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Pawnee County, Kansas

Fort Larned, in Pawnee County, was established to provide a military presence along the Santa Fe Trail. It served many purposes from protecting the commerce route to serving as an office for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The post helped to maintain peace with the Plains Indians.

Pawnee County, established in 1867 and organized five years later, was named after the Indian tribe who once had hunting grounds in the county. Prior to its establishment as Pawnee County, it was once part of the land that was the old Washington County, Peketon County, and later an enlarged Marion County.

Between 1859 and 1860 the “Camp on Pawnee Fork” was established. The name was changed to Camp Alert and then Fort Larned. The fort served multiple uses during its tenure as a military post. It provided a military presence for the wagon trains carrying trade goods on the Santa Fe Trail that passed through hunting grounds of Plains Indians. A wagon train encountered Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians who were starving in January 1863. The teamsters denied their request for supplies. Before daylight the tribes attached the wagons and killed most of the all but one of the teamsters. The one surviving teamster found refuge at Fort Larned.

Fort Larned was the base of operations for Major General Winfield Hancock’s campaign against the Plains tribes. The mission was to intimidate the native peoples by show of military power. Instead, the increased military presence caused more tension. The U.S. Seventh Cavalry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer was called for reinforcement. Custer’s campaign eventually defeated the Cheyenne at Battle of Washita to the southwest in present-day Oklahoma. 

Another of Fort Larned’s missions was to protect workers during construction of the railroad as it passed through hunting lands of native peoples. The fort also worked to maintain peaceful relations with native tribes, delivering treaty-established annuities, and during the 1860s served as an office for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The fort essentially closed in 1878, but a detachment from Fort Dodge was located there until 1883 to protect the property. Over the years Fort Larned came into contact with many tribes including the Wichita, Osage, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Arapaho, Comanche, and Kiowa-Apache. Fort Larned is now a National Historic Landmark.

Farming continues to be important to in Pawnee County, which is among the state’s leading winter wheat producers. Oilseed, grain, vegetables, melons, and cotton are produced in the county. Beef cattle ranching and feedlots are also important industries.

When Belgian families were starving during World War I Pawnee County joined others in the state to provide sacks of wheat flour as part of the Commission for Relief. Kansas was among the most active contributors, donating 50,000 barrels of flour by 1915. In appreciation Belgians hand-stitched flour sacks with lace messages of thanks and returned them to Kansas one year later.

Pawnee County properties listed in the National and State Register include the Coon Crossing on the Santa Fe Trail, located on the Wet Route. Pawnee Fork Crossing and Boyd’s Ranch Site were located on the Dry Route. The Wet Route was so called because it followed waterways. The Dry Route was the quicker route. The Fort Larned Military Road connected the Wet and Dry Routes. The Ooten House is an example of post-World War II housing. Made of interlocking porcelain-enameled steel panels, the Lustrons were quick and easy to assemble and essentially maintenance free. They answered the need for the housing shortage.

Individuals of note with connections to Pawnee County include Henry Booth who served in the Kansas Cavalry during the Civil War. He was appointed postmaster at Fort Larned in 1869 and later fort Sutler. He and associates formed the Larned Town Company. He served in the Kansas Legislature for many years and as Kansas speaker of the house. Clyde Tombaugh and family moved to Burdett in 1922 where he graduated from Burdett High School in 1925. Working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona, Burdett discovered Pluto in February 1930. Nellie Cline was state legislator and the first woman to present oral arguments before he Kansas Supreme Court.

Quick Facts

Date Established: February 26, 1867
Date Organized: November 4, 1872
County Seat: Larned
Kansas Region: Southwest
Physiographic Region: Smoky Hill, High Plains, and Arkansas River Lowlands
Courthouse: 1909-1910


1859 - 1860- Fort Larned is established.
1867 - Base of operation for Hancock campaign
1878 - Fort Larned is “abandoned” but left under protection of detachment from Fort Dodge
1883 - Detachment from Fort Dodge leaves 

More on Pawnee County


Entry: Pawnee 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.