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Finney County, Kansas

The history of Finney County is closely associated with the region’s water resources. In this semi-arid region, wagons on the Santa Fe Trail assessed availability of water before deciding which route to follow. The ranching, farming, and sugar beet industries sought innovative ways to adapt and thrive with water limitations. President Theodore Roosevelt introduced an experimental national forest to identify trees that could survive in dry climates. These varied agricultural businesses created opportunities for people from around the world to find work here.

Finney County, Kansas, in the southwest portion of the state, is in the Arkansas River Lowlands. The flat plains are made of sand, silt, and gravel deposited over time by streams and rivers. The Arkansas River, which flows east from the Rocky Mountains, was called the Nile of America. This major tributary of the Mississippi River is often dry in this part of the state. The land was once prime hunting ground for the Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians. The county was established in 1883 and named for Lieutenant Governor David Finney. The area had once been part of old Washington County, Peketon County, and an enlarged Marion County, and was previously called Sequoyah County. When old Garfield County, formerly Buffalo County, was annexed in 1893, the size of Finney County increased.

The Santa Fe Trail passed through Finney County. The Point of Rocks, one of several similar sites along the 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. Wagon trains continuing west had to choose between the longer and rougher Mountain Route or the shorter Cimarron Route. The alternate routes provided travel options based on availability of water and other dangers.

Charles Jesse Buffalo JonesPlains Indians once hunted huge herds of bison in the sand hills. When railroad construction began, the bison presented a ready food supply. Hunters were hired to shoot the herds for food and sport. Within a short span of time their numbers decreased from millions to fewer than 500. When it became evident that they were near extinction, actions were taken to reestablish herds. Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones, a town developer and once a buffalo hunter, decided to raise buffalo calves. His experiments to cross-breed cattle and buffalo failed but his herds grew, contributing to the preservation of a threatened species. President Grover Cleveland signed a bill for their protection in 1894. Today bison number in the hundreds of thousands.

John Stevens was among the first homesteaders in Garden City in 1879. He and Jones were town developers with different visions for their city and their rivalry drove much of the early development. Jones built the Marble Block on Grant Avenue and the Buffalo Hotel. Stevens opened an opera house and Windsor Hotel on Main Street. Both hotels are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The region’s cattle were once raised on rich prairie grasses then shipped to markets in the east to be fed and processed. In 1886 a blizzard with drifts of six feet or more 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 the 1950s Earl Brookover established the first commercial feed yard in the Midwest; it was located in Garden City. The agricultural revolution helped to boost the beef industry for Garden City and 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. Garden City continues to celebrate Kansas Empire Beef Days with a community-wide festival.

Farmers have experimented with different types of crops that thrived in the semi-arid region. Irrigation systems in the late 19th century expanded their choices. Garden City established a sugar beet factory in 1905 and the industry made a large impact on the area’s economy for a time.

The growing water demand from neighboring states has heightened concerns in the county. Mines established up river to the west in Colorado tapped the region’s precious water resources. The Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies underground water for the Great Plains, could not keep up with demand. Numerous compacts and legal cases have attempted to clarify the states’ water rights. Farmers and ranchers continue to adapt techniques to improve efficiencies while preserving the scarce water supply.

Beersheba was one of seven Jewish colonies in Kansas. The 24 families of Russian Jewish immigrants founded the community in 1882 near the Finney and Hodgeman county line. They homesteaded on 160-acre tracts, building sod houses in the absence of lumber. Drought and blizzards proved too much a challenge for the settlers and they abandoned the town by 1885.

The Kansas National Forest was established in 1905 by President Theodore Roosevelt as an experiment to identify trees suited to southwest Kansas. The executive order designated 80,000 acres in five Kansas counties, including Finney County, to plant a variety of trees. Drought and prairie fire eventually destroyed the trees and homesteaders were eventually allowed to settle on the land.

During World War II construction began on a U.S. Army Air Force base near Garden City. 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. Following the war, the base the air field was deeded to the city for use as the municipal airport.

Other Finney County properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places include the Little Finnup House, once home to a prominent Garden City family of business leaders and philanthropists; and Silk Stocking Row, one of the city’s finest residential districts.

Notable figures with connections to Finney County are C. J. “Buffalo” Jones a business man, entrepreneur, hunter, lecturer, and game warder for Yellowstone National Park; John A. Stevens, town developer and business man; Associate Justices of the Kansas Supreme Court, William Eastman Hutchinson, Henry Freeman, and Richard Hopkins; U.S. House Representative Clifford R. Hope; U.S. Senator William H. Thompson; Henry L. Wolf, a photographer who documented daily life in the region; and Dionisio Campos Garcia, the first Hispanic mayor in Kansas, elected in 1973 to lead Garden City. 

Quick Facts

Date Established: February 22, 1883
Date Organized: October 1, 1884
County Seat: Garden City
Kansas Region: Southwest
Courthouse: 1928-1929


1873 - Sequoyah County is established.
1883 - Sequoyah County ceases to exist and Finney County is formed on February 22.
1886 - Blizzard of 1886 has big impact on Finney County
1906 - U. S Sugar and Land Company opens a factory
1942 - 1943- An Army Air Force base was constructed near Garden City.

More on Finney County


Entry: Finney 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.