From its earliest documented history as a long line of apartment and town home dwellings on the bluffs along the Canadian River in the 1100's through today's present rebirth, Canadian has always inspired the imagination of those who visit and the loyalty of those who call it home. In 1544, long after the culture that had built those apartments along the western side of the panhandle disappeared, Coronado and his band wrote romantic descriptions of a land with stirrup high grasses and warned of a fierce and dangerous river.
Fortunately for the Apache and later Kiowa and Comanche Indian tribes of the Canadian River area, settlers avoided the area for many years due to continuous, perhaps exaggerated reports by government surveyors and cavalry troops of the volatile Canadian River and its treacherous quick sand, scorching summer winds and winter blizzards. These tribes followed the buffalo herds across this part of Texas and into Oklahoma and Kansas, making camp on the Canadian River and Red Deer Creek in the north part of Hemphill County and Gageby Creek and the Washita River in the South for several decades after Central and South Texas was “civilized.”
The first white settlers were only a bit more settled than the Indians themselves. These first ranchers, arriving in the 1860’s and 70’s followed their own herds of longhorn cattle, moving from one good patch of grass to the next, watering in the three dozen creeks they identified between the two rivers, picking up strays from the old Spanish herds and generally coexisting in peace with the Kiowa and Comanche Indians. That peace was forever shattered when buffalo hunters, Buffalo soldiers, the United States Cavalry and the railroad invaded the area in rapid succession.
When the United States Government authorized the hunting of buffalo, trails opened from here to Dodge City, Kansas, the closest town of any size, south to Fort Griffin, in Shackelford County, Texas and from Fort Elliott at Old Mobeetie to Fort Supply. These well-used and well-defined trails, used by hunters, then the army, also brought adventurers, desperadoes, more ranchers, the railroad and fences to Hemphill County.
Visitors to Canadian today are fascinated to find that this really was the wild, wild west made famous in Western movies, TV shows and the dime novels of the time. The most famous heroes, outlaws, Indian chiefs, battles and Texas Rangers seemed to have all converged here. And, you can easily relive that tumultuous time of the 1870’s and, 80’s, with history here being almost fresh enough to reach out and touch, and lovingly preserved by those whose roots run deep in this land.
For example, you can trace many of the sites of the last Indian war of the Southern Plains known as the Red River War which were along the Washita and Canadian Rivers, and all are within a half days drive of downtown Canadian. By following our historic trails you can visit the location of the only establishment in the region that served the famed Buffalo Soldiers, the only Cavalry troop of black soldiers, who were headquartered at Fort Elliot.
You can visit Hemphill County’s first business, Springer Creek Trading Post, and add your imagined version of what happened, when the owners and soldiers got in a fight during a poker game. Who really escaped through the tunnel to the barn and corrals, and where exactly was the tunnel? Follow the trail to Buffalo Wallow, and imagine yourself in the midst of the famed battle, the only one in history where every soldier involved received the Congressional Medal of Honor or visit the site of the Lyman’s Wagon Train Battle, the first recorded incidence of Indians actually attacking a Wagon Train. Don’t miss the opportunity to walk part of the original Military Trail and take along at least a couple of companions to help you circle the Big Tree, the old Cottonwood shown as early as 1874 on frontier maps.
The soldiers were followed quickly by the Texas Rangers, the only law enforcement for miles around, at the time Hemphill County was formed. At an election many still claim to have been illegal, as the region’s sparse population left the county short of the required number of resident male voters, the head count was rumored to have been increased by registering the horses of at least one ranch’s cowboys, 42 “men” voted to have their own County within the State of Texas. Questions not withstanding, the Texas legislature formed Hemphill County in 1876. However, Hemphill County remained attached to Wheeler County for administrative purposes until 1887.
This wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last, time Hemphill County was featured in legal wrangling. A boundary dispute in the 1920’s gave Hemphill County land from Oklahoma and moved the 100th meridian. Disputed contracts, beginning about 1910, over the building of Hemphill County’s courthouse landed the whole thing before the Texas Supreme Court. An infamous railroad robbery and shooting of a popular sheriff, followed by a forged Governor’s pardon and jail escape, would result in Canadian’s being tagged with a reputation as a place you could get away with murder in Texas. Ironically, when Canadian was born in 1888, it was the site of the first County jail in the Texas Panhandle, holding the worst desperadoes from across the region, or outlaws captured by the Texas Ranger Regiment out of Fort Elliott, 30 miles away in Wheeler County. The jail served the Panhandle all the way through Prohibition times when it housed the suspected rum runners and owners of stills hidden in the river breaks near Borger and Pampa.
