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Clark County, Kansas

Clark County in southwest Kansas has a fascinating history that includes cattle drives, railroads, and military. Crocodile fossils from the Triassic Period and shark teeth from the Cretaceous Period found in the county and dolomite formations at Clark County State Lake offer insights into the inland sea that once covered the region. As a result of the geologic past, the Big Basin was created, which looks like a large valley. These beautiful, rugged Red Hills, colored by the rich iron oxide, gypsum caves, and natural bridges. This was once a prime hunting ground for the Plains Indians where large bison herds roamed.

Clark County, Kansas, was once part of the old Washington County, Peketon County, and later an enlarged Marion County. Organized in 1885, it was named for Charles F. Clarke, a captain and assistant adjutant general in the Sixth Kansas Cavalry. The spelling of Clark County was originally “Clarke.” The first town was Clark City, established in 1884. It was soon moved to the location of Ashland when the town company made a deal with residents to avoid county seat disputes.

The Big Basin is a sinkhole formed by the dissolving and collapse of gypsum and salt formations hundreds of feet below the surface. St. Jacob’s Well is a poll of water that has never gone dry. Evidence shows that visitors have enjoyed this feature for centuries.

Two soldiers were killed by a Kiowa brave in 1870, and the town took the name Soldiers Graves. The town was later called Bear Creek, after one of the military forts or earthworks, created to protect mail or shipments from attack. These redoubts are now listed in the National Register of Historic Places for preservation. The original county courthouse was built in Ashland in 1887. It was replaced in 1951.

The first cattle drives arrived in the area around 1870. Between 1876 and 1885 nearly 2 million cattle passed through the area on their way to markets. The Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad arrived in the county in 1887, providing service for passengers and shipment for cattle. The railroad provided a boom for Ashland’s freight business; Santa Fe ended service in 1972. Agriculture has been a key industry in the county, which was especially hard hit during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Heavily disked fields, years of drought, and the area’s winds led to the loss of top soil throughout the region.

Clark County’s properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places and Register of Historic Kansas Places include Ashland Grade School, built in 1937 through the Public Works Administration. People with ties to Clark County include Pearl Abel, a farmer and state representative, Dr. William Workman who developed gypsum plaster from silicate, Jesse Harper, a rancher who was also Notre Dame’s football coach when Knute Rockne was a player and president of the Kansas Livestock Association, Clark County sheriff Mike Sughrue, and Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court William Harvey.

Agriculture has been a key industry in the county, which was especially hard hit during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.

Quick Facts

Date Established: February 26, 1867
Date Organized: May 5, 1885
County Seat: Ashland
Kansas Region: Southwest
Physiographic Region: Red Hills and High Plains
Courthouse: 1950-1951
Trail: Chisolm Train ran through Clark County


1867 - Clark County is established on February
1885 - County is organized
1870 - Cattle drives start to come through the area
1887 - Chicago, Kansas and Western Railway Company comes to Ashland.
1935 - “Black Sunday” covers Clark County on April 14
1972 - The Santa Fe ceases rail services to Ashland

More on Clark County

Entry: Clark 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.