Towns & Places
Friend – Unincorporated
Garden City – County Seat
Kalvesta – Unincorporated
Pierceville – Unincorporated
Finney County, Kansas, in the southwest part of the state, is in the Arkansas River Lowlands. It was named for David Finney, the Lieutenant Governor of Kansas from 1881 to 1885. Its county seat and most populous city is Garden City. As of the 2020 census, the County population was 38,470.
The county is the third county north of the Oklahoma line and the third east of Colorado. It is bounded on the north by Scott and Lane Counties, on the east by Hodgeman and Gray, on the south by Gray and Haskell, and on the west by Kearny County.
The county’s surface is nearly level north of the Arkansas River and undulating prairie in the south, with a range of sand dunes. The flat plains were made of sand, silt, and gravel deposited over time by streams and rivers. The Arkansas River, which flows east from the Rocky Mountains, is often dry in this part of the state. The bottom lands along the Arkansas River averaged four to five miles wide. Natural timber was very scarce, there being but a few cottonwood trees. Magnesian limestone was of a fair quality, and sandstone was found in the northeast. Clay for bricks existed in various parts of the county, and potter’s clay and gypsum were found in small quantities.
This area was traveled by early explorers, including Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike’s Expedition, and the Santa Fe Trail. As proof of the presence of Coronado in Finney County, historians cite the finding of an old two-edged sword in the northeastern part of the County, with the name of Juan Gallego inscribed on it and a Spanish motto. The two-edged swords went out of use about 1600, so they must have been lost before that time.
Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike passed through to Pikes Peak, Colorado, in 1806. His expedition extended southward in the Spanish possessions to beyond Santa Fe, New Mexico, and his report awakened an interest that led to the establishment of extensive commerce over the famous Santa Fe Trail.
In 1820, a detachment from Major Stephen Long’s expedition under Captain Bell, accompanied by the celebrated entomologist Thomas Say, started down the Arkansas River from its headwaters. The party reached the state line near the present town of Coolidge, Kansas, on July 30, passed through present-day Finney County on August 1-2, and reached Great Bend on August 10.
The Santa Fe Trail was not really opened before 1822, although several traders had passed over essentially the same course several years earlier.
The Santa Fe Trail was the first highway established through Kansas by white men. It at once became and remained the most important route between the United States and the Spanish-Mexican settlements of New Mexico. The first wagon train passed over the trail in 1824, and the annual trade soon reached a volume of more than $200,000. The traffic was checked by the Mexican-American War but was reopened again in 1850.
The Santa Fe Trail began in Independence, Missouri, entered Kansas east of the present city of Olathe, then southwest through Council Grove, striking the Arkansas River at the Great Bend, following up the north bank to where the present town of Cimarron now is, crossing the river at this point and entering what is now Finney County about three miles south of the river.
It then trended to the southwest and passed near the present site of Ivanhoe; then, still southwest, it crossed the north fork of the Cimarron River four miles east of the west line of the county and struck the Cimarron River just west of the county line. It then followed the Cimarron River out of the state near the southwest corner. Blazed later, the trail’s Mountain Route followed up the river’s north bank, passing through what is now Garden City and Lakin.
The Point of Rocks, one of several similar sites along the Santa Fe Trail, was a landmark that aided navigation on the trail. This outcropping, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, connected the Lower and Upper Arkansas River crossings. Upon reaching this site, wagon trains continuing west had to choose between the longer and rougher Mountain Route or the shorter and dryer Cimarron Route, prone to Indian attacks.
By 1870, few people lived in Kansas. Few Americans lived west of the Mississippi River, which was generally wild and unsettled. However, Civil War veterans and land speculators were drawn to the possibilities and untapped potential of the Western United States.
While the traffic on the Santa Fe Trail continued to grow from year to year until it assumed immense proportions, the first settlers of Finney County came only with the completion of the great Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad through the county, following the north bank of the Arkansas River, in October and November 1872. These first settlers were, in nearly every case, in the employ of the railroad at Sherlock (Holcomb,) Lakin, and Pierceville stations. The whole county away from the railroad line was the feeding ground of vast herds of buffalo and antelope.
In March 1878, William and James R. Fulton and a son-in-law, J. A. Stevens of Ohio, were the first to settle on the site of Garden City. Their houses were the only ones in the county except for section houses at Sherlock (Holcomb) and Pierceville. Other first settlers included T. A. Carlon, C.J. Jones, and John Stevens. By 1879, there were railroad stations: Pierceville, Garden City, and Sherlock.
In 1879, Charles Jesse Jones, John A. Stevens, William D., and James R. Fulton established Garden City. Jones, a particularly colorful character who earned the nickname “Buffalo” for his skills as a buffalo hunter, was integral to Garden City’s growth in its early days. He convinced the railroad to make the city one of its stops. Because of his efforts, Jones was named the city’s first mayor.
The building of canals began early. The first one was the Garden City Canal, built in 1879; in 1881, the Farmer’s Ditch was dug; and in 1882, the Great Eastern Canal was constructed.
Finney County began in about 1880 as Buffalo County and Sequoyah County, named after Sequoyah, the Cherokee Indian responsible for developing the Cherokee alphabet. Later, Garfield County was created using some of its townships. However, six years later, Garfield County was declared unconstitutional.
Finney County was established on February 22, 1883. When the county was organized in October 1884, it covered a much larger area than present, as the counties of Kearny, Sequoyah, Grant, Arapahoe, Kansas, Stevens, Meade, and Clark, which existed before 1883, were disorganized to make Finney County. In Governor George Glick’s proclamation organizing the county on October 1, 1884, Garden City was named as the county seat, and the following officers were appointed: Commissioners H. M. Wheeler, A. B. Kramer, and John Speer and County Clerk H. E. Wentworth. At that time, the county’s population was 1,569 residents, 375 of whom were householders. Seven townships were created, including Garfield, Garden City, Ivanhoe, Pierceville, Pleasant Valley, Sherlock, and Terry.
