Wise County is in northwestern Texas, forty miles south of the Oklahoma border. Decatur, the county seat and largest town, is thirty-five miles northwest of Fort Worth on U.S. highways 81/287 and 380. The county, comprising 922 square miles, is divided from north to south between the Eastern Grand Prairie and the Western Cross Timbers regions of Texas. The topography of the eastern section consists of gently rolling hills with sandy loam topsoils and brick clay subsoils. Central Wise County has a combination of flat and undulating terrain; its waxy, light-colored surface soil covers deep layers of red clay. The western section is primarily hilly, with alluvial loam and sandy top layers over clay and limestone sublayers. Natural resources include stone, clay, gas, and oil. Vegetation ranges from natural and improved grasses to post and live oak, cottonwood, and mesquite trees. Approximately 40 percent of the total area is quality farmland, and 60 percent is forest and grazing land. The average elevation of Wise County is 800 feet above sea level, and two-thirds of the county is drained by the West Fork of the Trinity River. Two lakes, Lake Bridgeport and Eagle Mountain Lake, and numerous creeks and tributaries provide an abundant water supply and recreational facilities. The average annual rainfall is twenty-nine inches. Temperatures vary from an average low of 33° F in January to an average high of 96° F in July. The growing season lasts 248 days.
The first known inhabitants of Wise County were probably Wichita Indians, a nomadic plains group that depended upon the buffalo for food and other necessities. In 1540, when the Coronado expedition came through the area east of the site of present Decatur, there were several Indian villages between the Trinity and Red rivers. The Wichita period ended around 1835, as various Caddo Indian groups filtered into the region. At the time that the first white settlers came to the area, one village of approximately sixty-five Delaware Indians led by Jim Ned remained in Wise County. Jim Ned and his peaceful band befriended the whites, and various hills, streams, and communities were named after the Indian leader. Hostile groups of Kichai Indians also lived in the area near Bridgeport during the period, and they raided white communities in Fannin County. Generals Edward H. Tarrant and James Smith led expeditions against them during the 1840s and early 1850s. By 1855 the permanent Indian settlements had moved to reservations in West Texas. The history of white settlement in Wise County began with Sam Woody, who moved to Deep Creek (then in Cooke County) in 1854. His original log cabin remains as a historic site. Many other settlers, eager to take advantage of the state preemption grants of 160 acres of land, followed Woody into the area. District surveyors from Cooke County in the north and Denton County to the east mapped out the area, most of which was drawn from Cooke County. Wise County was officially established by legislative act on January 23, 1856, and was named in honor of Henry A. Wise, a United States Congressman from Virginia, who, during the 1840s, supported the annexation of Texas. The county seat, Decatur (originally named Taylorsville), was selected by a countywide election and, though challenged after the courthouse burned in 1895, has remained the seat of government to the present. The majority of Wise County settlers were immigrants from southern states, though only fifty-three of the county's 3,160 white residents owned slaves in 1860. Prior to the Civil War cattle and sheep production were the major industries; cotton was not introduced into the county until the 1870s. Most residents engaged in open-range ranching through the 1880s; the two most prominent ranches, owned by W. H. Hunt and Daniel Waggoner, were located in western Wise County. The predominantly southern populace supported secession in 1861 and raised five Confederate companies that fought in the Civil War. The removal of federal troops from the frontier left outlying settlements at the mercy of hostile Comanches and other plains Indians. Texas militia units, formed to patrol from the Red River to the Rio Grande, set up a post in Decatur. Local volunteer groups also defended the frontier communities. Nevertheless, many farms were abandoned, as fearful residents moved into towns for protection against Indian attack.
In 1862 Wise County was gripped by the same Union League conspiracy hysteria that precipitated the Great Hanging at Gainesville. Five men were tried and hanged for plotting to aid the Union cause by burning property, stealing weapons, and reducing "the people to helplessness." When the war ended, an angry mob of 200 people protested the hangings but was dispersed by local supporters of law and order. Though many Wise County inhabitants remained bitter in defeat, the Reconstruction county governments usually included both ex-Confederates and Republican party appointees. Indian raids continued until 1875, and the population of the county grew slowly. Only 1,450 people resided in Wise County in 1870. During the antebellum period Decatur was a stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail route from St. Louis, Missouri, to San Francisco, California. A government telegraph line also connected the county with larger population centers. Between 1866 and 1886 the Eastern Cattle Trail to Abilene, Kansas, crossed Wise County east of Decatur. The coming of the railroads eventually provided a more convenient and cheaper means of transportation for crops and livestock. In the 1880s and 1890s two railroads were built through the county—the Fort Worth and Denver City, which passed through Decatur, and the Rock Island, which crossed the western section of the county through Bridgeport. The railroads stimulated the economy and made the production of coal in Bridgeport and of cotton, wheat, and beef in eastern Wise County more profitable.
The population increased steadily and reached the highest point in county history in 1900 at a total of 27,116. A community of Hispanics was brought in to work in the coal mines, and thus another ethnic dimension was added to the population. Bridgeport's large lignite coal reserves supplied fuel for most of the region until 1910, when the Lone Star Gas Company offered residents an alternative energy source with the completion of a natural gas pipeline. Telephone service was provided by both Southwestern Bell Telephone Company and by various private telephone services. Eventually, Texas Power and Light Company bought the electric properties of the city of Decatur and expanded its services to Rhome and other smaller communities. The rural areas, however, did not receive electricity until the 1930s, when the Wise County Electric Co-Op was organized. During this forty-year period the introduction of the automobile and the construction of U.S. Highway 81 increased the mobility of local inhabitants. From 1892 to 1965 Decatur Baptist College offered the opportunity for a higher education. Throughout the era Wise County maintained a predominantly agricultural economy with a rural population. In 1900 only 1 percent of the residents lived in towns. The economy depended on stock raising and wheat, corn, and cotton production. Overproduction of cotton depleted the soil and contributed to serious erosion problems in the area; crop yields diminished steadily after 1910. During the 1920s both beef and cotton declined in importance, as the economy shifted to dairying and truck farming. In 1920 the ratio of beef to dairy cattle, for example, was 17,291 to 11,924; by 1930 the ratio was 1,112 to 10,508. Likewise, cotton production plummeted from a total of 19,341 bales in 1920 to only 6,019 in 1930. By 1949, on the other hand, Wise County was one of the major milk-producing areas in Texas. Oil and gas production also increased during the era. The Great Depression and World War II accelerated the decline of the population and the economy, a trend that did not halt until the 1960s. The number of farms was reduced from 3,157 in 1920 to 2,490 in 1940, the number of people living in Wise County fell from 23,363 in 1920 to 19,178 in 1940, and the number of industries was reduced from twenty-three to seven during the period. Low prices for livestock and crops led to widespread unemployment; in 1930 only 4 percent of the labor force was out of work, but by 1940 the percentage had increased to 18.8. The Relief Administration of Wise County was located in the county courthouse in Decatur; there were 1,200 people on relief in 1935. The Civil Works Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps employees built the Decatur High School and participated in erosion control, road repairs, and other projects. Many Wise County residents fought in World War II; the Lost Battalion of 1941–45 was composed largely of area citizens. During the postwar years the economy stabilized, but the county population decrease continued.
It was not until the 1960s that a reversal of earlier trends began. Between 1960 and 1985 the number of people in Wise County increased by approximately 10,000; by 1990 there were 34,679 people living there. The number of industries in the county grew correspondingly during this period, while the farm statistics remained fairly stable. In the early 1980s most of the inhabitants (70 percent) still lived in rural communities, and 79 percent of the land was devoted to farming and ranching. The majority of workers were engaged in manufacturing (21 percent), wholesale and retail businesses (18 percent), and agriculture and agribusinesses (16 percent); many (32 percent) commuted to the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolis. The most important products were grains, peanuts, dairy products, poultry, and beef. Local factories manufactured glass, clothing, carbon and graphite products, oil and gas, limestone, and gravel. High school graduates increased from 32 percent of the population over twenty-five years old in 1960 to 52 percent of the same age group in 1980.
By 2014 there were 61,638 people living in Wise County. About 78.3 percent were Anglo, 18.2 percent were Hispanic, and 1.5 percent were African-American; another 3 percent were other minorities. More than 76 percent of the residents older than twenty-five had completed high school, and 13 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agriculture continued to be a significant component of the local economy. Gas and petroleum production and recreation were also important, and many of the area's residents worked in Fort Worth. In 2002 the county had 2,696 farms and ranches covering 493,044 acres, 48 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 44 percent to crops. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $33,300,000, with livestock sales accounting for $25,739,000 of that total. Beef cattle, dairy operations, horses, sheep, and goats were among the chief agricultural products, while crops such as hay, wheat, peanuts, and pecans were also grown. Almost 932,000 barrels of oil and 173,836,959 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 100,594,525 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1942.
The voters of Wise County favored the Democratic candidate in virtually every presidential election through 1968; the only exceptions occurred in 1928 and 1960, when Republicans Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon, respectively, carried the county. After 1972, when Nixon carried the county over Democrat George McGovern, the area began to trend Republican. Though Democrat Jimmy Carter carried the county in 1976 and 1980, the county went Republican in every other presidential election from 1972 through 2004.
Wise County's largest towns include Decatur (population, 6,336), the county's seat of government and largest town; Bridgeport (6,227); Alvord (1,380); Aurora (1,268); Boyd (1,277); Briar (5,832); Runaway Bay (1,366); Chico (1,072); Rhome (1,580); and Lake Bridgeport (354). Bridgeport hosts the Butterfield Stage Days Parade and Rodeo each July.