History of
Cowley County Kansas

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This county, inhabited by nomadic Indian tribes, was claimed by the Spanish, French and English due to explorations of the area.

The European War (1754-1763) clarified claims on the Americas. To end the war France offered, and Spain accepted, Louisiana (New Orleans and the territory west of the Mississippi). France also ceded to England all of the country east of the Mississippi and north of the Iberville River in Louisiana.

Napoleon rose to power and in 1801 induced Spain to re-cede Louisiana to France. On April 11, 1803, France approached a special American envoy with an offer to sell the Louisiana territory in its entirety. After some haggling over price, the Americans agreed to accept the whole territory for approximately fifteen "million dollars.

In order to provide some form of government, on March 26, 1804, the Louisiana purchase was divided into two sections. The portion that included Kansas was in the District of Louisiana, which was placed under the ) jurisdiction of the territory of Indiana.

The territory of Missouri was granted recognization in 1812 and this area included what is now Kansas, named for the Kansas (Kaw) River.

Six years later the territory of Missouri applied for statehood as a slave state. If admitted, it would have created an imbalance as there were eleven free and eleven slave states in 1819. This created a controversy in Congress; and while it was in progress, the northeastern counties of Massachusetts, with the consent of the parent state, asked for admission to the Union as the state of Maine. The Senate decided to admit Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. At t e same time an amendment was added to t e combined bills providing that in the remainder of the Louisiana territory north of the southern boundary of Missouri, slavery was to be prohibited forever. This is called the Missouri Compromise, and was passed in 1820. Both Missouri and Maine attained statehood in 1820.

The original Kansas Territory, established in 1854, contained 126,283 square miles and included portions of Colorado west to the continental divide. This area was reduced to 82,276 square miles with the admission of Kansas to the Union on January 29, 186 1.

Prior to becoming a territory and then a state, this area became a permanent abode for the eastern Indians, moved westward to clear the way for white habitation in the east. The Osage had their earliest home in the Piedmont region in Virginia and had been gradually forced westward.

In 1825 a treaty defined the Osage Diminished Reserve, which included all of Cowley County except the southern two and one-half miles. This was basically 50 miles wide starting at the Missouri border and two and one-half miles above the present Oklahoma border, extending west to the headwaters of the Arkansas River.

In 1834 The Cherokee Indians approved a treaty creating the Cherokee neutral lands (also called the Cherokee strip and the Cherokee outlet). This included the two and one-half mile strip south of the Osage Diminished Reserve.

All of Kansas Territory, excluding that land reserved to the Indians, was opened to settlement on May 30, 1854. The Pre-emption Act of 1841 permitted a settler to buy his claim at the minimum price of $1.25 an acre. The Homestead Act of 1862 permitted citizens over twenty-one to acquire 160 acres, if they improved them and lived upon them for five years.

In April 1861 the southern states negotiated treaties of alliance whereby the Osages accepted a confederate alliance and agreed to become parties to the existing war. The Osage delegation, however, was not unanimous in its commitment to the southern cause. In Kansas most of the Osage repudiated the accord with only the Black Dog and Clermont bands remaining loyal to the south. Two hundred Osages led by Chetopa mustered into the second regiment of the Indian brigade of the Union Army.

Butler County (lo, the north of Cowley County) was one of the thirty-three counties organized when Kansas became a territory and was one of the thirty-four counties when Kansas became a state. (It is interesting to note that at the present time, Butler County is larger than the state of Rhode Island.) The southern twenty miles of Butler County were not open to settlement due to being in the original Osage diminished reserve.

The Osage tribe was significantly affected by the civil war. It provided the occasion for Kansas authorities to demand that the Osage cede a portion of their domain for white development. On September 29, 1865, the Osage agreed to cede a 20-mile-wide tract that extended the entire distance of their northern boundary to the United States. This opened Butler County to settlement down to the northern border of Cowley County.

Cowley County was first a part of Hunter County, then a part of Irving County before gaining its own identity. Cowley County takes its name from Matthew Cowley, First Lieutenant in Company I, Ninth Kansas Cavalry, who died in service at Little Rock, Arkansas, October 7, 1864. The Legislature of 1867 defined it as running thirty three miles north from a point on the south line of the State, 105 miles west of the State line, and extending thirty-four and a half miles west. The borders of Cowley County were surveyed in 1867; the official government survey of the interior was made Januaryl871.Thecountyconsistsofsome 1,144 square miles. The government policy of relocating Indians continued, and the remaining Osage Diminished Reserve, which included Cowley County, opened to settlement January 1, 1870. Anticipating this event a few brave souls tried to settle early in Cowley County and stake their claims.

The gentlemen involved with the Arkansas City Town Company had a bill introduced in the Kansas Legislature to organize Cowley County with the temporary county seat at Arkansas City.

Mr. E. C. Manning, of the Winfield Town Company, immediately commissioned three men (J. H. Land, C. M. Wood and A. A. Jackson) to go on horseback with instructions to obtain the names of all the settlers in the county, and to report to him not later than the third day thereafter at Douglass, with an enumeration of at least six hundred settlers.

The census takers met Mr. Manning at Douglass (location of the nearest Notary Public) and swore to the census. Mr. Manning, with A. H. Fabrique and W. W. Andrews, set out for Topeka, two hundred miles distant, by stagecoach.

