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Rawlins County, Kansas

The area that is Rawlins County, Kansas, was the hunting grounds for Cheyenne, Comanche, and Arapaho Indians. Their lands were threatened and tensions increased with railroad construction, the presence of military troops, and settlement. Later, a feud between two families in the county led to the last of the range wars.

Rawlins County, Kansas, organized in 1881, was named after General John Rawlins who served under President Ulysses S. Grant. The temporary county seat of Atwood, vied against Danube, later changed to Ludell, in an election in 1881. Atwood was the victor, and the county seat stayed where it was.

Cheyenne Indians were encamped on Prairie Dog Creek near what is now Herndon in 1878 when a party of drovers entered the area. During the encounter a number of people from both groups were killed.

When the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad came to the county, it boosted the local economic conditions.

Chauncey Dewey was a Chicago industrialist and rancher who acquired 80,000 acres in northwest Kansas, including Rawlins County. He found opportunities to purchase lands from neighbors when they faced difficult times. Dewey’s Oak Ranch installed fencing at a time when others expect free-range grazing. The Berry family was among the most vocal opponents of the Oak Ranch. Tensions eventually resulted in a battle of gunfire between the parties in 1903, that led to uprisings, lynchings, and arrests. The governor called the state militia to keep the peace. The Dewey-Berry feud made national headlines and the legal battle continued on into the 1930s. 

During World War II a U.S. Navy ship was named U. S. S. Rawlins, and commissioned November 11, 1944. The ship represented this county in Kansas.

Voters approved a change to the Kansas Constitution in 1986 that provide liquor-by-the-drink. Some counties, like Rawlins, chose to remain dry within their borders. Finally, voters approved the change in 2002.

Rawlins County properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places include the Minor Sod House, built around 1907-1908, and Atwood’s Shirley Opera House, built in 1907.

Rudolph, or Rudy, Wendelin, born in Herndon in Rawlins County, was a student of art who also studied architecture at the University of Kansas. As an illustrator and draftsman for the U.S. Forest Service he made hundreds of paintings of Smokey the Bear for the campaign to prevent forest fires. Created by artist Albert Staehle in 1944, Smokey Bear was the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S history. Wendelin was considered the caretaker of the icon and he developed a statuette for the Smokey Bear award. He also created U.S. postage stamps to promote forest conservation and honor John Muir, known as the Father of the National Parks, and explorer John Wesley Powell.

Other individuals of note with connection to Rawlins County include Mike Hayden, a native of Atwood, was Kansas speaker of the house before his election as governor in 1986. Sonia Domsch, an Atwood native, was a bobbin lace maker. The craft was passed down through her Czech family, where she learned the skill from her great-aunt.

Quick Facts

Date Established: March 20, 1873
Date Organized: May 25, 1881
County Seat: Atwood
Kansas Region: Northwest
Physiographic Region: High Plains
Courthouse: October 8, 1906


1873 - Rawlins County is established.
1878 - The last Indian Raid om the state occurs in the county
1881 - Rawlins County is organized.
1900 - 1902- last of the range war in the state. 

More on Rawlins County


Entry: Rawlins 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.