Cheyenne County is a sparsely populated county on Colorado’s eastern plains, covering 1,781 square miles. It is named for the Cheyenne, one of many nomadic Native American groups that lived and hunted buffalo in the area throughout the nineteenth century. Cheyenne County is bordered to the north by Kit Carson County, to the east by the state of Kansas, to the south by Kiowa County, and to the west by Lincoln County. Cheyenne Wells, at the intersection of US Routes 40 and 385, is the county seat.
The Cheyenne County area had few permanent residents before the nineteenth century, when gold discoveries to the west and indigenous conflicts farther east brought many different groups of people across Colorado’s eastern plains. An agricultural boom during the early twentieth century allowed the county to hit a peak population of 3,746 in 1920, but it has been declining ever since. Today, agriculture is still the main driver of the county economy, but with just 1,836 residents, Cheyenne remains one of the least-populated counties in the state.
The rapid expansion of the Lakota (Sioux) during the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century displaced a number of other horse-mounted groups from the northern plains, including the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Kiowa. The Pawnee also made occasional visits to eastern Colorado, although they mostly frequented present-day Kansas and Nebraska.
By 1790, the Kiowa had moved onto the plains from the mountains of Montana. That year an agreement with the Comanche, the dominant group on the southern plains, gave the Kiowa a large territory that included the Cheyenne County area and other parts of eastern Colorado, as well as parts of present-day Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle.
The Cheyenne and Arapaho, meanwhile, had been migrating westward from their homelands in the upper Midwest since the early eighteenth century. By 1800 the Lakota had forced both the Cheyenne and Arapaho out of present-day South Dakota, and over the next two decades they filtered southwest onto the plains of Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado. They followed the buffalo herds across the plains, living in portable, cone-shaped dwellings called tipis. During the notoriously harsh plains winters, they found shelter near bluffs and in cottonwood groves along the river bottoms. While the Cheyenne rarely left the plains, the Arapaho made a habit of venturing into the mountains during the spring to hunt game in the high country.
Finding themselves in the same territory and fighting common enemies such as the Lakota and Ute, the Cheyenne and Arapaho formed an alliance in the early 1800s. In 1840, the Kiowa, Comanche, and Lakota joined them in an unprecedented alliance with a similar goal—to resolve territorial disputes and better deal with the growing number of whites, who were by then migrating west along the Oregon and Overland Trails and competing with Native Americans for resources on the plains. In 1851 the federal government sought to address this problem in the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which was signed by the Cheyenne, Sioux, Arapaho, and other indigenous peoples living on the plains. The treaty defined and upheld the sovereignty of Native American territory across the plains. Each group would also receive annual payments as long as they guaranteed safe passage for whites and allowed roads and forts to be built in their territory.
Rush Across the Plains
Two events in the late 1850s both pushed and pulled white Americans from the eastern United States to Colorado. First, an economic crisis began in September 1857. The next year, William Green Russell’s party found gold near the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, which set off the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59. Thousands of immigrants seeking gold and a fresh start began streaming across the plains to Colorado. Native Americans viewed this as a breach of their sovereignty codified in the Treaty of Fort Laramie, as whites cut precious timber along the riverbanks, killed buffalo and other game, and trampled grazing grass with their wagon trains.
Four routes—northern, north-central, south-central, and southern—took white immigrants across the Great Plains to the Rockies. The south central route was presumed to be the most direct, but it was also the least known. Boosters from towns vying to be the main starting point of the trail claimed that the largely uncharted Smoky Hill River would guide settlers all or most of the way to the Rocky Mountains. But immigrants who followed the river across Kansas found that the Smoky Hill turned to sand just east of the present-day Colorado border. They were left to find their way northwest across a disorientating landscape of sprawling creeks, rolling hills, and vast open stretches. This western portion of the Smoky Hill route included present-day Cheyenne County and became known as the “Starvation Trail” on account of the many immigrants who became lost and starved to death.
Cheyenne Wells owes the latter half of its name to a well dug by an army surveyor who sought to map the Smoky Hill Trail. In 1860 Lieutenant Julian Fitch dug that well about five miles north of the present-day townsite. In 1865, Fitch returned with a party from the Butterfield Overland Dispatch, a stage company that established stations at present-day Cheyenne Wells, Dubois, and Grady. When the Kansas-Pacific Railroad reached Cheyenne Wells station in 1870, railroad agent Louis McLane bought land and laid out a town. The first lot was sold in 1887, and Cheyenne Wells was incorporated in 1890.
Native American Removal
The stampede of immigrants during the Colorado Gold Rush forced the government to renegotiate with the Cheyenne and Arapaho. On February 18, 1861, ten days before the establishment of the Colorado Territory, Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders signed the Treaty of Fort Wise at Bent’s Fort in southeast Colorado. The treaty restricted the Cheyenne and Arapaho to a reservation north of the Arkansas River that was about one-thirteenth the size of their former territory.
Younger Cheyenne and Arapaho, especially those in the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers and other warrior societies, refused to abide by the terms of the treaty and resented older tribal leaders for signing it. In 1864 more than 150 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho were slaughtered by US troops during the Sand Creek Massacre in neighboring Kiowa County, an event that inspired more retaliation and bloodshed. For more than a decade after the treaty, the Dog Soldiers and similar groups staged raids throughout eastern Colorado, plundering small station towns such as Cheyenne Wells.
Faced with an endless cycle of carnage, leaders on both sides sought to negotiate another treaty. The Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 set up a reservation for the Cheyenne and Arapaho in northern Oklahoma, then known as Indian Country.
