Texas is an almost unfathomably large state. It’s nearly 900 miles from El Paso to the Louisiana border on I-10, and over 500 from Laredo to the Oklahoma border on I-35. You can fit Rhode Island into Texas a whopping 221 times – heck, the Houston metro area alone is bigger than the tiny state. Considering its massive size, it seems almost unfair that Texas also has a panhandle. The North Texas panhandle is widely considered to consist of the state’s top 5 “rows” of counties. That means it has an area about the same as West Virginia!
Texas’ panhandle highlighted in red. Via Wikimedia Commons.
This northern appendage helps to give the Lone Star State its distinctive shape, and yet it differs significantly in many ways from the rest of Texas. For one, the weather is very un-Texan here – huge snowdrifts and freezing temperatures are common in the winter, while places like San Antonio or Houston hardly ever see snow. The landscape is unique as well – the panhandle is mainly dry prairie, with the occasional canyon. Definitely a big change from the deserts of the west or the Hill Country! Throw in the fact that the panhandle’s main artery, I-40, provides no access to any other part of the state, and it begins to feel like the panhandle just doesn’t belong. So why is it part of Texas? Usually, panhandles have their own distinct backstory. However, to determine the origins of Texas’ panhandle we have to look at the shape of the entire state.
The story begins in 1845, when the USA annexed the Republic of Texas and made it the 28th state. At that time, Texas was even more massive than it is today. It encompassed the entire area east of the Rio Grande, including the portions in modern day New Mexico and Colorado. It also had a small strip of land extending all the way up into southern Wyoming!
Texas’ original, massive boundaries.
There were, however, some major problems with this massive swathe of territory. For one, Texas was admitted into the US as a slave state. This clashed with a law from 1820 nicknamed the Missouri Compromise. The law stated that any new states had to adhere to strict geographical boundaries to determine their status as a slave or free state. If the state was north of 36° 30’, it would be a free state; any states south of the line would allow slavery. Texas claimed territory on both sides of this line, calling its status as an outright slave state into question.
To complicate the issue, the US won the Mexican-American War in 1848. This gave America the territory that would eventually become California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Of course, these territories immediately became part of the slavery debate as well. New Mexico in particular caused headaches for the brand new Lone Star State. Many abolitionists wanted to create a free New Mexico Territory (which would not have to adhere to the Missouri Compromise due to its non-state status), and settlers began moving in to support their cause. However, many of these homesteaders settled in on lands east of the Rio Grande – technically Texas’ land. The issue heated up, with both New Mexico and Texas propping up local governments in the disputed area. Something had to be done, or Texas might secede and revert to the old Republic.
By 1850, there were multiple proposals in Congress to resolve the border issue. The first was drawn up by Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Benton suggested using the Red River, which already formed the northeastern boundary of the state, to determine the new border. Under his plan, Texas’ new border would follow the Red River to the 102nd parallel, where it would then turn due south until it hit the Rio Grande. Benton also wanted more southern Senators, so he proposed dividing Texas into two states.
Benton’s plan was unpopular with Texans (who would lose a huge amount of land) and northerners (who would become a minority in the Senate) alike, and the proposal went nowhere. The next proposal came from John Bell of Tennessee. Bell proposed a border from the 34th parallel of latitude, straight across from the Red River to the Rio Grande. As a Southerner, he also proposed splitting Texas up, this time into three states. This time, Texas liked the plan. But Northerners and New Mexicans protested that they would lose free territory and anti-slavery Senate seats. This plan was rejected as well.
Then, Henry Clay came along. A seasoned compromiser from the border state of Kentucky, Clay drew up his own plan with the help of a Senate committee. Clay’s proposal would draw a straight, diagonal line from just north of El Paso to the point where the Red River intersected the 100th parallel. In a key move for Northerners, it would also keep Texas as a single state. This deal gained favor amongst both Northerners and Southerners, but Texas itself ultimately rejected the plan. The reasons are unclear, but Texas may have felt the sale price for their land was too low.
Finally, Clay enlisted the help of Maryland Senator James Pearce. Pearce drew up a plan that would finally end the Congressional deadlock. Pearce divided the border into three key sections. First, Texas’ boundary would go north along the 100th parallel until it hit exactly 36° 30’. This would ensure that Texas adhered to the Missouri Compromise while also maximizing its land claim to the North. Then, the state line would follow 36° 30’ west until it hit the 103rd parallel (this was considered to be the edge of the New Mexico/Texas dispute). The line would then follow the 103rd parallel south until it hit the 32nd parallel of latitude, where it would turn west until it intersected with the Rio Grande. This effectively split the disputed portion of land in two; New Mexico got the northern portion (which includes modern day Albuquerque and Santa Fe) and Texas got the southern portion (which includes El Paso and Big Bend National Park).
Texas would receive 10 million dollars for its land, an amount which satisfied the state government. The border bill was finally on track to pass. It was bundled with several other bills to create the landmark Compromise of 1850, one of Henry Clay’s greatest accomplishments. While the new compromise did not avert the Civil War, it certainly delayed it and cooled many of the tensions surrounding Texas. Today, the most prominent evidence of the border bill can be seen in the shape of the Texas panhandle. But it’s important to remember that, while the panhandle may be distinct from the rest of the state, its existence came about by shaping the entirety of Texas into what it is today!
Other entries in the Panhandle Series: