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Atchison County, Kansas

Lewis and Clark camped in what is now Atchison County, Kansas, in 1804 where they celebrated Independence Day. Clark wrote that it was “one of the most beautiful Plains, I ever Saw.” They noted an unoccupied village of the Kansa Indians “in a Valley between two points of high land, on the river back of their village commenced an extensive Prairie.” Located in the northeast corner of the state, Atchison County began as a proslavery stronghold during Kansas Territory. The first railroad was organized in 1857, followed by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe. This county was one of three to host an important visitor in 1859. Abraham Lincoln was just beginning his presidential campaign when he came to Kansas Territory and framed his campaign platform. Internationally recognized aviator, Amelia Earhart, was born in the city of Atchison.

Long before the Corps of Discovery explored the area, people lived along the Deer and Independence creek valleys. Tools used by people during the Village Gardener period (A.D. 1000-1500) were found during archeological studies.

Atchison County, Kansas, in the northeast corner of the state, is in the Glacial Hills region with rich soil deposits left thousands of years ago. Established as one of the original 33 counties in 1855, it is named for David Atchison, a U. S. senator from Missouri, who helped found the county seat of Atchison. Explorer Etienne de Bourgmont led an expedition to the area in 1724 to establish trade with local native peoples. A portion of the Delaware Indian reservation was established there in 1831; a portion of the Kickapoo Indian reservation was created in 1833.

When land opened as part of Kansas Territory, proslavery settlers arrived to promote their cause. The town of Atchison was founded by proslavery supporters. J. W. B. Kelley was one of few freestaters and he was forced to leave after making antislavery remarks.

A group of Latter-Day-Saints or Mormons headed west toward Salt Lake Valley camped in the area in 1855. The temporary village served as a rallying point or outfitting station for those making the long journey. Covering about 150 acres, it had make-shift dwellings, a small cemetery, and fencing to contain livestock.

Kansans knew Abraham Lincoln before his visit; he had gained prominence in a series of debates against Stephen Douglas while campaigning for a U.S. senate seat from Illinois. Lincoln, who lost the race to Douglas, was a Republican and was here to help his party’s candidates in the upcoming election. During his brief tour he spoke in Doniphan, Atchison, and Leavenworth counties to underscore the message that he believed slavery should not spread into the territory. His talking points became the core of an address he delivered a few months later as his presidential campaign became more public.

The city of Atchison worked to attract railroads and by 1870 four rail lines operated nine passenger trains on a daily basis. By 1874 the railroad industries employed 733 men in Atchison including the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe. Although Kansas City and Leavenworth installed railroad bridges across the Missouri River ahead of Atchison, which was built until the mid-1870s.

There along the Missouri River 250 freedmen or Exodusters from the South arrived by steamboat in 1879. They came with little or no money and the city organized an effort to help the new residents.
Ed Howe, the owner and publisher of the Atchison Daily Globe, became a prominent voice in Kansas politics. Howe, who was known for his brash personality and sharp, witty editorials, was also a novelist.

A U.S. Victory ship was named Atchison Victory, launched April 22, 1944. The cargo vessel represented the city in Kansas.

Atchison County Memorial Hall, built by architect Rudolph Meier and dedicated in 1922, was the place to be for entertainment. Honoring soldiers and sailors of World War I, the building features a spacious auditorium where audiences enjoyed speeches by Vice President Charles Curtis and Atchison native Amelia Earhart, music by Harry James and Ike and Tina Turner, and thrills by the Golden Glove boxing tournaments. The auditorium hosted other special events like theater productions, commencements, basketball games, and dances. The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and serves as headquarters for the Atchison Recreation Commission, coordinating programs for all ages around the community.

Other Atchison County properties listed in the National Register include the Atchison County courthouse built in 1896, the Atchison Post Office, the Atchison Santa Fe Freight Depot, and the birthplace of Amelia Earhart. John J. Ingalls, U. S. Senator and member of the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention in 1859, and Governor George Glick were from Atchison County and were honored with statues representing Kansas in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. Glick’s statue was replaced by one of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 2003. Other important figures from the county include Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justices Samuel Kingman, Albert Horton, and David Martin; Governor Willis Bailey, Jesse Albert Stone, musician who was songwriter and producer of rock and rock crossovers; Oscar Johnson, who played baseball with the Kansas City Monarchs, and Laura M. Cobb, chief nurse in the U.S. navy who was held as a POW in Japan.

Quick Facts

Date Established: August 25, 1855
Date Organized: September 17, 1855
County Seat: Atchison
Kansas Region: Northeast
Physiographic Region: Glaciated Region
Scenic Byways: Glacial Hills
Courthouse: October 5, 1896


1724 – French explorers arrive in the area
1804 – Lewis and Clark camp in the area and celebrate the Fourth of July
1831 – Delaware Indian reservation is established in the area
1833 – Kickapoo Indian reservation located in the area
1855 – County is established on August 25, organized on September 17, town of Atchison is founded
1857 – First rail line is established
1858 – Monastery and college is established by the Benedictine Order
1859 – Abraham Lincoln includes a stop in Atchison during a brief visit to Kansas Territory
1872 – Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad connects from Topeka
1880 – City of Atchison builds Union Station
1890 – Union Station is rebuilt after being destroyed in 1888
1897 – Amelia Earhart is born

More on Atchison County


Entry: Atchison County, Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: February 2010

Date Modified: August 2023

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.