Some Native Americans, including Cheyenne led by Black Kettle, moved to the reservation after signing the treaty, but the Dog Soldiers and other warriors kept staging raids. On July 11, 1869, the US military and its Pawnee allies delivered a fatal blow to Cheyenne resistance in the Battle of Summit Springs near present-day Sterling, where the Dog Soldiers’ supplies were destroyed and their leader Tall Bull was killed.
Eventually, the Cheyenne and Arapaho found their way to the reservation in Oklahoma. Thereafter, many of the towns, cities, and counties that whites set up took native names but otherwise bore little resemblance to the hundreds of Native American camps that once dotted the landscape. Although their claim to the land now went unchallenged, whites in Cheyenne County and throughout the Colorado plains would find survival to be just as difficult as it ever was.
Tall Bull’s defeat at Summit Springs and the removal of the Cheyenne and Arapaho paved the way for railroad tracks through the Cheyenne County area. In 1870 the Kansas-Pacific Railroad arrived in the town of Kit Carson, which attracted thousands of residents practically overnight. The town was part of Colorado Territory’s Greenwood County, and it soon became the county seat. But Kit Carson was virtually abandoned once the Kansas-Pacific reached Denver, and Greenwood County was abolished by the territorial legislature in 1874, its land divided between Elbert and Bent Counties. At that time, the area of present-day Cheyenne County was part of northern Bent County. Kit Carson remains a statutory town in Cheyenne County with a population of 233.
Farmers, Ranchers, and Droughts
Cheyenne County was established on April 11, 1889. The next year, county commissioners—still ignorant of the excessively dry climate they were dealing with—proclaimed that “these pioneers of eastern Colorado have opened a new kingdom to agriculture.” They predicted that soon the whole eastern part of the state would be under the plow.
The commissioners had every reason to be excited about the prospect of agriculture in eastern Colorado. The years between 1885 and 1890 brought above-average rainfall to the region, and Cheyenne County farmers were already harvesting cherries, beets, and watermelons. One resident, J. S. Johnson, grew a fifty-seven-pound watermelon after arriving on a prairie schooner in 1887. Ranchers came, too; by 1890, about 10,000 head of cattle and just as many sheep roamed the plains of Cheyenne, Kiowa, Kit Carson, and Yuma Counties.
By 1892, architect Robert S. Roeschlaub had designed buildings for thespians, students, and churchgoers in several Colorado cities. But that year, Cheyenne County invited him to design a building that held a less desirable segment of the population: criminals. Roeschlaub’s Cheyenne County Jail opened in 1894. The Romanesque brick building featured a watchtower that allowed the sheriff a view of the jail’s two holding cells as well as the surrounding area. It also included quarters for the sheriff’s family. The jail added a holding area for women in 1937 before it was decommissioned when a new facility was built closer to the county courthouse. Since 1963 the Cheyenne Wells Jail has served as a museum and the home of the Eastern Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado). Because it was both the only remaining jail designed by Roeschlaub and a sturdy example of the urban frontier on the eastern plains, the jail was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
Even though they spanned a crippling drought in the mid-1890s, the years between 1890 and 1908 were among the busiest in the history of Cheyenne Wells. The town’s status as a regional cattle-trading hub, as well as a railroad division point, attracted many homesteaders. These newcomers either hoped to raise cattle or crops such as potatoes, lettuce, beans, or melons and use the railroads to ship them to market. Boosted by the agricultural output from a new crop of farmers and ranchers, Cheyenne County’s population grew from a mere 501 in 1900 to 3,687 in 1910.
But despite this productivity, droughts were frequent on the Great Plains and took a massive toll on the eastern Colorado counties. During the drought period between 1890 and 1900, crop failures forced thousands to flee the region; Kiowa and Kit Carson Counties, for example, lost nearly 30 percent of their populations. To better adapt their practices to the arid plains, researchers such as J. W. Adams at the State Experiment Station in Cheyenne Wells advised farmers and ranchers to raise both grains and cattle; in the event that a grain crop failed, it could still be used to feed cattle.
The Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s hit Cheyenne County hard; it lost 20 percent of its population between 1930 and 1940, and 560 of the county’s 671 farms were reporting crop failure by 1934. To combat the soil erosion that had helped trigger the Dust Bowl, members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)—part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—helped implement soil conservation techniques at a camp in Cheyenne Wells. The camp was part of a series of Soil Conservation Districts established across eastern Colorado. Other New Deal initiatives, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Public Works Administration, helped improve buildings and build new sewer lines in Cheyenne Wells. Thanks to local participation in these programs, Cheyenne County was able to weather the depression and Dust Bowl. By 1950 the county had recovered much of its population and agricultural capacity.
The decades after 1950 saw many important changes in agriculture. Mechanization via the combine and other sophisticated machinery, as well as the widespread use of herbicides and pesticides, allowed for larger yields and encouraged the consolidation of farmland by those who could afford to invest in the new machinery and chemicals. As it was elsewhere on the Colorado plains, this shift was visible in Cheyenne County, where between 1950 and 1982 the average farm size increased by more than 900 acres and the number of farms dropped from 402 to 307, even though the amount of farmland remained more or less the same.
Cheyenne County remains one of the state’s most agriculturally productive, with around 977,165 acres under cultivation as of 2012. Of those, about 166,470 are planted in wheat, giving Cheyenne County the sixth-highest amount of wheat acreage in the state. Other notable businesses include the KC Electric Association, established in 1946 to provide electricity to rural customers in Cheyenne, Kit Carson, and Lincoln Counties; and Mull Drilling, the fifth-largest oil producer in Colorado.