Prior to 1869, Russell County was without a settler. In July of that year, one A. E. Mathews settled on a claim at the eastern edge of the county about three miles southwest of Wilson. About that time coal had been discovered in that locality, and the object of Mathews settling there was more to engage in coal mining than farming. Be that as it may, he was the first white person to take up a residence within the borders of Russell County.
In November 1870, C. M. Harshburger (sic), James Dorman, James Haight and Samuel Janes, took claims on East Wolf Creek, and went into camp and passed the winter hunting buffalo and antelope, of which there were plenty. These were followed in the winter of 1870-71, by C. M. Hibbard, A. C., and Charles Birdsall, N. R. Cowan and John Deering, all of whom, excepting Deering, returned to their homes after selecting their claims. In 1869, some section hands, while at work on the railway, had been killed by Indians, and as roving bands of red men would frequently come to the county on hunting expeditions, Deering deemed it advisable to be prepared for all emergencies that might arise, and to make himself as secure as possible against any attack, he surrounded his shanty with a stockade made of logs, pierced at intervals with loopholes.
The Northwestern Colony, of which Benjamin Pratt was president, was organized at Ripon, Wisconsin, in January 1871. A committee of three was appointed by the organization to visit Kansas with a view of looking up a location for the colony. Benjamin Pratt, O. P. Reed, and H. S. Hollinbeck constituted that committee. They left Ripon on February 21, 1871, and after traveling about a month, during which time they visited a great many localities, they went back and reported to the association at Ripon. Russell County was decided upon by the colony as the place where to locate, and on the 17th of April, 1871, they left Ripon, one passenger coach being provided for their exclusive use, and arrived at Fossil Station, now Russell, in Russell County, on the 19th of the same month. There were about seventy persons in the colony and among them five families. Excepting a small frame depot and a section house, there was not another building in the county, unless it was the dug-out of Mathews already mentioned. Buffalo and antelope were in full possession, immense herds of which could be seen in almost every direction. Having reached their point of destination, the coach assigned them was switched off, and they found themselves in the center of a vast prairie, without a tree or house in sight. Prior to their arrival, the railroad company had furnished three box cars, and these, with the passenger coach, served as houses for the colonists until they had opportunity to provide themselves with suitable buildings.
From the arrival of this colony may be dated the permanent settlement of the county. Soon after their location at Russell, another colony, but much smaller, arrived from Ohio and located at a point ten miles east of Russell, on the Kansas Pacific Railway, where they started a town to which they gave the name of Bunker Hill. Settlers now began to come in and locate in different parts of the county, and among those who came the first year was Jesse Connell, formerly State Senator from Leavenworth, who was the first person to make settlement on Paradise Creek, in the northwestern portion of the county.
About the same time, another small colony from Ohio arrived, and located on claims which they had taken on the line of railroad between Bunker Hill and Russell. This colony only remained a short time, when they abandoned their claims and dispersed, some returning to Ohio, and others going to other parts of Kansas. Early in 1872, a large colony from Pennsylvania came, who settled chiefly in the eastern portion of the county, in the vicinity of Dorrance.
As yet, the county was not organized, but had, until that time been attached to Ellsworth County for judicial and municipal purposes. In 1872, Governor Harvey appointed J. B. Corbett, John Dodge and E. W. Durkey, County Commissioners, J. L. V. Himes, County Clerk, and Stillman Mann, Justice of the Peace. These were the first officers of the county. In the appointment of the Commissioners, Russell was designated the county seat. The first meeting of the Commissioners was held on August 18, 1872, and the Board organized by electing J. B. Corbett Chairman. About the only business transacted at that meeting was the ordering of a special election, to be held September 9, to complete the organization of the county by electing a full set of county officers. The officers elected at the special election were John Fritts, John Dodge and Benjamin Pratt, Commissioners; E. W. Durkey, County Clerk; John Hemminger, Sheriff; L. Landon, Treasurer; H. J. Cornell, Probate Judge; H. C. Hibbard, Superintendent of Public Instruction; R. G. Kennedy, Register of Deeds; James Selling, Surveyor, and J. W. Vanscoyc, Coroner. The foregoing were the first officers elected in the county, and upon their qualifying the organization of the county was made complete. In canvassing the vote, the Commissioners ascertained that there were more votes cast at Bunker Hill than at Russell, whereupon the former place was declared to be the county seat, and what little records they had were moved accordingly. This action of the Board considerably enraged the people of Russell, and a spirit of rivalry, not altogether too friendly, sprang up between the two places. The county-seat question became one of constant agitation, the people of Bunker Hill being determined to retain it, if possible, and the people of Russell as fully determined to recover it.
At the general election, held November 5, 1872, the Commissioners elected at the special election in September, were re-elected, but some changes were made in the other officers. The people of Russell never admitted the removal of the county-seat from Russell to Bunker Hill as being legal, and when the time came to canvass the vote of the November election, two of the Commissioners, Fritts and Dodge, met at Bunker Hill, and the third one, Mr. Pratt, with the County Clerk, Durkey, met at Russell. A quorum of the Board were at Bunker Hill, but they had no Clerk, while the other Commissioner at Russell had the Clerk but no quorum.
