A Brief History of Brown County Agriculture
Updated: Jun 9, 2020
This week’s blog post is going to be a little different. Instead of focusing on an agronomy topic, we are going to take a look at the land we are sitting on—the history of agriculture in Brown Co. KS!
The majority of this information came from William G. Culter’s “History of the State of Kansas” published in 1883. It has some amazing tidbits in it, including this confident statement that due to the lack of frosts during February and March, Brown Co Kansas will be one of the finest fruit growing areas in the United States.
Brown County was formed during 1855 during the convening of the first Territorial Legislature in Kansas. The origin of the name is fairly debated, even at the writing of Cutler’s book in 1883. The county was possibly named after a member of the House of Legislature, O.H. Browne and did originally have the “e” at the end of Brown. It was dropped two years later when Brown and Doniphan counties were split apart. Because of this spelling, some claim that the county was named after Albert G. Brown, a U.S. Senator from Mississippi. Whoever it is named after, the author goes on to explain that while a widely held belief that Brown county was named after the famous abolitionist, John Brown. However, during the time of the naming, the territorial legislature was largely pro-slavery and would not have named the county after someone not sympathetic to their cause.
Prior to white colonization of the area, Otoe, Missouri (Niuachi) and Kansa Native tribes lived in the area where they farmed and hunted. Several tribes that are present here now were forced out of their native lands and relocated to Kansas. These include the Iowa, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, and Sac and Fox tribes. (Many of these tribes were then forced to move again to Oklahoma during the 1800’s.)
White settlement in the area started with Thurston Chase and James Gibbons who staked claims on Wolf Creek in May of 1854. However, they lasted less than a month there. Several weeks later, a party of three stopped to survey the area. However, after a stormy night, the party returned to St. Jo. The first permanent settler was W.C. Foster in June of 1854. He actually first settled in eastern Nemaha county but after discovering that not all of Brown County was Indian territory moved to Brown County in the Fall of 1854. From that point on many settlers came to the area. Unlike Nebraska or Western Kansas, the majority of Brown County was settled well before the Homestead Act of 1862. Many settlers purchased their land outright or from railroad land grants. In fact, a “Claim Club” was formed in 1855 to protect the rights of those who had followed all the procedures for settlement. It also appears that they acted as some sort of law enforcement for the newly populated area and even held a trial in the case of two individual’s illegal alcohol sales to native tribes. (Summary of the story—the Claim Club voted to destroy the alcohol and kick them out of the county, but when they went to tell the two settlers the verdict, they passing the alcohol around and then decided that it was too good to waste. So, the two settlers kept their alcohol, weren’t kicked out of the county, and promised to quit selling it.) The Claim Club was also useful for dealing with the many individuals who made claims and hired people to build a shanty and break some sod for them. The Claim Club would look through these cases to determine the validity of the claims.
Starting in 1866, several disastrous crop years were noted. Each were due to massive plagues of grasshoppers. In September of 1866, the grasshoppers reached Brown County and decimated every green thing in sight. They completely stripped corn stalks and trees, leaving bare dirt behind. The only consolation was that the corn was far enough along that only parts of ears were eaten and they were not a total loss. That damage however was only the beginning. The swarm of grasshoppers laid so many eggs that the next spring a new generation of grasshoppers wiped out the next years crop in June before heading farther west. Fortunately, farmers were able to replant and still had a reasonable harvest. The grasshoppers returned two years later and then again in 1874. Farmers already were expecting a poor harvest due to dry weather that year. After the grasshoppers came through in 1874, farmers didn’t even bother with the formality of harvest. They ate leaves and fruits from orchards and in some cases at so much bark that it girdled and killed the trees. The following spring of 1875 saw another hatch of grasshoppers that ate young crops and then moved on. The author noted that the grasshoppers laid wheat fields bare and were more destructive than any tornado. Farmers again were lucky to replant and still harvest a good crop that year.
While there are many more stories to share, I’ll end with some stats on crops planted in 1880 compared to now.
It may be interesting to see if data would show the trends of crops across years. There were clearly a lot more small grains and diversity in crops in 1880 than now. Then again, most of what was grown was for your own consumption.
Did you like the blog post? If so, let us know in the comments or by email. We may do a part two highlighting some more early agriculture stories or move on to agriculture in the next generation. Additionally, the book by Cutler mentions many of the first residents by name. Do you have a relative that was an early settler of the county? Let me know and I’ll see if I can find any information on them!