Lubbock County is located in Northwest Texas on the Southern High Plains, within the larger Great Plains of the western United States. The center of the county lies at 33°35' north latitude and 101°52' west longitude. Lubbock, its largest city, is 327 miles northwest of Dallas and 122 miles south of Amarillo. The county measures 893 square miles of flat tableland sloping gently from northwest to southeast, with elevations ranging from 2,900 to 3,400 feet. Its soils are mainly brown to reddish-brown loams and sandy loams, with smaller areas of grayish-brown, silty clay loams. These overlie a clay subsoil and, beneath that, at from two to three feet from the surface, a hardpan of caliche made of calcium carbonate. This caliche forms the Caprock, which has generally prevented streams from cutting their way through the area. Beneath the caliche zone lie beds of water-filled sand of varying thickness but averaging about 300 feet; these make up a part of the great Ogallala Aquifer, formed some ten million years ago as great rivers deposited sand from the Rocky Mountains over an area extending several hundred miles east of the mountains, from what is now Canada to the South Plains of Texas. In 1968 there were 922 small, wind-scoured lakes called playas dotting the county and providing refuge for wildfowl. These are formed by runoff from rainwater and range in size from less than an acre to more than fifty acres. Grasses are predominantly buffalo and blue grama, and in summer there is a profusion of wildflowers, including daisies, buttercups, verbena, and Indian paintbrush, together with scattered yucca and catclaw. Before its settlement the county was treeless, except for cottonwoods and hackberries in the canyons. In later times Chinese elms, oaks, pines, cedars, and a few other trees were introduced, along with mesquite in the nineteenth century. The county is classed as semiarid; its average annual rainfall is 18.41 inches, most of which occurs during the growing season of 208 days. The average minimum temperature in January is 25° F, and the maximum in July averages 92°.
Lubbock County is one of the oldest inhabited places in the state, if not the oldest. In the northern part of the city of Lubbock is the archeological site known as the Lubbock Lake Site, the first archeological site in Texas to be entered on the National Register of Historic Places (see LUBBOCK LAKE NATIONAL HISTORIC AND STATE ARCHEOLOGICAL LANDMARK). There, in Yellow House Canyon, preserved in the twenty-foot wall of a dry lakebed, lies one of the very few known records of human habitation in Texas reaching back uninterrupted for at least 12,000 years. There Paleo-Indians camped and hunted the elephant, camel, bison, giant bear, and prehistoric horse, all long since extinct. Although the evidence is not conclusive, some authorities believe Francisco Vásquez de Coronado was the first Spaniard to visit the lake, during his famous expedition of 1540. In 1629 Father Juan de Salas led an expedition that went down Black Water Draw to Yellow House Canyon on its way from Santa Fe to the South Concho River. In 1650 another expedition commanded by captains Hernán Martín and Diego del Castillo used the same route, as did Capt. Diego de Guadalajara four years later. Other Spanish expeditions traveled this same route and on their maps gave the name La Punta de Agua to the Lubbock Lake Site, which is now in Mackenzie State Recreation Area.
From 10,000 B.C. to about A.D. 1000 the plains were inhabited by bands of Indians who lived off the land. When the Spaniards reached the plains they found tribes they called Quecheros or Teyas, probably ancestors of the Apaches. About 1700 the Comanches (from a Ute word meaning "enemy") came onto the South Plains with their newly acquired horses. They quickly came to dominate an area stretching from north of the Red River south to the Edwards Plateau, westward to New Mexico, and as far east as the Brazos River. The area of West Texas including the Lubbock area was principally the domain of the Wanderers and the Penateka (Honey-Eaters) bands. The Comanches cannot be said to have been inhabitants of the Lubbock County area or of any other particular locale because, consummate horsemen that they were, they followed the buffalo over a vast territory. But they did use the water holes of Yellow House Canyon as trading sites with the Comancheros, traders from New Mexico, as well as on their raids into New Mexico. As the buffalo were decimated by hunters, the day of the Comanches waned. The Red River War in the early 1870s ended with their defeat by the United States Army and their removal to a reservation in southeastern Oklahoma.
