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Anderson County, Kansas

Anderson County courthouseThe early years of Anderson County, Kansas, located near the Missouri border, were impacted by violence. The political climate that earned the title of Bleeding Kansas brought a cycle of revenge and retaliation that resulted in destruction of property, loss of lives, and increased tensions on both sides of the Kansas slavery issue.

Anderson County, Kansas, in the southeast part of the state, is in the Osage Cuesta region featuring gently rolling plains. Established as one of the original 33 counties in 1855, it was named for proslavery speaker pro-tem of the territorial legislature, Joseph C. Anderson. Years before Kansas was a territory, the U.S. moved native peoples from different tribes in the East to a permanent Indian frontier. The Potawatomi people were removed from their Indiana home to this area in 1833. On the Potawatomi Trail of Death 859 members of the tribe were escorted by militia along the 660-mile journey. More than 40 people died along the way, most of them children. The Potawatomi tribe was reassigned to present-day Pottawatomie County between 1847-1848.

Americans and Europeans began to arrive in 1854 when the territory was opened to settlement. The county seat was established at Shannon from 1856-1859, then moved to present-day county seat of Garnett.

Located near the Missouri border where proslavery sympathizers lived, tensions of the Bleeding Kansas era soon grew. During an 1855 election, with only 50 legal voters, there were 199 proslavery votes. In 1856 proslavery men invaded the county regularly, intimidating freestaters and damaging their property, sometimes driving them away. John Brown and his followers murdered several proslavery men in retaliation, during the Pottawatomie Massacre, nearby in Franklin County to the north. Between May 1856 and January 1857, with heightened tensions from the violence, no county business took place.

Dr. Rufas Gilpatrick, while near Greeley, saw proslavery forces burning houses. After sending out an alert, Captain Steward, Captain Samuel Anderson and his Pottawatomie Guards, and Captain Cline, attacked the invaders. They were caught unaware and retreated to Missouri where they incorrectly reported that 10,000 men, rather than 100 men, had attacked them. Brown had been with the free-state forces, but left to pursue “ruffian” forces reportedly near Greeley, but later rejoined them. 

During the summer months of 1856 freestaters felt unsafe at home during the night, and would gather their families with the men standing guard. They relied on supplies from Kansas City that had to pass through proslavery guards. Some members of the Pottawatomie Rifles, organized by John Brown, Jr., were from Anderson County.

Early settlers in Anderson County sometimes fell prey to dishonest agents who would sell land to multiple people. The costs were extremely high to fight these agents in the U. S. Land Offices.  The free-state squatter’s court was organized in 1858 in the counties of Linn, Anderson, and Bourbon, to settle the issues. 

Cattle drives from Texas passed through the area beginning in 1857 and brought with them a terrible disease called the Spanish fever, which killed native cattle. The drives ceased during the Civil War between 1861-1865, and began again in 1866, bringing more disease.

Anderson County Fair Poster

While 1859 was a prosperous year, 1860 brought a severe drought. Grasshoppers invaded several times during the first 20 years. The first attack arrived in 1854-1855, then again in 1860-1861, 1866-1867, and the worst attack occurred in 1874-1875.

Many of the county men quickly volunteered when the Civil War began. Women stayed home to raise children and run the homesteads.

The Civilian Conservation Corps began construction on Lake Garnett on October 15, 1934. The project included a dam, spillway, two shelter houses, football stadium, swimming pool, and landscaping on 48 acres, and was completed in 1936. Grand Prix racing was established in 1959 in conjunction with the Sports Car Club of America. Racing proved so popular it tested the community’s resources. In 1963 hundreds of partiers turned into a deadly and forced races to be cancelled. Supporters revived the races in 1968 and that tradition continues today. A 320-acre lake and reservoir was constructed on the site in 1985.

The county’s properties listed in National Register of Historic Places include the Anderson County courthouse, completed in 1902. People with connections to Anderson County include Arthur Capper, newspaperman, Kansas governor, and U.S. Senator; Edgar Lee Masters, poet; W.F.M Arny, free-state leader; Dr. J.G. Blunt, free-state activist and major general in the Civil War; Dr. Martha E. Cunningham, among the first female doctors in Kansas; and Laura A. Gregg, an organizer for the women’s suffrage movement. The Prairie Spirit Trail State Park was the first major rail-trail conversion, which opened in 1996, and runs through Anderson County.

Quick Facts

Date Established: August 25, 1855
Date Organized: January 7, 1856
County Seat: Garnett
Kansas Region: Southeast
Physiographic Region: Osage Cuestas
Courthouse: September 25, 1901


1838 - Potawatomi Indian Trail of Death ends in Kansas, a portion of the reservation is in the future Anderson County
1847 - Potawatomi are removed to Pottawatomie County
1855 - County is established on August 25, 1855
1855 - Territorial election voter fraud
1856 - County is organized on January 7, Shannon is named county seat
1856 - Extreme violence between proslavery and free-state men heightens tensions; no county business is conducted from May to January 1857
1857 - First case of Spanish flu among the cattle appears
1859 - Garnett becomes county seat
1860 - Severe drought strikes county
1861 - Large numbers of county men volunteer at beginning of Civil War
1874 - Worst of many grasshopper invasions strikes region
1902 - County courthouse is completed
1934 - Lake Garnett construction begins
1963 - Garnett Riot makes headlines
1985 - Lake and reservoir is completed 

More on Anderson County


Entry: Anderson 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.