Rice County

Story of
Early Rice County

Published, December, 1928



It was not more than a year or so after the first settlers came that the work of permanent establishment of the county was started. In fact the state legislature had created and defined its boundaries in 1867 but had attached it for judicial purposes, to Ellsworth county for the time being.
Rice county originally included all of its present territory and in addition the tier of townships immediately south, now a part of Reno county, to which they were added in 1872. It was a big loss, consisting of 115,200 acres. A part of it came back, however, in 1886 when Rice county agreed to build a bridge across the Arkansas if the five sections immediately south of Sterling, now noticeable on the map as the county's only irregularity in boundary, were added to Rice. The compensation was expected to be in the extra taxes and in the expansion of trade territory for Sterling and other Rice county towns.

To effect the county's organization, Dan M. Bell, T. A. Davis and Evan C. Jones were appointed by Governor Harvey in August, 1871, to serve as special county commissioners. Of these, two actually served, Jones failing to qualify. Edward H. Dunham was at the same time made special county clerk and Atlanta the temporary county seat.

Commissioners Davis and Bell met in Bell's store at Atlanta on August 26, 1871, and ordered that the whole county be divided into three townships, Atlanta, Spencer and Sterling, and that an election be held in each a month from that date for the selection of county officers and a permanent county seat.

This was done, and resulted as follows: Union City, the Ohio colony three miles southeast of Atlanta, received 48 votes for county seat. Atlanta was given 64 votes, and became the permanent county seat-permanent for a short time. Wm. Lowery, Moses Burch and S. H. Thompson were elected county commissioners; Wm. T. Nicholas, county clerk; T. C. Magoffin, county treasurer; J. W. Holmes, coroner; Levi Jay, pro-hate judge; James J. Spencer, sheriff; G. W. Poole, register of deeds; H. Decker, county attorney; T. L. Jackson, county surveyor, and Wm. H. Van Ornum, clerk of the district court. These men were to serve until the general election in November. Thompson, as county commissioner, never qualified.
In the first regular election, in November, the following were chosen: Wm. Lowery, Moses Burch and J. M. Leidigh, county commissioners; W. T. Nicholas, county clerk; T. C. Magoffin, county treasurer; G. W. Poole, register of deeds; Henry Fones, coroner; W. P. Brown, county attorney; Evan C. Jones county surveyor and also superintendent of public instruction; James J. Spencer, sheriff; Rev. F. J. Griffith, representative.
Mr. Bell still possesses the papers which made him a special county commissioner. The certificate reads:

THE STATE OF KANSAS To all who shall see these presents,


Know ye that I, James M. Harvey, governor of the state of Kansas, reposing special trust and confidence in the integrity, patriotism and abilities of Daniel M. Bell, on behalf and in the name of the state do hereby appoint and commission him special county commissioner for Rice county, and do authorize and empower him to discharge the duties of said office according to law.

In testimony whereof I have hereunto subscribed my name and caused to be affixed the great seal of the state.

Done at Topeka, this 18th day of August, A. D., 1871.

J. M. HARVEY, Governor Attest: W. W. SMALLWOOD, Secretary of State

In the days preceding the establishment of the county, it was discovered there were not enough people within its boundaries to make such action legally possible. This, however, failed to daunt the men interested in its organization and they preceeded to "pad" the population lists. One of the methods employed was that of sending a man to the eastern line of the county, at the crossing of the Santa Fe trail over the Little Arkansas, where he was engaged in stopping all transients and inducing them to register as citizens.

This helped to swell the rolls but it did not muster up the required number, and as it was nearing time for action, another resident was sent out to the northwestern corner of the county where a road cut across from Ellsworth to the Santa Fe trail southwest of that city. Here, it was understood, a government freight caravan was soon to be through, and the local man was to secure the registration of its personnel.

It developed that there were but six wagons and as many drivers. But each wagon was drawn by six mules, so, after the drivers had signed the census records, the names of the mules belonging to each were recorded after his name and with his surname as their own. Thus each driver had a family of six. This put the figures up to the required mark. The story is as related by A. L. McMurphy of Sterling.

The county's first town was established ahead of the county itself. It was Atlanta, located on the old Santa Fe trail, less than two miles southwest of the present city of Lyons. It came into being in December, 1870, when an organization known as the "Atlanta Town company" laid out the site. In the spring of 1871 construction of several buildings was begun.

