Fort Worth: Exploring the Roots of Cowtown’s Past


Fort Worth is often overshadowed by its larger neighbor, Dallas.  Yet, Fort Worth has a unique story that is deeply entwined with the American West. From its early days as an army outpost on the wild frontier, to becoming a bustling hub for cattle drives and cowboys, this city has preserved its heritage while evolving into a modern metropolis. 

Early Beginnings

Fort Worth’s origins are deeply rooted in its strategic location along the Trinity River, which was once a prime hunting territory for local Native American tribes. The area’s abundant wildlife and fertile soil attracted settlers, leading to the establishment of a community in the early 1840s. Among these early settlers was Jonathon Bird, whose settlement, Bird’s Fort, would lay the groundwork for the city’s development.

Trinity River

The Establishment of Fort Worth

The creation of Fort Worth commenced as an initiative to solidify presence across North Texas. In response to inadequate security provided by ranger stations, the U.S. Army established forts approximately 100 miles apart, covering the area from the Rio Grande to the Red River.

In May 1849, recognizing a 130-mile gap in defense north to the Red River, Col. William S. Harney directed Maj. Ripley Arnold to survey the Trinity River for a new outpost. Arnold, aided by dragoon troopers and local guide Middleton Tate Johnson, ventured towards the meeting point of the Trinity River’s Clear and West forks. There, the Stars and Stripes were unfurled, signifying the impending foundation of Fort Worth.

By August of that year, after diligent construction, the fort, overseen by Company F of the 2nd Dragoons, stood ready. A burgeoning community soon clustered near the fort—a testament to its influence on economic stability rather than solely security.

The fertile soil of the newly formed Tarrant County—the same year saw its legislative creation—and the fort’s protection, beckoned settlers. By 1853, the population had spiked to 350 residents.

Timeline of the Fort’s Development:

  • May 1849: Col. Harney acts upon the gap in defense—orders Maj. Arnold to the Trinity River’s forks.
  • End of May 1849: Maj. Arnold and a select group erect the American flag on the fort’s future grounds.
  • August 1849: Completion of the fort by Company F, 2nd Dragoons.
  • 1853: Population around Fort Worth reaches approximately 350 settlers.

Though the fort’s military presence ended on September 17, 1853, with troop redistribution due to the retreating frontier line, its legacy endured. Fort Worth’s early years, highlighted by the cooperation between the military and local civilians, set the stage for its growth and status as a key city in Texas.

Sam Houston

The 1843 treaty of Bird’s Fort, involving figures such as Sam Houston, General Tarrant and George W. Terrell, was seminal in the peaceful negotiations with Native American tribes, ensuring the safety of the settlement. Trading houses around the region fostered relations between Native Americans and settlers, promoting a semblance of peace in a time of mutual wariness.  The city’s moniker, “Where the West Begins,” stems from this agreement and symbolized the frontier’s gateway to the West.

In essence, Fort Worth began as a strategic military initiative turned into a thriving community, framed by the convergence of the Clear and West forks of the Trinity River, under the protective wing of the U.S. Army’s fort system.

Fort Worth Ascends as the Political Hub of Tarrant County

In the mid-19th century, the bustling hub of Birdville served as the county seat for Tarrant County. Due to it’s strategic vicinity,  Fort Worth experienced a surge of settlers, transforming unused structures into educational, commercial, and religious spaces.

The pursuit for Fort Worth to become the new county seat led to a contentious and amusing courthouse election. Birdville attempted to draw in voters by offering free whisky.  But Fort Worth’s citizens actually stole the whisky from Birdville to offer to their voters. By a slim margin, Fort Worth claimed victory amidst claims of irregularities—allegations included votes cast by non-residents.

Following the win, the county archives were transported to Fort Worth during a festive procession underscored by jubilant fiddle music. With its new role as county seat, Fort Worth blossomed as a center for trade and enterprise.

Notables such as Captain Julian Feild, the inaugural postmaster, established flour and corn mills. Captain Ephraim Daggett introduced the first lodging facility, while Dr. Carroll Peak offered medical services. Education and spiritual needs were met by pioneers like John Peter Smith and itinerant preachers.

