Panola County is in northeastern Texas, bordered on the east by Louisiana, on the south by Shelby County, on the west by Rusk County, and on the north by Harrison County. The center of the county lies at 32°10' north latitude and 94°20' west longitude. Carthage, the county seat, is twenty-six miles south of Marshall, sixty-five miles southeast of Tyler, and fifty miles north of Nacogdoches. The name Panola is derived from ponolo, the Cherokee word for "cotton." Located in the East Texas Timberlands region, Panola County covers 842 square miles of gentle rolling plains and small hills drained by the Sabine River, which cuts across the county diagonally from northwest to southeast. Trees in the county include short-leaf and loblolly pine, oak, maple, hickory, elm, and gum, as well as wild fruit trees such as the plum or sloe and flowering trees such as dogwood, redbud, magnolia, cedar, and holly. Scenic trails pass through 4,000 acres of timberland owned by the International Paper Company. The woodland, once densely populated with small game, now supports deer, squirrel, and quail hunting in season. New stocks of wild turkey have been placed in local forests, but they are still protected from hunters. Freshwater lakes include Hendrick's Lake, Hill's Lake, Clear Lake, and Fish Lake. Reservoirs built in recent years include Murvaul Lake, Martin Lake, and Toledo Bend. The soil is largely sandy loam with clay subsoil. Annual rainfall in Panola County averages 43.9 inches; temperatures range from an average low of 34° F in January to an average high of 94° in July. The growing season lasts 240 days. The county derives much of its income from the extraction of oil, gas, and coal; in 1990, 1,356,000 barrels of crude oil were produced in the county. Other industries include sawmills, poultry and egg processing, and the manufacture of plastic products.
When the European powers raced for claims in the New World early in the seventeenth century, Spain secured its claim to Texas from the Sabine River to the south and west. France also claimed the area, based on the explorations of René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Spain established a line of protected missions across East Texas, two of them not far south of Panola County. The area was involved in a series of territorial disputes between the United States and Spain and Mexico. In 1806, after the United States bought Louisiana from France, a boundary dispute between the United States and Spain was temporarily resolved by the Neutral Ground agreement, but after the Mexican War of Independence, another treaty had to be negotiated between Mexico and the United States. Two confederations of Indians, the Caddos and the Hasinais, lived in the Panola County area, with the Sabine River marking the approximate dividing line between them. The two allied confederations were known as the Timber Tribes. They made permanent homes in farming villages, where they raised grain and vegetables and hunted for small game in the forests. Burial mounds left behind by these people were once visible in the county, but that evidence of aboriginal life in the area has disappeared. Early settlers entered the area by traveling on the Red River or along the trails known as the Old San Antonio Road and Trammel's Trace. Trammel's Trace had originated long before as an Indian trail and later became the route used by trader Nicholas Trammel; it eventually became the western boundary of Panola County. The earliest known white settlement in the area was established by Daniel Martin in 1833. The Martins came to Texas from Missouri intending to join the colony founded by Stephen F. Austin, but after traveling down Trammel's Trace, they camped on a hill near a creek, west of the site of present Beckville. Deciding to stop there, they built a small fort and set up a trading post; the creek became known as Martin's Creek. A second settlement was established near the site of present of Clayton by Rev. Isaac Reed and a large group of relatives. Reed led the settlers to the place and purchased land from Manuel Antonio Romero. Because Mexican colonization laws prohibited settlement within a strip of land twenty leagues wide along the United States boundary, it was 1835 before Anglo settlers in the area could secure land titles from Mexico. But after the Texas Revolution in 1836, the area experienced a great land rush. In 1837 the LaGrone Settlement was established east of the Sabine River near the Louisiana border. The LaGrones' wagon train had passed through the area in 1832, but due to Indian unrest the family had traveled further into Texas; after Texas won its independence, they returned to an appealing spot they had found previously. By 1840 at least forty-nine families were established in the area that became Panola County. The majority came from Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama. Some brought slaves with them to Texas; by 1846, according to local tax records, there were 574 slaves in the area.
