Young County is in north central Texas. The center of the county is at 33°10' north latitude and 98°40' west longitude, fifty-five miles south of Wichita Falls. Graham, the county's seat of government, is in the southeastern section of the county, sixty-five air miles northwest of Fort Worth. The county was named for Col. William C. Young. It covers 919 square miles of hilly, broken country with elevations from 1,000 to 1,300 feet above sea level. The area is drained by Lake Graham, near the center of the county, and by the Brazos River, which forms Possum Kingdom Lake in the southeastern part of the county. Young County is in the Cross Timbers and Prairie vegetation areas, covered by tall and mid grasses, live oak and post oak, and juniper and mesquite. The climate is subtropical subhumid, with an average minimum temperature of 31° F in January and an average maximum of 98° in July; the average annual rainfall is twenty-eight inches. The growing season lasts 216 days. The area is served by U.S. Highway 380 and State highways 16 and 79.
Spanish explorers Diego Ortiz Parrilla and Pedro Vial were the first to call attention to the area. In 1759 Parrilla crossed the northwest corner of what is now Young County en route to the Taovaya Indian Village on Red River, and in 1789 Vial followed the Brazos River through the region while returning to Santa Fe from San Antonio. The county was included in the Peters colony, a Mexican land grant made in 1841. Though the settlement terms of the grant were loosely fulfilled eventually by the Texas Emigration and Land Company, the Young County portion of the grant remained unsettled until the 1850s. In 1851 the United States Army established Fort Belknap on the Red Fork of the Brazos, where eventually the town of Belknap grew up. Fort Belknap became one of the largest and most important military posts in North Texas prior to the Civil War. In 1854 the Brazos Indian Reservation was surveyed by Capt. Randolph B. Marcy twelve miles southeast of the fort. The first settlers in the area included John and Will Peveler, contractors who supplied the fort and the reservation. Young County was established by the Texas legislature in 1856 from lands formerly assigned to Bosque and Fannin counties and was attached to Wise County for judicial purposes until it was organized later that same year. The town of Belknap was chosen as the county seat and was a stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail route from 1858 to 1861. The county's early years were marred by conflicts between Indians and White settlers in the region. The Brazos Reservation, originally 18,576 acres, was doubled in size to make room for other western Indian tribes. Among the 2,000 Indians living there were Caddos, Anadarkos, Wacos, and Tonkawas, each with their own villages and all relieved to have protection from the Comanches. They cultivated 600 acres in wheat, vegetables, and melons under agriculturist J. J. Strum. Some Indians served as scouts for the army and Texas Rangers against warring tribes. Neighboring Whites objected to Indians' military duties and blamed any depredations on reservation Indians, even when the culprits could have been other, unsettled tribes. Racial antagonisms, fueled by the Whiteman, a Jacksboro newspaper, brought tensions to a state of armed belligerency by 1858. Governor Hardin R. Runnels and Gen. Sam Houston asked the federal government to move the reservation Indians from Texas. After eight Indians who had been given permission to hunt in Palo Pinto were killed in their sleep by Whites, federal troops fortified a reservation building to protect Indian women and children against attack; on January 9, 1859, Governor Runnels warned citizens against attacking Indians. Nevertheless, John R. Baylor led a force to one reservation on May 23, 1859, and killed an Indian woman and an old man. Indians struck back in a battle just off the reservation that cost casualties to both sides. The Indians were removed to Indian Territory in July. Some months later most were slaughtered by Comanches.