They arrived there in time to find the bill (to organize Cowley County with Arkansas City as the temporary county seat) undergoing its third reading in the Senate. E. C. Manning had prior political experience-serving one term as Senator from Marysville and one year as Secretary of the Kansas Senate. He failed to secure defeat of this bill in the Senate so he followed it into the house. He obtained the aid of Hon. John Guthrie, the member from Topeka, who succeeded by dilatory tactics in preventing its passage until the legislature adjourned three days later.

The Winfield Town Company then sent the following petition to Governor Harvey, along with the notarized census.

"Winfield, Cowley Co. Kan. February 10, 1870: To His Excellency Governor James M. Harvey, Topeka Kan. Your petitioners, the undersigned, citizens of Kansas and residents of Cowley County, Kansas most respectfully memorialize you to issue the necessary documents to organize the county of Cowley and designate Winfield as the temporary county seat and appoint W. W. Andrews, S.F. Graham and G.H. Norton as county commissioners and E.P. Hickock as county clerk."

On February 28, 1870, Governor Harvey issued the requested proclamation, and Cowley County was organized on that date by the appointment of three Special County Commissioners and a Special County Clerk. How many log house foundations in the bends of the Grouse, Walnut and Arkansas were enumerated as families of five or ten persons, named Jones or Smith, in that census will never be known. The census takers have all "crossed the river" and "dead men tell no tales."

The first election in Cowley County was held May 2, 1870, and a full complement of county officers was elected. Winfield was selected over Arkansas City as county seat by a vote of 108 to 55.

The federal census of Cowley County was 550 in 1870. The federal census of Cowley County was 21,538 in 1880. The federal census of Cowley County was 31,790 in 1910. The Kansas census of Cowley County was 36,900 in 1988. The Kansas census of Cowley County was 36,824 in 1989. The Kansas census o Cowley County was 36,716 in 1990. In 188 Cowley County was considered to have 6% of its surface in timber and 94% rolling prairie 33% of the total was considered to be bottom land.

In August 1874 swarms of grasshopper came from the northwest, forming a cloud which obscured the sun. Dropping down upon fields partially ruined by drought, grasshoppers ate everything green, laid their eggs an left the county. Eastern cities and states sent 'Farmer Aid' trains. The eggs hatched in 1875 and settlers feared a renewed attack, but the young hoppers left the county without inflicting any damage.

As land turned into farms, towns grew to provide services. Some of the earliest businesses were grist mills for corn and then mills for flour. Sawmills also were started because dimension lumber had to be freighted overland from Emporia.

Town companies surveyed the land, laid out blocks and streets, and divided the blocks into building lots. They then started selling lots, and often offered to sell one lot and give another free. They quickly organized towns in the county, held elections, started governing and introduced taxation.

In 1873 the Winfield Town Company donated land for a County Courthouse. The County then built a temporary jail of wood and later a permanent one of brick. The County then built a one-story brick courthouse on the south side of that block facing Tenth Street. In 1880 the County had to add one- story wings on the east and on the west, as well as a second story on the primary building.

In 1909 the brick courthouse was replaced by a larger two-story limestone building, with a basement. After the new building was completed in October, the brick building was demolished.

By 1963 the County had again outgrown the Courthouse. A new one was built that year on the same block, around the older courthouse, so when the new one was completed, records could be moved and the older building torn down. The brick jail was torn down and the Sheriff's department and jail were incorporated into the courthouse.

Cowley County entered the mainstream of commerce with the coming of the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in 1879. Others followed such as the Missouri Pacific, The St. Louis and San Francisco, and Kansas Southwestern. Railroads broke down the isolation of the great plains, advertised western resources, stimulated the sale of lands, and assured the new settler a ready access to eastern markets. They ushered in an era of diversified agriculture where wheat, fruit, and truck crops are produced.

In 1980 there were 15,133 housing units in the county with 47.6% being built before 1940.

In 1986 there were 692,000 acres in Cowley County on which there were 1,029 farms. There were seven banks. School enrollment was 6,405. The labor force in 1987 was 17,663 and there were 20,495 automobiles registered.

One of the first acts of the Special County Commissioners was to lay out the County into three townships. Rock Creek Township extended south from the Butler County line about nine miles, to approximately the location of Floral, with its southern border being an east to west line. Winfield Township extended from the south border of Rock Creek Township to a line eleven miles north of the southern border of Cowley County. Creswell Township was all of the county south of the southern border of Winfield Township.

The original townships were dissolved by 1880 and replaced with the 23 current townships.

  • Beaver
  • Bolton
  • Cedar
  • Cresswell (including Arkansas City)
  • Dexter
  • Harvey
  • Liberty
  • Maple
  • Ninnescah
  • Omnia
  • Otter
  • Pleasant Valley
  • Richland
  • Rock Creek
  • Sheridan
  • Silver Creek
  • Silver Dale
  • Spring Creek
  • Tisdale
  • Vernon
  • Walnut
  • Windsor
  • Winfield City
Submitted by Richard Kay Wortman
As Printed in the Cowley County Heritage Book, 1990
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EMAIL Cowley County Coordinator
Karen Rodenbaugh ....Arkansas City, KS

Email corrections and submissions to Steve ruggles

State Coordinators
Tom & Carolyn Ward, Columbus, KS