Hemphill County lies in the rolling plains on the eastern edge of the Panhandle, east of the Texas High Plains. It is bordered on the east by Oklahoma, on the south by Wheeler County, on the west by Roberts County, and on the north by Lipscomb County. The center point of the county is at 35°50' north latitude and 100°15' west longitude. Canadian, the county seat, is eight to ten miles northwest of the center of the county and about 120 miles northeast of Amarillo. The county was named for John Hemphill. It comprises 904 square miles of rolling plains and rugged terrain, broken by two major rivers and dozens of creeks. The Canadian River flows easterly across the north central part of the county, and the Washita River flows west to east across the southern part. Red Deer Creek is the major tributary of the Canadian in the county; Gageby Creek is the largest county tributary of the Washita. More than three dozen smaller creeks drain into the two rivers. The elevation ranges from 2,200 to 2,800 feet above sea level. The county's clay loam, sandy loam, and alluvial soils support a variety of native grasses as well as wheat, grain sorghum, hay, and other cultivated grass crops. Some cottonwood and elm trees can be found in the numerous creekbottoms. Oil and natural gas also contribute to the local economy; oil production in 2000 was more than 505,000 barrels. The average annual rainfall is 20.5 inches, and the growing season averages 204 days a year; the average maximum temperature is 95° F in July, and the average minimum is 23° in January.
The Hemphill County region was originally populated by Apaches, who were pushed out by the early 1800s by the Kiowas and Comanches. During the era of Indian control various European expeditions penetrated the region. That of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado possibly crossed the county in 1543 or 1544. The Long expedition, an American venture, certainly crossed the county in 1820, as did Josiah Gregg in 1839. Capt. Randolph B. Marcy surveyed several routes to California in 1849, including one that crossed Hemphill County along the divide between the Canadian and Washita rivers. During the 1870s buffalo hunters entered the Panhandle, and by 1878 the last of the great southern herd had been killed. At the same time, the Indians were crushed and moved to reservations in Indian Territory. In the Red River War of 1873–74 the United States Army defeated the Comanches and Kiowas in their Panhandle refuge. Several military encounters occurred in Hemphill County, including the famous Buffalo Wallow Fight, which took place in the southern part of the county on September 12, 1874. The defeated Indians were forced into Indian Territory in 1875 and 1876.
While the Indian wars raged and the buffalo hunters worked away, several trails were opened to link the Texas Panhandle to Dodge City, Kansas, the closest town of any size. The Jones and Plummer Trail, laid out by two buffalo hunters in 1874, ran from the site of present-day Mobeetie northward to Dodge City. In 1876 Charles Rath extended this trail southward to Fort Griffin, in Shackelford County. The Government Trail, laid out in 1874, ran from Fort Elliott, in Wheeler County, northeastward across Hemphill County toward Indian Territory as it made its way to Fort Supply. These well-used and well-defined trails, originally used by the army and hunters, soon also brought ranchers and herds of longhorn cattle into the area.
The era of open-range ranching began in Hemphill County even before the end of the buffalo. In 1875, A. G. Springer established a temporary ranch in the eastern part of the county, and a handful of other settlers followed in 1876 and 1877. Hemphill County was formed by the Texas legislature in 1876. Investors began to purchase lands in the county for large-scale ranching during the late 1870s, when the Cresswell Ranch, headquartered in Roberts County, came to occupy much of western Hemphill County. In 1878 the Moody-Andrews Land and Cattle Company established its PO Ranch in the western and central sections of the county. By 1880 fourteen ranches with combined herds of about 9,600 cattle had been established in the county; the United States census found 149 people living there that year. Cattle ranching continued to dominate the local economy until the early twentieth century. The Rhodes and Aldridge Cattle Company established a large ranch in Hemphill County in 1881, and in 1883 the Texas Land and Cattle Company established the Laurel Leaf Ranch in the eastern part of the county.
But the sale of school lands and state lands, begun in the mid-1880s, coupled with the terrible winter of 1886, spelled the end of the open range. By the late 1880s stock farmers and smaller ranchers began to take over the range. The early 1890s saw a county covered with smaller, privately owned and fenced ranching operations in place of the unfenced, public-domain, free-range empires. The arrival of the railroad also had much to do with this transformation. The Southern Kansas Railway Company, a Santa Fe subsidiary, began to build a line into the Panhandle in 1886. The tracks crossed Hemphill County during 1887 and reached the town of Panhandle in 1888. The railroad allowed easier access to the outside world and encouraged settlement in the area. It also spawned three townsites, Mendota, Canadian, and Glazier.
