Montague County is in north central Texas on the Oklahoma border. The county seat, also named Montague, is 100 miles northwest of Dallas. The county's center lies at approximately 33°30' north latitude and 97°30' west longitude. Most of Montague County's 937 square miles lies in the region known as the western Cross Timbers, in which the dominantly light colored, sandy, and loamy soils support a post oak savannah. A small portion of the northwestern part of the county lies in the north central prairie, where the soils are dominantly dark colored and loamy and support grass. In the extreme east central part of the county lies the Grand Prairie Land Resource Area. There dominantly dark colored, loamy, and clayey soils support grass. The terrain of the county is level to gently rolling with broad valleys and high rolling prairies. The elevation ranges from 850 to 1,318 feet. A belt of woodland fifteen miles wide, known as the Upper Cross Timbers, runs north and south through the county and contains post oak interspersed with pecan, walnut, and blackjack trees. Three watersheds drain Montague County. The Red River drains the northern part of the county and has the largest drainage area of the three watersheds. The Denton-Elm Fork of the Trinity River drains the east-central portion of the county, and the West Fork of the Trinity River, which rises in Young County, drains the southern part. Between 41 and 50 percent of the land is considered prime farmland. The growing season extends 229 days, and rainfall averages thirty to thirty-five inches a year. Temperatures during the year range from an average high of 96° F in July to average low of 32° in January. Mineral resources produced by the county are petroleum and natural gas.
Comanche, Wichita, and Kiowa Indians lived in the western Cross Timbers several decades before the arrival of French trappers and Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century. In 1747 French trappers negotiated a Wichita-Comanche alliance that, within a decade, produced two large settlements on the banks of the Red River, the northern boundary of present Montague County. The principal village was north of the river and was inhabited by the Taovayas, a branch of the Wichita Indians. A smaller settlement south of the river was inhabited by Wichitas. Following an Indian attack on the San Saba Mission, the Spanish attempted a reprisal raid on the Red River settlements in 1759 only to discover that the villages were protected by a moat and stockade. The Spanish suffered heavy losses and fled. Approximately twenty years later Athanase de Mézières conducted a peace with the Indians and renamed the villages San Bernardo and San Teodoro. By 1812, however, losses suffered from smallpox had forced the Indians to abandon their settlements. Decades later Anglo-Americans discovered traces of the villages and named the location Spanish Fort. Although no permanent settlement remained, Comanche and Wichita Indians continued to inhabit the area, and their presence slowed Anglo-American development of the region.
Organization of the area occurred twenty years after the Texas Revolution of 1836. The state legislature established the county on Christmas Eve in 1857. The following year, on August 2, 1858, the county was formally organized with its present boundaries carved from Cooke County. The new county was named for Daniel Montague, surveyor of the Fannin Land District and veteran of the Mexican War. Only three villages existed in the county at the time, and none of them was near the geographic center of the county. So an uninhabited area at the appropriate location was identified as the county seat and also named in honor of Daniel Montague. At the time the area of Montague County had less than 1,000 residents. A slight majority of these inhabitants had immigrated from the upper South, primarily Tennessee but also from Kentucky and Arkansas. A substantial number arrived from north of the Mason-Dixon line, mostly farmers from Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. As a result of this immigration pattern, the county did not reproduce the slaveholding plantation society that characterized the state. This in part explains the position Montague County took when voters rejected secession 86 to 50 in 1861. The 849 residents, including thirty-four slaves, may have been more concerned with preserving their lives than the union. If Texas joined the Confederacy, federal troops would withdraw from the Red River area. Government soldiers provided the only protection from Indian raids, and their removal would leave the underpopulated county exposed to attacks from Indians who far outnumbered them. The next fifteen years confirmed their fears, as Indian raids forced farmers to abandon their homes. In 1863, for example, an Indian attack wiped out the community of Illinois Bend. The end of the Civil War did not resolve the problem. Bands of Comanche and Wichita Indians continued to harass the county until the mid-1870s. As a result of these raids, in 1870 only 890 residents had settled in the county. During the first few years of the 1870s, however, an organized effort successfully drove the Indians from the county, allowing the governor in 1878 to pronounce that Montague County was no longer a frontier county. As the number of Indian raids decreased, the number of settlers increased. By the early 1880s the population was 11,000. The abundance of grasslands had attracted cattlemen as early as the late 1860s. In the fall of 1867 Montague County was the last Texas county crossed by the Chisholm Trail before it entered Indian Territory. For the next twenty-five years county residents concentrated their efforts on cattle raising, as a result farms produced forage for livestock and food rather than cultivating a cash crop.
