Haskell County, in the Rolling Plains region of northwest Texas, is bordered on the north by Knox County, on the west by Stonewall County, on the south by Jones and Shackelford counties, and on the east by Throckmorton County. The center of the county lies at approximately 33°10' north latitude and 99°45' west longitude, about fifty miles north of Abilene. The county was named for Charles R. Haskell, who was killed in the Goliad Massacre. The county covers 901 square miles of rolling plains broken and drained by tributaries of the upper Brazos River. The elevation ranges between 1,416 and 1,681 feet above sea level. Soils vary from sandy loam to gray, black, and chocolate loam. Temperatures range from an average high of 97° F in July, to an average low of 29° in January. The annual rainfall averages 24.14 inches. The average growing season lasts 232 days.
Artifacts of nomadic Indian groups have been found in numerous burial sites in Haskell County; some of these sites are thought to date back to pre-Columbian times. Plains Apaches and, after 1700, Comanches, Kiowas, and Kickapoos, established camping places at various springs in the area and rendezvoused at Flat Top Mountain, in the western part of the future county. Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and a few other adventurous Spaniards are thought to have crossed the area; some of these explorers reportedly sought mineral wealth in small copper deposits along tributaries of the Brazos River. In 1849 an expedition led by Capt. Randolph B. Marcy crossed the area along Paint Creek, and a month later a large company of gold-seekers heading for California set out from Dallas over Marcy's route. The party camped near a tributary that they named California Creek in the southeastern part of what is now Haskell County; one young woman in the party died and was buried there. Dick Tucker, one of the members of the expedition, wrote a glowing account of the region, and in 1855 William Armstrong and I. G. Searcy led a party to survey the land for possible settlement.
In 1858 the Texas legislature formed Haskell County from lands formerly assigned to Milam and Fannin counties. Because of Indian hostility in the area, however, the county remained unsettled for nearly two decades. During this period several Indian fights took place in the county, including an engagement at Double Mountain on April 3, 1867 (see REYNOLDS, GEORGE THOMAS), and Capt. Adna R. Chaffee's fight on South Point (California) Creek near the Jones county line in March 1868. By 1876 the Indian menace had subsided, and the county was reestablished. J. Wright Mooar and other hunters operating out of Fort Griffin slaughtered the buffalo herds that roamed through the area; mustangs that frequented the springs in the county were rounded up in annual drives. Ranchers began moving into the area in 1877, when George T. Reynolds and John A. Matthews established their ranch headquarters on California Creek. In 1879 Thomas F. Tucker, remembering the description of the area written by his brother Dick, settled near the Matthews ranchhouse and began his own cattle operation. Sometime later W. R. Standifer, a former buffalo hunter, brought a flock of sheep to Willow Pond, or Rice Springs, near the center of the county. The 1880 census found forty-eight people living in the county; the agricultural census reported two ranches in the county that year.
By the fall of 1882 the ranching community of Rice Springs had begun to flourish, and in December its name was changed to Haskell in response to a request from the United States Post Office. The Swenson family added portions of the county to their SMS ranches during the 1880s. Haskell County was organized in January 1885, with Haskell designated as the seat of government; Tom Tucker was elected the first county judge. A small, two-story frame structure served as the first courthouse until a larger, native-stone building was completed in 1891. By 1890, 105 ranches and farms had been established in the county. Ranching was the mainstay of the local economy; 5,564 cattle and 6,171 sheep were reported that year. But crop farming was also beginning to become important, as corn was planted on 1,421 acres and cotton on 1,340. By 1900 the county had 256 farms and ranches, and though corn was grown on only 159 acres that year, cotton cultivation had expanded to 3,674 acres. The county population grew during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, to 1,665 in 1890 and 2,637 in 1900.
Two railroads built into the county in the first years of the twentieth century. About 1905, citizens of Haskell, Munday, and Wichita Falls pooled $120,000 to encourage the Colorado and Southern Railroad to extend the old Wichita Valley Railway line from Seymour to Stamford; the track was completed in 1908. At about the same time, the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient also extended its tracks into the county. By linking county farmers to national markets the railroads helped to develop the area's economy and encouraged immigration.
