Stephens County is in north central Texas, bounded on the east by Palo Pinto County, on the south by Eastland County, on the west by Shackelford County, and on the north by Young and Throckmorton counties. The center of the county lies at 32°45' north latitude and 98°50' west longitude, sixty-five miles northeast of Abilene. Originally named Buchanan County after President James Buchanan, the county was renamed in 1861 to honor Alexander H. Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America. The county extends across almost 922 square miles of broken, hilly plateau country with loamy topsoils covering deep reddish, clayey, or mottled subsoils. The area is drained by the Clear Fork of the Brazos River and by other tributaries of the Brazos. Elevations range between 1,000 to 1,600 feet above sea level; outstanding physical features include summits known as Gunsight Mountain, Double Mountain, and Evans Peak. Trees include mesquite, hackberry, elm, and pecan, while broomweed, wild rye, and milkweed are some of the grasses that grow in the area. The annual average rainfall is 26.4 inches. Temperatures range from an average low of 31° F in January to an average high of 98° in July; the growing season lasts 222 days. In the 1980s the agricultural sector of the economy earned an annual average income of $12.5 million, 90 percent of which derived from livestock, including beef cattle, horses, hogs, and sheep. Crops grown in the area included wheat, oats, hay, peanuts, and sorghum. The manufacture of mobile homes, furniture, aircraft parts, petrochemicals, and oilfield equipment earned $9.7 million in 1982; almost five million barrels of oil, valued at $169,688,194, were also produced in the county that year. Major roads include U.S. Highway 180 (west to east), U.S. Highway 183 (north to south), and State Highway 67, which runs from Breckenridge to the northeast.
Comanches and Tonkawas occupied what is now Stephens County before Anglo settlement began in the late 1850s. John R. Baylor, probably the first White settler in the area, built a cabin on the Clear Fork in 1857, and others soon followed. The Texas legislature established Stephens County in 1858 from lands formerly assigned to Bosque County. By 1860 there were 198 people living in the area; the United States census did not report any slaves living in the county at that time. In 1861, after Texas had left the Union, the small town of Picketville was designated the temporary county seat, and the county was renamed to honor the vice president of the Confederacy. During the Civil War about 100 local residents lived together for protection at Fort Davis, a "citizens' fort" in the area; a school was established at the place. A salt works was operated on Big Caddo Creek at this time. County tax rolls reveal that there were thirty-three slaves in the county in 1864, near the end of the war, possibly brought there by slaveholders who moved to the area during the conflict. Though the Tonkawa Indians were friendly, early settlers were in constant danger of attacks by the Comanches and Kiowas who roamed the area. Samuel P. Newcomb, a pioneer schoolteacher, wrote sadly in 1865, "My pen is incapable of doing justice in recording the horrible depredations committed on this frontier by the barbaric, uncivilized savages." The last large Comanche and Kiowa raids on the Clear Fork took place in 1871, although a few settlers lost their lives to raiders as late as 1873. After Indian removal settlers were free to deal with what Newcomb called the county's "disagreeable peculiarities," which included "sand storms in spring, northers in winter, traveling grasshoppers in the fall, and long, severe, and parching droughts in the summer and all other seasons of the year." The agricultural census for 1870 reported twenty-four farms and ranches in Stephens County. Though settlers grew some corn and vegetables for their own consumption, the economy of the area at that time revolved almost entirely around ranching; while only about 600 bushels of corn were produced in the county that year, more than 43,000 cattle were reported. There were only 300 people living in the county in 1870, and as late as 1875 ranchers were still traveling 200 miles to Tarrant County for flour and other necessities. The county was organized in 1876, and Breckenridge became the seat of government.
During the 1870s thousands of new settlers moved into the area. A coal mine, operated by Jacob Weishar, was established near Hubbard Creek in 1878, and many of the new settlers established farms. By 1880 the county had 567 farms and ranches, encompassing about 96,000 acres. Ranching continued to dominate the local economy; almost 35,000 cattle and more than 4,900 sheep were reported that year. But crop farming was beginning to become established in the area, as more than 3,800 acres were planted in corn that year; about 2,200 acres was planted in wheat, and another 700 acres was devoted to cotton. Reflecting the area's economic growth, by 1880 the county population reached 4,725. About 45 percent of the people had been born in Texas, while most of the rest were from other southern states, particularly Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama. In 1880 the Texas and Pacific Railway built across the southeastern tip of the county, tying the area to national markets and encouraging farming and further settlement. The people of Stephens County suffered through the terrible drought and freezes of 1886 and 1887. During the drought, according to one resident, "you could follow the bed of the creek by the buzzards that flew over." Despite setbacks and challenges, the county continued to grow; by 1890 there were 713 farms and ranches, encompassing over 226,000 acres, and by 1900 there were 1,049 farms and ranches. Meanwhile, the population increased to 4,926 by 1890 and to 6,466 by 1900.