In 1840 the boundary between the Republic of Texas and the United States (the line that later became the county's eastern boundary) was settled. The Sabine River was established as the boundary south of the thirty-second parallel, but it was necessary to send a commission of representatives from both countries to survey the line north of the parallel. On April 23, 1841, the commission set a granite marker at the location of the thirty-second parallel, 100 feet off present State Highway 31. The western side of the shaft was inscribed with the letters "R. T." (for Republic of Texas); the eastern side was inscribed "U. S." and the southern side, "Merid, Boundary, Established A.D. 1840." The marker, the only one of its kind, still stands on the line between Panola County and DeSoto Parish, Louisiana. In the early 1840s a feud erupted between two factions who called themselves Regulators and Moderators. For almost four years skirmishes extended from Harrison County and the Caddo Lake area through Shelby and San Augustine counties and into Sabine County. The so-called Regulator-Moderator War grew out of the unsettled border conditions; the Neutral Ground furnished a secure residence for lawless men, and their activities caused the growth of vigilante groups. The warfare ended in 1844, when President Sam Houston ordered out the militia to stop it. On March 30, 1846, the Texas legislature established Panola County from parts of Shelby and Harrison counties. John Allison, the county's first chief justice, had been a slave owner and cotton planter in Panola County, Mississippi; he may have been the one who suggested the name Panola to Isaac Van Zandt, the author of the act that established the county. Because the legislature specified that the county seat was to be within five miles of the center of the county, it took two years for the county to choose a permanent seat of government. Only two real villages, Pulaski and Grand Bluff, existed in the area in 1846; both were ferry towns on the Sabine River. Both were also more than seven miles from the center of the county. Nevertheless, commissioners appointed to choose the two most desirable locations for the county seat selected Grand Bluff and Pulaski to compete for the county seat in a public vote. Two elections were held in the summer of 1846. County officials were elected on July 18, and a second election on August 23 chose Pulaski, by a small majority, as the county seat. The first court session met there on September 9. After dissatisfied citizens challenged the legality of the choice, Chief Justice Allison ruled that Pulaski would be the temporary county seat until appeals could be examined and an official legal decision made by the state legislature. Since neither village satisfied the legislature's requirements, the entire procedure had to be repeated. Pulaski and an uninhabited townsite later called Carthage near the center of the county were nominated for county seat. In an election held in August 1848 the voters of the county chose Carthage. New county officers were also elected, and Chief Justice Thomas G. Davenport met with his first court session at Carthage on September 12. At that time, Carthage was little more than a location in a virgin forest of short-leaf pine, oak, hickory, and dogwood. The site was a mile west of the center of the county in order to use high well-drained ground. Spearman Holland was credited with naming the town Carthage, after his former home in Carthage, Mississippi. Jonathan Anderson, who lived four or five miles southeast of the site, owned the land and offered to donate 100 acres for the town. In 1848, when the commissioners' court met for the first time in the new location, he deeded the 100 acres to Panola County. The legislative act authorizing the county specified that the county seat be laid out into convenient lots with space in the center to erect a courthouse. Lots were staked out and sold at public auction; the proceeds were to be used to construct public buildings. The county government was dependent upon the Panola County Commissioners' Court, which was responsible for overseeing road construction, for setting ferry fees, for law enforcement, and for other business concerning the general public.
By 1850 farms in the county encompassed more than 116,000 acres, 13,000 of which were classified as "improved." Almost 109,000 bushels of corn were produced that year, along with 887 bales of cotton and other crops such as sweet potatoes, peas, and orchard fruits. Livestock raising was an important part of the local economy; there were 885 sheep, 2,253 milk cows, and 4,000 other cattle at that time. According to the United States census 2,676 people were living in the county that year, including 2 free Blacks and 1,193 enslaved people. The county supported four public schools, where four teachers taught seventy-nine pupils. By 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the economy had grown to include 585 farms encompassing 237,000 acres, of which 49,000 acres were improved. The census reported 6,392 Whites and 3,727 enslaved people that year. There were no free Blacks. According to the census there were 445 slaveholders in the county; 75 of these owned ten or more slaves, 25 owned twenty or more slaves, and only two owned fifty or more slaves. Most owned fewer than five. Almost 327,000 bushels of corn were grown in the county that year, and cotton production had expanded substantially to 8,272 bales. The county contributed at least one company of soldiers to the Confederate cause during the Civil War, and late in the conflict the area was invaded by Union troops, who took food and other supplies from Carthage. The number of slaves in the county increased to 3,110 by 1864, possibly due to southerners fleeing west with their slaves during the war. The county continued to grow slowly during the immediate postwar period. There were 911 farms and 10,119 people in the area in 1870 and 1,670 farms and 21,424 people by 1880. The economy continued to be based on cotton farming; in 1880, 28,500 acres were planted in cotton, and 10,344 bales were produced that year. Corn remained the county's other important crop; that year 27,000 acres were devoted to it. The area's 8,820 cattle and 1,140 sheep were also sources of income for local farmers; crops such as wheat, oats, and sorghum were also grown. Meanwhile the lumber industry, which had begun before the Civil War, became increasingly important; by the early 1880s millions of board feet of lumber were being taken from the county's pine forests. Logging intensified in the area after 1885, when a narrow-gauge log railroad out of Longview built into the county. In 1888 it was upgraded to standard gauge, and its tracks were extended into Carthage. The line eventually became part of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway. Tying the area to national markets, the railroad also encouraged the development of the area's mineral wealth. As early as 1889 a geological survey discovered rich deposits of lignite in the county, and before the turn of the century a limited mining operation began in the Martin Creek area. It was soon abandoned due to the plentiful supply of wood for fuel.
