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Bourbon County, Kansas

Bourbon County, Kansas, was established where native peoples once lived. This area Fort Scott was built here in 1842 to keep peace between white settlers and neighboring Indian tribes. The county was heavily impacted by the violence during Kansas’ territorial years and played an important role in the Civil War. The First Kansas Colored Infantry was organized in the county in 1862, the Second Kansas Colored Infantry was organized the following year. Gordon Parks, born in Fort Scott, wrote a semi-autobiographical novel of his youth here, which became a motion picture.

Bourbon County, in the southeast part of the state, is located in the Osage Cuesta region featuring gently rolling plains. The county was established as one of the original 33 counties of 1855. The county was named for Bourbon County, Kentucky, and Fort Scott was designated the county seat.

Bourbon County Courthouse, between 1892 and 1900Years before Kansas was a territory, the U.S. moved native peoples from different tribes in the East to a permanent Indian frontier. The New York, Osage, and Cherokee Indians were assigned reservation lands in this area. Fort Scott was established in 1842 as one of many posts along a line from Minnesota to Louisiana to enforce the promise of an Indian frontier, blocking white settlement and keeping peace. The tribes were eventually removed to Oklahoma to clear the way for white settlement. Fort Scott also protected traffic on the military trail between Fort Leavenworth to the north and Fort Gibson to the south. Some soldiers from the fort were sent to fight in the Mexican American War of 1846-1848. The fort ceased to be a military post in 1853 and was sold at auction to become part of the town.

Kansas Territory from 1854-1861 was a period of violence and destruction as citizens fought to determine whether Kansas should become a free or slave state. Settlements along the Missouri border, like Bourbon County, became engulfed in the fight. While freestaters lived outside Fort Scott, proslavery men took control of parts of the town. The town’s two hotels supported opposing causes. James Montgomery and his free-state men attempted to burn the Western Hotel, whose owners were sympathetic to the proslavery cause. The territorial governor tried to establish peace, as did the U.S. soldiers, but conflicts continued. With continued threats, the county seat was moved to Marmaton for safe-keeping of the records in 1858. Voters decided to return the county seat to Fort Scott in 1863.

With Kansas’ admission to the Union as a free state in 1861, the territorial period ended, the North and the South split, and civil war ensued. U.S. troops returned to Fort Scott for the duration of the war. The post provided the Union with a supply depot, hospital, prison, and at times shelter for those in need. Here Union refugees and formerly enslaved people could find safety. 

Fort Lincoln, established during the Civil War as a prison and border defense, was also called Fort Osaga and Fort Fulton. The fort was small; more of a stockade and blockhouse. James Lane recruited some of the African Americans into the First Kansas Colored Infantry, organized at Fort Lincoln in 1862. This unit found at Island Mound in Missouri that fall. The following year the Second Kansas Colored Infantry was formed in the county. Both black units were later mustered into federal service.

On October 22, 1864, around 60 men from Newton County, Missouri, attacked and burned Marmaton. Ten men from Marmaton were kidnapped and marched outside of town where they were lined up to be executed. Six were killed, the others escaped into the woods 

Although Fort Scott was never attacked, the post did experience scares. General Sterling Price’s Confederate army passed nearby after his defeat at Mine Creek. The military left Fort Scott in 1865.

Through the late 1880s the community increased in population. Industries such as coal mining and gas production were established and continue to be important to Fort Scott. As railroads expanded through the county in the early 1870s, soldiers were called to protect railroad workers from settlers opposed to expansion.

Bourbon County properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places include Fort Scott National Historic Site, also a National Historic Landmark; the Fort Scott Historic District; and the Fort Scott Public Carnegie Library, which was established through grants from Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic efforts.

Individuals with connections to Bourbon County include Hiero T. Wilson, the post sutler at Fort Scott, and a founder of the city and county; Eugene F. Ware, Civil War veteran, legislator, lawyer, and poet, who settled in Fort Scott in 1867. Albert Bigelow Paine, painter, poet, and personal secretary to Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, was a native of the county. George Washington Carver moved to Fort Scott to attend public school. Gordon Parks was born in Fort Scott and later wrote a semi-autobiographical novel based on his youth there. Parks became a renowned photographer, filmmaker, writer, and musician. The Gordon Parks Museum in Fort Scott honors his work.

Quick Facts

Date Established: August 25, 1855
Date Organized: September 12, 1855
Kansas Region: Southeast
Physiographic Region: Osage Cuestas and Cherokee Lowlands
Scenic Byways: Frontier Military
Courthouse: 1929-1930


1842 - 1853- Fort Scott is established as a fort for peacekeeping and other duties on the edge of what was at the time Indian Territory
1854 - 1861- Kansas’s Bleeding Kansas era, of which Bourbon County was significantly impacted
1855 - Bourbon County is established and organized
1858 - County seat is moved for the safety of the records to Marmaton
1861 - 1865 - The army returns to Fort Scott and is an important place during the Civil War
1863 - County seat is voted back to Fort Scott
1869 - 1873 - The final presence of the U.S. Army, this time to keep the peace between railroads and those who were against the railroad

More on Bourbon County


Entry: Bourbon 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.