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Rice County, Kansas

People lived in the area that is now Rice County, Kansas, long before it was established. Communities of grass lodges were once plentiful over the plains. The Santa Fe Trail, which began in 1821 and connected Independence, Missouri, with Santa Fe, Mexico, passed through this area.

Rice County, Kansas, organized in 1871, was named for Brigadier General Samuel A. Rice, who died in 1864 from injuries sustained while fighting in the Civil War. Rice County was once part of the land that was the old Washington County, Peketon County, and later an enlarged Marion County.

Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and his expedition traveled through Rice County in the early 1540s in search of Quivira, the mythical city of gold. Here the Spaniards would have seen the plentiful golden grass lodge communities where ancestral Wichita Indians lived.

The Santa Fe Trail commerce route passed through the area. A row of three sand dunes, called Plum Buttes, was an important landmark for wagons. Standing 80 to 100 feet above the prairie, they could be spotted after crossing Cow Creek. There were few trees in the region to obstruct the view. The dunes eventually eroded away in the Kansas wind.

Atlanta, established in 1867, was the first settlement in the county; it also became the first county seat. An 1871 election voted in favor of Atlanta in a county seat election, but five years later in 1876, voters selected a county seat in the exact center of the county. Lyons was established at that location and buildings including the courthouse were moved from Atlanta. 

The grasshopper invasion of 1874 caused damage to Rice County. In 1886 the first institute of higher learning in the county, Cooper College, was started by a group of businessmen in Sterling. It was named in memory of the late Reverend Joseph Cooper. The name was changed in 1920 to coincide with the town’s name.

In 1887 salt was discovered while drilling for gas. The Lyons Rock Salt and Bevis Salt Companies were formed, creating the first major industry in the county.

Rice County properties listed in the National Registers of Historic Places include Carnegie libraries in Lyons and Sterling, created with the help of Andrew Carnegie and the Carnegie Corporation and their work to establish public libraries. There are two sites in Rice County which are included in a Kansas Rock Art nomination. The nomination of Native American art includes 29 petroglyphs and one pictograph location. The Rice County sites are both examples of petroglyphs. Santa Fe Trail-Rice County Trail Segments, Rice County Courthouse, built in 1910-1911, and Cooper Hall of Cooper Memorial College, now Sterling College, are other examples. The Tobias-Thompson Complex/Little River Archeological District is a National Historic Landmark.

Individuals of note with connections to Rice County include Sam Jones, a country lawyer who practiced in the early 1900s in the Lyons area was known as a “peoples” lawyer. He was credited with taking on the causes of the honest and exposing the crooked. Paul. A. Jones, editor of the Lyons News was an editor considered a member of Kansas’ “golden age of journalism.”

Quick Facts

Date Established: February 26, 1867
Date Organized: August 18, 1871
County Seat: Lyons
Kansas Region: South Central
Physiographic Region: Arkansas River Lowlands, Smoky Hills, Wellington-McPherson Lowlands
Courthouse: 1911


1540 - Coronado travels through Rice County.
1867 - Rice County is established.
1860 - There was an instance of travelers on the Santa Fe Trail are attacked by Indians and some were murdered.
1871 - Rice County is organized.
1887 - Salt is discovered and becomes an important industry in the county. 

More on Rice County


Entry: Rice 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.