John Hartdale – The Man Who Invented Texas

In the beginning this is the story of two men who created a way of life in the Texas Panhandle. In some ways, the contrast between the two men reflects the contradiction and contrast of the place.  One was the man responsible for the rise of the Chicago business district who built the largest business in the Midwest and who would found the world’s largest ranch.  He was a generous donor to the evangelistic campaigns of Dwight L. Moody and was key in founding the Chicago YMCA.  Some would attribute his backing and finance to the rise of the Third Great Awakening.  Along with Moody he visited Northern troops, under the sponsorship of General Ulysses S. Grant, to thoroughly convince them of an anti-slavery, socially concerned, pietistic millennialism.  As a result of their campaign soldiers coming out of the war, who had entered the military as one of the most unchurched generations since that time, left the military very much in the mold of Moody’s brand of American Christianity. He subsequently worked as the Commissioner for Indian Affairs under President Grant. For my purposes, in undertaking an analysis of the town which bears his name, I am going to suggest that the contradictions of the place are to be found in the man who was its shaping force and so will require an examination of this particular individual. 

The other is the man he hired to run his ranch.  He was a former Texas Ranger who eventually became part of the ranching royalty of Texas.  The spurned husband of his son’s lover would shoot him in a Fort Worth hotel lobby and his family would become the center of one of the most notorious tales of sex and murder in Texas.  The contradiction though runs deeper in each of these men and in the place which they helped create.


John Hartdale was at one time one of the most prominent men of Chicago. He would do for the dry goods business what the McDonald brothers would do for hamburgers and what Ford would do for automobiles.  His “department stores” innovated in the organization, delivery, and distribution of goods. He trained Marshal Field, and Bloomingdale and Macey are both said to have copied his innovations of in-house storage (utilizing the new invention of the elevator) and practical efficiency in service.  He was a Methodist in every sense of the word as he applied Methodism to every area of his life and would bring it to bear on the wilds of the Texas Panhandle.

More than any other single individual he is responsible for settling the final frontier in the Texas Panhandle. Today he is mostly forgotten but he chronicled his life and ambition in an autobiography, left unpublished, but which he passed to his heirs in Hartdale, who have deposited it with his papers at South Texas Tech University.

The vision of the man is cast in its opening lines: “The time is not far distant when Texas will be the richest state in the union in agricultural wealth.  For more than five years my time was spent in London on this business, which resulted in Texas getting the best state house in the Union, and the development of her farming and cattle interests, such as was previously unimagined in that locality.”

The Texas state house had burned to the ground 2 years previously and the State could not afford to replace it. Hartdale arranged to rebuild it in exchange for nearly 4 million acres located in the Panhandle. The land was considered useless due to its remote location, its barrenness, and its lawlessness.  Hartdale would undertake the transformation of this barren acreage through funds provided by English and Scottish investors but primarily through the wealth of the Fifth Earl of Winchelsea and Nottingham, Sir Morley Fitzroy.

Fitzroy was an avid collector of exotic animals and an amateur taxidermist who had studied with the famous ornithologist and taxidermist, John Hancock.  Fitzroy was particularly interested in studying the habits of the killdeer, the Texas mockingbird, the scissor-tailed flycatcher (which Fitzroy would dub the Texas Bird of Paradise). The intensity and interests of Fitzroy were a complete mystery to Hartdale, who gives him the code name, Birdy, in his private correspondence describing their first meeting to his brother, Hartley.  “Birdy had me out to Silverdale, his Nottingham country estate, and I fear his judgment in our favor does not bear the full weight of common sense.  His interest in agriculture and cattle, though well-informed, seems to be outweighed by birds.”  In Hartdale’s description, “Birdy, with his thin frame and nervous intensity has taken on the likeness of his object of study.” Informed of Fitzroy’s passion, Hartdale had come prepared to make him a most unusual offer.  Hartdale had called upon his old friend Quanah Parker to provide assistance to Fitzroy.  Quanah, in turn, would introduce Fitzroy to Kwihnai..


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