In the middle of the nineteenth century West Texas was considered a part of the "Great American Desert." As Capt. Randolph B. Marcy remarked after a reconnaissance through the area in 1849, "not a tree, shrub, or any other object, either animate or inanimate, relieved the dreary monotony of the prospects; it was a vast illimitable expanse of desert prairie...a land where no man, either savage or civilized, permanently abides; it spreads into a treeless, desolate waste of uninhabited solitude, which always has been, and must continue, uninhabited forever." The myth dissolved in the 1870s when the region was explored by hunters who moved across the plains slaughtering the buffalo herds. Lubbock County was split off from the Bexar District by the legislature on August 21, 1876, as an unorganized county and was successively attached for administration to Young, Baylor, and Crosby counties. The census of 1880 reported twenty-five people living in the county, most of them sheep raisers from the Midwest living in Yellow House Canyon. The first semipermanent resident was a Mississippi sheepman, Zachary T. Williams, who came in the late 1870s. By about 1880 George W. Singer had arrived and opened a store and post office in Yellow House Canyon.
Lubbock County was attractive to the growing number of people lured to West Texas by the favorable land laws of the state as well as by fertile soil. The census of 1890 listed only thirty-three people in the county, but after it was taken a wave of settlers in the summer and fall of that year boosted the number of county residents to about a hundred, many of them cattle raisers. Formal organization of Lubbock County came on March 10, 1891, when an election was held for the purpose and Lubbock was made the county seat. The town had been put together by a group of town promoters led by Frank E. Wheelock and W. E. Rayner, who, in a burst of cooperation somewhat unusual for contending town promoters, compromised their differences and in December 1890 united their competing settlements, Monterey and old Lubbock, into the single town of Lubbock. The new county was named for Col. Thomas S. Lubbock, former Texas Ranger, Confederate officer, and brother of a former governor.
At the time the county was formally organized, Lubbock was the only settlement except for Estacado, which was on the eastern boundary. During the 1890s the county grew as farmers moved out onto the plains, so that by 1900 the census reported 293 residents. With its chief asset being land, the county slowly changed its emphasis from stock raising to farming. County ranches like the IOA fell prey to drought and poor cattle prices during the nineties and began to sell off their acreages. By the first decade of the twentieth century farming was increasing rapidly. The first important crop was sorghum cane, to which 328 of the county's 400 cultivated acres was devoted in 1891; millet, wheat, and vegetables were also being cultivated on a few acres, as well as some peaches and apples. Though the dominance of cotton was far in the future, in 1901 the first crop had been grown successfully (thirty bales). In 1904 the county sent some 110 bales 100 miles to the gin in Colorado City.
In 1901 a writer characterized the South Plains as the "most alluring body of unoccupied land in the U.S.," in spite of its dryness. Lubbock County seemed destined to join its neighbors as a thinly populated farming county. Two factors intervened to change this: the coming of the railroad and Texas Tech. Shortly after 1900 railroad-promotion schemes flourished, but none became reality until the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway decided to link its two separate Texas lines and began construction from Coleman through Sweetwater, Snyder, and Lubbock to Clovis, New Mexico. The line was in operation to Lubbock by 1911. Meanwhile the Santa Fe, under the charter of a subsidiary, the Pecos and Northern Texas, built south from Plainview to Lubbock, causing a wild celebration when the first train steamed into town on September 25, 1909. Other lines soon spread through the county. In 1910 the Crosbyton-South Plains Railway opened for service between Lubbock and Crosbyton. The Santa Fe also extended its line from Slaton to Lamesa in 1910, with Slaton designated a division point. In 1925 the Santa Fe completed another extension to Levelland and then Bledsoe, to tap a large cattle-shipping and growing agricultural area. The era of railroad construction ended in 1928 with the opening of the Fort Worth and Denver South Plains Railway, a subsidiary of Burlington Northern, from Estelline in Hall County southwestward to Lubbock. With the coming of these railroads the population jumped from 3,624 in 1910 to 11,096 in 1920 and 39,104 in 1930. The other event critical to the growth of Lubbock County, the opening of Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University), occurred in 1925. The county's population was 211,651 by 1980. By contrast, no neighboring county had as many as 40,000 residents, whereas all counties in the region had populations of fewer than 10,000 in 1910.
