Wichita County is in the extreme north central portion of the state, on the Oklahoma border. Wichita Falls, the largest city and county seat, is 144 miles northwest of Dallas and 141 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The center of Wichita County is at 34°00' north latitude and 98°42' west longitude. The county comprises 606 square miles, most of which lies in the eastern part of the Central Texas Rolling Red Plains. The extreme southeastern corner, however, is in the Central Texas Rolling Red Prairies. The Rolling Plains vegetation includes mid to tall grasses, mesquite and shinnery oak trees, and cottonwood, elm, hackberry, and pecan trees along the streams. The county's terrain consists of rolling plains with rounded slopes and shallow, comparatively broad valleys. The elevation ranges from 900 to 1,200 feet above mean sea level. Wichita County is drained from southwest to northeast by the Red and the Wichita rivers. The northwest quarter of the county empties into the Red River, the middle half drains into the Wichita River, and the southeast quarter drains into the little Wichita River. Sandy loams, black loams, and clay loams comprise the bulk of the local soils. Mineral resources include oil, gas, sand, gravel, and stone. Temperatures range from an average high of 98° F in July to an average low of 28° F in January, combining for an average annual temperature of 63° F. Rainfall averages twenty-seven inches per year, and the growing season lasts, on average, 221 days each year.
The area that became Wichita County was home for Caddoan Indians, principally the Wichitas and Taovayas, who migrated to the area from present Kansas and Nebraska, in the middle of the eighteenth century. Despite their mastery of the horse—introduced into the region by Spanish explorers—and therefore the buffalo, these natives remained heavily dependent upon agriculture. The location of their lands, in extreme north central Texas, placed them in conflict with the Lipan Apaches and the Comanches, both of which claimed the area as their own territory and continued to visit it long after their removal to Oklahoma. The presence of often aggressive Native Americans caused difficulties for Anglo-American settlers in the region until after 1850, when the federal troops forced the Indians to relocate to reservations north of the Red River. A number of Europeans, beginning with the Spanish Indian trader Athanase de Mézières, visited the area that became Wichita County during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Among these were Pedro Vial and José Mares, who crossed the region in the course of developing trails from San Antonio to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1786 and 1787, and members of the Texan Santa Fe expedition in 1841. Although local lands had been granted to survivors and heirs of soldiers who fought in the Texas Revolution as early as the 1830s, the first surveys of the area that is now Wichita County took place in 1854 under the direction of the Texan Emigration and Land Company. Mabel Gilbert, a pioneer of the settlement that became Dallas, became Wichita County's first permanent Anglo-American settler when he built a house on a bluff above the Red River, ten miles north of the site of present Wichita Falls, in 1855. Although Native Americans twice drove him from his isolated farm, in 1855 and 1862, he returned in 1867 and died there three years later. Wichita County was established by act of the Texas legislature on February 1, 1858, from the Cooke Land District, and was attached to Clay County for judicial purposes. The new county was named for the Wichita Indians, and settlement was hindered by Indian attacks. Most of the area's Anglo-American pioneers arrived after 1870, when school lands were purchased to become cattle ranches, which have remained an important part of the economy.
Wichita County remained unorganized and sparsely inhabited until after 1880, when its population reached 433. On June 7, 1882, Robert E. Huff, a recently arrived attorney, presented a petition bearing 150 signatures—some of which allegedly were fraudulent—to the Clay County commissioners court seeking independence for Wichita County. Elections for county officers took place on June 21 of that year. Wichita County's population increased relatively rapidly during the decade after its organization, rising to 4,831 in 1890. The population was predominantly Anglo-American. In 1880 the county only had seventeen African Americans and in 1890 only 128. This pattern has remained constant throughout the county's history. Wichita County remained overwhelmingly rural and agricultural during its first decade, with the number of farms increasing from sixty in 1880 to 326 in 1890. Cattle production dominated the economy, and between 1880 and 1890 the number of cattle increased 62 percent to 88,683. Corn and hay were the leading crops raised in the county. The extension of the tracks of a number of rail lines into the county greatly facilitated growth. The Fort Worth and Denver City Railroad reached the tiny settlement of Wichita Falls from Fort Worth in September 1882. This connection ensured the existence of Wichita Falls, which adopted the date of the arrival of the first train, September 26, 1882, as its birthday. Additional railroad-building activity resulted, in large measure, from the efforts of two Wichita Falls businessmen, Joseph A. Kemp and Frank Kell. Between 1884 and 1911 these men, acting independently and in concert, organized and promoted three rail lines out of Wichita Falls: the Wichita Falls and Northwestern, the Wichita Falls and Southern, and the Wichita Falls and Wellington. The construction of these roads, all of which were purchased by the Missouri, Kansas and Texas line in 1911, established Wichita Falls as a regional transportation and distribution center. Its population increased from 2,480 at the turn of the century to 8,200 by 1910. Call Field, an Army Air Corps training facility, was built south of the city during World War I. Wichita Falls continued to grow; by 1920 it had a population of 40,079 and by 1930 of 60,000, or 80 percent of the county's total population.
