Randall County, on the Llano Estacado near the center of the Panhandle , is bordered by Potter County to the north, Carson County to the northeast, Armstrong County to the east, Swisher County to the southeast, Castro County to the southwest, Deaf Smith County to the west, and Oldham County to the northwest. The county center lies at 34°57' north latitude and 101°54' west longitude. Randall County has an area of 922 square miles that extends over an eastward sloping tableland broken by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, which flows through Palo Duro Canyon, and its tributaries, Palo Duro and Tierra Blanca creeks. The elevation is 3,000 to 3,800 feet above mean sea level; the canyons range from 50 to 1,750 feet in depth. Annual rainfall averages 20.16 inches. Temperatures range from an average low of 23° F in January to an average high of 92° in July; the average growing season lasts 195 days. The soil is Amarillo silty clay loam, easily cultivated and suitable for diversified farming. Native short grass and scant growths of cedar and cottonwood made the area a buffalo and antelope range before colonization. Fossil remains of prehistoric animals have been found in both Palo Duro and Cita canyons.
Evidence of human habitation in the area extends back some 10,000 years to Paleo-Indian cultures. During the historical period, various nomadic Plains Indian tribes, including the Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne, hunted buffalo in the area and utilized the canyons as winter camping grounds. The expedition of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado crossed the area in 1541 and probably camped for a fortnight in Palo Duro Canyon. Pedro Vial crossed the northeast corner of the county on his way from San Antonio to Santa Fe in 1786, and in July 1788 Vial and Santiago Fernández traversed the canyon as they returned to Santa Fe from the Jumano country. One division of the Texan–Santa Fe expedition of 1841 crossed the southeastern part of what is now Randall County near South Cita Canyon. In 1852, while surveying possible routes for a Pacific railroad, Capt. Randolph B. Marcy and Capt. George B. McClellan followed the Red River into Palo Duro Canyon before turning northward to the Canadian River.
In the 1870s the slaughter of the buffalo and the battle of Palo Duro Canyon drove the Plains Indians from the area and opened it up to settlement. Randall County was separated from Bexar County in 1876 and named for Horace Randal, Confederate brigadier general killed at the battle of Jenkins' Ferry, Arkansas, in 1864; a clerical error doubled the l in the name. Settlement began in 1876 when Charles Goodnight drove 1,600 cattle into Palo Duro Canyon and established his Old Home Ranch as the first JA Ranch headquarters. The following year Leigh R. Dyer built his log ranch headquarters, the oldest surviving building in the northern thirty-six counties of Texas, near the junction of Palo Duro and Tierra Blanca creeks. In 1878 Dyer sold this property to the Gunter, Munson, and Summerfield firm, who established the GMS (later T Anchor) Ranch at this site. Working with the Houston and Great Northern Railroad on a partnership basis, the firm by 1880 controlled most of the land and all of the water sites in Randall County. The county was unorganized from 1876 to 1889 and was attached successively to Jack County (1876–79), Wheeler County (1879–81), Oldham County (1881–83), Donley County (1883–85), Oldham County again (1885–89), and Potter County (1889). At first, county organization was contested by the big ranching element led by Lee John Hutson, manager of the T Anchor, who sought to restrict the flow of homesteaders into the area. However, 200 petitioners led by Lincoln G. Conner successfully arranged for an election, held in July 1889 at Conner's dugout. Canyon City (later Canyon), which Conner had laid out earlier that year, was elected county seat, with forty-five qualified voters participating. Six of the new county officers were T Anchor employees. The first school in the county was taught in the fall of 1889 by Emma Turner at the old wooden shack that had served as a courthouse. The county population rose from 187 in 1890 to 963 in 1900. All but one of the inhabitants in 1900 was white, and only eighteen were foreign born.
From the beginning, ranching established itself as the county's major industry. Fenced pastures replaced the open range after 1881, registered Herefords were first brought into the area in 1883, and cattle numbered 35,000 in 1900. Farming grew more slowly. The first farmer was W. F. Heller, later the first county clerk, who in 1887 established his homestead on Tierra Blanca Creek some two miles from the T Anchor headquarters. Oats and sorghum were early crops; alfalfa was grown successfully in 1888. In 1900 the county had only 8,278 acres in cultivation.
Transportation developments at the turn of the century greatly aided the development of Randall County. The Pecos and Northern Texas Railway built westward through the county from Amarillo in 1898 and helped bring settlers and a market for crops; in 1910 the Santa Fe completed the Llano Estacado Railway from Floydada to Canyon. As a result the decade 1900 to 1910 was a time of dramatic growth for Randall County, as the population increased by over 300 percent to 3,312 inhabitants. During the same period the number of improved acres increased elevenfold, to reach 94,404 acres by 1910; most of the land was planted in wheat and in forage crops. In the same decade the size of the average farm fell from 6,014 acres to 767 acres, further evidence of a shift from a predominantly ranching to a mixed ranching and farming economy.