The arrival of the railroad and the founding of Canadian led to the establishment of county government. Hemphill County was attached to Wheeler County for administrative purposes until 1887, when a petition for organization was circulated. An organizational election was held in July of that year, and Canadian was made county seat. Though Hemphill County developed steadily during the late nineteenth century, in 1900 it remained an isolated ranching area. The number of ranches grew from forty-two in 1890 to seventy-six in 1900; during the same period the population increased from 519 to 815. Aside from 159 acres devoted to growing corn and 1,858 acres on which forage was cultivated, almost no crops were grown in the county at that time. Meanwhile, the number of cattle had increased from about 6,300 in 1890 to almost 39,000 by 1900.
The area's economy began to diversify after 1900, partly because of the expansion of the local railroad industry. When Canadian became a railroad division point in 1907, a great deal of railroad construction and employment followed; the situation lasted until 1922, when the division point was moved eastward to Oklahoma. Farmers also began to arrive after 1900 and take up the level, tillable land. The number of farms and ranches in the county grew from 76 in 1900 to 249 in 1910, 328 in 1920, and 401 in 1930. The production of grains increased significantly between 1900 and 1920. In 1900, for example, only 159 acres in Hemphill County had been devoted to corn, and only 515 acres to sorghum; by 1920, almost 9,200 acres in the county was planted in corn and almost 24,400 in sorghum. Between 1920 and 1930, however, most of the new farmers came to grow cotton: only 285 acres in the county was planted in cotton in 1920, but by 1930 production of the fiber had expanded to more than 17,100 acres.
A boundary dispute involving Hemphill County arose in the 1920s. As a result, a United States Supreme Court decision in 1930 led to the relocation of the 100th meridian, the eastern border of the Panhandle, approximately 3,700 feet to the east. This strip, 132 miles long, expanded Lipscomb, Wheeler, Hemphill, Collingsworth, and Childress counties at the expense of Harmon, Ellis, Beckham, and Roger Mills counties in Oklahoma (see BOUNDARIES).
By 1930 crops were grown on 86,000 acres in Hemphill County. Meanwhile, the cattle industry remained vital to the local economy; in 1930 the agricultural census counted over 55,000 cattle in the county. Poultry was also beginning to become significant; by 1930 almost 28,000 chickens were counted on local farms, and that year the county's farmers sold more than 137,300 dozen eggs. As the county's economy grew and diversified, its population increased, from 3,170 in 1910 to 4,280 in 1920 and 4,637 in 1930.
Growth was stifled in the 1930s, however, when the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl wiped out many local farmers. Cotton acreage dropped by more than 50 percent, to only about 6,900 acres in 1940. Overall, farm acres dropped from 674,104 to 529,786, and the number of farms dropped to 349. Hundreds of people left the county, and the population declined to 4,170 by 1940. Subsequently, between the 1940s and the 1970s, the mechanization of agriculture combined with other factors to depopulate the area further. The population of Hemphill County dropped to 4,123 by 1950, 3,185 by 1960, and 3,084 by 1970. During the 1970s, however, the county grew, thanks to a rapid expansion of oil production. Though oil was discovered in the county in 1955, production remained relatively small for several years; in 1960, for example, it was about 413,200 barrels. But it reached almost 999,000 barrels in 1974 and more than 1,891,000 barrels in 1978. Meanwhile, the county population grew to 5,304 by 1980. Oil production dropped to about 1,414,000 barrels by 1982, however, and to about 726,000 barrels by 1990. In 2000 about 505,000 barrels of oil and more than 8 billion cubic feet of natural gas were produced in the county. Though oil and gas remained important for the local economy, the end of the boom led to a decline in the county's population; 3,720 people lived in the county in 1990 and 3,351 in 2000.
County transportation developed significantly during the first half of the twentieth century and improved afterward. Between 1918 and 1921 local boosters attracted construction of the Dallas-to-Denver highway (now U.S. 83) through Canadian. Old Highway 33 (now U.S. 60), from Oklahoma to Amarillo, was built through the county during 1925 and 1926. In the 1940s and 1950s these major routes were paved, and a network of paved rural roads was constructed.
In national politics the voters of Hemphill County supported Democratic presidential candidates in almost every election from 1888 to 1948; during that period the Republicans took the county only in 1928, when a majority of local voters supported Herbert Hoover. In presidential elections between 1952 and 2004, however, county voters consistently supported Republican candidates. The only Democrat to win in the county during that period was Lyndon B. Johnson, who defeated Barry Goldwater in 1964. By 1980 cultivated land in the county amounted to only 50,000 acres. The agricultural economy was still dominated by cattle ranching, which that year accounted for more than 80 percent of agricultural production. Wheat and grain sorghum supplied the remainder of the agricultural income. In 2002 the county had 239 farms and ranches covering 546,373 acres, 85 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 15 percent to crops. In that year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $92,490,000; livestock sales accounted for $92,027,000 of the total. Fed beef and stocker cattle were the most important elements of the county's agricultural economy. Crops included wheat, sorghum, and hay. Most of the 4,180 people in Hemphill County live in Canadian (population, 2,814); Glazier, the county's only other town, had 48 residents in 2014. The rest of the population lives on farms and ranches.