J. A. Kemp also played a pioneering role in the development of the county's water resources. His efforts toward establishing permanent water sources for the area resulted in the formation in 1901 of Lake Wichita, which provided irrigation and drinking water for Wichita Falls and the surrounding area, and an amendment to the state constitution, which allowed the sale of municipal bonds to finance water conservation and irrigation districts. Irrigation and flood control projects in the Wichita River Valley grew from this amendment and encouraged the increased population and development of county lands. In addition to rail connections and water improvements, the discovery of oil played a very important and lasting role in Wichita County's growth. Oil was found seeping into area water wells as early as 1901, and a small well was brought into production in 1910. In 1911 the Electra oilfield was opened (see WICHITA COUNTY REGULAR FIELDS). By 1918, following major discoveries near the community of Burkburnett, the county found itself in the midst of a full-scale oil boom. Extensions of the Burkburnett field and other discoveries through the 1950s, but particularly in 1919 and 1920, brought the rapid growth and equally rapid disappearance of a number of boom towns. More importantly, however, these later discoveries attracted people, industry, and commerce to the county, specifically to the county seat. A number of petroleum-related businesses, including oilfield product manufacturing, crude oil refining, stock sales, and related endeavors, began operations locally, most often in Wichita Falls, which had transportation and communication facilities. By 1940 the county had become Texas's most productive and active oil county, having produced 320,000,000 barrels of oil.
While county growth slowed noticeably around the turn of the century, between 1910 and 1930 the population increased from 16,094 to 74,416, and the number of farms rose from 1,039 to 1,432, a high for the county. Although total acres of land in farms decreased somewhat, the total value of these farms increased from $12 million to $17.5 million. Cattle, hay, and corn remained of great importance to the economy, but cotton culture became increasingly important. Farmers planted 24,000 acres in cotton and produced 6,382 bales in 1910. By 1930 almost 61,000 acres were devoted to cotton and produced 18,595 bales. During the 1930s and 1940s the dislocations caused by the Great Depression and World War II brought on a population decrease, and while the number of farms operating declined only slightly, the total value of these farms fell by 50 percent. The number of cattle raised declined by 50 percent from 1920 levels, and cotton production tumbled to 6,500 bales in 1940. The federal government sought to assist the county through the Wichita Valley Farm project, a ninety-three-unit farm or relocation facility. The onset of war in Europe in 1939, followed by American entry into World War II in 1941, reversed the negative trends of the 1930s. The population rose from 73,604 in 1940 to 98,493 in 1950, by which time the value of farm lands exceeded $20 million, an increase of 49 percent over 1930. Production of cotton, corn, and hay decreased, but production of cattle tripled. By the end of the war local factories had added 1,300 new workers, paid $5 million more in wages, and increased the value of products by $8 million over 1940 levels. Oil production, still a major force in the economy, reached 363,251,849 barrels by the early 1950s. An additional benefit of the war years lay in the decision of the federal government to locate an Army Air Corps training facility just north of the county seat. Sheppard Field began operations in June 1941 and at its peak housed 46,000 men. It was used as a pilot-training, aircraft maintenance-training, and basic training facility. The facility added hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars into the local economy. Although it was deactivated in 1946, it reopened in 1950 as Sheppard Air Force Base, and during the Korean War served as a training center for pilots and aircraft mechanics. The base's contribution to the economy grew from $43 million in the middle 1950s to $280 million by the 1980s.
