Doniphan County’s history starts long before it was named and organized in 1855.
During the Pleistocene Era, glaciers moved across a large section of North America and edged just into the northeast corner of Kansas. As the glaciers moved, they ground up rocks into fine material. Then when the glaciers melted, the fine material, known as loess, was left behind. The loess is 60 to more than 100 feet deep on the river bluffs in Doniphan County. The deep loess soil is very rich and fertile. The fertile soil, combined with the county’s usually ample rainfall, makes the land perfect for crop production. The landscape is also full of trees, steep hills and river bluffs which provide breathtaking views, especially visible at the 4-State Scenic Lookout in White Cloud. From this spot, one can gaze out over the meandering Missouri River and view land in Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska on a clear day. Doniphan County’s landscape is truly unlike anywhere else in Kansas.
The first people in this area were paleolithic hunters and gatherers who passed through for thousands of years in search of wild animals, fruits, grains, nuts and roots. Since they were constantly on the move, they had no permanent settlements. The Neolithic Indians settled in this region within the last seven or eight hundred years. They knew how to grow corn, squash, pumpkins, beans and other crops. Some of the earliest village sites and burial mounds have been located near the towns of Doniphan and Fanning. These people are considered to be some of the early ancestors of the Kansa Indians.
Frenchmen arrived and were recorded in contact with the Kansa Indians as early as 1724 near Doniphan. They traded goods and established a settlement and friendship before both parties moved on many years later. When Lewis and Clark stopped at the Doniphan site in 1804, they reported that they could tell where the village had been but that there was no longer anyone living in the area.
By the 1830’s, there were four new tribes located in the Doniphan County area including the Kickapoo, Iowa, Sac and Fox. In 1837, Reverend S. M. Irvin founded a Presbyterian Mission east of the present city of Highland. This mission was the parent church of the first Protestant church in Kansas, the Highland Presbyterian Church. Highland College (now Highland Community College), an outgrowth of the mission school, is the first and oldest establishment of higher education in Kansas, chartered in February, 1859. The campus’s oldest building is named Irvin Hall accordingly.
Settling Kansas & Firsts
In the late 1840’s and early 1850’s, thousands of emigrants traveled the St. Joseph, Missouri branch of the Oregon-California trail in search of gold or farm land. In 1850, between 25,000 and 30,000 people passed through the Doniphan County area heading for the West Coast.
With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, many settlers moved into Doniphan County. Some smaller towns that popped up at that time included Cincinnati, Buffalo, Landondale, Rogersville, Lee, Smithton, Lawrence II, Fairview, Evansville, Lewiston, Petersburg, Syracuse, Winona and Iola, none of which exist today. Larger towns at the time included Lafayette, White Cloud, Iowa Point, Charlestown, Columbus, Whitehead’s Trading Post (Bellemont), Roseport (now Elwood), Palermo, Geary City, Doniphan, Troy, Bryan (now Wathena), and Highland.
In order to protect property from claim jumpers, squatter’s associations were organized. At first, the Squatter’s Association at Whitehead’s Trading Post carried out the functions of county government. It served as the place to register claims, as a court to settle disputes over claims, and as a police force to protect claims. Doniphan County, Kansas was founded on September 18, 1855 as one of the 33 original counties established by the first Territorial Legislature. County officials met at Whitehead’s Trading Post until the first courthouse was built in Troy in 1856. The County was named for General Alexander Doniphan, of Mexican War fame, and founded by Joel P. Blair, E. B. Rogers, and A. Dunning.
Late in the autumn of December 1859, Abraham Lincoln came to Doniphan County during his campaign trail to speak on antislavery in Elwood, Troy and Doniphan. Local lore says Lincoln visited Sidney Tennent, a Troy citizen, at his house across the street from the courthouse after his Troy speech. Today there is a monument of Lincoln and additional information about the first and oldest remaining house located at 138 E. Walnut St., Troy, KS. One of Lincoln’s honor guards is buried in the Doniphan Cemetery south of Troy.
