AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — With a unique shape crafted over five centuries, Texas spans more than 268,500 square miles, encompassing everything from briny, picturesque coastlands to vast expansive mesas.
However, the curious qualities about the regions and areas of the Lone Star State don’t stop with its biomes and general shape but go further into the look of its counties.
They’re kind of funny-looking, aren’t they? Both born Texans and new visitors seem to think so.
At a glance, many have noted that the shapes of Texas counties appear strikingly inconsistent. In the eastern and central portions of the state, they’re stacked in a downward curve in all manner of different shapes. Moving westward the counties shift to be slightly more consistent, and create a straightforward grid pattern around the Panhandle-Plains region, only to spread out again into large and lopsided swathes of land around Big Bend.
In comparison, as seen in maps from the U.S. Census Bureau, most other states appear to have fairly standardized counties. While each state has its own laws about how communities are established and boundary lines are drawn, the majority of the country up to and east of the Great Plains has counties of pretty similar sizes. Meanwhile, the western U.S. gets counties that are larger and wonkier the further it goes. Texas specifically seems to have one of the more unique geometrical geographical mixes.
So, why are Texas counties so varied and, occasionally, wonky? The answer can often be traced back to two “G”s – government and geography.
As noted by the University of Texas at Austin, the county shapes have most often been a result of the era in which they were created.
Like the rest of the country, communities in the Lone Star State get newer the further west you go. The original counties of Texas, as noted by the TAC, were initially 23 municipalities (“municipios”) under Spanish and Mexican rule up until the state gained independence in 1836. Afterward, they were divided into new counties that were smaller, partly due to population and partly in an effort to make local government offices more accessible to community members.
By the time Texas was officially a state and the borders were mostly settled with the Compromise of 1850, most of its cities were in central and north-central parts of the state, and most of the Panhandle-Plains and Big Bend regions were bare of people or much development. The populations in those areas, and the establishment of their official counties, didn’t really pick up until the 1870s. At that point, as noted by UT, how counties were created and controlled in Texas was updated with the Constitution of 1876.
While counties were created through highly localized decisions and circumstances before, Article IX of the Constitution of 1876 set down specific rules for things such as new county sizes, county boundary changes, and county seats.
For one, counties could not be created out of existing ones without both resulting counties being at least 700 square miles in size, and completely new counties (except for border counties or those conflicting with existing ones) were required to be at least 900 square miles in size. Further, the law required that states be laid out like a grid whenever possible.
Those new rules, as seen in maps published by UT, led to the mostly uniform creation of the counties around the Panhandle-Plains region. However, the grid pattern being required “whenever possible” was also arguably an easier rule for the Panhandle-Plains to stick to than for its western neighbors.
While the Panhandle-Plains region is also known as the “Staked Plains” with mostly even, high, flat geography, Big Bend is far more rocky and mountainous and far less grid-friendly.
A few of the counties in Big Bend were also formed much earlier than their neighbors, as noted by UT, like El Paso and Presidio counties, which also influenced the final shapes in that area. Peaks in elevation, natural boundaries like rivers, and population centers have also been factors in where Texas counties begin and end.
Altogether, each one of the 254 counties in Texas, no matter the shape, remains an illustration of the state’s long history of evolving cultures, creeds, and circumstances.