Cherokee County is a part of what was formerly known as McGee County. This county, named in honor of A. M. McGee, of Kansas City, Missouri, a man of strong pro-slavery sentiments, who figured actively in the events which made up the early history of the State, was bounded as follows: Beginning at the southeast corner of Bourbon County; thence south, to the southern boundary of this Territory; thence west, twenty-four miles; thence north, to a point due west of the place of beginning; thence east, twenty-four miles, to the place of beginning."
When the anti-slavery sentiment became strong and forceful in Kansas, and the management of the Territory passed under the control of those who favored making it a free State, the name McGee was dropped by the Legislature, and a part of its territory given the name "Cherokee," in honor of the Cherokee Indians. This was done on the 18th day of February, 1860, a little less than a year before Kansas Territory was admitted into the Union. The boundary of the county being so vaguely described as not to be readily understood, the Legislature, February 13, 1867, gave it the following location: "Commencing at the southeast corner of Crawford County; thence south on the east line of the State of Kansas, to the southeast corner of the State; thence west along the southern boundary of the State, to the southeast corner of Neosho County, as defined by the act of February 26, 1866: thence north to the southwest corner of the county of Crawford; thence east to the place of beginning." This remained the boundary of the county until October 31, 1868, when an act, approved March 3, 1868, went into effect. This act gave Cherokee County the following boundary: "Commencing at the southeast corner of the county of Crawford; thence west with the south line of said county of Crawford to the southwest corner of section 14, township 31 south, range 21 east of the Sixth Principal Meridian; thence south on said section line to the Neosho River; thence with the channel of said river to the south boundary line of the State of Kansas; thence east on said line to the southeast corner of the State; thence north on the east line of the State of Kansas to the place of beginning." From the maps recently published, it seems that at some time since the fixing of the last described boundary a change has been made, by which the west line of the county was moved one-half mile east; and so it stands, to this day; and it will thus be seen that Cherokee County lies in the extreme southeast corner of the State, having the State of Missouri on the east, and the Indian Territory on the south.
For the most part, the surface of the county is gently undulating; but in the southeast it is hilly, and in some places very rough and stony. An elevated table-land lies north and south through the center of the county, from which the water runs generally southeasterly and southwesterly, the latter flowing into the Neosho River on the west, the former into Spring River on the east. There are no very high points, save that in the southern part of the county, about five miles west of Baxter Springs, there is a mound which may be seen many miles in all directions, and a kind of promontory a few miles north of Neutral, both of which may be regarded as bubbles of the Ozark Mountains. The altitude of Columbus, considered the highest point in the county, was established by Charles Nevins, the surveyor for the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway, at the time the line was extended from Parsons, Kansas, to Joplin, Missouri, in 1900. The point was indicated on the third step of the First National Bank, and as determined by the measurements it is 1025.68 feet.
Besides Spring River, on the east, and the Neosho River, on the west, there are numerous smaller streams, all of which afford easy drainage, except that in the southwest corner of the county there is a low basin which is dotted here and there with lakes and natural ponds, in which water stands from year to year. Cherry Creek, Lightning Creek and Fly Creek are two principal streams flowing into the Neosho River on the west, while Cow Creek, Shawnee Creek and Brush Creek flow into Spring River on the east. In the central and eastern parts of the county there are some fine springs of soft water. Before leaving this part of the subject it is proper to speak of the adaptability of the soils of the county to field and garden tillage and to the growing of small fruits of all kinds, including every variety of berries. The soils are of various depths, varying also in colors, from the lighter soils of the higher ridges to the dark, sandy loams of the lower lands and the river bottoms. In the eastern part of the county the soil partakes of the nature of the red-clay soils of Southwestern Missouri, and these are better adapted to the growing of apples, pears and peaches than the lighter soils of the prairie districts of the county. Like almost every other county, in whatever State it may be situate, Cherokee County has some sections much richer in soils than others; but it is singularly true that there is not a district in the county, however thin and apparently non-productive the soil, but what it is quickly and easily affected even at the slightest efforts to increase the soil's strength and fertility.
Forty years ago, when there was scarcely any land in the county that had been touched with the plow, and when there were no roads established by any public act, the meager woodland was found only along Spring River and its larger tributaries, and probably a mere fringe along the Neosho River and the larger streams which flow into it. The county was almost a solid sward of prairie grass; and from the higher points, which afforded views of the land as it lay in the repose which Nature had given it through the centuries, many of the most pleasing landscapes could be seen. To those who came first, with implements of tillage for bringing the virgin soil into subserviency to the purposes of civilization, it was "a goodly land," fair to look upon and full of promise, and to those who stayed and endured the hardships incident to pioneer life, sowing and reaping as the years went on, it yielded its fruits in season, and with these the quiet satisfaction which comes with faithful husbandry.
Going beneath the surface of the land, we come to consider it in the light of geology; and here, going through the storehouse of Nature, we come to examine the wise, beneficent provisions which have been made, and which through countless ages have awaited the coming of man. Speaking of the general formation of the whole State of Kansas, Professor Mudge says: "The uplifting of this State and the adjoining country, from the level of the ocean, must have been slow, uniform and in a perpendicular direction, which has left all the strata in nearly a horizontal position. This may have been as slow as that now going on in Florida, or a rise of five feet in a century. From our knowledge of the geology of the West, this undoubtedly took place after the rise of the Rocky Mountains, and probably did not come to a close until the drift period." The rock formations of Cherokee County plainly show that the land, some time in the remote past, lay upon the seashore, and that, at a still more remote period, it was probably submerged. Crustaceous formations, abundant in many places, give unmistakable evidence of the fact. In times long gone by there was an oyster bed about two miles southeast of the point where Columbus now stands, as shown in the rocks in that locality, and besides this, there were numerous crustacea, whose petrified fossils are plainly to be seen. Later on, but probably not until after the lapse of many ages, came the carboniferous period, when the land was lifted gradually from the water and was covered as gradually by vegetation, through which a soil was built up, in preparation for the great forests still to follow; and thus age after age went by, the processes of nature going on, step by step, making ready for the coming of man. The conditions of temperature, with the increased fertility of the soil and the humidity of the atmosphere, brought on the great vegetable growths, which, afterwards swept down by devastating tempests and covered by soil drifts from the higher lands, now form the coal beds which yield so much comfort to the people now permitted to open them up for use.
