Spotlight on the History of Dallas

Spotlight on the History of Dallas

The city of Dallas is rich in history. Read on to explore the city’s beginnings, as well as the remarkable events and locations that helped shape the Big D.

Early Beginnings

John Neely Bryan, a trader and lawyer from Tennessee, arrived in the region we know as Dallas in 1841. Bryan built a cabin on the banks of the Trinity River, and other settlers soon followed. In 1844 a town was established.

The origins of the city name “Dallas” remain uncertain. Historians believe that the community may have been named after either United States Vice President George Miffin Dallas or Joseph Dallas, an early settler.

In the early days, Dallas was settled by German and Swiss immigrants, with French artisans from the unsuccessful Fourierist colony arriving later. During the Civil War, large numbers of African Americans settled in the region.

In the 1870s, the Dallas railroad was built, connecting the city with the rest of the country and creating vast commercial growth. Next came a wholesale market, which included the flagship location of Neiman-Marcus. As the century went on and the city expanded, the adjacent communities of Oak Cliff and East Dallas were annexed, increasing Dallas’s size further.

Industrial Growth

Trade generated by Dallas’s cotton, grain, and leather industries created vast growth and wealth. Locals established the Dallas Cotton Exchange, an organization that, by the early part of the 20th century, established a reputation as one of the world’s largest cotton markets. Dallas also became a top manufacturer of cotton-ginning machinery.

In the early 1900s, the city became a major producer of leather products and textiles, as well as a center of food processing. Other major construction efforts included a Federal Reserve System branch and an automobile plant. Mexican immigrants settled in the city, contributing to population growth.

The Texas Oil Boom

Also known as the gusher age, the Texas oil boom changed the city of Dallas forever, creating dramatic economic growth in the early part of the 20th century.

The Texas oil boom was triggered when prospectors stumbled across sizeable petroleum reserves near Beaumont, Texas. The reserve was unprecedented in size, even by international standards. What followed was a period of industrialization and rapid regional development. Texas quickly established a reputation as one of America’s leading oil-producing states, alongside California and Oklahoma. Soon, the United States outpaced the Russian empire as the world’s top petroleum producer.


By the middle of the 20th century, Texas dominated US petroleum production. Many leading historians cite this era as the beginning of the international Oil Age.

The oil boom had a transformational effect on the state of Texas. At the start of the 20th century, the state had virtually no large cities and was predominantly rural. By the time World War II ended, Texas was heavily industrialized, its rapidly growing population establishing the state as one of America’s most densely populated.

In 1917 an oil strike in the town of Ranger, located to the west of Dallas-Fort Worth, created significant economic growth and industrialization. Then, in 1930 self-educated oil prospector Columbus Marion Joiner discovered the East Texas Oil Field, the largest oil reserve discovered to date. Since few oil companies had explored East Texas by this point, the find pushed “wildcatters” (independent prospectors) to begin buying up tracts of land in the hope of exploiting this highly lucrative industry. The East Texas Oil Field created exponential economic growth in Dallas, reviving the city during the Great Depression.

A Dallas company called the General American Finance System financed drilling operations throughout Texas during the 1930s. Using oil reserves as collateral, General American enabled the city to establish a reputation as the principal financing center for America’s oil industry. Eventually changing its name to the General American Oil Company of Texas, the organization later became an oil producer in its own right and was later purchased by Phillips Petroleum.

Industry and Technology

Between 1900 and 1930, Dallas’s population grew by 511 percent. The urban landscape changed dramatically. In 1907 the city built its first skyscraper, the Praetorian Building.

In the late 1950s, Dallas earned a reputation as a center for technology manufacturing after Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments invented the integrated circuit. Kilby’s invention was quickly overshadowed by a concept developed by a Californian company, however, with the team behind it going on to establish the Intel Corporation. Silicon Valley, where Intel is based, took over as the capital of the technology industry.

The Assassination of John F. Kennedy

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was traveling in his motorcade through Dallas’s Dealey Plaza when he was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald from the Texas School Book Depository.

Today, the Sixth Floor Museum is located within this iconic building, housing an extensive collection of exhibits relating to Kennedy’s presidency and assassination. The museum features a priceless collection of films, artifacts, photographs, documents, and interpretive displays documenting the life, death, and legacy of JFK.

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