The emergence of large cattle ranches and the continued increase in population attracted railroads to the county in the early 1880s. In 1882 the Fort Worth and Denver Railway reached southwestern Montague County. The railroad enabled the growth of Bowie, Sunset, and Fruitland. Five years later the Gainesville, Henrietta and Western Railway built through north central Montague County and founded Saint Jo, Bonita, and Belcherville. In 1892 a third rail system stretched across the county, the Rock Island Railroad. Ironically, the one community that was not touched by the tracks of the three rail systems was the county seat. As a result, Montague was soon overshadowed by Nocona, home of the Justin Cowboy Boot Company (see JUSTIN INDUSTRIES), to the north; Saint Jo, an important farm market center, to the east; and by Bowie to the south. Bowie's growth and development as an agribusiness center prompted a call by the town's residents for the county seat to be changed to their community. An election was held in 1884 and, although Bowie received more votes than Montague, it did not collect the required two-thirds majority needed to move the county seat. Since the mid 1880s, however, Bowie has remained both the largest and most important town in the county, while Montague's population has never exceeded 500.
What attracted the railroads to the county was cattle, but in the 1890s the cattle herds that crossed Montague County disappeared, replaced by fields of cotton. The cash crop proved so popular among farmers that the number of acres devoted to cotton increased from just under 11,000 in 1880 to well over 78,000 in 1900. That year Montague County farmers produced 35,798 bales compared to just over 4,000 twenty years before. The number of bales averaged 24,000 per year for the next two decades. Around 1910 the boll weevil arrived. Although 1914 was the peak year for cotton production, and forty gins processed 43,595 bales of cotton harvested in the county, since the early 1930s the number of bales produced by the county has never exceeded 9,000. By the 1960s less than 1,000 bales were reported. Following the decline of cotton, farmers turned to truck farming, planting watermelons, tomatoes, and potatoes. In 1980 they led the state in the production of apples and were sixth for peaches. At one time the county boasted of being the home of the world's largest chicken ranch, when the Johnson ranch at Bowie covered 350 acres and housed a 250,000 egg incubator. The ranch shipped White Leghorn chickens throughout the United States and Canada.
The rapid loss of the primary cash crop of the county combined with the Great Depression resulted in a dramatic decrease in Montague County's population between 1910 and the mid-1930s. The number of residents declined from a high of 25,122 in 1910 to just over 19,000 in the early 1930s. In 1930 tenant farmers worked half of the farms in the county. The county curbed the decline in population, however, by the mid 1930s. In large part this was due to the development of an alternative economic enterprise, oil. First discovered twelve miles north of Nocona in 1919, oil production steadily increased during the late 1920s and 1930s. In 1927 the county produced over four million barrels. Although that figure has not been surpassed, Montague County did average close to two million barrels per year over the next decade and a half. The county also produced natural gas. The decade of the 1930s also saw Montague County return to its original economic venture, cattle ranching. The number of cattle increased from 30,000 in 1920 to 40,000 by the mid-1930s. Oil was discovered in the county in 1919, and by the 1930s petroleum and natural gas production was making a significant contribution to the local economy. Oil, natural gas, truck farming, and a return to cattle ranching enabled the county to increase its population during the depression years over 6 percent, from 19,159 in 1930 to 20,442 in 1940.