In a work published by A. T. Andreas, in 1883, speaking of the coal deposits of the State of Kansas, the writer says: "This area covers about 9,000 square miles in the southeastern part of the State, embracing the counties of Cherokee, Labette, Montgomery, Chautauqua, Elk, Wilson, Neosho, Crawford, Bourbon, Allen, Woodson, Coffey, Anderson, Linn, Osage, and parts of Miami, along the northern line of damarkation. All these counties are in some degree supplied with coal. Whether the whole area is underlaid with coal or not can not be definitely ascertained till a thorough geological survey has been made. The general structure of the rock is that of the productive coal measures elsewhere found, and the experimental borings have been sufficiently numerous, and attended with such favorable results as to warrant the belief that the deposits exist in paying quantities in most parts of the area above described."
The coal district of Cherokee County lies almost in the north central part, believed to be about 13 miles wide at the north line of the county, and extending south through Cherokee, Mineral and Ross townships, into the north sections of Crawford and Salamanca townships, while on the west side, tending slightly toward the southwest, it reaches over into Sheridan and Lola townships. The whole area possibly includes about 130 square miles. The strata vary in thickness from one foot to four feet. The upper stratum crops out at the eastern edge of the district and dips toward the northwest, as also do the deeper and thicker strata. The quality of the coal is excellent for all purposes, and to those owning the land and those operating the mines the district is a source of immense wealth. The whole area is a network of railroad tracks, and the operations going on present a scene of the intensest industrial activity. It is believed by some who have given the matter mature thought, that a much larger area of the county will be found underlaid with coal, when deeper prospecting is undertaken; but so far no effort has been made to determine the fact.
In the southeastern part of Cherokee County, extending from the south line of the State northerly for about 15 miles, there is a strip of land about six miles wide beneath the surface of which are some of the richest zinc deposits to be found in the world. The zinc district, in Cherokee County, lies along the valley of Spring River, on either side of the stream, and, taken in connection with the great Joplin district, of which it is a part, it is known wherever there is a commercial demand for the rich ores here produced. Rich but smaller deposits of lead are also found here. The operations which have been carried forward in the mining of these ores are such as have literally torn up the earth and rendered its surface in the immediated locality, forever unfit for tillage; for, in bulk, the ore is not more than one-thousandth part of the earth and rock which must be brought to the surface. Unless effaced by soil-drifts or by some other great physical changes, these earth-markings, it is believed, will stand for thousands of years, long after the civilization which now prevails upon the earth shall have passed away.
In addition to the great deposits of coal, lead and zinc which, taken in connection with the fertile soils of the county, place it in the first rank maong[sic] the wealth-producing parts of the State, shale for brick-making, potter's clay and building stone are found in quantities which will lead, after a while, to the establishment of particular industries requiring these materials. There are quarries of sandstone near Columbus from which the very best of building stone is now taken in limited quantities; but in time not far hence, when building material of other kinds becomes more expensive than at present, these quarries will be sought to the extent of making it one of the chief industries of the county. Such may also be said of the deposits of shale, the demand for which is a constantly growing one.
Up to the present it has not been generally believed that either gas or petroleum will be found in paying quantities within the boundary of the county, although deep wells bored for water have given off small quantities of each. When the well at Columbus (1,300 feet deep) was bored for a water supply for the city, gas strong enough to produce a flame was given off for a time, and even yet, after 18 years, the water sometimes brings up light traces of petroleum. In the southwestern part of the county there are places where petroleum exudes from the surface of the earth, and in wells of moderate depth larger quantities are sometimes found. No deep wells have been put down in that part of the county, and the question as to whether petroleum may be found in paying quantities remains unsettled. However, the fact that the counties lying next west of Cherokee contain gas and petroleum already attracting wide notice and inducing the investment of millions of dollars stimulates the belief that Cherokee County also possesses these stores of natural wealth.
The fitness of the soils of Cherokee County for agricultural purposes compares favorably with a large number of other counties. In this respect it is far ahead of many, while not measuring up to a few. It is not generally as fertile as the Kaw Valley, nor is it as productive as some of the counties in the northeastern part of the State; but in the responsiveness of its soils and the readiness with which it assimilates natural fertilizers it is equal to, if it does not surpass, all other sections. The county contains about 589 square miles, or about 377,000 acres; and, with the exception of a small area in the southeastern part, it is all suited to cultivation. As early as 1878 more than 147,000 acres were in cultivation, but of this amount 32,500 acres were in meadow and pasture. For that year the value of farm products was $966,634, not including the value derived from fenced pasture lands. Of this amount, $478,000 were derived from the value of the corn crop, and $155,000 from that of wheat, the corn acreage being more than three times the acreage of wheat. Besides corn and wheat, other crops are largely grown, such as rye, barley, oats, buckwheat, sorghum, kafir corn, millet, flax, castor beans, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, timothy, bluegrass, redtop and orchard grass. Recently experiments have been made with English bluegrass, while a few have been engaged in testing the adaptability of Bermuda grass.
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