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County Seat Wars

Hugoton, Stevens County, 1888Few Kansans have heard of towns named Ravanna, Eminence, Kendall, Woodsdale, Heartland, Farmer City, Appomattox or Surprise, because they were all losers in county seat wars. Disputes over the location of county governments were common in late 19th century Kansas. Almost all the county seat wars involved disputed elections and often resulted in various lawsuits. Some involved bribery, fraud and even violence.

Kansas law provided for a county to be formed when the population had reached 600. Upon petition the governor could then appoint temporary county officials and choose a temporary county seat. Supporters of various locations within the county believed that if their town was selected the county seat, the prosperity of the town would be guaranteed. The establishment of a county seat meant a courthouse would be built, along with bridges, roads, schools, and possibly a railroad. Failing to win the county seat often meant the death of a town.

In 1873, promoters filed paperwork stating that 600 people lived within the boundaries of proposed Comanche County. They even elected a representative to the state legislature and issued thousands of dollars in bonds to build a courthouse and other infrastructures. Although the courthouse was never built, bridges were constructed over dry creek beds. Upon investigation by the Attorney General's office, it was discovered that no one was living within the county borders. Eventually however, Comanche County was established and in 1946 the last of the bogus bonds were finally paid off. Similar instances of fraud occurred in Harper, Barber, and Ness counties.

Sheriff Bat MastersonIn the 1887 Garfield county seat election, Ravanna and Eminence were bitter rivals. Sheriff Bat Masterson and twenty deputies from Dodge City were hired to keep the peace during the election.; Ravanna won by thirty-five votes. However, the citizens of Eminence brought suit, alleging the ballot-box had been stuffed. Although neither town had more than 400 actual residents, election results showed several thousand votes had been cast in each. The Kansas Supreme Court declared the election flawed and in 1889 the county seat was transferred to Eminence.  However, in 1892, the Kansas Supreme Court decided Garfield County had been illegally organized, having less than the 432 square miles required by state constitution. In 1893, Garfield County was annexed by Finney County.

In the 1887 county seat election in Gray County, three towns were vying for the position: Montezuma, Ingalls, and Cimarron. Millionaire Asa T. Soule persuaded the residents of Montezuma to withdraw their petition for county seat and vote for Ingalls. To accomplish this Soule promised to build Montezuma a railroad and freely dispersed checks ranging from $100 to $500 to its residents. In spite of Soule's efforts, Cimarron was the winner of the election. In validating the election returns, the Kansas Supreme Court ordered the county records to be moved to Ingalls. In an attempt to remove the remaining records from Cimarron in 1889, a gunfight resulted and a bystander was killed. The matter was not settled until 1896 when Cimarron was declared the county seat.

Violence resulting in deaths also occurred in the county seat disputes in Wichita and Stevens counties. In Stevens County, the towns of Hugoton and Woodsdale competed for the county seat. Competition became so heated that six men were killed and the governor ordered the militia to restore order.

In most cases, after the dispute was resolved, a courthouse was built, amicable relations were resumed and life in the county returned to normal and to the concerns of settling the frontier.

Entry: County Seat Wars

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: June 2003

Date Modified: July 2011

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