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Ellis County, Kansas

Ellis County, Kansas, was once home to the frontier post, Fort Hays, which provided protection to workers on the railroad and travelers along the Smoky Hills Trail. Today, Ellis County is home to Fort Hays State University. Automaker Walter Chrysler grew up here near a railroad hub and became fascinated with machinery. Artist Pete Felten’s work in limestone depicting figures from the past can be seen throughout the county.

Ellis County was established in 1867 in the northwest portion of the state. An ancient sea once covered the Smoky Hills region and formed the underlying Greenhorn limestone layer. This stone proved especially useful to farmers in an area with few trees. They made rock fence posts to hold barbed wire fencing. This post rock can still be seen throughout the region. The county was named for Lieutenant George Ellis, a Civil War soldier in the 12th Kansas Infantry, who was killed in 1864. This land was prime hunting ground for the Pawnee, Arapaho, and Cheyenne Indians.

In 1865 Fort Fletcher was established to guard the Smoky Hills Trail, a route that connected to the gold fields in eastern Colorado. The name was soon changed to Fort Hays, for Civil War Brigadier General Alexander Hays. In 1867 the area flooded requiring the fort to move to higher ground. As railroad construction progressed westward, the fort served as a terminus, guarding workers along the track. The post also provided supplies to other frontier forts in the region. Fort personnel spent part of their time scouting, patrolling, and preparing for possible attack, which never came. A cholera epidemic in 1867 claimed nearly 200 people in the community. The fort finally closed in 1889 and in 1900 a portion was given to the state for a branch of the Kansas Normal School, now Fort Hays State University. The fort became a state historic site in 1901. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.  

The Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division, reached Hays in 1867. In its early days the frontier town grew rapidly and developed a reputation for rowdiness and violence. Buried in “Boot Hill” cemetery were 79 outlaws. As railroad construction progressed to the west, Hays matured and began to attract new settlers willing to build their home on the High Plains. In the 1870s a significant number of Germans from Russia moved into the county and established farming communities.

When U.S. soldiers returned from World War II and started families, they caused a population boom and housing shortage. Hays was one of the communities in Kansas to build pre-fab houses made by the Lustron Corporation, meaning luster on steel. These small affordable houses were quick to assemble and essentially maintenance free. Two of these houses remain in Hays and are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Other Ellis County properties listed in the National Register include St. Fidelis Catholic Church, established by the Germans from Russia, completed in 1911, and the Walter Chrysler Home in Ellis, where young Chrysler lived before launching his career as an automaker. Other notable figures with connections to Ellis County are Joseph S. Clarke, early-day Leavenworth newspaper reporter and editor and owner of the first newspaper in Ellis County, Hays City Railway Advance. People associated with Fort Hays history include George Armstrong Custer, General Philip Sheridan, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and James B. “Wild Bill” Hickok. Kathryn O’Loughlin served as a congresswoman in the 1930s. Pete Felten, a sculptor from Hays, created four figures in Kansas history for the second-floor rotunda of the Kansas State Capitol. Mary Ball Bickerdyke was known as a skilled botanical physician who treated injured soldiers at the front during the Civil War. After the war she became an attorney and in 1867 moved to Salina and then Bunker Hill, Kansas, and worked to secure pensions for veterans. 

Quick Facts

Date Established: February 26, 1867
Date Organized: October 28, 1867
County Seat: Hays
Kansas Region: Northwest
Physiographic Region: Smoky Hills
Scenic Byways: Smoky Valley
Courthouse: May 12, 1942


1865 - Fort Fletcher is established. The name is changed just over a month later to Fort Hays.
1867 - Fort Hays is moved due to flooding
1867 - Union Pacific Railroad reaches Hays.
1867 - Ellis County is established and organized.
1889 - Fort Hays is closed.
1900 - The former military property is given to the state, to form a part of the Kansas State Normal School, later becoming Fort Hays State University.
1901 - Fort Hays becomes a state historic site.
1949 - Lustron houses are built across the state, including Hays.

More on Ellis County


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: August 2023

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