A Brief Historical Sketch of the Frontier Era in Clay County, TX
Clay County was created December 24, 1857, from a portion of Cooke County. It has often been said that it was named in honor of Henry Clay, noted American politician. However, it is more probable that the name recognizes the clay soils which are in great abundance within the county.
By the time of the formal organization of the county in 1860, only a few brave settlers had ventured into the area. The earliest settlers included such men as J.B. Earhart, Charlie Wantling, and Jim Dumas. They established ranches in various sections of the county. These pioneer ranchers were followed closely by farmers. One of the earliest of these was Ben Hubert, who established a small farm in the area around the mouth of the Little Wichita River.
The first county election was held at the crude frontier settlement of Henrietta, the first county seat. At the time the total population of the county stood at only one hundred and nine.
The secession of Texas and the beginning of the Civil War was a severe blow to the settlement of Clay County. This tragic conflict caused most of the troops to be withdrawn, leaving Clay County settlers almost completely at the mercy of marauding Indians. Before the Civil War had ended, every white settler in the county had been forced to return to the more thickly settled counties to the east.
Soon after the end of the Civil War, troops began to return to Clay County. Fort Buffalo Springs, Camp Wichita, and Fort Burnham were established within the county, but were in service for only a short time. What little protection the returning settlers received came mostly from troops garrisoned at forts in surrounding counties. In spite of the constant threat of death at the hands of Indians, the settlers trickled back into the county. Led by H.A. Whaley in 1869, the settlers were numerous enough for the legislature to order the county reorganized in 1873.
County organization was followed by a lengthy and very spirited struggle over the location of the county seat. Although the county seat was rightly Henrietta, residents of Cambridge sought for several years to maintain the seat of government at their town. In the end, Henrietta remained the county seat.
In 1883, the increased use of barbed wire and the competition for land and water between farmers and ranchers led to a tragic page in the history of Clay County. The Fence Cutting War plunged some areas of the county into a state of near anarchy. The issue became very confused and neither the big ranchers nor the small farmers appeared to have been blameless. After several men were shot to death and numerous others wounded, the conflict was ended by an emergency act of the legislature which recognized the rights of both groups.
With the end of this conflict, the frontier era came to a close in Clay County. The stage was then set for development of Clay County into one of the finest farming and ranching areas in the state.