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Barton County, Kansas

The Santa Fe Trail passed through what would become Barton County, Kansas, on Plains Indian hunting grounds. Midway on the trail to Santa Fe, a sandstone citadel offered travelers a dramatic view of the land. Organized in 1872, the county played an important role in the cattle industry. Decades later, during World War II, the area was home to an air field and pilot training base.

An expedition of the explorer, Zebulon Pike, reached the area in 1806 seeking the source of the Arkansas River. The team identified the northern bend of the river, which flows east from the Colorado mountains. The Cheyenne Bottoms, near Blood Creek and Deception Creek, is a wetland area that attracts hundreds of thousands of shorebirds during spring and fall migration.

Near the midpoint of the Santa Fe Trail, which passed through the area, is an outcropping of Dakota sandstone called Pawnee Rock. One of the most prominent landmarks on the route, people left their mark by carving their names in the stone. Much of the stone was later removed and used for construction by settlers and the railroad.

The geographic center of the state is just northeast of Great Bend in Barton County. Located in the south central part of the state, the county is in the Arkansas River Lowlands region with one of the area’s few natural lakes. Once part of the old Washington County, Peketon County, and later an enlarged Marion County. The county was organized in 1872 and named for Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, who served as a nurse during the Civil War. Barton is the only Kansas county named for a woman. Prior to organization, the area’s revenue and judicial needs related to Ellsworth County, which initially caused complicated tax issues when the county was organized. A courthouse was built by architect John McDonald in Great Bend in 1872. It was replaced by a courthouse designed by W. E. Hulse in 1917.

Fort Zarah was established in 1864, northeast of present-day Great Bend, to protect traffic along the trail. Construction of the Santa Fe railroad followed the Santa Fe Trail and reached the area in 1872. Cowboys herded cattle from Texas to the railroad where they could be shipped to the markets in the East. These cattle drives provided an economic boom for the county from 1873 to 1875. Because Texas herds brought disease to Kansas cattle, the state passed quarantine laws that impacted shipments to Barton County.

Barton County

In 1874 the borders were changed and Barton County took on part of Stafford County. The original borders were eventually restored in 1879 after a court decision.

The population increased significantly with the arrival of the railroad, from 200 in 1870 to 10,319 in 1880. During the winter of 1882-1883, residents of Great Bend suffered from a smallpox outbreak. Of the 30 cases, half of the victims died.

Great Bend Army Air Field was built in 1942-1943. The airfield expanded in 1943 when the mission changed to train personnel for the new B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber. The base was a staging area for maintenance crews, mechanics, and pilots preparing for an assignment in the Pacific Theater during World War II. After the war the base was deeded to Great Bend for a municipal airport and is also used as rental space for small planes.

Today Pawnee Rock State Historic Site marks the popular vantage point along the trail. In addition to Pawnee Rock, Barton County properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places and Registers of Historic Kansas Places include two Lustron prefabricated houses that were part of the post-World War II era development in Great Bend.

Significant figures from Barton County are Governor Jonathan Davis and Congressman David Lowe. 

Quick Facts

Date Established: February 26, 1867
Date Organized: May 16, 1872
County Seat: Great Bend
Kansas Region: South Central
Physiographic Region: Arkansas River Lowlands and Smoking Hills
Scenic Byways: Wetlands & Wildlife
Courthouse: 1917-1918


1806 - Zebulon Pike reaches source of Arkansas River
1864 - Fort Zarah to protect traffic along the Santa Fe Trail
1867 - Barton County is established on February 26
1872 - Barton County is organized on May 16
1872 - Santa Fe railroad arrives
1873 - 1875 – Cattle drives in Barton County
1882 - 1883 – Great Bend smallpox outbreak
1899 - Pawnee Rock named state historic site
1942 - 1943 – Building of the Great Bend Army Airfield
1945 - Great Bend Army Airfield is deactivated

More on Barton County


Entry: Barton 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.