Palo Pinto County is in north central Texas, bounded on the east by Parker County, on the south by Erath County, on the west by Stephens County, and on the north by Young and Jack counties. The center of the county lies at 32°45' north latitude and 98°18' west longitude, eighty miles west of Fort Worth. The area is named for one of its principal streams. The county covers 948 square miles of broken, hilly land with sandy, gray, and black soils; elevations range between 800 to 1,450 feet above sea level. The county has an average annual rainfall of 30.13 inches and is drained by the Brazos River. Timber in the area includes cedar, oak, and pecan. Temperatures range from an average low of 33° F in January to an average high of 96° F in July; the growing season lasts 221 days. During the 1980s the county's annual agricultural yield was $12.5 million, 90 percent of which was from livestock, including cattle, sheep, angora goats, and hogs. Pecans, peaches, vegetables, grains, and hay accounted for the rest. Clay pipes, aircraft systems, plastics, electronic products, brick, feeds, clothes, and other products manufactured in the county earned an average annual income of $43.4 million. In 1982 oil sales of 364,350 barrels yielded $8.4 million. Major highways include U.S. Highway 180, which runs west to east across the county; Interstate Highway 20, which crosses the southeast corner; and State highways 16 and 108, which run north to south.
William A. A. (Bigfoot) Wallace surveyed the frontier in 1837 and may have been the first white in the area that is now Palo Pinto County. The original settlers in the region, including Oliver Loving, Charles Goodnight, and Reuben Vaughn, established cattle ranches there in the mid-to-late 1850s. These pioneers had Indian neighbors who raised corn and grain to supplement their game hunting; there were six groups of Indians, numbering 1,000 people, living along the Brazos in 1850. Though Vaughn and other early settlers apparently cultivated friendships with the Indians, as more whites moved into the region the relations between the two peoples became strained, particularly because of the senseless aggression of some whites. The Brazos Indian Reservation, founded in 1854, held destitute bands from several tribes-Delawares, Shawnees, Tonkawas, Wichitas, and Caddoes. All Indian depredations, whether perpetrated by free Comanches or Kiowas passing through the region or by reservation Indians from Indian Territory, were attributed by terrified settlers to Indians from the Brazos reservation. White settlers retaliated against reservation Indians, and racial tension and violent incidents increased. According to pioneer Henry Belding, reservation Indians became hostile "because a lot of cowards from Erath County had found a party of Indians camped near Palo Pinto and attacked...and killed squaws and children and men...[T]heir dastardly act cost the lives of many good citizens." Violence followed, and in 1856 the Texas Rangers rounded up the Indians and moved them to two reservations established in Young and Throckmorton counties. The removal did not end the conflict, however, for settlers complained that reservation Indians continued to steal cattle, and some settlers threatened to attack the reservations. Eventually the Indians were removed from their Brazos reservation to Oklahoma, while settlers flocked in along the old Fort Worth-Fort Belknap road.
In 1856 the Texas state legislature established Palo Pinto County from lands formerly assigned to Bosque and Navarro counties. The county was organized the next year, with the town of Golconda chosen to be the seat of government. The town was renamed Palo Pinto in 1858. One of the first businesses in the county, an ox treadmill, was established that year. By 1860 there were 1,524 people, including 130 slaves, living in the county. Almost 15,400 cattle and more than 3,200 sheep were counted on Palo Pinto ranches and farms that year. Farmers grew mostly corn, wheat, and oats, although seventeen bales of cotton were also produced. Though crop farming was becoming better established in the area, the area's economy centered around cattle in the years just after the Civil War. In 1867 cattlemen Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight established the famed Goodnight-Loving Trail to western markets. In 1876 C. C. Slaughter, James C. Loving, and C. L. "Kit" Carter met to discuss the theft of cattle by reservation Indians and white rustlers, and the challenge to their open range by new settlers. Out of this meeting on Slaughter's ranch grew the organizational meeting, held at Graham the next year, of the Stock Raiser's Association of Northwest Texas, later known as the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. Carter, of Palo Pinto, was the association's first president. In the late 1870s and early 1880s some ranchmen began fencing rangeland to which they held title. Some settlers opposed fencing of the traditionally free open range, and incidents of fence cutting and violence resulted (see BARBED WIRE). By 1880 there were 648 farms and ranches in Palo Pinto County; of these, 476 were operated by their owners, 28 were operated by renters, and 144 were farmed by sharecroppers. Over 9,300 acres in the county were planted in corn, the county's most important crop at that time, with another 2,425 acres devoted to wheat. Cotton was becoming an important cash crop, and 4,300 acres in the county were devoted to the fiber. As cropland in the county expanded, so did the number of livestock: by 1880 there were 42,400 cattle and 5,000 sheep grazing in the county. Nine manufacturing businesses, employing twenty workers, had been established in the county. The area's expanding population reflected its economic growth, as the census counted 5,882 people living in Palo Pinto County that year.
