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Cherokee County, Kansas

Cherokee County, Kansas, was an important region for mining coal, zinc, and lead. Here Union and Confederate troops skirmished at the site of a fort, which resulted in the Baxter Springs Massacre. Two communities disputed over the selection of the county seat. When Americans began traveling by car, one of the original highways from Chicago to California, passed through Cherokee County. Just under 14 miles of Route 66, also known as the Main Street of America, crosses Kansas.

Prior to 1827 the area belonged to the Osage Indians. A treaty designated this land as an unoccupied barrier, called the Osage Neutral Land, then it was renamed the Cherokee Neutral Land, when the Cherokees were moved from Georgia.

Cherokee County, Kansas, was named for the Cherokee Indians who had been removed to the region. It was organized in 1866 after the Cherokees ceded the land. McGee County previously existed in the area from 1855 to 1860.

A detachment of U.S. soldiers attempted to build a military fort in 1842 but failed to reach an agreement with the Cherokees who owned the land. The soldiers later established Fort Scott in Bourbon County. White settlers expected that the lands would be opened for homesteading and arrived before treaties were signed. In 1859 at the order of President James Buchanan, U.S. troops removed squatters from the Osage land.  

Fort Blair was established in Baxter Springs for protection during the Civil War. Men with Quantrill’s Confederate guerilla band shot at two men delivering mail to the fort. They held the men, took their mail, and then let them go with the warning of an impending attack. Weeks later, they attacked the fort and Union General James Blunt’s forces. The Union army lost 100 men during the Baxter Springs Massacre.

After the county was organized, Baxter Springs and Columbus vied to be the county seat. Several elections were held; but voter fraud was suspected, which delayed the decision. Eventually Columbus was chosen and the courthouse was built in 1871, replaced in 1889, and the first railroad entered the county in 1870. Two years later, residents discovered the area’s rich natural resources: zinc, lead, and coal deposits. Train service expanded as the tri-state mining district became the world’s leading producer in lead, silver, cadmium. Both strip and deep shaft mining were used to extract deposits. Cherokee County was recognized nationally for its zinc and lead. When coal miners went on strike in 1921 to improve their wages and working conditions, more than 6,000 wives, mothers, and sisters of the miners went to work to keep the mines from hiring temporary replacements. They became known as the Amazon Army. In 1963 the mines brought in a coal monster to handle the work. Big Brutus, an 11-million-pound shovel, operated until 1974 when mining ended, and is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The coal’s rich sulfur content failed to meet changes in federal standards and contributed to the end of coal mining in the county.

The iconic Route 66 was an east-west highway route for travelers between Chicago and Los Angeles. Just under 14 miles passed through Cherokee County. From 1926 to 1961 travelers supported local businesses like diners and gasoline stations. The traffic ended in Cherokee County in 1961 when Interstate 44 was built, bypassing Kansas completely. Kansas Route 66 Historic District-North Baxter Springs is listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Well-known people with ties to Cherokee County include Governor Samuel Crawford, the state’s third executive; Merle Evans, member of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus; Chief Justice of Kansas Court of Appeals Jerome Harmon, U.S. District Attorney J.R. Hallowell, artist Paul Gregg, composer Glad Robinson Youse, and golfer Hale Irwin.

Quick Facts

Date Established: February 18, 1860
Date Organized: August 3, 1866
County Seat: Columbus
Kansas Region: South East
Physiographic Region: Cherokee Lowlands and Ozark Plateau
Scenic Byways: Frontier Military, Route 66
Courthouse: May 9, 1956


1842 - Possibility of a military fort is pursued in the area but is not built due to cost.
1855 - 1860 - Established in 1855, McGee County, McGee County was split into Crawford and Cherokee counties in 1860.
1862 - Fort Blair is established at Baxter Springs as protection due to the Civil War.
1863 - Baxter Springs Massacre
1866 - Cherokee County is organized. County seat disputes soon follow
1866 - Cherokee Indians cede their lands to the government
1870 - First railroad reaches Cherokee County.
1872 - Settlers discover lead and zinc. The mining of natural resources including coal mining begin to boom in the area into the 20th Century.
1921 - The women’s Amazon Army works as coal workers strike
1926 - 1961- Route 66 is popular among travelers going to and from Chicago and Los Angeles, taking travelers through 13 miles of Cherokee County.
1963 - 1974 - Big Brutus is in operation
1974 - Coal mining ends

More on Cherokee County


Entry: Cherokee 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.