In recognition of its growth and to cement its civic structure, Fort Worth’s inhabitants initiated the town’s incorporation in 1873, appointing Dr. W.P. Burts as the first Mayor.

The Emergence of Notorious Fort Worth

During the late 19th century, Fort Worth, Texas, emerged as a crucial juncture on the famed Chisholm Trail, where large herds of Longhorns were driven to Kansas for rail transport. Forth Worth experienced an influx of cow hands who often ended their drives by descending into the town, drinking, firing off their guns and even riding their horses right into saloons. 

This raucous environment birthed a legendary red-light district that embodied the essence of the Wild West. Known as Hell’s Half Acre, it was notorious for offering an array of vices that lured the hard-living cowhands.

Despite its rough-and-tumble image, the area also attracted substantial legitimate commerce to cater to the needs of cattle drivers. Fort Worth soon became the foundation for retail and trade in the northwest Texas region.

Among the most notable entrepreneurs was Joseph H. Brown, a Scottish immigrant whose enterprises flourished significantly, becoming a premier wholesale grocery supplying a vast array of goods, from flour to stacks of bacon. The district’s dual nature as a den of less than savory activity as well as the center of commerce exemplified the contrasts at the heart of the burgeoning frontier town.

The Timely Arrival of the Railroad in Fort Worth

The Timely Arrival of the Railroad in Fort Worth

In the early 1870s, the promise of the Texas and Pacific Railway expansion set the stage for an unprecedented growth spurt in Fort Worth, Texas. The city’s fortitude was put to the test as it faced the challenge of attracting the railway to ensure its future prosperity.

Captain B. B. Paddock, a notable figure and Fort Worth Democrat editor, was instrumental in nurturing the city’s development. With a pronounced zeal for the city’s potential, he famously illustrated Fort Worth as a hub of nine railways on his newspaper’s masthead despite the actual railroads being miles away.

This ambitious display earned the title of the “tarantula map” due to its optimistic projections and became a source of ridicule among skeptics. Yet, the rapid construction progress of the railway towards the city maintained hope. It reached Eagle Ford, a location a mere six miles from Dallas, before financial ruin hit its backers, precipitating a dramatic population decline in Fort Worth.

Amidst this bleak period, a humorous anecdote arose when a local claimed to have seen panther tracks in the street, which was a likely misidentification. Nevertheless, a young lawyer capitalized on this to jest that Fort Worth had become so desolate that panthers roamed its streets. Captain Paddock, exhibiting a sense of ownership, embraced this symbolism, coining the city’s enduring moniker, “Panther City.”

The city understood that its survival hinged on securing the railway, and citizens rallied to propel the project forward. A citizen group formed the Tarrant County Construction Company, pooling resources that ranged from funds to forage, to erect the railway themselves.

Fort Worth’s Supporters and Their Contributions:

Van Zandt

  • Major K.M. Van Zandt: Touted as a pivotal figure in the railway’s arrival, Van Zandt contributed significantly to the city’s negotiations with the railway company.
  • Captain E.M. Daggett, Thomas J. Jennings, H.G. Hendricks: These men donated 320 acres to support the railway’s construction.
  • Morgan Jones: The contractor who headed the construction team and worked tirelessly to meet the pressing deadline.

Faced with the urgent task of securing a state land grant before the legislative session ended, Major Darnell, a representative of Fort Worth, made crucial appearances at the legislative sessions despite severe illness.

The community was determined, and under torchlight, workers laid tracks rapidly across Sycamore Creek using ties instead of constructing a trestle. Furthermore, municipal efforts to expedite the process included extending the city limits to reduce the distance the railway needed to cover.

The Fruit of Fort Worth’s Labor:

  • Date of First Train Arrival: July 19, 1876
  • Result: The frantic efforts paid off as the railway reached Fort Worth just in time, much to the joy of the population who had gathered to witness the historic moment.

