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Ellis County, Kansas

Throughout Ellis County in the High Plains reminders can be seen of the ancient sea that once covered the area. Post rock fence posts that define the boundaries of pastures offer a window to the ancient past. This rock or limestone, filled with fossils, was created over time from the ocean sediment. The uppermost Greenhorn Formation provided the perfect material for fencing and housing where wood was scarce. Limestone also proved to be a popular medium for post rock artists with a hammer and chisel.

Once prime hunting ground for Plains Indians, Ellis County grew after the discovery of gold in Colorado and the push for westward expansion. Overland trails crossed the area, military posts were established to guard workers on the rail lines, and railroads brought immigrants to farm the rich lands.

Ellis County was organized on October 28, 1867, by John Bauer; Joseph Duncan; Joseph S. Clarke; John V. MacIntosh; John M. Schlyer; Marcus J. R. Treat; William Rose; and William E. Webb. The county was named for Civil War Lieutenant George Ellis, Co. I, 12th Kansas Infantry, and Hays was designated the county seat.

Fort Hays was established October 11, 1865, and the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division arrived in October 1867. The first church was the Hays Presbyterian founded in 1873. The first county fair was established in Hays in 1881 and still continues. The first school district was formed in Hays in 1867.

Two interesting figures from Ellis County are Joseph S. Clarke, early-day Leavenworth newspaper reporter and owner and editor of the first newspaper in Ellis County, the Hays City Railway Advance, 1867-1868.

A group of Scottish and English settlers, led by George Grant, founded Victoria. The settlers brought livestock with the plan to establish Angus herds. After Grant's death in 1878, many of these settlers returned to Europe. In the 1870s groups of Germans from Russia settled in the county, bringing their agricultural knowledge. These groups formed the communities of Catharine, Herzog, Munjor, Pfeifer, and Schoenchen.

Kathryn O'Loughlin served the county as a Congresswoman from 1933-1935. There were also many well-known personalities associated with Fort Hays and the cattle town era and the history of the fort, including:George Armstrong Custer, General Philip Sheridan, and James B. Hickok.

A story has been reported that involves an unidentified grave near Fort Hays and a ghostly appearance from the grave site. Some tell that the grave is that of Elizabeth Polly, wife of the first hospital steward at the fort, who died while nursing soldiers during the cholera epidemic of 1867. She requested to be buried on top of a hill southwest of the Fort. It is alleged that the ghost of Mrs. Polly, veiled in a blue glow, has been seen in the vicinity of the grave.

For more information see the Ellis County website.The Ellis County Historical Society has an archives of local source material. A bibliography of Ellis County historical materials has been published by Blaine Burkey, Ellis County Gold, 1979. The Fort Hays University Library has an archives of county history.

Timeline of Ellis County

  • 1865 - Fort Hays opens as a military post to guard travelers on the Smoky Hill Trail and workers along the railroad. It remains in operation until 1889.
  • 1867 - Union Pacific Railway reaches Ellis County, photograph by Alexander Gardner. Ellis County and the city of Hays are founded
  • 1869 - Chief Powderface, an Arapaho leader, with his family, near Hays; the Arapaho, Pawnee, and Cheyenne originally inhabited this area
  • 1873 - George Grant establishes a colony of English and Scottish colonists called Victoria
  • 1876 - Germans from the Volga Region of Russia arrive
  • 1878 - Walter Chrysler moves with his family to Ellis
  • 1886 - German immigrants from the Bukovina region settle near Ellis
  • 1888 - Farming methods from Germans and Mennonites secure Kansas’ reputation as the nation’s breadbasket. The Topeka Daily Capital claims, “In wheat, Kansas can beat the world”
  • 1901 - Fort Hays State University is established as the state normal school on the grounds of the former frontier post
  • 1935 - Ellis County workers help build arch bridges as a project of the Works Progress Administration
  • 1936 - Oil is discovered on the Phillips Ranch, which helps boost the local economy following the Great Depression
  • 1949 - Nearly 100 Lustron houses made of porcelain-enameled steel panels are built in Kansas, several in Hays

Entry: Ellis 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: October 2015

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