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Riley County, Kansas

Riley County, Kansas - Kansapedia - Kansas Historical SocietyThis county in the north central part of the state was once home to the Kansa Indians. Fort Riley, located in Riley and Geary counties, has been an important part of the history of Riley County. Established before Kansas was even open for settlement, it has played important roles in protection of early travelers passing through, all the way to major wars of the recent past.

Riley County, established in 1855, was named for General Bennett Riley. He traveled along the Santa Fe Trail around 1829 as the trail’s first military escort. The Kansa Indian Reservation was once in the county, but the Indians were gone by the time Kansas opened for settlement in 1854.

During the Bleeding Kansas the county mostly supported the free-state cause. However, two towns, Ogden and Randolph, were proslavery. Isaac Goodnow led a group of freestaters from Massachusetts to the area in 1855. He and his wife, Ellen, were strong opponents to slavery. He helped found the community of Manhattan and in the late 1850s established Bluemont College. In 1863 it became the Kansas State Agricultural College and the first land grant college in the United States under the Morrill Act. Today it is known as Kansas State University. Goodnow was also a delegate at the 1855 free-state convention. Goodnow House State Historic Site, built in 1857 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, tells the story of these freestaters.

In 1853 Camp Center was established as a military presence to protect travelers. It was also a place where expeditions would embark to the Plains Indian Wars in the west. Forts further west eventually took this job over, as the 1860s were full of Indian troubles in that part of the state. While it was named Camp Center it was changed to Fort Riley, after Major General Bennet C. Riley. Fort Riley, located in Geary and Riley counties, has played an active part in many wars. The First Infantry, located at Fort Riley, has been important to World War I, and World War II where it was first to arrive at Normandy on the well-known D-Day, and even cracked the Siegfried Line before anyone else. During World War I, Camp Funston, located within Fort Riley, was built and was a divisional cantonment training camp.

An election was held in 1857 to determine who would become the permanent county seat. Ogden won the election, but fraudulency was discovered in the voting and Manhattan was given the win.

Riley County Courthouse - Courthouse in Downtown ManhattanThere was much railroad development in the post-Civil War days in the county. Kansas Pacific, was built through both Manhattan and Ogden, having positive effects on the area. In the 1880’s development of railroads was not only still developing, and at rather fast rate. 

The Irving Tornado of 1879, most likely a F4 on the Fujita scale, caused much death and even more injuries. It started in Riley County before traveling a 100-mile path of destruction.

There have been many floods in the county including on in 1908 that changed the paths of both the Blue and Kansas Rivers. Changes occurred such as the formation of Hunter’s Island and the path of the Blue River going away from Manhattan. In 1951, a disastrous flood, once which has even been said to be one of the worst in US history, most likely provided the boost to build the Tuttle Creek Reservoir. The flood did not create the idea, but rather just helped to speed up the process. It was started in 1952, and was finished in the early 1960’s. The town of May Day eventually became obsolete as the invention of automobiles changed the distance people could drive to towns in a day. This slowly wore on the small town. When the reservoir was built, it “took out” the nearby town of Winkler, along with many other towns, and May Day was left alone, and soon the town was lost to history.

Riley County properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places also include Manhattan Carnegie Library Building, built in 1904. Carnegie Libraries were established with the help of Andrew Carnegie and the Carnegie Corporation’s work in starting public libraries. Goodnow Memorial Home, The Damon Runyon House was as the home of the well-known writer, Damon Runyon. He was a famous author and playwright, and a Manhattan native. Young Buck Site, has connections to the Paleoindian period and protohistoric period, and the Native American Kansa tribe. The Riley County Courthouse built in 1905-1906, and Anderson Hall of Kansas State University are other examples.

Individual of note with connections to Riley County include Aviator A K. Longren, born on a farm near Leonardville, who operated a hardware store in Walsburg before beginning his aviation career. Horace Tabor, later named for his Colorado silver mine in Central City, settled in Riley County in 1855. Clair M. Patee, who perfected the movie projector with Thomas Edison and owned the first movie house in the United States, and the first one in Kansas at Lawrence was born in Ashland. Governors Nehemiah Green and James Harvey were from Manhattan. Congressman John A. Anderson and Congresswoman Martha Keys were from the county. Among the notables stationed at Fort Riley were George A. Custer, J. E.B. Stuart, Frederick Funston, Philip Sheridan and George S. Patton. 

Quick Facts

Date Established: August 25, 1855
County Seat: Manhattan
Kansas Region: North Central
Physiographic Region: Flint Hills Uplands and Glaciated Region
Scenic Byway: Native Stone
State Park: Tuttle Creek State Park
Courthouse: April 19, 1906


1853 - Fort Riley is established.
1855 - Riley County is established.
1857 - Election of the county seat is won by Ogden. Fraudulency is later discovered to have occurred and Manhattan becomes the County seat.
1863 - Bluemont College, established in the late 1850’s, becomes Kansas State Agricultural College.
1908 - Flood occurs that changes the path of the Blue and Kansas Rivers
1951 - Another flood causes much disaster.
1952 - The construction of Tuttle Creek Dam starts. It is dedicated in 1963. 

More on Riley County


Entry: Riley 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: August 2023

Date Modified: August 2023

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.