The impact of the railway on Fort Worth was monumental, validating the collective efforts of its residence and fortifying its place as a significant hub of transportation and commerce. The once-doubtful prospects of “Pantherville” had transformed into a vibrant reality, with the Texas and Pacific Railway laying the foundation for a thriving future.

Fort Worth’s Expansion

With the advent of the railroad, the city’s status elevated from a mere stopover to the ultimate destination for cattle drives, establishing Fort Worth as a pivotal livestock market.

The Transformation of Fort Worth to a Livestock Hub


As Fort Worth expanded, it evolved into a central hub for transport and commerce, with stagecoaches and postal lines connecting it to faraway destinations. Its pivotal position between Fort Concho and Fort Yuma marked it as part of the longest daily stagecoach route worldwide, a journey of about 1,500 miles that took roughly two weeks and faced many perils, necessitating military escorts.

Railways followed suit, enhancing Fort Worth’s connectivity and bolstering its economic standing. The arrival of several railroad lines turned the city into a nexus of transportation, complementing the single line that once linked it to the rest of the country. Correspondingly, in 1876, the city saw the establishment of its initial streetcar system, with mule-drawn cars facilitating movement between key points.

The same year that the streetcar service commenced, Fort Worth made significant infrastructural advancements, introducing gas services and a grain elevator, the latter of which transformed the city into a grain trading center. By 1878, large flour mills began operations, emphasizing the city’s emerging role as a commercial powerhouse.

The local agricultural community received a boost with the initiation of the first Fat Stock Show in 1886. Despite weather challenges, the event was a testament to the resilience of the community, offering unique premiums and becoming a foundational event for agriculture and livestock, setting a precedent for future indoor rodeos.

Water supply, crucial for every thriving settlement, saw an innovative shift as artesian wells were drilled, providing a novel source of water distinct from the natural water bodies. Civic improvements proceeded at a steady pace, with the provision of well water, paving of significant streets, and the systematizing of vital services like fire response and sewage systems.

Financial services were no exception in Fort Worth’s growth as various banking institutions took root, strengthening the local economy and supporting new ventures, including oil development, a sector that would later become synonymous with Texas prosperity.

This period of economic expansion did not come without a touch of the Wild West. Vivid tales of quick-draw duels and law enforcement tactics by notable figures like James Courtright added a layer of lore to the city’s history, even as it progressed into a center of modern communication and lighting with the advent of telephone exchanges and electric lighting.

The establishment of educational institutions also marked Fort Worth’s development, culminating in the foundation of Texas Wesleyan University, a beacon of higher education that continues to serve the city.

Cultural milestones included the construction and tragic destruction of the Texas Spring Palace, a monument that both celebrated the region’s prosperity and remembered the bravery of individuals like Al Hayne, whose heroic efforts during a devastating fire were honored with a monument.

Fort Worth’s ascent from a rest stop for cattle drives to a bustling epicenter of industry and innovation, affectionately referred to as “Cowtown,” captures the dynamic spirit of a city that embraced its Western heritage while forging a path toward modernity.

  • Cattle and Livestock: Crucial to Fort Worth’s identity, both economically and culturally. The city’s proximity to the Chisholm Trail and its role in cattle drives cemented its status as “Cowtown.”
  • Stockyards: Not a mere point of transit, the stockyards grew into the most significant livestock trading center in the Southwest.
  • Fort Worth Stock Show: An emblematic event, showcasing the essence of the city’s commitment to livestock and agriculture.

Fort Worth’s narrative is a testament to its adaptive spirit and determined growth, embodying both the ruggedness of the frontier and the industriousness of a modern city. The metamorphosis into “Cowtown” reflects its deep-rooted connection to the cattle industry and its broader aspirations, encompassing the legacy of the longhorns and the enduring charm of a community grounded in Western tradition.