Lubbock is primarily an agricultural county. By 1935 it had more than a half million acres in 2,652 farms. In that era, when diversified agriculture predominated in the county, wheat, grain sorghum, sheep, hogs, horses, and chickens were important. Nearly five million gallons of milk and almost 900,000 dozen eggs were produced each year, and several packing plants and creameries operated in Lubbock. Lubbock County farm production was valued at more than $32 million by 1948, when the county ranked first on the South Plains and third in the state. By the 1930s cotton culture had begun its rise to become the dominant agricultural enterprise in Lubbock County, although other crops were still produced. By 1981 the county ranked third in the state, with 274,669 bales ginned by its thirty-three gins (first in the state). The county also had three cottonseed oil mills; Lubbock is recognized as the world's leading producer of cottonseed oil (see COTTONSEED INDUSTRY). Despite the dominance of cotton, other crops continued to be important to the agriculture of the county. Sorghum culture became increasingly important after World War II, as grain sorghum was used for cattle feed by the burgeoning feedlot industry. By 1975 more than seven million bushels was grown yearly on 100,000 acres. Although feedlots decreased in number following the decline of beef prices in the mid-1970s, almost four million bushels of sorghum was produced in 1981, with a value of $8.5 million. By then soybeans had risen in importance as a crop on county farms, although the production of milk and eggs had declined and the creameries and packing houses were gone. The Ogallala Aquifer was central to Lubbock County's growth; water from it was used for irrigation of cotton, sorghum, and other grain crops. By the 1980s, after a decline because of high energy costs for pumping, the county still had some 8,500 wells irrigating more than 250,000 acres. After the 1963 cotton harvest the bracero program ended in the face of mechanization. For more than twenty years the program had supplied labor by bringing in several thousand Mexican nationals each summer to pick cotton.
Lubbock is the wholesale trade area for fifty-one counties in West Texas and eastern New Mexico and is also the retailing center for much of West Texas. The county constitutes one of the twenty-eight metropolitan statistical areas in the state. By the 1980s the county had retail sales of more than $1 billion annually, with wholesale sales approaching $2 billion. Lubbock was the state's leading agribusiness center and in 1982 had 292 industrial establishments employing 11,700 persons. Among major employers were Texas Instruments, Frito-Lay, Eagle-Picher Industries, and Gould's Pumps; about twenty concerns employed fifty or more persons. By the 1980s the county had sixteen commercial banks with assets of about $2.25 billion and ranked seventh in the state in that category.
For several decades after World War II, Lubbock County was one of the fastest growing counties in the state; its population increased from 101,048 in 1950 to 211,651 in 1980, when it ranked eleventh in the state, with 235.2 people to the square mile. Throughout its early years the county voted solidly Democratic. This began to change with the presidential election of 1952, when county voters supported Dwight D. Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson. Lubbock County had a Republican congressman by the 1980s and voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984, George H. W. Bush in 1988 and 1992, and the Republican candidate for governor in 1982 and 1985; it divided its loyalty among Republican and Democratic candidates for state offices. By this time the city of Lubbock was unquestionably the dominant force in the county, with an estimated population of 187,000 in the mid-eighties, when it was the eighth-largest of Texas cities. As the only large city in the county, Lubbock dominates in many ways with its fourteen banks, fifty-one public schools, two universities (Texas Tech and Lubbock Christian), Lubbock State School, seven hospitals with more than 2,000 beds, the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, more than 250 churches, more than sixty public parks (including Mackenzie State Recreation Area), the Museum of Texas Tech, the Ranching Heritage Center, a large public library, and an extensive business establishment with several shopping malls. Besides its two railroads the county is crossed by Interstate 27 to Amarillo, U.S. Highway 87 from the south, U.S. 84 from southeast to northwest, U.S. 62/82 from east to southwest, and a network of farm roads. Three major airlines, American (see AMR CORPORATION), Delta, and Southwest, account for more than half a million passenger departures each year. The city also supports a symphony orchestra, a ballet company, and a large civic center built after the destructive tornado of May 11, 1970, which cost twenty-six lives and millions of dollars in damage. Southeast of Lubbock are Buffalo Springs Lake and Lake Ransom Canyon; to the west is the Lubbock County Museum of agricultural machinery. In 2014 Lubbock County had a population of 293,974. Of those, 55.8 percent were Anglo, 7.8 percent African American, and 33.4 percent Hispanic. Lubbock, with 243,994 residents, was the largest community. Other county towns are Abernathy (2,816 in Lubbock County, partly in Hale County), Idalou (2,365), Shallowater (2,497), Slaton (6,180), Wolfforth (4,082), Ransom Canyon (1,145), and New Deal (770).