The Pony Express was a private mail service which began in April, 1860 and operated for 18 months between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California until the connection of the transcontinental telegraph on October 24, 1861. The Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company provided a 10-day delivery between the terminal points. There were forty riders in the saddle in each direction, and 190 stations and 400 station keepers kept the operation working smoothly. Riders were paid $25 a week and rode 10 to 15 miles before changing horses, 75 miles before being relieved. After riders crossed the Missouri River in St. Joseph, MO, Doniphan County had the first stations in Kansas at Elwood and Troy. The route nearly follows the current path of Highway 36 for four more counties west into Kansas before trailing northwest into Nebraska.
The first railroad in Kansas was built in 1860 between Elwood and Wathena. Shortly after, work on the railroad was discontinued until after the Civil War. By 1868, the St. Joseph and Denver railroad (St. Joseph and Grand Island) was extended as far west as Troy and then on to the Brown County, Kansas line. The first train in Kansas traveled from Elwood to Wathena on April 28, 1860. Several new towns were established along these tracks including Moray, Ryan’s Station, Severance and Leona. In 1908, a brand line of this railroad was built from near Severance to Highland. This railroad line no longer exists.
Sol Miller, a well-known journalist, established The Kansas Chief newspaper in White Cloud in 1857, and in 1872 moved the paper to Troy. The Kansas Chief is the oldest newspaper in circulation to survive under its original name in Kansas. Miller was also actively involved in politics and in the establishment of the Kansas State Historical Society. The Kansas Chief later consolidated with The Wathena Times and The Highland Vidette newspapers and moved to Wathena where it is still in weekly circulation today, serving all of Doniphan County.
The city of White Cloud gained more prominence in 1913 when ten-year-old Wilbur Chapman sold his prize-winning pig to raise money for a leper colony. Coin saving banks were created in the shape of a pig, manufactured and sold, resulting in the origination of the “Piggy Bank” as we know it today. A monument to this effort can be seen today on White Cloud’s Main Street.
With the development of the railroad, inland cities grew and fruit production spread to nearly every part of the county. Doniphan County was at one time the apple center of Kansas, and fruit was the main agricultural product in the county until around the 1950s. There was even a bank in Wathena called Fruit Growers State Bank during that time.
Various scenes from the 1973 film Paper Moon were shot on Main Street in White Cloud.
Doniphan County Courthouse
The courthouse, built in 1906, is the fourth to serve Doniphan County in Troy. The county offices outgrew the temporary first courthouse by 1858, the second building burned down, and by 1900 the third courthouse was deemed too small and was razed for the present building. The current courthouse is an excellent example of the Romanesque influence on government buildings in Kansas. George P. Washburn, one of the best architects in Kansas, designed it; the construction grant was given to J.H. Wagenknecht of Wathena for a sum of $42,000. The courthouse was dedicated on July 4th, 1906 before one of the largest crowds to gather in Troy. The Doniphan County Courthouse, located at 120 E. Chestnut St., Troy, KS, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
In 1979, Indian Monument “Tall Oak” was sculpted from a 250-year old burr oak tree by artist Peter Toth in the courtyard in front of the courthouse. Toth created one monument for each of the fifty states to raise the nation’s awareness of the plight of the American Indian. Tall Oak stands nearly 27 feet tall.
Doniphan County, Kansas, located in the extreme northeastern corner of the state, is bordered on three sides by the Missouri River and by the states of Nebraska and Missouri on the north and east. Troy is the county seat of Doniphan County. The county is crossed east to west by U.S. 36 Highway with agriculture being the main industry. When you visit, bring your camera as you will find it continues to be a place full beauty and character.
Discover more about Doniphan County by visiting the Tourist Attractions page. Additional county history can be found by contacting the Doniphan County Historical Society and the Kansas Historical Society.