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Cowley County, Kansas

Cowley County, Kansas, once the land of the Osage and Cherokee, was organized in 1870, in south central Kansas. Early county seat disputes led to a second election and settled the county seat once and for all. Helium was discovered in Dexter in 1903 and the well supplied military and industrial needs. Settlers had a chance in 1893 The county was once home to an army air field, which was important to the Pacific front during World War II.

Cowley County, Kansas, was named for First Lieutenant Matthew Cowley of the Company I in the Ninth Kansas Cavalry, who was killed in 1864. It was previously part of Hunter County, which now longer exists. While the first settler arrived in the area in the late 1860’s, it was technically not open for settlement, and was the Osage Indian’s land. Settlers were eventually told to leave, and all but one did. In 1870, the land was organized and then opened for settlement.

Winfield became the county seat, but a second election had to be held in 1871, when Tisdale, formed for sole purpose of being the county seat, challenged Winfield. Despite supposed voter fraud, Winfield was once again established as the county seat. In 1873, the courthouse was constructed.

The grasshopper invasions of 1874-1875, impacted the county as it did many counties across the state.

Photo As a part of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, the Cowley, Summer, and Fort Smith Railway reached Winfield in 1879. By 1910, Winfield was a major rail center with five lines of the Santa Fe, serving as a junction point, and lines of the Missouri Pacific and St. Louis, San Francisco railroads also entered the town.

Helium was used in balloons during World War I and then dirigibles for the navy. It was later used in nuclear reactors and ballistic missiles. Dexter’s supply of helium was finally depleted.

Legend states that Coronado camped in Cowley County during his 1542 expedition. Other individuals of note with connections to Cowley County include the founder of Winfield, E. C. Manning; Governor Robert Docking; U.S. Senator James M. Harvey; Kansas Supreme Court Justice John C. Pollock; U. S. District Judge George Templar; and Congressmen Jeremiah Botkin, Alfred Jackson, and Benjamin Clover.

Cowley County has several properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places such as Winfield Public Carnegie Library and the Strother Field Tetrahedron Wind Indicator, located on the previous Strother Army Air Field. This airfield was active from 1942-1945 and was a part of the Pacific front during World War II, by performing training, testing, building, and delivering airplanes.

Quick Facts

Date Established: February 26, 1867
Date Organized: February 28, 1870
County Seat: Winfield
Kansas Region: South Central
Physiographic Region: Flint Hills Uplands, Wellington-McPherson Lowlands, and Arkansas River Lowlands
Courthouse: 1962


1867 - Cowley County is established on February 26.
1870 - Cowley County is organized on February 28.
1871 - Although Winfield was the county seat, and election on the issue is once again pursued. Winfield wins over Tisdale.
1879 - Cowley, Sumner, and Fort Smith Railway reaches Winfield.
1942 - 1945- Strother Army Airfield is active and plays a part in World War II to train and other duties for the Pacific front.

More on Cowley County


Entry: Cowley 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.