Motley County, in the Rolling Plains region of Northwest Texas, is bounded on the east by Cottle County, on the south by Dickens County, on the west by Floyd County, and on the north by Briscoe and Hall counties. Its center is at 34°03' north latitude and 100°45' west longitude, about eighty miles northeast of Lubbock. The county is named for Junius William Mottley, who died in the battle of San Jacinto (a spelling error was made when the county was named.) This sparsely settled county comprises 959 square miles of rough and broken terrain drained by the North Pease, Middle Pease, and South Pease rivers and their tributaries. Elevations range between 1,928 and 3,034 feet above sea level. The county lies just below the Caprock. Its soils are sand and black and red clay, mixed or not mixed with sand. The average rainfall is 20.35 inches. The average minimum temperature is 26° F in January, and the average maximum is 96° in July. The growing season lasts 218 days. The county produces about $14 million average annual income from agriculture, half of which derives from beef cattle and horses and half primarily from cotton, peanuts, wheat, guar, and other grains. In the mid-1980s about 95 percent of the land in the county was in ranches and farms; 13 percent of the county was cultivated, and 9 percent was irrigated. In 1990 the county produced almost 304,500 barrels of crude oil. U.S. Highway 62/70 runs east to west; State Highway 70 is the major route north to south.
Comanches of the Wanderers, Liver-Eaters, and Downstream bands hunted buffalo and other game in the area before white settlement, but were displaced by the army's Indian campaigns of the 1870s. In 1876 the Texas legislature formed Motley County from lands formerly assigned to the Bexar District and attached the area to Crosby County for judicial purposes. Sometime in the 1870s a buffalo hunter named Ballard established a supply station at the springs that now bear his name. In the mid-1870s Frank Collinson was commissioned by Samuel R. Coggin to bring 8,000 of John S. Chisum's cattle to establish the first ranch in the area. Collinson had known the country as a buffalo hunter in 1874, but had left because of problems with the Indians in the area. In 1878, Henry H. Campbell began buying cattle from Collinson and others for his Matador Land and Cattle Company. Campbell was the first owner of the famed Matador Ranch, which came to control much of the land in the area. In 1879 Arthur B. Cooper moved into the county and established a store at TeePee City, which, according to one source, was a "thriving" settlement at the time. In 1880 the census counted twenty-four residents in the county.
In 1890 the county had thirteen ranches, encompassing 30,225 acres, and the local economy was almost entirely devoted to cattle ranching. The agricultural census conducted that year reported 42,781 cattle, but only twenty-nine acres planted in corn and forty in wheat, the county's most important crops at that time. The first school was established near Whiteflat in 1890 with W. B. Clark as teacher. Settlers began to move to the county in greater numbers in the early 1890s; an incomplete 1891 tax roll listed 317 taxpayers. That same year the county was organized, with Matador as county seat. Since the General Land Office required a county seat to have twenty businesses, Matador Ranch employees had opened temporary stores stocked with ranch supplies. During the 1890s the county was disturbed by friction between settlers and the managers of the Matador Ranch, who attempted to control the county government. In elections held in 1894 the Matador candidates won their usual offices, but in 1896 the settlers were numerous enough to elect their own favorites. The struggle went on until 1900, when the settlers' majority became substantial. By that year there were 209 ranches and farms in the county, and though the area continued to be dominated by ranching, crop farming was becoming established. The agricultural census reported 85,497 cattle that year, while corn culture occupied 944 acres and cotton was grown on ninety-five acres. The census counted a population of 1,257 that year.
Farming expanded significantly between 1900 and 1930. By 1910 there were 373 farms and ranches in Motley County, and crop raising was becoming an important part of the economy. The agricultural census counted 65,773 cattle that year; corn was grown on 4,100 acres, sorghum on 4,500, and cotton on almost 12,000. Farming in the county particularly expanded after 1914, when the Quanah, Acme and Pacific Railroad completed laying tracks through the county. As part of the project, a 60,000-acre parcel of the Matador Ranch was put up for sale to prospective farmers and other settlers. Five years later, money contributed by the Matador and by various county citizens financed the Motley County Railroad, which ran for eight miles between Matador and Matador Junction. The number of farms and ranches in the county grew to 537 by 1920 and 910 by 1930. The population rose to 2,396 in 1910, 4,107 in 1920, and 6,812 in 1930. Many of the newcomers moved into the area to grow cotton. Cotton culture took more than 21,500 acres in the county by 1920, and by 1930 almost 87,000 acres in the county was devoted to the fiber. Some farmers continued to grow limited amounts of other crops; in 1930, 2,742 acres was planted with corn, for example, and another 3,450 acres with wheat. Poultry production was also becoming significant in the county by 1930, when farmers reported almost 29,000 chickens and sold more than 77,000 dozen eggs.
These growth trends were reversed during the 1930s, as the county suffered through the effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Cotton production plunged; by 1940 only about 35,000 acres in the county was planted in cotton, and overall, cropland harvested in the county dropped from more than 107,000 acres in 1930 to only about 86,000 acres in 1940. The drought also hurt the Matador Ranch, which was able to stay afloat only by borrowing $500,000 from the Southwestern Life Insurance Company. Hundreds of farmers in the county were obliged to leave their lands, and tenant farmers were particularly vulnerable; the number of tenants in the area dropped from 587 in 1930 to 326 in 1935 and 282 by 1940. By 1940 only 590 farms and ranches remained in the county, and the population had declined to 4,994. Partly because of the mechanization of agriculture, the population of the county continued to decline from the 1940s into the 1990s, dropping to 3,963 by 1950, 2,870 by 1960, 2,178 by 1970, 1,950 by 1980, 1,532 by 1990, and 1,153 by 2014. Of those, 80.7 percent were Anglo, 2.1 percent African American, and 15.7 percent Hispanic. The Matador Ranch survived until broken up in 1951. Oil was discovered in the county in 1957, and subsequent production was significant though not large enough to place Motley County among the leading petroleum counties in the state. County wells produced 309,549 barrels of crude in 1960, 310,400 barrels in 1965, 405,039 barrels in 1974, 185,296 barrels in 1978, 122,025 barrels in 1982, and 304,465 barrels in 1990. By January 1, 1991, more than 9,439,000 barrels of oil had been produced in Motley County since discovery in 1957.
The voters of Motley County supported Democratic candidates in virtually every presidential election between 1892 and 1948; the only exception occurred in 1928, when they supported Republican Herbert Hoover over Catholic Democrat Al Smith. In elections between 1952 and 1992, however, the county usually supported Republican presidential candidates. The only exceptions occurred in 1956, when a majority of county voters supported Adlai Stevenson; in 1964, when they supported Lyndon B. Johnson; and in 1976, when they supported James E. Carter. In the mid-1980s Motley County was one of sixty-two Texas counties still legally dry. A weekly newspaper has been published in Matador since 1891, variously named the Maverick, Gusher, News, Tribune, and Messenger; since 1985 it has been known as the Motley County Tribune. Communities in the county include the county seat, Matador (population, 592), Roaring Springs (222), Northfield, Whiteflat, and Flomot. Local attractions include an April stock show at Matador, an annual old settlers' reunion at Roaring Springs, and a game preserve for antelope and deer. Hunters also travel to the area in search of quail, doves, deer, pheasants, aoudad sheep, and antelope.