By 1900 Panola County had 3,413 farms, and the population had increased to 21,404. Cotton production had expanded to 57,000 acres. Along with logging, the crop remained at the center of the local economy until after World War II. In 1910, 58,000 acres were devoted to cotton, and in 1912 forty-six cotton gins were operating in various communities. Though cotton acreage declined to 53,000 acres in 1920, production reached its peak by 1929, when 98,000 acres were planted in the fiber. Generally reflecting this trend, the number of farms in the county increased from 3,398 in 1910 to 3,771 by 1920, to 3,798 by 1925, and to 4,656 by 1929. Meanwhile, after declining slightly between 1900 and 1910, the county's population rose steadily from 20,424 in 1910 to 21,755 by 1920 and to 24,063 by 1930. These trends were reversed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, as low prices, federal crop restrictions, and other problems caused almost one-third of the farmers in the county to leave their holdings; many of those who remained could not afford to fertilize their lands. Cropland harvested in the county dropped from 128,718 acres in 1929 to only 95,500 acres by 1940, and cotton production fell by 50 percent during the same period. By 1940 there were only 3,239 farms left in Panola County, and only 41,400 acres were planted in cotton. The population dropped to 22,519 by 1940. As cotton production continued to decline in the decades following World War II and as the mechanization of agriculture encouraged the departure of more farmers, the area's population fell to 19,250 by 1950, to 16,870 by 1960, and to 15,894 by 1970. Meanwhile, pastures were improved, and ranching increased. Poultry farming became profitable. After the 1960s pasture and farm improvements did much to rebuild soils depleted by years of intensive production.
The population decline would have been more dramatic except for the growing oil and gas industry in the area. Oil was first discovered in the county in 1917 and gas in 1936, but significant production of the area's energy resources began in 1944, when the Jordan well was drilled a mile west of Carthage. The well tapped into a huge underground reservoir that underlay almost half the county. Petroleum production in the county reached 322,000 barrels in 1948, 1,057,000 barrels in 1956, 1,467,000 barrels in 1960, and 3,816,000 barrels in 1963. Production declined in the mid-1960s and then began to rise again in the mid-1970s. About 781,000 barrels were produced in 1974, 1,217,000 barrels in 1978, and 1,625,000 barrels in 1982, and 1,856,000 barrels in 1990. In response to these developments the county's population began to grow once again, reaching 20,724 in 1980 and 22,035 in 1990. A county flag, adopted in 1976, shows six representative products of the county's growth: cotton for farming, trees for lumbering, an oil well for minerals, a chicken for poultry processing, a steer for cattle ranching, and a chunk of coal for strip mining. By the late 1980s Panola County Airport served privately owned and emergency planes. There were seventy churches in the county. Two weekly newspapers, the Panola Watchman and the Panola Post, were circulated across the county and beyond. Electronic media included KGAS radio and Carthage Cable Vision; Panola General Hospital and two nursing homes provided health care. Two libraries, the Service League Library and the M. P. Baker Library at Panola College, served county residents. By the 1990s the Santa Fe Railroad had dispensed with passenger train service to the area but, reorganized as the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, the line continued to operate freight trains through the county into the twenty-first century.
In national politics the voters of Panola County delivered majorities to the Democratic candidates in almost every presidential election from 1848 through 1952. The only exception occurred in 1860, when the county supported John Bell, the candidate of the Constitutional Union Party. Beginning in 1956, when most of the people in the county voted for Dwight Eisenhower, the county went Republican in virtually every election through 1988. The only exception was the election of 1976, when a majority supported Democrat Jimmy Carter. In the 1992 election a plurality of voters supported Democrat Bill Clinton over Republican George H. W. Bush and the independent candidate, Ross Perot; Clinton also won a plurality in the county in 1996. In the 2000 and 2004 elections, however, the county gave solid majorities to Republican George W. Bush.
In 2014 the census counted 23,769 people living in Panola County. About 73.3 percent were Anglo, 16 percent were African American, and 8.8 percent were Hispanic. Almost 66 percent of residents age twenty-five or older had graduated from high school, and more than 13 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century gas and oil-field operations, agribusinesses, timber, and food processing were central elements of the area's economy. Almost 1,953,000 barrels of oil and 244,308,296 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 92,220,935 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1917. In 2002 the county had 948 farms and ranches covering 222,910 acres, 38 percent of which were devoted to crops, 31 percent to woodlands, and 28 percent to pasture. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $46,221,000; livestock sales accounted for $44,830,000 of the total. Broilers, beef cattle, and hay were the chief agricultural products. Almost 19,409,000 cubic feet of pinewood and over 5,324,000 cubic feet of hardwood were harvested in the county in 2003. Carthage (population, 6,959) is the county's seat of government and largest town. Other communities include Beckville (856) and Gary (315). All three had state-accredited school systems that included grades from preschool through twelfth grade; Panola College, located in Carthage, offered educational opportunities through two years of college. The Texas Country Music Hall of Fame is in Carthage.