937. By the 1980s Hansford County had a diversified economy based on agriculture, oil, and transportation. Livestock production from ranching and feedlot operations accounted for approximately 65 percent of the total agricultural output of $107 million in 1983, and wheat, sorghum, oats, corn, and hay farming made up the balance. In 2002 the county had 290 farms and ranches covering 593,063 acres, 54 percent of which were devoted to cropland and 45 percent to pasture. In that year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $366,892,000; livestock sales accounted for $343,092,000 of the total. Large cattle-feeding operations, corn, wheat, sorghum, and hogs were the chief agricultural products. Local facilities used to store, process, and transport both agricultural and mineral products also contributed to the area's economy.
The diversification of the county's economy after World War II led to a substantial increase in population between 1940 and 1970. The population was 4,202 in 1950, 6,208 in 1960, and 6,351 in 1970. The number of residents dropped to 6,209 between 1970 and 1980, however; there were 5,283 people living in the county in 1990, 5,369 in 2000, and 5,509 in 2014. Of those, 52.7 percent were Anglo, 0.9 percent African American, and 45.5 percent Hispanic. Most of them resided in Spearman (population, 3,274), the county's seat of government, and Gruver (1,572); the rest of the population was scattered throughout the rural areas, either on farms and ranches or in small communities such as Morse (148), Hitchland, McKibben, Phillips Camp, and Oslo. Spearman is the home of the Stationmaster's House Museum, and hosts such events as the Hansford Roundup in May and Fun Day in July. Hansford County generally voted for Democratic candidates in presidential elections through 1948, except for William McKinley in 1896 and 1900 and Herbert Hoover in 1928. After 1952, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower carried the county, Republican presidential candidates won every election in the county through 2004.