Hockley County is in northwestern Texas, south of the Panhandle and on the Llano Estacado, bordered on the east by Lubbock County, on the south by Terry County, on the west by Cochran County, and on the north by Lamb County. The center of the county lies at approximately 33°36' north latitude and 102°21' west longitude, thirty miles west of Lubbock. The county, named for George W. Hockley, comprises 908 square miles of generally flat land that drains to numerous playas, the Yellow House River, and Yellow House Lake. Elevations range from 3,300 to 3,650 feet above sea level. Soils vary from clay loam to sandy loam, with most of the latter in the western and southern regions. Grasses include buffalo, grama, and mesquite. Yellow House Canyon cuts into the northern part of the county and is mostly grass-covered, although sand hills and gravel deposits occur. The canyon, once a tributary of the Brazos River, is one of the most salient landmarks on the South Plains; it takes its name from high, yellow bluffs near its head. The annual rainfall in Hockley County averages 16.6 inches; the temperature varies from average minimum of 24° F in January to an average maximum of 93° in July; the growing season lasts 196 days. The county's economy produces an average annual income of $71 million from agriculture, 70 percent of which comes from crops that include cotton, sorghums, wheat, soybeans, corn, hay, and sunflowers. The rest comes from cattle, hogs, and sheep. Irrigated land totals about 200,000 acres. In 1982 oil production in Hockley County totaled more than 39,000,000 barrels, worth $1,203,962,293. Petroleum processing, the manufacture of oilfield equipment, processing of vegetable oil, and cattle feeding are industries complementing the area's large oil production. Major roads are U.S. Highway 385 and State Highway 303 (north to south), and State Highway 114 (east to west).
In prehistoric times Folsom man hunted in the area. Spanish explorers ventured into or near Hockley County during the sixteenth century, and in the early eighteenth century the Comanches displaced the Apaches in the region. Much of the history of the area revolves around Yellow House Canyon. The Comanches, hunting buffalo and attacking enemies, watered at the springs in the canyon for decades before white men took an interest in the region; the canyon lay along a north-south trail between New Mexico and Mexico. In 1879 a squad of Texas Rangers led by Capt. George W. Arrington found Yellow House Canyon during a fierce blizzard. Without the help given them by John and Thomas L. Causey, who were hunting buffalo in the area, the soldiers might have starved. In 1881 the canyon lay on a mail route from Colorado City to Fort Sumner, New Mexico; by this time the Indians had been removed by the United States Army.
In 1876 the Texas legislature formed Hockley County from lands formerly assigned to Bexar and Young counties. Because settlers were slow to move into the area, however, the county was assigned to Lubbock County for administrative purposes until 1920. Until the early twentieth century, the area was dominated by a few large cattle operations. The Causeys were the first settlers in the area; after several years of buffalo hunting in Kansas and Texas, they established a base at Yellow House Canyon in 1877 and built the first house in the county. When the buffalo herds were depleted, the Causeys went into the bone business, and in 1882 they established a ranch. In 1885, however, the XIT Ranch, one of the state's largest cattle-raising ventures, was founded in the area, and the Causeys were forced to move.
The XIT expanded to include the northern third of Hockley County; meanwhile, other sections of county land were bought by such ranchers as F. G. Oxsheer (1884), David M. Devitt (1885), John Gordon (1886), and the Snyder brothers, Dudley H. and John W. (1885), who sold to Isaac L. Ellwood; Ellwood bought the Spade Ranch (1889). C. C. Slaughter acquired county land in 1897. Virtually all of Hockley County was owned by these few men by the 1890s. There were no census returns for Hockley County until 1900, when forty-four people were found living in the area. That year five ranches, encompassing almost 354,000 acres, were reported in the county; about 15,700 cattle were counted in the area that year. No crops were reported.
The first settlers interested in small-scale ranching or farming were homesteaders who established themselves on properties within a strip of land overlooked in the county's first survey (and consequently not included within the huge ranches). This strip, varying in width from three-fourths of a mile to two miles, extended the entire length of the county's southern border. Jim Jarrott encouraged settlement there between 1901 and 1903. The Yellow House section of the XIT, consisting of 235,858 acres in Hockley County and three adjacent counties, was sold to George W. Littlefield in 1901; in 1912, Littlefield began selling farm acreage. Despite this limited burst of settlement in the county, diversified economic development and more significant population growth were delayed until the 1920s, when the big ranchers began selling lands for agricultural uses. As late as 1920, only 137 people lived in the county, and only 3,235 acres was classified as improved. Nevertheless, by this time county residents wanted their own county government. The county was organized in 1921; Hockley City won over Ropesville in the county-seat contest.