The Ascendance of Meat Processing in Fort Worth

Fort Worth stockyards

At the close of the 19th century, Fort Worth was experiencing a surge in population growth, escalating from 6,663 inhabitants in 1880 to 26,668 by the 1900 census. Despite this expansion, the city infrastructure remained rudimentary with muddy streets and wooden sidewalks. The city boasted a building of seven stories, known as the Wheat Building, and a newly constructed courthouse made of brown granite that, although impressive, was criticized for its size and expense, leading to a political shift in the subsequent local election.

The search for industries to bolster Fort Worth’s economic development led naturally to meat processing due to the city’s established status as a hub for livestock commerce. Prior attempts at creating lasting meat processing ventures had floundered, including both a hog-only operation and an unsuccessful beef refrigeration experiment that aimed to ship meat to Liverpool.

Nevertheless, the city’s commercial endeavors began yielding fruit following the establishment of the Fort Worth Dressed Meat and Provision Company. This ambitious initiative, backed by the Board of Trade under the leadership of W. A. Huffman, enjoyed a considerable capitalization of $500,000. The company constructed stockyards and a processing facility, injecting fresh impetus into the local industry.

Key Entities in the Industry’s Rise:

  • Chamber of Commerce (Formerly Board of Trade): Instrumental in organizing the meat processing sector.
  • Fort Worth National Bank & Tidball and Company: Supported economic stability and industry financing.
  • Martin B. Loyd & First National Bank: Crucial in facilitating the financial aspects of the burgeoning industry.

By 1902, major firms like Swift & Company, Armour & Company, and McNeill & Libby had established operations in Fort Worth, cementing the city’s reputation as a meat-packing powerhouse in the southwest. This influx did not carry the romance of the era’s railway expansion or cattle drives, yet its impact on the city was profound. Employment opportunities abounded, with the industry’s generous payroll sparking sustained prosperity and growth. This economic vitality was reflected in the 1910 census data, which showed a dramatic near tripling of the population to 76,312, underscoring the monumental influence of the meat processing industry on Fort Worth’s development.

Gas and War Come to Fort Worth

In the early 20th century, the establishment of the Fort Worth Gas Company marked a significant step in the city’s development, with a pipeline extending 90 miles from Petrolia to provide service to more than 3,800 consumers starting in 1909. This period also saw the nexus of military activity and the oil industry become a driving force in the city’s expansion.

Aviation Growth and Military Presence:

  • With the outbreak of World War I, the region around Fort Worth was chosen for aviation training due to its favorable climate, enabling year-round operation.
  • Three training fields known collectively as Taliaferro Fields were built, employing 7,000 individuals in their construction.
  • The British government managed a small plot within Greenwood Cemetery, where fallen members of the Royal Flying Corps, along with one child, are commemorated.

Camp Bowie and Economic Impact:

  • Post American entry into World War I, the U.S. government repurposed two of the Taliaferro Fields and initiated the construction of Camp Bowie in 1917, spending over $3 million.
  • This construction boom resulted in the creation of 1,500 structures and brought significant economic benefits, with the military infusion boosting local bank deposits substantially by $10 million within a year.
  • Camp Bowie was a pivotal training ground for the 36th Division, comprising Texas and Oklahoma units, with a monthly military payroll of approximately $1.675 million.

As the United States engaged in the conflict, Fort Worth’s geostrategic positioning was further solidified. Both Camp Bowie and the re-designated airfields not only served as critical components in the war effort but also entrenched the city’s role in America’s burgeoning aviation and military landscape.

The Oil Boom

During the early 1900s, a wave of prosperity hit Texas with the discovery of oil. The once sleepy town of Ranger, lying on the T&P Railroad, struck oil on a fateful day in October 1917. This windfall occurred on the McCleskey farm, dramatically expanding Ranger’s population to 30,000. This marked the beginning of a transformation in the region, propelling it toward rapid industrialization.

The excitement spread to Desdemona, initially nicknamed “Hogtown,” where a significant influx of oil workers pushed the population to 16,000. The boom advanced to Breckenridge, spawning substantial well findings. Further north, outside Burkburnett, another lucrative well discovery led to a frenzy of drilling in the Fowler farm area. These pivotal moments in oil exploitation shifted intense national focus toward Texas.