Finney County was named in honor of Lieutenant Governor Finney, who was from Woodson County. When organized, Finney County had a population of about 1,500. The assessors’ returns for March 1885 show that the population had remained stationary. The summer of 1885 saw the beginning of the tide of immigration, and it has flowed on, increasing in volume ever since.
On December 6, 1883, the Sherlock Post Office was established.
The first Finney County courthouse was built in Garden City in October 1885 at the site of the present courthouse at North 8th Street.
Several consecutive years of rain and good crops brought many settlers in 1885 and 1886. Many were Eastern people unfamiliar with farming in the climate of Finney County and, consequently, had to devise new farming methods and implements suited to the soil. Many of those who lacked the capital or the courage to do this went back east in a few years, but those who stayed were rewarded for their efforts, and enough newcomers joined them to make land valuable.
In 1886, a blizzard with six feet or more drifts caused the death of about 100 Kansans and three-quarters of the cattle. Ranchers understood the difficulties of raising young calves in harsh winters and shipping cattle to distant feedlots.
In 1887, the Amazon Canal was established, with a capacity of 400 cubic feet and capable of irrigating 8,000 acres. These ditches remained in use into the 20th century as many farmers did not have access to irrigation with windmills. Many of them learned to raise good crops of certain vegetables without irrigation by cultivating in such a manner as to conserve moisture.
In 1887, the county’s area was reduced in size, occupying less territory than it does now. When old Garfield County, formerly Buffalo County, was annexed in 1893, the size of Finney County increased. It now has a total area of 1,303 square miles.
The ranching, farming, and sugar beet industries sought innovative ways to adapt and thrive with water limitations. A government irrigation plant was built at nearby Deerfield in the early 1900s for $250,000. The Arkansas River, which flows from west to east through the southern part, furnished water for irrigation purposes.
By 1902, Finney County had outgrown its small courthouse building and occupied a larger building at 113 South Main Street.
The Kansas National Forest was established in 1905 by President Theodore Roosevelt as an experiment to identify trees that could survive in dry climates. The executive order designated 80,000 acres in five Kansas counties, including Finney County, to plant various trees. Drought and prairie fire destroyed the trees, and homesteaders were allowed to settle on the land.
By 1900, the county began to see an influx of Mexican immigrants. They came to the United States, notably Kansas, looking for work on ranches and jobs. Mexican culture has been integral to Finney County since that time.
A sugar beet factory was established in Garden City in 1906, and the industry greatly impacted the area’s economy. Upon its opening, several Mexican immigrants were hired.
In 1910, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad followed the course of the Arkansas River through the county, running through Pierceville, Mansfield, Garden City, and Holcomb. The Garden City, Gulf & Northern Railroad extended north from Garden City through Gillespie, Alfalfa, and Tennis into Scott County. It was in the process of construction south into Haskell County.
The assessed property valuation at that time was $13,906,521, and the county population was 6,908, which made the average wealth per capita just over $2,000. The gain in population from 1900 to 1910 was 3,439, or nearly 100%.
The county’s area was 829,440 acres, with about 300,000 under cultivation. The value of farm products was about $1,500,000 per year. The principal crop was sugar beets, which in 1910 brought $252,000. The next in importance was alfalfa. Other grains and vegetables raised in commercial quantities included wheat, corn, oats, sorghum, broom corn, barley, milo maize, and Kafir corn. Livestock yields were about $250,000 per year. Dairy products, poultry, eggs, and honey brought the farmers nearly $100,000 yearly.
In 1929, the present Classical Revival style courthouse was built at 425 North 8th Street.
More Mexican immigrants decided to call the County home in the 1940s when they came to work on the region’s sugar beet farms. Today, more than half of the County’s residents are Hispanic or Latino.
Construction began on a U.S. Army Air Force base near Garden City during World War II. Its mission was to provide training for crews on the new B-29 Superfortress. The aircraft was essential to the war effort on the Pacific Front. It served as redeployment for those returning from the European Theater and readying for a tour in the Pacific. After the war, the airfield base was deeded to the city as the municipal airport.
In the 1950s, Earl Brookover established the first commercial feed yard in the Midwest in Garden City. The agricultural revolution helped to boost the beef industry in Kansas. The area’s feedlots and packing plants attracted businesses and workers. People from around the world were recruited to work in the meatpacking plants.
In the 1970s, Vietnamese migrants came to the area to work in the beef packing plants.
In 2006, the region saw an influx of immigrants from Somalia, Burma, and Ethiopia. The vibrant county is one of the fastest-growing and most diverse in Kansas. Between 2007 and 2008, Finney County became majority-minority.
The county is served by U.S. Highways 83 and 50/400 and Kansas Highways 156 and 23. Its economy consists mainly of farming and ranching in addition to some manufacturing. Wheat, corn, and milo are the primary crops, along with soybeans, sunflowers, and alfalfa.
Finney County is approximately 200 miles west of Wichita, Kansas, and about 70 miles east of the Colorado border. It is the second largest county in land area in Kansas, consisting of 1,296 square miles.
Blackmar, Frank W.; Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Vol I; Standard Publishing Company, Chicago, IL 1912.
Blanchard, Leola Howard; The Conquest of Southwest Kansas, Wichita Eagle Press, 1931.
Cutler, William G; History of Kansas; A. T. Andreas, Chicago, IL, 1883.
Finney County by the Kansas Historical Society, 1950
Finney County Visitors Bureau
Lindner, F. Claudine; History of Garfield County, Kansas; Masters Thesis, University of Wyoming, 1949.