In 1880 the Texas and Pacific Railway built through the county, tying the area to national markets and encouraging farming and further settlement; the towns of Brazos, Santo, Gordon, Mingus, and Strawn sprang up along the rail route. In 1891 the Weatherford, Mineral Wells and Northwestern Railway, a twenty-five mile line, also built into the area, bringing eastern traffic to Mineral Wells. The line became part of the Texas and Pacific in 1902. Between 1880 and 1910 the number of farms and ranches in the county almost tripled, rising to 1,271 by 1900 and to 1,921 by 1910; meanwhile, the population of the county rose to 8,320 by 1890, to 12,291 by 1900, and to 19,506 by 1910. Though most of the new settlers were native-born whites, hundreds were foreign-born immigrants from Germany, Austria, England, Scotland, Italy, and other European nations. The county's African-American population also grew significantly during this period, rising from 67 in 1890 to 528 by 1910. The character of the local economy also changed during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth. Sheep ranching dwindled away: only 163 sheep remained in the area by 1910. While cattle remained an important locus of production, the number of cattle in Palo Pinto declined from 58,000 in 1890 to 28,700 by 1910. Meanwhile, crop farming became ever more important, and cotton acreage expanded steadily, rising to 10,809 by 1890 and to 19,569 by 1900; by 1910 32,000 acres in the county were devoted to growing the fiber. As cotton production expanded, the number of acres planted in oats, wheat, and corn declined significantly; in 1910, for example, no wheat at all was grown in Palo Pinto, while less acreage was devoted to corn than at any time since the Civil War. Tenancy rates among the local farmers rose steadily as cotton cultivation expanded across the county. By 1910 almost half (919) of the farmers in the county were tenants. Cotton farming in the area declined substantially during and after the 1910s, however; almost 25,000 bales were ginned in 1906, for example, but only 5,300 bales were produced in 1916 and 5,400 bales in 1926. The crop would never again be so important to the area. Boll weevils and other insects forced most farmers to change to peanuts and other crops, including fruits, corn, grain sorghums, and hairy vetch. In 1930 only 18,000 acres of the county's 66,800 acres of cropland were planted in cotton. Meanwhile, ranching revived in the area, and goats and sheep were increasingly evident on the county's pastures. By 1930 the county had 46,000 cattle, 6,600 sheep, and 8,500 goats.
Oil production in the county during the 1910s helped to diversify the local economy. The first test oil well in Palo Pinto County was drilled in 1901, but the boom did not occur until 1915, when the field near the town of Palo Pinto was opened and became "one of the most productive oil fields in the world," according to one historian. The population of the county rose to 23,431 by 1920 but declined during the 1920s, despite the establishment of Fort Wolters, a training site near Mineral Wells for the Texas National Guard, in 1925. By 1930 the county population was 17,576. The decline of cotton in the area accelerated during the Great Depression of the 1930s. By 1940 only 3,300 acres in the county were devoted to the fiber, and production of corn, wheat, and oats also declined significantly. Peanut farming became an important part of the local agricultural economy during this period, however, and wool and mohair production rapidly increased: by 1940 there were 23,000 sheep and 20,000 goats in the county. To some extent, oil production also helped to offset some of the worst effects of the depression, though production had tapered off by this time; 117,000 barrels were produced in 1938. Though cropland harvested in the county declined slightly to 63,000 acres by 1940, the number of farms and ranches in the area increased to 1,325 by that time, and the population had increased slightly to reach 18,356. During World War II Fort Wolters was expanded to accommodate 25,000 troops. The population of Palo Pinto County declined during the 1940s, however, partly because of farm consolidations and the mechanization of agriculture. By 1950 only 1,026 farms remained in the area, and the population had dropped to 17,154.
Oil production increased during the 1950s. While only 97,600 barrels of crude were produced in the county in 1948, for example, county wells produced over 230,000 barrels in 1956 and 335,000 barrels in 1960. Since then, oil and natural gas production has remained a significant part of the local economy. Almost 260,400 barrels of crude oil were produced in the county in 1974, 480,000 barrels in 1978, and 364,400 barrels in 1982. In 1990 367,000 barrels of oil were produced in the county; by January 1, 1991, 17,874,218 barrels had been produced in the county since discovery in 1902. Thanks in part to oil activity, the number of people living in Palo Pinto County rose to 20,516 by 1960 and to 28,962 by 1970. The area's population declined during the 1970s, however, to reach 24,062 by 1980. In 2014 the county's population was 28,096. About 76 percent were Anglo, 2.4 percent African American, and 19.6 percent Hispanic. The voters of Palo Pinto County supported the Democratic candidates in virtually every presidential election between 1872 and 1948; the only exception occurred in 1928, when they supported Herbert Hoover over Democrat Al Smith. In elections between 1952 and 1988 the county's voters usually voted Democratic, but they supported Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956; Republican Ronald Reagan also won a majority in the county in 1984, and George Bush took the county in 1988. In the 1992 presidential election, a plurality of the county's voters supported Democrat Bill Clinton over Republican George Bush and Ross Perot, the independent candidate. Palo Pinto (population, 243) remains the county seat, though Mineral Wells (17,123) is the most populous town in the county, with manufacturing as well as health and recreation facilities. Other communities include Gordon (486), Graford (602), and Strawn (644). Camp Wolters was closed entirely in 1973. The Palo Pinto County Star, founded by J. C. Son in 1876, was still being published in 1984 as a weekly. The county has developed a tourist industry revolving around Possum Kingdom Lake, Mineral Wells State Park, and Lake Palo Pinto. The county hosts a Crazy Water Festival each May.