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Ellsworth County, Kansas

Ellsworth County, Kansas, is home to the frontier post, Fort Harker, which guarded stagecoach lines and military trails. The county seat of Ellsworth was an important cowtown with a rugged reputation in the 1870s. The county celebrates the geologic resources that make this Post Rock country and the cultural traditions brought by Czechoslovakian settlers.

Ellsworth County was organized in 1867 in the north central part of the state, where the Pawnee Indians lived and hunted. 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 Allen Ellsworth, who established Fort Ellsworth. The Butterfield Overland Despatch, a stagecoach mail, freight, and passenger line to Denver, crossed the county beginning in 1865.

Fort Ellsworth, established in 1864, was built near the Smoky Hills/Denver Express Road, and the Fort Riley/Fort Larned Road. The junction of these trails was near the fort. In 1866 the name of fort was changed to Fort Harker, and then the fort was moved about a mile away the following year. The fort served as a supply depot for forts to the west and guarded the stagecoach line and the military trails. There in the midst of Plains Indian hunting grounds, the fort helped to protect from attack. More threatening to the safety of the region was an outbreak of cholera in 1867. After a few soldiers sickened and died the disease spread to those living nearby and traveling through the area. Fort Harker eventually closed around 1873. 

As communities in the mid-section of the state became populated, they were less tolerant of the cattle trails and the accompanying lifestyle. They forced the trails to cross less populated areas farther west; they reached Ellsworth in 1871. Ellsworth anticipated the change by adding lodging and a stable to accommodate guests and horses. It attracted related businesses like a drover’s store and boot shops and maintained a reputation as a successful cattle town through 1875. By then the railroad had reached Wichita and the need to drive cattle to the north had ended.

Grasshoppers invaded Kansas in 1874. Ellsworth County was among the areas greatly impacted where newly-established settlers were less prepared for the attack. The Rocky Mountain locusts began arriving in swarms in July. They stayed less than a week and ate crops in the field, paper, and wood. Other parts of the nation responded to Kansans’ pleas for aid offering food and grain.

Immigrants from Bohemia began moving to the county in 1874. These Czechoslovakians were attracted by the opportunity to establish farms on affordable and plentiful land. They brought mechanical and merchandizing skills as well as arts, foods, and cultural traditions. The community of Wilson continues to celebrate those traditions at the annual Czech festival.

Ellsworth County was a setting for 1973 film, Paper Moon, a fictional story set in 1930s Kansas. The film starred Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum O’Neal. Director Peter Bogdanovich chose to film scenes in the Wilson bank, dry goods, and hotel.

Ellsworth County properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places include the Fort Harker guardhouse, and 11 petroglyph sites created between 1541 and 1870.

Individuals of note connected with Ellsworth County include General George Armstrong Custer, General Nelson Miles, General Winfield Scott Hancock, General Philip Sheridan, and George Miller Sternberg, considered the first U.S. bacteriologist; he served as U. S. surgeon general. His interest in paleontology inspired his brother, Charles H. Sternberg, and nephew, George F. Sternberg to pursue paleontology. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and James B. “Wild Bill” Hickok also served as scouts at this post. Others involved in the cattle industry include Colonel Henry Inman and Sheriff Chauncey B. Whitney.

Quick Facts

Date Established: February 26, 1867
Date Organized: August 24, 1867
County Seat: Ellsworth
Kansas Region: North Central
Physiographic Region: Smoky Hills
Scenic Byways: Post Rock, Prairie Trail
State Parks: Kanopolis State Park and Mushroom Rock State Park
Courthouse: 1950


1864 - Fort Ellsworth, in Ellsworth, is established
1866 - Fort Ellsworth is renamed Fort Harker, then moved to Kanopolis
1867 - Ellsworth County is organized
1860 - Indian troubles are common in the area
1871 - 1875 - Cattle industry reaches Ellsworth

More on Ellsworth County


Entry: Ellsworth 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.