In 1910 there were 2,210 farms in Haskell County, and the population had increased to 16,249. That year more than 18,420 acres in the county was planted in corn, and 1,893 acres in wheat, but the county's most important crop was cotton; more than 75,000 acres of Haskell County land was devoted to the fiber by 1910. The county's agricultural economy was also becoming more diversified. County farmers had planted more than 28,000 fruit (mostly peach) trees by 1910, and more than 10,300 chickens were reported on local farms. While declining in relative importance, cattle ranching remained an important component of the economy, as over 34,000 cattle were counted in Haskell County that year.
Though cotton production continued to expand in the county, the economy declined between 1910 and 1920; by the latter year there were only 1,875 farms in Haskell County, and the population had dropped to 14,193. The area revived again during the 1920s, however, thanks in part to a rapid expansion of cotton culture. By 1930 more than 200,000 acres of land in the county was devoted to cotton (compared to about 86,000 acres in 1910), and corn and wheat culture also expanded; by 1930 more than 272,000 acres of land in the county was under cultivation. Poultry production was also increasingly important to the local economy; that year, more than 125,000 chickens were reported on Haskell County farms, and county farmers sold almost 569,000 dozen eggs. Population figures reflect the economic expansion during the 1920s; by 1930 Haskell County had 16,669 residents.
The farming sector suffered severely during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, however. Almost 100,000 acres of cotton land fell out of production, and by 1940 the county had lost 441 farms, or almost 19 percent of the total ten years earlier. Hundreds of people moved out of the county, and by 1940 Haskell County had only 14,905 residents
Though the first oil wells in the county were drilled and spudded in 1929, extensive production did not begin until after World War II. Subsequently, however, the petroleum industry became important in the local economy. Oil production was 22,700 barrels in 1938, 19,500 in 1944, and 282,600 in 1948; production increased into the 1950s and early 1960s, to more than 3,270,000 barrels in 1956 and more than 4,198,000 in 1960. It dropped to about 2,861,000 barrels in 1974, however, and to about 1,493,000 barrels in 1978 and 1,045,694 barrels in 1990. By January 1991, 106,357,516 barrels of crude had been extracted from Haskell County land since discovery in 1929.
The population of Haskell County steadily declined after the 1930s, to 13,736 in 1950, 11,174 in 1960, 8,512 in 1970, 7,725 in 1980, and 6,820 in 1990. Voters in Haskell County have usually supported Democrats in national and statewide elections. In national elections up to 1992, the county went Republican only twice: in 1972, when a majority of county voters supported Richard Nixon, and in 1984, when Ronald Reagan won the county. In the late 1980s Haskell County remained largely dependent upon ranching, farming, and petroleum for its income. The county's varied soils supported a broad spectrum of cultivated crops; irrigated land comprised about 10,000 acres. After 1960 the leading crops were cotton (72,928 bales in 1985), wheat, grain sorghums, and Irish potatoes. Between 1960 and the 1980s the number of cattle increased by more than 25 percent, and swine raising was also on the rise.
Haskell, the county seat and largest town (population, 3,266), remains a farm trading center and maintains the county hospital. Other towns include Rule (627), O'Brien, Rochester, Weinert, and Stamford (most of which is in Jones County). In 2014, 5,769 people lived in Haskell County. Of those, 68.8 percent were Anglo, 4.5 percent African American, and 25 percent Hispanic. In addition to the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railroads, the county is crisscrossed by two U.S. highways (277 and 380), two State highways (6 and 283), and a number of farm-to-market roads. Lake Stamford, impounded in 1951 when a dam was built on Paint Creek, provides recreation for local residents and visitors. Haskell hosts the Frontier Days Celebration and Rodeo in May, and the town also maintains the Haskell County Railroad Museum.