A county seal was selected in 1871, bearing a design of a sheaf of wheat, a plow and a landscape, with a semi-circle of thirteen stars overhead.

In that same year it was discovered that the exact geographical center of the state fell within the bounds of the new county, and W. T. Nicholas received a letter, as county clerk, from the office of the U. S. Surveyor General, at Lawrence. The communication read as follows:

"I have been figuring for the exact center of the state and as it falls in your county, I thought it might interest some of you to know just where it is. I make it as follows, viz.: The corner to sections 5, 6, 7 and 8, township 18 south, range 9 west. Atlanta's claims for the capital (of Kansas) ought to be pretty good based on the fact that she is but 14 miles southeast of the center."

The letter was signed by Thos. S. Morrison, principal draughtsman.

This location is in Eureka township, in the northwest part of the county.

In 1876 the county seat was changed to the site of Lyons through a county election in which Sterling, Atlanta and Lyons were vying for the distinction. It was the Atlanta influence which brought the county's capital to the Lyons location, which was then an unnamed point on the farm of "Hod" Wiliston, but the exact center of the county. The Atlanta faction feared the county seat might go to the southern city, and hit upon the idea of the county's center as more convenient for themselves.

The election over, the work of moving Atlanta a mile and a half north was started, and a number of buildings still standing in Lyons were those hauled up from the old trail town. The farm had changed hands, Mr. Wiliston having sold the place to Truman J. Lyon, and for the latter owner the new town was named, with the "s" added for euphony.

The home of the Lyon family is now that of Miss Bertha McCabe and is located diagonally across the intersection from the library. The original location of the Wiliston house was in the block east of the library but was changed when the street was laid out and it was found to be in the street. The Lyon dwelling has been remodeled since but remains as the oldest building in the city.

The old county jail and the main building at the county farm are portions of the Atlanta hotel which was built by the town company and before completion was used for the third church service to be held in the county. The home on South Grand, formerly belonging to the late Wm. Schmidt, is the major portion of the Atlanta school which had been built just before the county seat was located at Lyons and was for that reason one of the last buildings to be moved to the "new Atlanta"-about 1880 or '81. It was moved by Ed W. Wood, editor of the Central Kansas Democrat, the first paper published at Lyons.

The matter of determining the first settler of the county is one which has long been a difficult and apparently hopeless task. Pioneers moved onto claims without knowing that a few miles away were others who had come before them. This has caused confusion in later years, and each person who has attempted to settle the point has chosen a new "first resident".

Probably the first person to stake out a claim in the county was Theodore Sternberg who, as explained in a previous chapter, came here for that purpose in 1867.

The next to come were probably John A. Carlson, Andrew Johnson, and C. S. Lindell, who arrived in February, 1870, and August Johnson, John E. Johnson, John P. Johnson and 0. W. Peterson in April of the same year.

A. J. Howard and J. E. Purdue camped on the Little Arkansas river in August 1870, with several thousand head of cattle, and Mr. Purdue located his farm there soon afterward.

Nelson Reed, Leonard Russell and John Q. Adams are accredited with locating on Cow creek in 1870. The late W. H. Rife of Mitchell is another who arrived in that year.

George W. Hodgson of Little River lays claim to being the county's first actual resident by virtue of the fact that he came in October, 1870, filing on a homestead in section 34, Union township, and proving up on it in the shortest time possible. He also believes he was the first to break sod which was in November, 1870. He came on horseback. At the time, he feels certain, there was no one within ten miles of him, a ranch being the closest.

It might be possible to take the subject of the county's "firsts" in everything on down through the category, but not all are of consequence. A few of them, however, will be presented in the following paragraphs :

The first white child to be born in the county was Charles L. Campbell to William and Sarah E. Campbell of near Raymond, June 10,1871. The child died a short time later, June 25. The McKinnis twins, George and Angie, children of Robert and Elizabeth McKinnis, are the first born here to live afterward. The date of their birth was in September, 1871.