Strategically positioned between these bustling zones was Fort Worth, which inevitably caught the wave of the oil rush. The Westbrook Hotel’s lobby turned into a bustling hub for oil business, too crowded for conventional furniture. The downtown streets filled to the brim with a blend of oil industry figures and fortune-seekers.

Prior to these developments, Fort Worth had already been home to three refineries. The boom ushered in unprecedented growth, resulting in a total of nine refineries. With additional constructions on the horizon, the city was shaping up as the central pipeline nexus of Texas.

Key Developments in Fort Worth during the Oil Boom:

  • Banking Growth: Bank deposits surged, reflecting the economic uptick.
  • Construction Boom: The city skyline transformed with new high-rises and residences financed by the oil economy.
  • Refinery Expansion: From three initial refineries, the count escalated to nine by 1920, with more in development.
  • Population Increase: The population soared in oil-rich areas, with Ranger topping at 30,000 and Desdemona reaching 16,000 inhabitants.
  • Drilling Frenzy: Hundreds of wells were drilled in the oil districts, with Burkburnett experiencing a sharp increase in exploration activity.

The wealth that sprayed forth from Texas soil not only changed the landscape but also laid the foundation for the state’s economic future.

The Expansion of Fort Worth Between World War I and World War II

During the interbellum years, Fort Worth underwent significant urban and architectural development. Educational facilities were established, not only with the construction of new schools but also through extensive landscaping efforts. Fort Worth’s skyline was reshaped with the establishment of landmark hotels such as the Texas, Worth, and Blackstone, and the city’s transportation infrastructure grew with projects like the T&P station.

Key Developments:

  • Infrastructure: Introduction of elevated highways and bridges
  • Cultural Landmarks: Construction of the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum and Auditorium
  • Civic Buildings: Erection of a new City Hall and public library

The economic surge in 1938 saw an investment of $11 million in public works which included health facilities and an airport. The local Texan culture was celebrated in 1936 with the onset of the Fort Worth Casa Mañana, an amphitheater known for Broadway and Wild West shows.

Casa Mañana Theatre:

  • Origins: 1936, as part of the Texas Centennial
  • Rebirth: 1958, and revitalization in 2003
  • Features: The theater offered a theater-in-the-round experience.

Fort Worth’s water resources originated from efforts like Lake Worth, established in 1916, and later supplemented by additional lakes to accommodate the city’s needs.

Water Resources Expansion:

  • Initial: Lake Worth with an amusement boardwalk
  • Expansion: Construction of Bridgeport and Eagle Mountain lakes

The World War II era was a substantial period for Fort Worth. The military established bases and an airfield that later became the Carswell Air Force Base and facilitated the construction of 3,000 B-24 Liberators at the Consolidated-Vultee aircraft plant.

Military and Aviation Presence:

  • Facilities: Introduction of military bases and the Quartermaster Depot
  • Aircraft Production: Consolidated-Vultee plant’s impact on WWII efforts
  • Postwar: Carswell Air Force Base’s role during the Cold War

The area’s reliance on the defense industry was underscored by the presence of important defense contractors at the plant that would produce iconic aircraft like the B-36 and the F-16.

Fort Worth’s assimilation of military establishments continued into the 90s when Carswell was rebranded as the Fort Worth Naval Air Station and Joint Reserve Base, bridging the past and present military legacy.

With a population exceeding 800,000, Fort Worth stands as a testament to growth and resilience, maintaining its western cultural identity while being steadfast in economic diversification. The city hosts a vibrant array of educational institutions like Texas Christian University and Texas Wesleyan University as well as cultural establishments such as the Kimbell Art Museum and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

Notable Institutions and Attractions:

  • Education: Texas Christian University, Texas Wesleyan University
  • Cultural: Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth Zoo
  • Religious Education: Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

The mystery and allure of the West still resonate through attractions like the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, occurring annually at the Will Rogers Memorial Center, and the city’s bustling hub of Sundance Square. All of these elements, combined with the efforts of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in media, underscore a city that thrives on progress and its storied past.

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