Though the county population and economy were relatively static between 1910 and 1920, Randall County experienced new growth in the 1920s. The population reached 7,071 in 1930, and the number of farms more than doubled, from 383 in 1920 to 843 in 1930. Cattle ranching continued to be of primary importance, with almost 37,000 head on county farms in 1930. Sheep ranching, which was introduced into the county by 1900, reached an all-time high of 13,200 head in 1930. Cropland harvested also more than doubled during the 1920s, with some 70 percent of the 219,000 cultivated acres devoted to wheat culture. Cotton culture began in the 1920s but was only marginally successful because the county was too far north.
Along with the agricultural growth of the early decades of the twentieth century went a corresponding increase in tenant farming. By 1910, 122 sharecroppers lived in Randall County, or about one-third of the farmers. The number of tenants decreased to 93 in 1920, but then reached an all-time peak for the county of 337, or 40 percent of all county farmers, in 1930. During the Great Depression years of the 1930s the county was hard hit by falling agricultural prices, drought, and the dramatic dust storms of 1935 to 1937. Between 1930 and 1940 the number of farms fell by almost 25 percent to 652, and their value fell by 40 percent. Most of the farmers driven out by the depression were sharecroppers, whose numbers declined to 165 by 1940.
Better farming techniques, increased use of irrigation, and such government work programs as the Civilian Conservation Corps are said to have helped Randall County weather the depression and Dust Bowl years. The county prospered and modernized in the 1940s. Sharecropping almost disappeared; by the end of the decade only twenty-three tenants remained. By 1950, 86 percent of the county's 667 farms had electricity, and 84 percent had tractors; mules had practically disappeared. Though sheep declined during the 1930s and 1940s to 2,688 head in 1950, that year some 41,000 cattle were counted on Randall County ranches. Wheat acreage in 1950 reached an all-time high of almost 216,000 acres, or 80 percent of the cropland harvested and more than 70,000 acres was watered by irrigation.
Beginning in the 1940s, Randall County became increasingly urbanized. The extension of Amarillo south from Potter County into north central Randall County in the 1940s increased the county population to 13,774 by 1950. As Amarillo and its metropolitan area continued to grow, the county population almost tripled during the 1950s, to reach 33,913 residents in 1960; it was 53,885 in 1970. Three-quarters of the 75,062 people living in Randall County in 1980 lived in Amarillo. The population of the county overall rose to 89,673 by 1990 and to 104,312 by 2000.
Nevertheless, agriculture continued to play a crucial role in the economy, with cattle and wheat continuing to dominate the rural economy. The number of cattle in the county increased to 40,845 in 1960 and 93,635 in 1982. The county ranked thirty-fourth in the state for agricultural income in 1982, when more than 76 percent of receipts came from livestock. Randall County remained one of the leading wheat-producing counties in the state, with almost two million bushels harvested in 1982. Sorghum culture also continued to be important. In 2002 the county had 748 farms and ranches covering 512,300 acres, 53 percent of which were devoted to crops. In that year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $261,309,000; livestock sales accounted for $250,164,000 of the total. Beef cattle, corn, wheat, sorghum, and hay were the chief agricultural products.
No significant mineral resources have been discovered in the county. In 2000 the county economy primarily consisted of agribusiness, education, tourism, and some manufacturing.
The highway system was extended and improved through the years until by the 1980s Interstate Highway 40 went through Amarillo from east to west on the northern boundary of Randall County, and Interstate 27 had been completed from north to south from Amarillo to Lubbock. U.S. Highway 60 runs through the county from northeast to southwest, and several farm roads cross the county. Randall County supported the Democratic party in all presidential elections, with the exception of 1928, from 1892 through 1948. Residents voted for Republican party candidates in every presidential election from 1952 through 2004. Higher education and tourism have been important in the growth of the county. Amarillo College has operated since 1897. West Texas State Normal College (now West Texas A&M University) opened in Canyon in 1910 and enrolled 6,193 students in 1990. Palo Duro Canyon, with Palo Duro Canyon State Park (deeded to the state in 1933), is an important attraction. Each summer the outdoor drama Texas draws large numbers of people to the park. In Canyon the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum provides an important tourist attraction, and Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1939, provides recreational opportunities in the southwestern part of the county.
Throughout its history the population of Randall County has been predominantly non-Hispanic white. In 2014 128,220 people lived in the county. About 75.3 percent were Anglo, 3 percent were African American, and about 18.7 percent were Hispanic. Towns in the county include Canyon (population, 13,908), the seat of government; Amarillo (200,526, partly in Potter County); and the resort communities of Lake Tanglewood (825) and Timbercreek Canyon (434). The Canyon News, begun in 1896 as the Stayer, is the county's only newspaper outside of Amarillo.