Dallas: History

Bryan Designs Town

Since its pioneer days, Dallas has grown from a fledgling frontier trading post to a bustling city of more than one million people. Dallas was founded in 1841 when a bachelor lawyer from Tennessee, John Neely Bryan, settled on a small bluff above the Trinity River to open a trading post and lay claim to free land. The area, where three forks of the river merge, was part of a large government land grant, Peters Colony. Bryan decided the location was ideal for a town. He quickly sketched a plan, designating a courthouse square and 20 streets around it. He planned for his settlement to become the northernmost port on the river, which stretched to the Gulf of Mexico, but the unpredictable, too-shallow Trinity thwarted efforts at navigation.

Without a navigable river, an ocean harbor or plentiful natural resources, Dallas had little reason to thrive. Fortunately, Bryan's town was close to a shallow spot in the river often used by Native Americans and early traders as a natural crossing, and the Republic of Texas was already surveying two "national highways," both of which were to pass nearby. As a result, farmers, tradesmen, and artisans were attracted to the small community.

In 1849 Dallas County was created and named after George Mifflin Dallas, supporter of the annexation of Texas and vice president of the United States under James Knox Polk. The city of Dallas is thought to be named after either the vice president or his brother, Alexander James Dallas, a commander of the U.S. Navy's Gulf of Mexico squadron.

Railroad spurs Growth

Although the Civil War never actually reached Dallas, its effect on the town was significant. Dallas became a food-producing and Texas recruitment center for the Confederacy. In 1872, when the railroad line from Houston reached Dallas, the town claimed 3,000 inhabitants, and in 1873, the east-west line of the Texas & Pacific Railroad was completed through Dallas, making it the first railroad crossing town in the state. The railroads made Dallas a major distribution center and the home of merchants, bankers, insurance companies, and developers. By 1890, Dallas was the largest city in Texas, with a population of more than 38,000 people.

Economy Forms Around Oil

In 1920, the Trinity River, a source of some early central city flooding, was re-channeled westward as part of an ambitious construction project of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Farming gained importance in the early twentieth century and Dallas was the largest cotton trading center in the nation. The city's position as a regional financial center was enhanced when a branch of the Federal Reserve Bank opened in 1914. Dallas attracted oil company headquarters, partly because Dallas banks were willing to finance exploration and production. Manufacturing arrived as companies were formed to produce supplies for the petroleum industry and, later, for the defense effort in World War II.

City Experiences Tragedies

No city is without its share of fires (Dallas' worst destroyed most of its business district in 1860), floods, other tragedies, and infamous citizens. The notorious thieves Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were Depression-era Dallas residents who captured the imagination and property of a large segment of the American public before their deaths in 1934. But Dallas' greatest trauma came on November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in a cavalcade through the Dallas streets. Harsh world attention was focused on the city and its leaders. As a result, Goals for Dallas, a private planning program that helped promote a climate of involvement, openness, and sensitivity, was formed.

Recent Economic Patterns

While much of the nation suffered an economic recession during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dallas enjoyed unprecedented growth. As northern factories were idled, a rush to the "Sun Belt" created new businesses, industry, and jobs in Dallas. The downtown skyline changed rapidly as construction boomed. In 1984 Dallas was the site of the Republican National Convention, and many saw the occasion as a chance for the city to erase some lingering negative memories in the minds of the American public. In the 1980s Dallas witnessed a real estate bust that drove prices so low that in time many thriving businesses began to move in and take advantage of the bargain real estate. By 1990 Dallas ranked first in the country for the number of its new or expanded corporate facilities.

In the mid-1990s Dallas ranked as Texas' second largest city, next to Houston, and the eighth largest in the United States. Closing in on the twenty-first century, the city continued to thrive with a healthy and diversified economy and ranked high in the nation in convention activity, as an insurance and oil industry center, in concentration of corporate headquarters, in manufacturing, and in electronics and other high-technology industries.

After national economic downturns in the early part of the new century, Texas is primed for growth. Abundant job growth in many business sectors, coupled with a rapidly-growing population and a healthy economy, mean Dallas is poised for a bright future.

Historical Information: Dallas Historical Society, G.B. Dealey Library, Hall of State, Fair Park, PO Box 150038, Dallas, TX 75315; telephone (214)421-4500