The population grew to 123,528 in 1960 and declined to 120,563 in 1970. The number of cattle raised in 1969 was 16,000, and cotton production stood at 2,398 bales. Corn, once a prominent agricultural product, was cultivated on only fifty acres. Local factories, which turned out goods including petroleum-related products, foods, machines, and plastics, employed 7,700 workers by the middle 1970s, up 62 percent from 1940. The value of manufactured products reached $209 million and local employees earned $83 million in 1977. Approximately 27 percent of the work force held retail jobs, and 22 percent worked in service industries by 1970. The accumulated oil production reached 430 million barrels by the early 1960s and 440 million barrels ten years later. The county registered 26,024 motor vehicles in 1929, a comparatively large number, likely resulting from the necessity of trucks to the oil industry and the presence of a truck factory in Wichita Falls from 1911 to 1932. By 1950 the total number of registered vehicles stood at 32,339, and it climbed to 81,385 by 1970. Advances in the educational level of the population also took place during this forty-year period. In 1950 only 19 percent of the residents aged twenty-five years or older held high school diplomas, while only 3 percent had graduated from college. Twenty years later, 28 percent were high school graduates, and 5 percent held college diplomas. Wichita County has supported higher education since 1922, when Wichita Falls Junior College was established in Wichita Falls. In 1937 the school was renamed Hardin Junior College, and in 1946 two additional years of college-level work were added to the curriculum, and it was separated from the local school district to become Hardin College. Four years later the four-year private school was renamed Midwestern University, and in 1961 it became Midwestern State University, a state-supported, four-year institution of higher learning. By the middle 1970s the school's enrollment reached 4,154, and it enrolled 5,502 students in 1990.
Developments during the 1970s and 1980s reinforced major postwar trends. The population reached 121,080 by 1980 and 122,378 in 1990. As they had throughout the county's history, Anglo-Americans accounted for the vast majority of the local population, 90 percent during these decades. African Americans made up 8 percent. In 1990 Wichita Falls had 122,378 residents, of which the 96,259 in Wichita County made up 79 percent of the county's total population. The city continued to serve as the focal point of the local economy, with diversified manufacturing and commercial activity, Sheppard Air Force Base, and the county government. While the number of farms continued to decrease, as it had since 1940, the aggregate value of these farms surpassed $172 million by the early 1980s, and then fell slightly by the end of the decade. The county reported 172 manufacturing establishments in 1982. The number of retail workers increased 27 percent between 1970 and 1980 and 12 percent between 1980 and 1987. The number of jobs available locally in the service occupations increased 49 percent. In spite of a depression in the oil business in the mid-1980s, oil production remained an important facet of the economy, with a cumulative total production of 790 million barrels by 1991.
The voters of Wichita County favored the Democratic candidate in virtually every presidential election through 1968; the only exception occurred in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover beat Al Smith. After 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon carried the county over George McGovern, the area began to trend Republican. Though Democrat Jimmy Carter carried the county in 1976, the area went Republican in every other presidential election from 1972 through 2004.
In 2014 the census counted 132,355 people living in Wichita County. About 67.2 percent were Anglo, 17.9 percent were Hispanic, 10.7 percent were African American, and about 5 percent were other minorities. Almost 70 percent of the residents age twenty-five or older were high school graduates, and more than 20 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agriculture remained a significant component of the area's economy, but its importance continued to decline. In 2002 the county had 606 farms and ranches covering 301,574 acres, 52 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 44 percent to crops. In that year Wichita County farmers and ranchers earned $15,829,000, with livestock sales accounting for $7,694,000 of that total. Stocker cattle, cows, and calves were the chief agricultural products; wheat and other small grains were also grown in the area. More important to the county's economy was its growing importance as a retail trade center; oil, manufacturing, Sheppard Air Force Base, and medical services also played important roles. Almost 2,131,000 barrels of oil were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 827,590,411 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1910. Four national highways (Interstate 44 and U.S. highways 82, 277, and 287) provided access to Wichita Falls. Wichita Falls (population, 105,984) continued to be the county's seat of government and largest city, and served as a distribution center for large areas in Texas and Oklahoma. Other Wichita County communities included Burkburnett (11,270), Iowa Park (6,501), and Electra (2,787). Recreational opportunities were offered by Lake Arrowhead State Recreation Area and other area lakes, and Wichita Falls featured a major bicycle race in August and a variety of local events.