By 1880 the United States Census Bureau counted 149 people and 9,600 cattle living in the fledgling Hemphill County with Panhandle, 73 miles west, being the closest town. The arrival of the railroad in 1887 gave birth to 3 new town sites Mendota, Glazier and Canadian, originally known as Hogtown, referring to the hogs who roamed the streets and the general hygiene of the residents and sanitation of the settlement. The town was said to have 13 saloons, no churches, and the residents were almost exclusively railroad workers, gamblers, saloon keepers and ladies of the night.
Hogtown’s run was short-lived. Where the railroad went, civilization was sure to follow. The Santa Fe Railroad’s first recorded contract with its workers was written in Canadian, detailing that they could only be fed prairie chicken twice a week as they were “sick to death of it.” By July of 1888 Canadian was an organized city, had moved to the other side of the river, been selected the County seat and prepared to hold its first celebration on July 4th, 1888, which included the first ever recorded public rodeo performance. Newspaper stories from the time detailed wild rides and roping on the dirt Main Street, gambling, horse races and three days and nights of music and dancing, after which families loaded up on wagons and buggies and returned to the ranches for long days and months of hard work. Today, well over 100 years later, this famous celebration continues.
The ladies of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union took Canadian in hand shortly after Canadian officially became a town developing the Library, musicals, civic organizations, and guiding its general development from boomtown to hometown with their dedication to family, morality and prohibition of alcohol. Canadian became famous for its innovations, like the Boarding House for teachers with its private accommodations, the Moody Hotel with its fireproof construction and furnishings and the Wagon Bridge, the first safe crossing of the dangerous Canadian River. With its red brick buildings and streets, townhomes for local ranchers, two banks and general appearance of prosperity, the city reflected the County’s growth to 815 people in 1900 and 76 ranches, now smaller and almost all fenced.
Canadian’s pioneers set their sights now on diversifying. Canadian became the railroad’s division point with a great deal of construction and employment following. Farmers arrived and put 17,000 acres in cultivation by 1930, while the towns' business boosters achieved their dream with the construction of the Dallas-to-Denver Highway in 1925 and a network of paved roads in place by 1950.
The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl sideswiped all of Canadian’s progress. By 1970 the County’s population had declined to barely 3,000 down from almost 5,000 in 1930, and the economy had returned almost exclusively to cattle ranching. The only bright spot on the horizon was the development of technology capable of actually producing wells from the rich Anadarko Basin, one of the deepest and richest natural gas basins in the United States. A few bright spots held out enticing hope that Hemphill County’s real place in history was still to be made. In 1954 the County’s first productive well was brought in by Sun Oil Company. In the summer of 1957 the Ray Wilson # 1-53 was drilled and in 2009 is still producing. The brightest hope for Hemphill County’s economic future came with the biggest gas well ever drilled in the United States. The Gulf-Helton # 1-21 was completed in the Buffalo Wallow field producing 588,000,000 cubic feet of gas per day.
Throughout the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, actual production remained small as the cost of the deep drilling was too expensive for profits. Changing prosperity worldwide threw Hemphill County into the oil and gas boom of the 1970,s, with Hemphill County being listed in the top ten producers of natural gas in the country. The County’s population swelled over 5,000 for the first time when production reached nearly 2,000,000 barrels of oil per day. By 2000, the boom was over and the County’s population once again stabilized at about 3,300 people. Boom times weren’t far behind though, and today Canadian and Hemphill County are home to more drilling, more production and more oil and gas company employees than ever before.
The County and City of Canadian have worked hard to reconcile their economic goals, rich history, unique culture and quality of life. Today citizens look forward to a future that preserves a hometown they love and conserves a natural setting they cherish and share with the birds and wildlife that also call it home. They put as much time and thought into questions of developing water and wind energy plans, development and housing challenges, education and work force training as their ancestors did, determined not to be the last generation in the remote, romantic Canadian River Valley.