In 1839 John Neely Bryan, a Tennessee lawyer and Indian trader, stumbled onto the three forks of the Trinity River, a site he thought had the makings of a good trading post. Dallas County was created in 1846, and both county and town were probably named for George Mifflin Dallas, US vice president under James K Polk; the two were elected on a platform favoring Texas statehood.

Dallas grew slowly for 30 years, though from the start the city had a flair for self-promotion: Bryan saw to it that Dallas was placed on maps even before there was much of a town. In the 1870s the state decided Dallas would be the junction of the north–south Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad and the east–west Texas and Pacific Railroad. It worked like magic: merchants from New York, Chicago, Boston and St Louis invested heavily in the city.

Cotton created another boom. In 1885 farmland sold for $15 an acre. By 1920, with cotton prices soaring, land values had risen to $300 an acre. And when the East Texas Oil Field was struck 100 miles east of town in 1930, Dallas became the financial center of the oil industry.

Post-WWII Dallas continued to build on its reputation as a citadel of commerce. But its image took a dive when President John F Kennedy was assassinated during a November 1963 visit to the city. This tragic incident, coupled with the ensuing turmoil of the 1960s, badly battered Dallas' self-esteem. Gradually, however, the city reclaimed its Texas swagger with help from a few new chest-thumping sources of civic pride: the Dallas Cowboys won the first of five Super Bowl titles in 1972. And then there was that little ol' TV show, the top-rated series in the US from 1980 to '82. Dallas was back, louder and prouder than ever – a roll it's been on with hardly a bump in the road since.

A Dark Day in November

In the early 1960s, the USA was fascinated with its young president, his little children at play in the Oval Office and his regal wife. They seemed the perfect family, and the USA – still awash in postwar prosperity – considered itself a place where justice and amity prevailed.

But beneath the glossy surface, the USA was heading into its most divisive decade since the Civil War. By no means universally popular, John F Kennedy had won the election over Richard Nixon by fewer than 120,000 votes from among 69 million cast. His 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba was a foreign-policy disaster.

In the eyes of many, Kennedy redeemed his presidency in the fall of 1962, when he stood up to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev after US intelligence services discovered Soviet offensive-missile sites in Cuba. Yet in the nine months prior to his Dallas appearance, Kennedy had received more than 400 death threats, from critics on both the left, who felt him guilty of warmongering during the Cuban missile crisis, and the right, who felt him soft on communism. The president's advisers were seriously concerned about the trip to Dallas, where right-wing groups, including the John Birch Society and the Indignant White Citizens Council, held powerful sway. Yet nearly a quarter-million people lined the streets on November 22, 1963, to greet him.

Shots Ring Out

What happened next has been endlessly debated and dissected by conspiracy theorists, but the events as officially recorded took place like this: Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline, Texas governor John Connally and the rest of the motorcade left Love Field at 11:50am and arrived downtown under sunny skies. Kennedy's open-air limousine made its way down Main St to Dealey Plaza, where three streets – Main in the middle, Commerce to the south and Elm to the north – converged under a railroad bridge known as the triple underpass.

The limo made a one-block jog on Houston St, turning onto Elm St beneath the Texas School Book Depository building. Just as the limousine completed its turn at 12:30pm, one shot rang out, then another. Both Kennedy and Connally appeared wounded, and then a third shot was heard, and part of the president's head exploded. Jacqueline Kennedy cradled her husband's body as the limo raced up the Stemmons Fwy toward Parkland Memorial Hospital. They arrived at 12:36pm, but doctors could not save Kennedy, who had a bullet wound in his neck in addition to the massive head wound. He was pronounced dead at 1pm.

Manhunt & Murder

Even before the announcement, Dallas and the nation were thrown into turmoil. Dallas police officer Marrion Baker, who had seen pigeons fly off the Book Depository roof as the shots were fired, entered the building and found a man in the employee lunchroom at 12:32pm. Depository superintendent Roy Truly identified the suspect as Lee Harvey Oswald – an employee hired five weeks earlier – so Baker let him go. Soon after, police found the sniper's perch on the 6th floor, together with spent cartridges and finger- and palm prints later identified as Oswald's. Meanwhile, Oswald was arrested at 1:50pm in the Oak Cliff section of town as a suspect in the shooting of Dallas police officer JD Tippit. He was later charged with the murder of Kennedy, but denied both murders. The next morning, as Oswald was being transferred to the county jail pending trial, Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot him in the basement of Dallas police headquarters. Kennedy was buried the following day at Arlington National Cemetery, outside Washington, DC.

Amid a country in mourning, the phrase 'Where were you the moment you found out that JFK had been shot?' became a touchstone question for an entire generation. And debate over what may have really happened that day has never stopped.