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Johnson County, Kansas

Johnson County’s proximity to the border with nearby Missouri ensured that it was a part of the turmoil and violence that became characteristic of Kansas during the Bleeding Kansas and Civil War years. Here in Johnson County the world’s largest smokeless power plant was established to support efforts during World War II.

Johnson County, Kansas, established as one of the original 33 counties in 1855, was named for Reverend Thomas Johnson, a missionary who founded the Shawnee Mission and Indian Manual Labor School. He first came to the future Kansas around 1829. Johnson County was once part of the Shawnee Indian Reservation. Frederick Choteau and his brothers came to Kansas in the late 1820s and traded with the Shawnee, Delaware, Kaws, and later other tribes. Frederick was fluent in four languages including Kaw and Shawnee, and his brothers had government trading licenses to trade with the tribes. Johnson County is the largest county by population, with approximately 560,000 (2012).

The Santa Fe, Oregon, and California trails ran through the county. A campground, the Lone Elm Campground Swale, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

During the early years after Johnson County was established, it experienced its fair share turmoil and violence that was becoming common in the territory. Things had calmed down by 1857, only to flare up again during the Civil War. There were smaller incidents of violence throughout the Bleeding Kansas and Civil War years and larger incidents such as the Battle of Bull Creek, sometimes called “the first Battle of Bull Run” where General Lane fought General Reid and his men who were soon ordered to flee. Battle of Blowhard took places when two men were captured by Missourians. The men that had set out to get the prisoners back, ended up panicking when they saw men on horseback coming their direction. The rebels, however, never intended to attack them. Jenison’s Raid took places when C.R. Jennison and his men raided Olathe, Quantrill raided Olathe in 1862 and even burned a large portion of the town. Spring Hill was attacked by some of Quantrill’s force in 1863. 

 A few years after the Civil War the railroad entered the county. The livestock market was able to come by rail to Kansas City at this time. By the 1880’s the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad was established through Olathe.

In the early 1900s the area experienced a “housing boom.” In 1906, Willian Strang established a rail line that would within a few years reach and connect with the streetcar line of Kansas City, Missouri. The Kansas City Power and Light Company moved their state headquarters to Overland park in the mid 1920’s. Eventually Johnson County would become important in metropolitan office development.

During World War II the Olathe Naval Air Station and Sunflower Ordnance Works would be established in the county as a help to the efforts to help the war that was gripping the world.

One such case was Webb v. School District No. 9, South Park, Johnson County was a 1949 court case that was heard by the Kansas Supreme Court. The result of this case was the admittance of Black students to South Park School due to the fact that facilities must be equal and they were not.

Johnson County possesses many properties on the National and State Registers of Historic Places such as the Broodmoor Ranch House Historic District established in 1953-1954; Overland Theater, designed by Robert Boller; Shawnee Mission. Residents of Overland Park were eagerly awaited the opening of the Overland Theater on Christmas Day, 1946. There had not been a theater in the community for 10 years. On opening day movie-goers could choose from The Hurricane with Dorothy Lamour or In Old California with John Wayne. Ticket prices were 50 cents for adults and 20 for children. Customers could buy popcorn, candy, and drinks in the lobby before being seated. This Dickinson movie theater at 7204 West 80th Street had 600 seats, an “all glass front of pink and mirror glass” it also had glass blocks with neon lights. The 38th location in the theater company chain, the Moderne style building was designed by Robert Boller.

One of the early institutions located within the Louisiana Purchase area; and Sunflower Village Historic District, housing that was built for the employees of Sunflower Ordnance Works.

There are many interesting figures with connections to Johnson County. James Butler Hickok, who was a constable in Monticello Township before going on to fame as a scout and frontiersman. W. B. Strang, owner of the Strand Line, built the first self-propelled railroad motor car in the world. Three Territorial Governors served from the area including: Andrew Reeder; Daniel Woodson and Wilson Shannon. Five governors of Kansas were from Johnson County: John Anderson, Jr. Frank L. Hagaman; Robert F. Bennett George Hodges and John P. St. John. Serving as Congressmen from the county were Chauncey Little and Larry Winn Earl E. O'Connor and Robert H. Miller have held the office of Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court.

The Sunflower Ordinance Works was established east of Eudora in 1941 and owned by the U.S. government. This smokeless powder plant was operated through a contract with the Hercules Powder Company. The plant employed as many as 12,067 people and produced more than 200 million pounds of propellants. The plant brought created a boom for the county. It was later transitioned to produce ammunition to aid the Vietnam War.

Quick Facts

Date Established: August 25, 1855
Date Organized: September 17, 1857
County Seat: Olathe
Kansas Region: Northeast
Physiographic Region: Osage Cuestas and Glaciated Region
Scenic Byways: Frontier Military
Courthouse: 1952


1820 - Choteau brothers and Thomas Johnson come to Kansas.
1855 - Johnson County is established.
1855 - 1865 - From the establishment of Johnson County through the Civil War, there are periods of turmoil in violence.
1906 - William Strang’s rail line, the Strang Line is established.
1940 - World War II causes the Olathe Naval Air Station and Sunflower Ordnance Works to be established.
1941 - Sunflower Ordinance Works is established

More on Johnson County


Entry: Johnson 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.