The settlement of the county accelerated during the 1920s, encouraged by the construction of two branches of the Santa Fe Railroad in the early 1920s-one crossing east to west, the other crossing the southeast corner of the county. Hockley City, where the Littlefield Lands Company sold 464 farm tracts between 1912 and 1920, was renamed Levelland in 1922; the Slaughter heirs began selling farmland in the northwestern part of the country near Whiteface in 1924. Thousands of settlers moved into the county to establish new farms during this period. The number of farms in the county grew from 18 in 1920 to 279 in 1925 and 1,344 in 1929. Most of the newcomers grew cotton. Only eighty-seven acres in the county had been planted in cotton in 1920, but by 1929 cotton culture occupied more than 95,000 acres of county land. Corn culture also expanded quickly during this period, so that by 1929 about 8,300 acres in the county was planted in that staple. In all, cultivated land in the county totaled almost 175,000 acres by 1929. The county's growing population mirrored this economic expansion: by 1930 the population was 9,298.
The Great Depression of the 1930s produced difficult times in Hockley County, as it did elsewhere. Virtually all of the land previously sold to prospective farmers by the Slaughter heirs, for example, was repossessed in 1930 and 1931. Nevertheless the number of farms in the county grew significantly during this period as the cotton boom continued and more land was put into cultivation. By 1939, 1,506 farms had been established in Hockley County. More than 106,000 acres was planted in cotton that year, and almost another 150,000 in sorghum; cultivated land totaled more than 266,000 acres. The economy also received a boost in 1937, when oil was discovered in the county. A total of almost 68,000 barrels of crude was pumped from county lands in 1938. The population of the county increased by almost 25 per cent during the 1930s, to reach 12,693 by 1940. The economy grew even more rapidly in the 1940s with the expansion of irrigation and the substantial production of oil at Sundown and other fields. The county pumped more than 14,287,000 barrels of crude in 1944 and more than 20,818,000 in 1948; by 1950 there were 3,000 producing oil wells in Hockley County.
The economy diversified into other activities, including the cotton compress industry, the dairy industry, and machine shops. Transportation improved with the construction of U.S. Highway 385 in the late 1950s. By this time Hockley County was consistently one of the top ten agricultural producing counties in the state. Its agricultural income in 1960 was more than $28 million. In cotton production the county ranked third in the state. During this period the county's population increased, to 20,407 by 1950 and 22,340 by 1960.
In the 1980s the county's agricultural economy continued to be focused on cotton production; about 47 percent of Hockley County's farmland was irrigated. Oil also remained an important part of the economy, though production had been declining since the 1970s, when it hovered around 50,000,000 barrels a year; production totaled more than 39,120,000 barrels in 1982 and about 28,968,000 in 1990. By January 1991 more than 1,280,032,600 barrels of oil had been taken from Hockley County since discovery in 1937.
Before 1972 a majority of Hockley County voters supported Democratic candidates in every presidential election except for 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover won the county over Democrat Al Smith. A majority of Hockley County voters went into the Republican column to support Richard Nixon in 1972, however, and subsequently stayed there. Hockley County voters supported Republican presidential candidates in almost every election from 1972 to 1992. The one exception occurred in 1976, when they chose Democrat Jimmy Carter.
The population of the county declined somewhat during the 1960s, dropping to 20,396 by 1970, but then began to rise again. The 1980 population was 23,230, and by 2014 the county had 23,577 residents; of those, 48.7 percent were Anglo, 4.1 percent African American, and 46.2 percent Hispanic. Communities in Hockley County include Levelland (population, 14,017), the largest city and the location of South Plains College; Anton (1,158), which bills itself as the "Rabbit Capital of Texas"; and Sundown (1,439), Smyer, Ropesville, Arnett, Claudene, Lockettville, Pep, and Roundup.