Ballots and Bullets: The Bloody County Seat Wars of Kansas

by Robert K. DeArment, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2006, $29.95.

Kansas has long had a history of violence, from the early settlement in pre–Civil War days that led to its nickname “Bleeding Kansas,” to shootouts in cow towns like Abilene, Newton, Ellsworth and Dodge City. Yet often overlooked in Kansas chronicles are the wars that cities waged against each other to seize the title of county seat.

At least 29 “bitterly contested fights” for seat-hood have been fought in Kansas since statehood came in 1861, with the bloodiest scarring the state’s western regions between 1885 and 1892. That era is the focus of Ballots and Bullets, an enlightening and well-researched history by acclaimed Western historian Robert K. DeArment. He tells his story with humor. When Syracuse won the Hamilton County seat in 1888, a “gloating Syracuse newspaper” ran the “obituary” of its rival town: “Died: Kendall, ten miles to the east.” Yet while the fight for Hamilton County, on the Colorado border, was nonviolent, most of the battles made Kansas bleed once more.

Ballots and Bullets details the wars for supremacy in Grant County (Ulysses vs. Appomattox), Wichita County (Leoti vs. Coronado), Stevens County (Hugoton vs. Woodsdale) and Seward County (Fargo Springs vs. Springfield). Make no mistake: These were wars, claiming at least a dozen lives and often featuring a who’s who of Western gunmen, including Bat and Jim Masterson, Bill Tilghman and Sam Wood. In 1889 10 heavily armed men left Ingalls to remove the records from Cimarron, resulting in the so-called Battle of Cimarron.

 

Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here