The first marriage to be recorded in the county was that of James A. Moore and Ada Cartright, January 1, 1872, the ceremony being performed by Judge Levi Jay. These people, however, were transients, and the first residents to be married here were Dan M. Bell and Mary Hanks, April 19, 1872, also by Judge Jay. Both are still living in Lyons. Their ceremony was performed while they rode horseback, in the moonlight, along the old Santa Fe trail west of Atlanta.

The first murder to have been committed in the county (among the settlers) was the shooting of P. B. Shannon by Edward Swanson at Union City, August 21, 1871. It is said by pioneers to have been the outcome of a card game played at or near the general store at Union City. After the crime the murderer fled to Ohio. Sheriff James Spencer was sent to arrest him but never returned to the west, presumably because he did not want to bring Swanson, who had come from Spencer's own locality, back to face trial. At any rate, Swanson was never punished.

Shannon is said to have made the remark, a few days before he met death, that someone would have to be killed in this healthful new country before a graveyard could be started. He was buried in the Atlanta cemetery which was located on land immediately back of what is now the M. H. Taylor property on South Grand, Lyons. Several others were afterward buried there, but with the establishment of the Lyons cemetery most of the bodies were exhumed and removed to the latter, which is now called Graceland.

The first person to die of natural causes was John Chitty, an 18-year-old boy who passed away August 28, 1871.

The first newspaper in the county, a weekly, was the Atlanta Herald, established at Atlanta on April 19, 1873. It flourished but a short time, under the management of Fraser and Shinn Bros., and was afterward acquired by other parties who published it at Peace, discontinuing it in 1875.

he first copy of the Herald was put up at auction and brought $2.50.

At Peace, now Sterling, on April 21,1872, the first church organization was formed. It was that of the Wesleyan Methodist society, and Rev. H. T. Besse was minister. There were at first but five members: J. W. McPherson, Orange S. Young, Norman Wait, Harriet Besse and G. W. McPherson.

Rev. F. J. Griffith, who was not only the first minister in the county but its first representative to the state legislature, preached the county's first sermon in a sod house in Farmer township, section 9, then owned by David Cairns.

Rev. Griffith is worthy of more mention. He came with a group of emigrants arriving at Ellsworth, but on the trip down to Rice county was injured when the wagon in which he was riding upset. Forced to return to Ellsworth, he soon recuperated and joined his flock in their new location.
One of his early church members afterward recounted that during the first years here there was an Indian "scare" in which evervone but the minister was frightened. Rev. Griffith went out among the Indians and fraternized with them, even entering with them in jumping contests, for at the age of 60 he was still athletic.

On another occasion Rev. Griffith had called together for services people living on both sides of Cow creek. But before the meeting hour the stream had become swollen and the two congregations could not get together. Rev. Griffith did not let this interfere with his sermon. He simply walked down to the water's edge and in stentorian voice sent the word of gospel hurtling across the stream to those marooned on the other side.

It is for him, likewise, that Lost creek, in the northwestern part of the county, may have been named. He was returning from a meeting one night and lost his way, camping out on the banks of the little stream until daybreak, rather than to bother the people in a house the lights from which he could see in the distance. When morning came he found that the light shone from his own dwelling. (There is another version of the naming of Lost creek which accounts for it with the explanation that the stream runs underground at several points.)

The first Thanksgiving Day observance was held in Atlanta in 1871.

The coming of the Santa Fe railroad was one of the most important events in the period of early settlement. It marked the end of that type of isolation felt by inhabitants of a frontier country. It connected by ribbons of steel the new homeland with the old, where before the only connection had been the deep cut ruts of the Santa Fe Trail. It gave the people of Rice county not only a feeling of greater security, but a confidence that settlement would come with greater strides, and with the new influx of home seekers the possibility of rapid development and growth, and the defeat of lonesomeness which comprised one of the greatest handicaps to progress.

It was an occasion of rejoicing when on July 22, 1872, the first string of cars was run over the rails on the newly completed line from Hutchinson to Larned.

The railroad company had played a trick on the people of Atlanta and surrounding territory, where it was believed the new road would be.

nstead of selecting a route through the middle of the county, it had suddenly and without much effort at explaining, decided to follow, in a general way, the Arkansas river. It was a blow to those who had speculated in anticipating the more central route.