In the two decades following the end of World War II Montague County's population steadily decreased, however, in large part due to the development of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 1960 Montague County residents numbered 14,893. The following year marked the first time in the county's history that more residents lived in an urban setting than in the rural countryside. By the mid-1960s and for the next fifteen years a slow but steady increase in population took place. In 1980 Montague County had 17,410 residents. The make-up of the population remained as it was in the past, overwhelmingly Caucasian with the largest ancestry groups being English (31 percent), Irish (27 percent), and German (14 percent) descent. Hispanic-Americans numbered 239, Native Americans fourteen, and African Americans two. The county's population was older than average, with a median age of thirty-nine. The number of high school graduates aged twenty-five or older increased from 10 percent of the population in 1950 to 40 percent in 1980.
The first two generations of county residents relied on the horse, the wagon, the Butterfield Overland Mail stage company, which began operating in Montague County in July 1857, and the railroad for personal transportation. Beginning in the mid-1920s, however, the automobile became a common sight throughout the county. The ownership of a car, nevertheless, did not guarantee a smoother ride, as the county had few paved roads. Not until 1940 did Montague County surpass 100 miles of paved thoroughfare. Federal construction of highways in the 1950s provided a system of county roads. By 1960 U.S. Highway 82 crossed the county from east to west and U.S. Highway 81 ran south to north. In 1980 over a thousand miles of paved roads crisscrossed the county. By that time over 19,000 registered vehicles used the network, compared to 4,000 in 1940. In addition, three utility airports served county residents, two at Nocona and one at Bowie.
In 1961 Montague County had led the state in the number of registered Angus; in 1980 the county reported 65,000 cattle. In the latter year 82 percent of the county's agricultural receipts resulted from livestock and livestock products. In the 1980s cattle ranching continued to dominate the county, though a more diversified economy had developed. The number of manufacturing plants doubled between 1940 and 1980, from fourteen to twenty eight. The largest nonagricultural employer remained the first manufacturing enterprise in the county, the Nocona Boot Company, established at Nocona in 1887 by Herman J. Justin. Oil and gas field services and construction of farm machinery and equipment were the other manufacturers that altogether employed 19 percent of the county population. In 1990 17, 274 people lived in the county, which remained dry, although the city of Nocona voted wet in 1989. Liquor by the drink would remain illegal in most parts of the county into the twenty-first century.
Democratic presidential candidates carried Montague County in virtually every election through 1968. The only exception was in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover beat Al Smith.In 1972, however, Republican Richard Nixon carried the area. Though Democrats won almost every election in the county from 1976 to 1992, Nixon's win in 1972 and Ronald Reagan's in 1984 marked a shift away from the area's traditional political leanings. Nevertheless, Democrats continued to dominate area politics for some time, and won majorities in the county in 1976, 1980, and 1988. This began to change in the 1990s, however, as the area continued to trend more Republican. Democrat Bill Clinton won only a plurality of the county's votes in 1992, and in 1996 Republican Bob Dole won a plurality. Republican George W. Bush won solid majorities in the 2000 and 2004 elections.
The census counted 19,416 people living in Montague County in 2014. In that year about 86.6 percent of the population was Anglo, and 10.4 percent was Hispanic; African Americans and other minorities constituted less than 4 percent of the area's population. Seventy-three percent of residents age twenty-five and older had completed high school, and more than 11 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agribusiness, oil production, and various manufacturing concerns were key elements of the area's economy; companies in Nocona produced boots, athletic goods, and other products. More than 1,512,000 barrels of oil and 292,212 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 290,366,434 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1919. In 2002 the county had 1,399 farms and ranches covering 503,562 acres, 50 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 36 percent to crops, and 12 percent to woodlands. In that year Montague County farmers and ranchers earned $31,872,000; crop sales accounted for $28,117,000 of the total. Beef, hay, wheat, dairy products, pecans, peaches, and melons were the chief agricultural products. Montague (population, 316) remained the county's seat of government, and Bowie (5,236) was its largest town. Other communities include Nocona (3,040), which hosts a Fun Day festival each May, and Saint Jo (1,024), which holds a Pioneer Festival in May.