The Geography of Denton County
Geography without History seemeth a carkasse without motion, so History without Geography wandreth as a Vagrant without a certaine habitation.
Within broad limits, the geography of an area suggests the activities that can take place there, or more precisely, geography dictates what activities may not take place in a region. The earliest Anglo settlers found Denton extraordinarily attractive. It had ample water in most seasons, timber, fertile soil. There were groves of grape and wild plum, and game abounded. It was an area well suited to subsistence farming and less suited to other types of activity.
The Denton County that the Texas legislature cut out of Fannin County in 1846 has had only minor boundary changes since that time.1 No natural formations set the boundaries of Denton. The borders of the county were set for administrative convenience, and no streams or swamps or mountain ranges mark Denton off from its neighbors. Only to the east is there a geographical demarcation, a ridge line that wanders back and forth over the boundary between Collin and Denton Counties. Denton County is an 12 almost perfect square, about thirty-one miles from east to west and a little over twenty-nine miles from north to south., thus following the prejudice of Texas lawmakers that a thirty mile square was the ideal size for a county.
If natural features had set the boundaries, as they tended to in the more eastern counties of Texas, perhaps Denton would not have the biological variety that comes from the county's lying astride three geographical belts, running roughly from north to south. The eastern edge of the county is Black Prairie. There, the soil is rich, the land is rolling, and the Black Prairie is cut with streams and creeks that provide both water and drainage.
Then come the Eastern Cross Timbers, a forest belt that once extended from the Red River south to the Brazos. The timber available and the ease with which settlers could turn the land once they cut the timber made this area one of great value. It also served to mark the limit of Indian activity after Anglo settlement began.2 Only rarely did Comanches penetrate the wooded Cross Timbers. The timber belt served one further role, unsuspected by the early settlers, of putting water into the aquifer that supplied many of the the county's springs.
The last geographical belt is the western portion of the county, the Grand Prairie, where there is a deep clay subsoil. That type of soil, with the tough, interwoven root systems of the prairie grasses, demanded a more advanced technology for tillage than existed when the county was first settled. Exploitation of 13 the Grand Prairie would have to wait until the advent of steam tractors and heavy western steel plows, which would not come until after the Civil War.
The mixture of these three geographical belts -- Black Prairie, Eastern Cross Timbers, and Grand Prairie -- accounts for the extraordinarily complicated soil system of Denton. There are fourteen major soil types, which geologists subdivide further into as many as seventy-three varieties, a very large number. Part of the explanation for this geological complexity is that Denton lies at the edge of the prehistoric Inland Sea. Over the eons, as the Inland Sea dried up, it left sediment and sand layers that still clearly outline the bays and estuaries of a million years ago. Fossil remains are plentiful, too. Where Denton Creek has eroded the topsoil, remains of giant snails and other aquatic creatures are easy to find. Farther to the south, west of Lewisville, amateur archaeologists have found dinosaur bones.
There were three creek and stream systems in Denton County, now partially obliterated by Lake Ray Roberts, Garza-Little Elm Lake (Lake Lewisville), and Grapevine Lake.3 One is the Elm Fork of the Trinity River. Into that stream flowed Clear Creek from the northwest part of the county, the main Elm Fork from the north, and Little Elm from the northeast. Pecan Creek, which runs through the city of Denton, and Cooper Creek, which runs just north of Denton, also flow into the Elm Fork system. The second stream is Hickory Creek which flows from the west past the 14 vicinity of Old Alton. The third system is the Denton Creek system with various small southwestern creeks flowing into it -- Elizabeth, Harriet, Catherine, and Trail Creeks, named for the the daughters and favorite dog of an early surveyor. The Denton Creek system flows into Lake Grapevine.
All these systems drain from the north or west or both. There are numerous springs as well. Today, they are probably much smaller in number and in flow than they were in the 1840s because of the loss of aquifer restocking areas and the channelling of water for defense against floods.
Clear Creek flooded periodically and was eventually tamed with a series of retention dams. Pecan Creek, also part of the Elm Fork system, frequently flooded the city of Denton until it was channelled in concrete. Moving the Elm Fork dam system farther north in the 1980s with the construction of Lake Ray Roberts will have effects that are still being studied, but will certainly reduce the likelihood of flooding farther downstream.
The climate of Denton has changed slightly over the years. Apparently, when the county was first settled, it had a climate very much like today's, but the averages for summer and winter became slightly cooler at the end of the nineteenth century. Scientific records were not kept in the early years, but modern records establish the mean minimum temperature in January, the coldest month, at 34F. The coldest recorded temperature came on February 12, 1899, when the temperature was officially recorded as 15 -12F. The mean maximum temperature in July, the warmest month, is 96F.
May is the wettest month, averaging almost 5 inches of rainfall, while January and July are the two driest, with less than two inches each. The annual average is about 33 inches, but that figure varies wildly from one year to another. The growing season averages 225 days a year, and, except for the likelihood of draught in late summer, is compatible with most grains and other standard crops. The climate is not suitable for tobacco, and cotton never was a major crop in the county. Growing grapes for wine was tried in the region of Little Elm, but without great success.
The climate was generally healthy, although the original settlers were troubled with various "fevers," possibly malaria. There was also an indigenous ailment, known locally as "summer belly," most likely a dysentery, which was frequently fatal to small children. Public health workers have suggested that a deeper and longer freeze in winter might have helped to purify the water systems and helped to reduce mortality, but records from those early years are too fragmentary to allow a final judgment.4 In any event, lowland endemic fevers do not seem to have flourished in Denton County, although they were sufficiently virulent to cause depopulation of a French utopian group's settlement just after the county was established. 16
Other than a comparatively small quantity of oil discovered in the northwest corner of the county in the 1930s, and sand, gravel, and clay, Denton has no mineral resources. It is a county made for the small farmer, with good soil, sufficient water, and timber. 17
ENDNOTES CHAPTER TWO THE GEOGRAPHY OF DENTON COUNTY 18
- 1. Mary Jo Cowling, Geography of Denton County (Dallas: Banks Upshaw and Company, 1936) is a starting point for the study of local geography. The United States Department of Agriculture's soil surveys have a great deal of information in them. See the Bureau of Soils' 1904 Report, which is unfortunately only available in major research libraries now; and United States, Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service, in cooperation with the Texas Agriculture Experiment Station, Soil Survey of Denton County, Texas (1980). Two master's theses are useful, too: Robert S. Parker, "Composition and Distribution of the Vegetation in Farm Pastures in Denton County, Texas" (M.A. Thesis, North Texas State Teachers College, 1946); and Rodney John Walter, "The Economic History of Denton County, Texas, 1900-1950" (M.A. Thesis, North Texas State University, 1969), which includes a chapter on geography.
- 2. The word "Anglo" is clearly wrong, for it slides past settlers of other national origins as well as possibly hiding persons who were Hispanic or Afro-American. Unfortunately, the use of the word is established, and no other label seems to work either.
- 3. For political reasons, these artificial reservoirs are renamed periodically. These names seem to be the ones used most commonly by long-time residents of the county.
- 4. See my "Disease and Settlement Patterns in Early Denton County," Endless Chain, 2 (1977): 1-2.