By 1860 the United States Census counted 592 people, including ninety-three slaves, living in Young County. Agriculture had only begun to be established in the area, and only 1,685 acres of agricultural land were classified as "improved." Farmers produced 7,280 bushels of wheat, 290 bushels of corn, 50 bushels of oats, and small amounts of peas, potatoes, and sweet potatoes that year. The agricultural census also reported 366 milk cows, 4,517 other cattle, and 50 sheep in the county on the eve of the Civil War. Though Confederate soldiers held Fort Belknap during the Civil War, Indian depredations during the war and in the late 1860s led many of the original settlers to abandon the area. By 1864, according to county tax records, there were only thirty-one slaves. In 1865 the county's government was dissolved, and the area was attached to neighboring Jack County for administrative purposes; the county records were transferred to Jacksboro. Fort Belknap was reoccupied by federal troops in 1867, but by 1870 there were only 139 people, including four Blacks, living in the county. That year the agricultural census reported seventeen farms and ranches, encompassing 789 acres, in the area; only 199 acres were classified as "improved," but over 14,000 cattle were reported. After the federal government redoubled its efforts to suppress Indian activity in the region following the Warren Wagontrain Raid of 1871, the area again began to attract settlers, especially after the lands of the Brazos Indian Reservation were opened to settlement in 1873. The county was reorganized in 1874, and the county records were brought back from Jacksboro. This time the new town of Graham, platted in 1873, was chosen as the county seat; settlers who had taken up Indian reservation lands supported the new town since it was near their farms. In 1874 the nearest railroad was at Dallas, but as the Texas and Pacific built westward, residents came to receive mail and freight at Weatherford, Mineral Wells, and Jacksboro; in 1876 farmers began to ship pecans, their first export crop, to these railheads, and cotton began to be grown about this time. Meanwhile, cattle ranching remained important to the economy. Stockmen gathered at Graham in 1877 to form the Stock-Raisers' Association of North-West Texas (later the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association).
By 1880 there were 4,709 people living in Young County. The agricultural census reported 463 farms, encompassing over 94,000 acres, that year. Almost 29,000 acres were classified as "improved." While there were more than 25,000 cattle reported, crop production was becoming an important part of the economy. Almost 87,000 bushels of corn were produced on the 9,181 acres devoted to that crop; another 2,049 acres were planted in cotton, and almost 2,000 acres in wheat. The population grew slowly during the rest of the nineteenth century, rising to 5,049 by 1890 and to 6,540 by 1900. This population growth reflected an economy that was continuing to expand and diversify. There were 636 farms and ranches by 1890 and 899 by 1900. That year more than 43,000 cattle and almost 11,000 sheep were reported; meanwhile cotton cultivation had expanded to cover more than 14,000 acres of land, more than 20,000 acres were planted in corn, and 7,000 acres were devoted to wheat production. Over 34,000 chickens were also reported on farms that year, as poultry became increasingly important to the economy. Salt and coal deposits had been mined sporadically since the early 1850s, but renewed interest in the county's mineral wealth emerged during the late nineteenth century. An unproductive oil well was drilled in 1887, and in 1891 a group of investors formed the Graham Mining Company in hopes of mining gold, silver, and coal in the area. Though several promising coal seams were located, lack of adequate transportation facilities caused interest in the project to lapse for the time being. Railroads built into the county during the first decade of the twentieth century, easing immigration into the area and connecting the economy more directly with national markets. The Chicago, Rock Island and Gulf Railway reached Graham in 1902, the Wichita Falls and Southern reached Newcastle, a new coal-mining town, in 1908, and the Gulf, Texas and Western built into Olney in 1910. The population more than doubled during this period, rising to 13,657 by 1910, as hundreds of new farms were established and a cotton economy developed and boomed. By 1910 there were 1,796 farms and ranches, encompassing more than 484,000 acres, in the area. Cotton had become the most important crop, and almost 51,000 acres were planted in the fiber that year; another 17,400 acres were planted in corn, and 4,000 acres were devoted to wheat. Almost 40,000 fruit trees, mostly peach, were also growing that year. As cultivation expanded, cattle ranching declined somewhat, though some ranchers experimented with other kinds of livestock. In 1910, 30,000 cattle and 12,781 goats were reported.