The returns of the election from the west half of the county were returned to Russell and those of the east half were returned to Bunker Hill. The two Commissioners at Bunker Hill appointed a Clerk and proceeded to canvass the returns as made to them, and the one at Russell, with the assistance of the Clerk, performed the same operation with the returns they had received. The task was not very laborious to either, as the total vote of the county at the November election was only 169. Neither recognized the action of the other, and the matter finally found its way into court, and finally went to the Supreme Court where, after a delay of about two years, it was decided in favor of Russell.
Pending the settlement of the matter in court, the business of the county, for some time, was conducted in a rather peculiar manner. The two Commissioners continued to meet at Bunker Hill, but Mr. Pratt would not meet with them, and county matters were in rather a chaotic state. While matters were in this shape, the district from which Mr. Pratt was elected held a special election and elected A. B. Cornell, Commissioner, but when he went to take his seat on the Board the other two Commissioners would not recognize him, but held that Pratt was the duly elected and qualified Commissioner. Finally, Mr. Pratt resigned, and the Board appointed A. B. Cornell to succeed him and thus order was restored from chaos.
On March 21, 1874, the Commissioners ordered an election to be held on April 23, for the purpose of re-locating the county seat, and the candidates for the honor were Russell and Bunker Hill.
At that time the County Attorney was one David Adams, who had made himself very active in the interests of Bunker Hill. Russell had no Attorney at that time to look after its interests, and the citizens appointed a committee to go to some of the towns east of them and employ the services of one. The committee went as far east as Lawrence, and upon consulting with some attorneys there, and others at Topeka, the advice they received was to employ Adams. “Yes, but he is employed by the people of Bunker Hill.” “Oh, never mind that, you see him, you can easily fix that.” With this advice the Committee started for home and who should they meet on the train but Mr. Adams. One of the Committee became engaged in conversation with him, during which the county-seat question came up. The conversation led up to a certain point, when Adams was asked, how much it would take to silence him during the contest. “One hundred town lots in the town of Russell,” was the reply. When the Committee returned, a meeting of the town authorities and businessmen was held, to whom the proposition of Adams was submitted, and after discussing it pro and con it was agreed to give him seventy-five lots, which offer Adams accepted.
Having silenced Adams the people of Russell devised another scheme in order to secure the votes of those residing in the eastern portion of the county, This was to go a few miles east of Bunker Hill and start another town, and cause to be agitated a plan that had been thought of for some time, which contemplated the cutting out of a new county from the counties of Lincoln, Ellsworth, and Russell, of which Wilson, located almost on the boundary line of the two latter counties, should be the county seat. Should this plan succeed, which a great many believed, then the farther the county-seat of Russell could be removed from Wilson the better, and as the former place was ten miles west of Bunker Hill the votes of many of the eastern residents were secured for Russell. The 23d of April came, the election was held as ordered, and the result was that Russell was declared the county seat, which it has continued to be since that time.
From 1874 until 1877 the population of the county increased steadily, and although they came neither in crowds nor colonies, each year saw new farms opened up and new dwellings going up over the prairie.
In 1877, quite a large colony of Russians settled in the county, locating south of the Smoky Hill River, about twelve miles southwest of Russell. This colony was followed by two others of the same nationality in 1878, many of whom joined the settlement already located while others located upon claims in different portions of the county. That year a great many other settlers came to the county from Eastern and other States and the close of the year found the county in a very prosperous condition. Many of the new settlers engaged in sheep raising, and the beginning of 1879 found over 10,000 sheep in the county. Some attention was also given to cattle, but stockmen gave the preference to sheep, the raising of which has increased yearly since that time.
There are now, 1883, not less than 30,000 sheep in the county, and as the business has proved to be highly profitable, the number engaging in it is increasing annually. The number owned by individuals runs all the way from 200 to 3,500, the latter being the largest number owned in the county by any one person. Since 1880, the county has, in point of population, been rather retrogressive, but yet it has made considerable advancement in material wealth.
The railroad facilities of the county are confined to one line, the Kansas Pacific, which runs through the center of the county from east to west, nearly midway between the Saline and Smoky Hill rivers. Russell is the principal station on the line, the others being Bunker Hill and Dorrance to the east, and Gorham, which is located almost on the west line of the county.
The first conveyance recorded in the county, that appears on record, was a deed from the Kansas Pacific Railroad Company to the Russell Town Site Company, granting, selling, and conveying for the consideration of one dollar, the east one-half of Section 27, Township 13, Range 14 west of the Sixth Principal Meridian. The instrument was dated September 1, 1871.
The first marriage in the county, as shown by the record in the office of the Probate Judge, was that of J. E. Brown and Miss Mary A. Shultz, which took place November 20, 1873, the officiating clergyman being Rev. J. J. A. T. Dixon. While this is the first marriage that appears on record it was not the first that occurred in the county, as E. W. Durkey and Mrs. Hattie Burt were married in November, 1871, by Stillman Mann, who was the first Justice of the Peace of the county.
Financially, the county is in good condition, its real valuation being $2,5000,000 and its bonded indebtedness only $20,000. It has no floating debt, and there is always money in the treasury to pay all orders upon presentation.
Source: Russell County, History of the State of Kansas, 1883.