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Smith County, Kansas

Smith County was organized on February 1, 1872, by James J. Johnson; John T. Morrison, Andrew and Joseph Marshall; A. H. Black; V. J. Battomly; John W. Simmonds; and Ira Chase. Conatining the towns of Kensington, Smith Center, Cedar, Gaylord, Athol, and Lebanon, the county was named for Major James Nelson Smith, a Union officer killed at the Battle of Blue River near Kansas City on March 21, 1864.

In 1853 an Indian battle was fought a few miles southwest of Smith Center between the Pawnee, Delaware, and Omaha Indians on one side, and the Cheyenne, Comanche, Arapaho, and Apaches on the other. The fighting lasted three days. The battle involved the territoriality of the Indians in the area and the rights to the land. The result was a complete victory for the Pawnee and their allies and they retained their "control" of the area.

In 1873 Dr. Brewster Higley, who lived in a cabin nine miles northwest of Smith Center, wrote a poem entitled My Western Home. Later Dan Kelly, a local musician, wrote music for the poem. After put to music the song became known as "Home on the Range," the Kansas state song. Higley's cabin has been restored. Later Dr. Brewster Higley was the subject of the novel, Home on the Range, written by Margaret Nelson.

The Cedarvale Methodist Church was organized in June 1872. The first county fair was held in August, 1873. The fair has always been held in Center Township. The first school district was organized in 1872 near Cedarvale. In 1880 a group of interested persons led by the United Brethren minister for the area, organized Gould College near Harlan. Named for railroad magnate Jay Gould, the college was certified by the annual conference of the United Brethren Church, and was dedicated in 1881. Gould College was absorbed by Lane University of Lecompton, which in turn was transferred to Campbell College in Holton. Gould College, which had an enrollment of over 100 students before its transfer, brought many people into the county.

Smith county is home to one interesting Kansan, J. S. McDowell. He enlisted in the Union army at the age of 21. He was held prisoner in Andersonville Prison for two years. In 1873 Captain McDowell settled in Smith Center and clerked in a store which he later purchased. He was a director of the First National Bank and was a mayor of the city. In 1899 he was appointed a regent of Kansas State University. In 1900 the mayor of Jackson, Georgia, placed a story in the New York Journal concerning a Civil War sword that had been presented to a J. S. McDowell for meritorious service in 1863. The sword had been picked up on a battlefield in Georgia by the mayor's family. Friends saw the story, told McDowell, he responded to the ad, and two weeks later the sword arrived, as did a letter from the former Confederate officer that McDowell had surrendered the sword to on the battlefield at Chickamauga.


For more information see the Smith County website.

The Smith Center Public Library has all county newspapers on microfilm, and has books, manuscripts, and vertical files relating to county history.

Entry: Smith 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: October 2015

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