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Wabaunsee County, Kansas

The history of Wabaunsee County, Kansas, is linked with abolitionist beliefs, which led to a county name change just four years after establishment. The county played a role in the Underground Railroad, Santa Fe Trail, and was the site of a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II.

Prior to the arrival of early settlers 1854, the area had been inhabited by the Potawatomi and Kaw tribes. The Santa Fe Trail once passed through Wilmington in the southeast part of the county.

Wabaunsee County, Kansas, was founded as Richardson County in 1855 and named for William Richardson, a U.S. congressman from Illinois. The county was among the original 33 counties created during Kansas Territory.

In 1856 the Connecticut Kansas Colony, or commonly known as the Beecher Rifle Colony, traveled to Kansas from Connecticut and settled in the county. They were led by Reverend Henry Ward Beecher who had gained support with his adamant beliefs against slavery back East. This wasn’t the extent of the county’s history of abolitionism, as it was those beliefs that led to the county being renamed Wabaunsee. In 1859, a movement was started by the abolitionist setters to have the county name changed because Richardson had been proslavery. Upon approval of their request, Richardson County became Wabaunsee County, as it is known today, named after a previous Potawatomie chief, Wah-Bahn-Se. After the request to change the name was approved, the county seat was established in the town of Wabaunsee, which was the only area organized enough to be a county seat at the time.

After just a few years, discontent with the location of the county seat began to occur. Two elections were held in 1866 and Alma was made the new county seat. The location of the original county seat is where the Wabaunsee County Historical Museum now resides. The issue of the county seat wasn’t resolved, however, as it came up again in 1871, where two elections were once again held. Despite a good effort by the towns of Newbury and Eskridge, Alma was confirmed as the county seat, and promised a stone building over Eskridge’s offer of a wooden building. The courthouse was finished in 1872. In 1931 another new courthouse was finished and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Wabaunsee County claims many other properties on the National and State Registers, such as Beecher Bible and Rifle Church in the town of Wabaunsee. 

While Wabaunsee County may have not received the same amount of violence as other Kansas counties in the territorial era of Bleeding Kansas, it did receive its fair share of violence in its early days.

In 1854, a young man from Illinois became the victim of the first murder in the county by a white man when he was killed by a Missourian. Violence occurred when the Pottawatomie, whose reservation was partially in the county, began to fight with the Pawnees. In 1860, the Kiowa partnered with the Cheyenne and Comanches to attack settlers and trains, especially along what was the Santa Fe Trail. The Potawatomie joined the ranks of tribes, and the settlers of Wabaunsee County became alarmed. While they were willing to fight if necessary, they preferred peace, and the tribes eventually returned to their reservations and further violence was avoided.

When word of a coming attack on Lawrence reached the county, its citizens wished to help, but did not have the ability. They sent two men to evaluate the danger. They, finding the threat very much real, set out to report this back at home. Because of their free-state believes they were detained for quite a time by pro-slavery men. They eventually made it back to their home, despite being nearly hanged. The county’s abolitionism continued, as it had a successful component of the Underground Railroad, helping many individuals to freedom. Captain William Mitchell, who had been involved in the settlement and Underground Railroad, had helped in the defense of Lawrence with the Prairie Guard Militias at one point.

In the 1930’s a lake was built near Eskridge named Lake Wabaunsee. The lake played a role in WWII, first being rented out for use by Camp Funston, a military training camp, and then as Camp Number Five, where it housed German Prisoners of War from July 1944 to December 1945.

Wabaunsee County Clerk & Election OfficeWabaunsee County possesses properties on the National and State Registers of Historic Places, such as the Eskridge City Park and Bandstand. The par was established in 1903, with the bandstand to follow a few years later. The Wabaunsee County Courthouse was built in the early 1930’s.

Individuals with connections to Wabaunsee County include Captain William Mitchell, Jr., a seaman, who returned to his home in Connecticut just in time to join the Beecher Bible and Rifle Colony that settled in Wabaunsee. His role with the underground railroad led to his election as captain of the Prairie Guard Militias; he and his men tried to defend Lawrence against attack. In 1868 he was elected to the state legislature. Marine Corps General Lewis M Walt, Jr., a native of Harveyville, was commander of the Third Marines and chief advisor to land forces in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967. Caroline Lockhart grew up on a ranch in the county and attended the College of the Sisters of Bethany in Topeka. A journalist and short story writer, she moved to Cody, Wyoming, and became a bestselling western author, rodeo founder, homesteader, and cattle queen.

Quick Facts

Date Established: February 11, 1859
County Seat: Alma
Kansas Region: North Central
Physiographic Region: Flint Hills Uplands, Glaciated Region, and Osage Cuestas
Scenic Byways: Flint Hills, Native Stone
Courthouse: 1931-1932


1854 - First settlers arrive in soon to be Richardson County
1855 - Richardson County is formed 
1859 - County name changed to Wabaunsee
1860 - Kiowa, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Pottawatomie tribes join forces to attack settlers. While settlers are willing to fight, peace is chosen. Tribes return to reservations
1866 - Elections to determine county seat occur. County seat is moved to Alma from Wabaunsee
1871 - Elections to determine county seat are once again held. Alma is confirmed as the county seat
1872 - Stone courthouse is built 
1931 - New courthouse is built. 
1937 - Lake Wabaunsee is finished and the lake starts to fill
1944 - POW Camp opens at Lake Wabaunsee on July 1.
1945 - POW Camp is closed on December 1. 

More on Wabaunsee County


Entry: Wabaunsee 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.