The Story of Kansas

Kansas counties' names honor famous Americans

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series' name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: "To the stars through difficulties."

From Allen to Wyandotte, Kansas counties are all about the names — the images they evoke, the legacies they provide.

Kansas, with 105 counties, has the sixth-highest number of counties in the nation, according to the U.S. Census.

On average, states have about 60. Texas has the most with 254 counties; Delaware has the least with three.

Of the 105 counties in Kansas, nearly half are named after soldiers and a third are named for politicians.

From the mid-1850s to 1880s, as Kansas settlement expanded west, so did Kansas counties.

There’s Clark County, named for Charles F. Clarke, sixth Kansas Cavalry captain; and Cloud, to honor Col. William F. Cloud, an officer in the Union Army.

There are a dozen counties named for American Indian tribes or chiefs, such as Comanche, Kiowa and Pawnee; while five others are named for rivers. Think of Elk, Nemaha, Republic, Saline and Neosho.

Only one is named for a woman — Clara Barton, a Civil War nurse who founded the American Red Cross.

There are 45 Kansas counties named for soldiers. Many of the county names reflect Union loyalty after the Civil War.

Sedgwick County was named after Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick who was killed while leading his troops at Spottsylvania Court House, Va., on May 9, 1864. Civil War veterans who served in the Kansas Legislature when the county was organized in 1870 proposed the name.

Some county names had to be changed. Geary County was originally called Davis when it was formed in 1855. It was named for Jefferson Davis — U.S. senator and secretary of war who later became president of the Confederacy.

The Legislature changed the name to Geary in 1869 to honor John W. Geary, territorial governor of Kansas from 1856 to March 1867.

There are 29 counties named for politicians, such as Atchison County, organized in 1855 and named for David H. Atchison, a U.S. senator from Missouri who, on March 4, 1849, is said to have acted as president of the United States — for 23½ hours.

And as much as Kansas was known and nicknamed “Bleeding Kansas” because of the violent disputes over whether the state would be admitted to the Union pro-slavery or anti-slavery, there are only two counties named for abolitionists — Thomas Barber and William Phillips.

Brown County wasn’t named for abolitionist John Brown. Instead it was named for Albert Gallatin Brown, a pro-slavery supporter and governor from Mississippi.

Butler County was named for Andrew Pickens Butler, a senator from South Carolina who was one of the authors of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Harvey was named for James M. Harvey, fifth governor of Kansas.

Only one Kansas county is named for a journalist — Greeley, after Horace Greeley, the New York Tribune editor and reformist who advanced pioneer settlement with an 1865 editorial where he wrote: “Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”

Bourbon County is named after a county in Kentucky that is the birthplace of bourbon whiskey.