But it was not long before the Santa Fe's madness revealed the method responsible for the change in plans. The company had considerable land, in the form of a grant, allotted in the customary checkerboard manner of one section to the railroad and one left open for claims-every other one belonging to the road. In the southern portion of the county was sandy land not so well suited to agriculture as that nearer Cow creek. It was plain to be seen that if the line was run through the good land, the country along the railroad would settle quickly, and the sandy area to the south would be difficult to dispose of. But, on the other hand, the presence of the line would help to sell the poorer land, if it went that way, and the better farms would sell themselves.

It was a bright move, not only for the railroad but for all those who were concerned with the county's immediate settlement. It was even more important in those days than it would be now, when a matter of ten or fifteen miles is nothing.

Raymond, for a time the end of the Santa Fe, while the roadbed westward was under construction, had been a thriving city. Cattlemen of the great plains to the southwest, and from other directions, too, had brought their herds to that little town for shipment. It was a typical, western cow town, and had its share of excitement as such. It remains as the oldest town in the county under its original name, "Peace" having become Sterling, and "Atlanta" Lyons.

The loss of land originally attached to Rice county, as mentioned in the opening paragraphs of this chapter, and which occurred at about the time of the railroad's coming, is said by early settlers to have been a political move. According to Dan Bell of Lyons, it was encouraged by residents of the northern and central portions of the county.

The proposal to detach the string of townships along the county's southern boundary, according to Mr. Bell, was protested strenuously by residents of Peace and heartily favored by those of Atlanta. Even then, he says, Atlanta had visions of becoming the county seat, and so did Peace. Those interested in the former town saw at once that if the southern townships were removed, the act would immediately make Peace a border town and less desirable as the county seat, while it would leave Atlanta in a favored central position.

Later, he says, when Reno county had agreed to give back the several sections immediately south of Sterling and extending beyond the general border of the county, those same men helped to put the move across and in a way atoned for their shrewdness which had been so greatly to the disadvantage of their southern neighbors.

One of the most disheartening occurrences with which the early settlers of Rice county were forced to contend, and one which no story of early Rice county would be complete without mentioning, was the grasshopper invasion of 1874.

The hoppers came one afternoon early in the fall of that year, quite unannounced. They swooped down from the west in clouds that gave the sky an overcast appearance. There were millions of them and it seemed they would never stop coming.

Trees, grass, weeds and crops fell before the onslaught. Even cloth was attacked by the ravenous insects. Settlers who undertook to save some of their crops by cutting them down and shocking them discovered that the move in no way handicapped the grasshoppers.

It was a severe blow to the pioneers, who were barely eking out an existence as it was. Many of them left the country, thoroughly disgusted, and many of those who stayed were obliged to accept relief sent from the east. A great section of the territory had been devastated, and the country presented a sight rivaling the barrenness of winter.

General Samuel A. Rice, for whom the county was named, was an Iowan. He was selected a Colonel by Governor Kirkwood in 1862, and attached to the 33rd Iowa. He died in July, 1864, having been struck in the right foot by a minie ball during the battle of Jenkins Ferry where by splendid generalship he had won further laurels and esteem. The ball struck the buckle on his spur and drove it into the bone of the heel where it remained unnoticed for a week, inducing blood poison which soon caused his death. Fate had intervened, it would seem, since only the day before the battle, General Rice had noticed that he was wearing his spurs buckled on the inside of his feet, while fellow officers buckled theirs on the outside. He mentioned this to a companion and remarked that he would follow the common practice after that. Otherwise he might have survived the war. He was held in the highest regard by his men and those officers who knew him. He was the only officer from Iowa to die of wounds during the Civil war. After his death he was breveted a major-general in recognition of his gallantry and capable generalship.

There seems to be no available record of the reason why this county was named for General Rice. Although Secretary Connelley of the state historical society conducted a thorough search for some explanation, he was unable to find anything which would shed definite light upon the subject. He did learn, however, that Samuel J. Crawford, who was governor of Kansas at the time the county's boundaries were defined by legislature, had been in the battle of Jenkins Ferry during the Civil war and was in all probability with or close to General Rice when he fell. His certain acquaintance with the popular general is likely accountable for his having named one of the new Kansas counties for him.



Back to Index Page

Copyright © to Kansas Genealogy Trails' Rice County host & all Contributors
  All rights reserved