The number of farms declined, and the area lost population when the cotton boom faded in the 1910s. About 31,000 bales of cotton had been produced in 1907, at the height of the boom, but in 1916 under 12,000 bales were produced. By 1920 only 34,000 acres were devoted to cotton. Many farmers turned to growing wheat instead, and by 1920 over 42,000 acres were devoted to that crop. Hundreds of other farmers left their lands, so that by 1920 the number of farms and ranches had dropped to 1,480. The economy boomed again during the 1920s, thanks to another rapid expansion of cotton farming and a dramatic oil boom. Cotton acreage almost doubled during the 1920s; by 1930 almost 67,000 acres were devoted to the fiber. The number of farms in the county rose to 1,586 in 1925 before declining slightly to 1,520 by 1930. Meanwhile, oil exploration and production was rapidly reshaping the economy. Exploratory drilling by major oil companies had begun in the mid-1910s, and their hopes were encouraged in 1917 when the Lindy Lou No. 1 well came in. Actual production of petroleum began in 1920, and wildcatters, workers, and others looking for opportunities swarmed into the area. In 1921 and 1922 the landscape was dotted with new oil boom towns such as Clusky City, Harding, Lake City, Oil City, and Herron City; already established towns, like Olney and Graham, also grew rapidly. While almost all of the new boom towns disappeared as soon as production had been established, the new industry became an important part of life in the area. The population reached 20,128 by 1930. The area was hit hard during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Total acres of cropland harvested dropped from 114,906 in 1930 to 92,308 by 1940; cotton acreage plummeted to only 23,000 acres by 1940. Federal programs during the depression helped ranchers and farmers eradicate prickly pears, build water storage tanks, purchase seed and fertilizer, and terrace the land; in 1936 the Work Projects Administration restored old Fort Belknap. In the 1930s Young County also joined sixty-five other counties to form the Brazos River Conservation and Reclamation District (see BRAZOS RIVER AUTHORITY). Despite federal help, the population fell by more than 50 percent during the depression, and in 1940 only 9,642 people lived there.
The rural population dropped significantly during the 1940s and 1950s as mechanized farm techniques contributed to the consolidation of farmlands, and as young people increasingly moved to urban areas in search of job opportunities. The oil and gas industry expanded significantly during these years, however, particularly in the early 1950s. Eighty-one wells were drilled in the county in 1953 and 1954, for example, more than were drilled in any other county in North Texas at the time. More than 4,210,000 barrels of petroleum were produced in 1948, over 7,256,000 barrels in 1956, and almost 5,669,000 barrels in 1960. The county's population grew to 16,810 by 1950 and to 17,254 by 1960. Oil production fell off in the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, dropping to 2,392,000 barrels in 1974. About 2,648,000 barrels were produced in 1978, 3,900,000 barrels in 1982, and 3,431,000 barrels in 1990. The population dropped to 15,400 by 1970, but rose to 19,083 by 1980, as new industries began to move into the area. In 1982 manufacturing production in the county earned $44,700,000 from the production of clothing, recreational vehicles, fences, fiberglass products, aluminum, rubber hose, agricultural appliances, and other products. Agriculture also remained important to the county. Besides the 22,092 beef cattle reported in the early 1980s, Young County also harvested 1,419,027 bushels of wheat, 89,392 bushels of oats, 52,513 bushels of sorghum, and 47,100 pounds of pecans. In 1982 about 90 percent of the land was in farms and ranches, of which 19 percent was cultivated. About 56 percent of the county's agricultural income came from livestock, especially cattle, and livestock products. While wheat, oats, cotton, hay, and sorghum were the area's most important crops, tomatoes and watermelons were also grown there. Principal industries included tourism, the manufacture of rubber hoses, electronic components, and other products, and oil and gas extraction. By the 1980s no railroads were operating in Young County. The majority of voters in Young County supported the Democratic candidates in virtually every presidential election from 1856 to 1948; the only exception occurred in 1928. In 1952 and 1956 Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower took the county, but voters supported the Democratic candidates in the elections of 1960, 1964, and 1968. Republicans won in every presidential election between 1972 and 1992, except in 1976, when Democrat Jimmy Carter carried the county. By 2014 the population was 18,350. About 79.3 percent were Anglo, 1.7 percent African American, and 17.4 percent Hispanic. That year communities included Graham (population, 9,317), Olney (3,406), Newcastle (593), Loving (300), and South Bend (100). Tourist attractions included the Lake County Art Festival held in Graham in April and May, the Possum Fair and Chili Cookoff held in Graham in June, and the Pioneer Days Celebration held in Olney each June.