Though sheep ranching declined during this period (by 1900 there were only about 1,600 sheep in the area), cattle continued to play an important role in the economy; over 45,000 cattle were reported on local ranches in 1900. But crop farming, especially the cultivation of cotton, was responsible for most of the county's growth during the late nineteenth century. In 1890 more than 5,000 acres was planted in cotton; by 1900 almost 19,000 acres was devoted to the fiber, and it had become the county's most important crop. Corn production also expanded during this period, so that by 1900 more than 15,000 acres was planted in the crop. Cotton expansion continued, and by 1910 almost 29,000 acres was planted in the fiber. Though production of most other crops declined during this decade, wheat briefly became the county's second most important crop, claiming about 13,500 acres by 1910. That year there were 1,375 farms and ranches, and 7,980 people in the county. Cotton farming declined substantially after 1910, however, at least partly because of a boll weevil infestation; more than 13,400 bales were ginned in 1906, for example, but only 1,062 in 1926 and 998 in 1930. The crop would never again be so important to the area. Though some farmers shifted to peanuts, sorghum, and other crops, many farmers left their lands; the number of farms dropped more than 50 percent during the 1910s, and by 1920 only 603 remained. No doubt many of those who left their farms found work in the oil and gas industry, which was just beginning to boom in the area at that time. Wildcatters first drilled for oil in Stephens County land in 1911; a 2,400-foot well eight miles northwest of Breckenridge was abandoned in 1913. Oil was finally found in May 1916, at a depth of 2,470 feet, on the W. L. Carey farm near Caddo. Soon other producing wells were drilled, including Smith No. 1 near Parks, which was the first heavy gas well struck in the county and the one that started the local boom. A terrific boom centering around Breckinridge took off in 1921, when drillers brought in Stoker No. 1 just outside of town. Breckenridge became a forest of wooden derricks; over 200 wells were drilled within the city limits. On September 1, 1921, Keithly No. 1 blew in at 3,068 feet with a huge flow that drenched the countryside until it was harnessed by the Humble Oil Company (later Exxon Company, U.S.A.) after two weeks' work. The Breckenridge oilfield was prodigious. In one year it produced 15 percent of all the oil produced in the United States (more than the combined production of the states of Louisiana and Kansas that year), and supplied one-third of the petroleum produced in Texas. Breckenridge grew quickly, as thousands moved into the area; by the early 1920s the town had two daily newspapers, ten theaters, eighty-nine oil companies, and seventy-nine eating places. The oil boom also led to the construction of two other railroads into the area; the Ranger, Wichita Falls and Fort Worth line built into the county in 1920 and was followed by the Cisco and Northeastern in 1921. Thanks largely to the oil boom, the total population of the county more than doubled between 1910 and 1920, when the census counted 15,403 people; by 1930 the population had increased to 16,560. The number of African Americans increased substantially during this period, rising from four in 1910 to sixty-two by 1920, and to 447 by 1930. One of the less pleasant episodes of the period occurred in 1923, when a unit of the Ku Klux Klan staged a huge parade in the town.
Though cotton farming revived briefly during the 1920s, the crop disappeared almost entirely during the Great Depression of the 1930s. About 10,000 acres was devoted to cotton in 1930; by 1940 only 892 acres was planted, and only 112 bales were produced. Farmers turned to other crops such as wheat, oats, and sorghum. Meanwhile, sheep ranching revived in the area, and sheep and mohair goats were increasingly evident. By 1940 there were 29,000 cattle, 9,100 goats, and 7,400 sheep reported in the county. Oil production also helped to stabilize the economy during the depression; in 1938 more than 1,408,000 barrels of petroleum were produced. Nevertheless, the county suffered a significant population decline during the 1930s, and by 1940 only 12,356 people remained. Droughts, farm consolidations, and the mechanization of agriculture have all contributed to a general decline in population since the 1940s. The number of farms dropped from 957 in 1945 to 685 in 1950 and to 488 in 1959; meanwhile, the population declined to 10,597 by 1950 and to 8,885 by 1960. Except for the 1970s, when oil production rose considerably, the population continued to decline between 1960 and 1990. The census counted 8,414 residents in 1970, 9,926 in 1980, and 9,010 in 1990.
The voters of Stephens County supported the Democratic candidate in almost every presidential election between 1896 and 1948; the only exception occurred in 1928, when they supported Herbert Hoover over Democrat Al Smith. Between 1952 and 1988, however, the voters supported Republicans in every election but two: in 1964, when they backed Lyndon B. Johnson, and in 1976, when they supported Jimmy Carter. In the 1992 presidential election, a plurality of voters supported Republican George Bush over Democrat Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, the independent candidate.
Oil production and related industries remained important to the local economy. About 1,249,000 barrels of crude were produced in the county in 1944, 3,427,000 barrels in 1956, and more than 2,978,000 barrels in 1965. Production reached 3,913,000 barrels in 1978 and more than 4,987,000 barrels in 1982. In 1990, 5,601,323 barrels were produced, and by January 1, 1991, almost 286,548,000 barrels of crude had been produced in the county since discovery in 1916. In the 1990s oil, manufacturing, recreation, and agriculture combined to make a diversified economy. As of 2014, 9,405 people lived in the county. About 73.7 percent were Anglo, 2.5 percent African American, and 22.4 percent Hispanic. Communities include Breckenridge (population, 5,581), the county seat, Caddo (70), Crystal Falls, Eolian, Gunsight, Ivan, Necessity, and Wayland.