Kit Carson County, named for fur trapper and Army scout Kit Carson, covers 2,162 miles of the Great Plains in eastern Colorado. One of the state’s most productive agricultural counties, Kit Carson is bordered to the north by Yuma and Washington Counties, to the east by the state of Kansas, to the south by Cheyenne County, and to the west by Lincoln County.
Kit Carson County has a population of 7,758, more than half of whom live in the county seat of Burlington. Other communities include Stratton (population 658), Flagler (561), Bethune (237), Seibert (181), and Vona (106). All of these communities lie along Interstate 70, which is paralleled by US Highway 24; US Highway 385, the other major thoroughfare, meets the interstate at Burlington. Like much of eastern Colorado, Kit Carson County is arid but contains several important water sources, including the South Forks of the Arikaree and Republican Rivers and their tributaries.
The county was established in 1889 and settled by Anglo-Americans, German Russians, and northern European immigrants. Before then it was inhabited by various Native American groups, including the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, and Pawnee. Today the county contains more than 700 farms and is one of the state’s leading wheat producers.
From around AD 1000 to 1400, members of the Upper Republican and Itskari cultures occupied parts of northeast Colorado, including present-day Kit Carson County. These semi-sedentary people fished, farmed, and hunted buffalo, living in earthen lodges and crafting distinctive ceramic pots. While they were apparently able to thrive in eastern Colorado for nearly three centuries, it appears that environmental pressures—most likely drought—caused them to gradually abandon the region. There is little evidence of their presence in the area by the mid-fifteenth century.
The rapid expansion of the Lakota during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries displaced a number of other equestrian 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. 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. The Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Kiowa 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.
Anglo-American traffic across the Colorado plains increased during the 1840s and increased with the organization of the Oregon Territory and the California Gold Rush in 1848–49. In response to this incursion, Native Americans sometimes harassed or stole from wagon trains, and many whites began to fear these attacks as they crossed the plains. In 1851 the federal government sought to make the westward journey safer for white travelers with the Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed by leaders of the Cheyenne, Lakota, Arapaho, and other Plains Indians. The treaty acknowledged Native American sovereignty across the plains, and each group would receive annual payments in exchange for guaranteeing safe passage for whites and allowing the government to build forts in their territory.
Relations between Colorado’s Native Americans and the US government deteriorated after the Colorado Gold Rush in 1858–59, with the latter pursuing an agenda that sought to strip away Native Americans’ rights to the land. In 1861 the Treaty of Fort Wise relegated the Cheyenne and Arapaho to a small reservation in eastern Colorado between the Arkansas River and the Smoky Hill Trail. It was on that reservation, along Sand Creek in present-day Kiowa County, that Col. John Chivington and the Third Colorado Volunteers slaughtered some 150 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho—mostly women, children, and the elderly—in 1864.
Enraged by the massacre, groups of Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors, along with other Plains Indians, led reprisal attacks against the US Army and citizens in Colorado. The last major engagement between Native Americans and US troops in Colorado occurred in 1869 at Summit Springs, where the Cheyenne leader Tall Bull was killed. By then, most of the Cheyenne and Arapaho in the area of present-day Kit Carson County had been removed to a reservation in Oklahoma per the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867.
In the 1870s the Kit Carson County area was part of a popular cattle trail from Texas to Denver, and ranchers became the area’s first permanent white residents. In 1872 Jacob Scherrer and Tom Ireland founded the Bar T Ranch, named after the signature “T” brand found on its cattle. Joe Miskelly, another early rancher, set up his ranch at Crystal Springs, located on a branch of the Republic River about three miles east of present Flagler. More ranches arrived in the area during the 1880s, including Ed McCrillis’s ranch and one owned by Dr. Tuttle, an ex-Confederate Army surgeon.
The Rock Island Railroad arrived from the east in the Kit Carson County area in 1887. In anticipation of the railroad’s arrival, Dan Kavanaugh and Chas H. Dicks founded Burlington in 1886, and the railroad reached the new community in 1888. The railroad also brought homesteaders, prompting land disputes between ranchers and homesteaders that sometimes resulted in violence.
Among Burlington’s first businesses were the Montezuma Hotel, Bucahana Cream Station, Wilson Printing, Dunn Cream Station, and the Burlington Lumber Company. As signs of both its maturity and likely permanence, by 1906 Burlington had installed cement sidewalks, and its windmill and water tanks were removed from Main Street.
Like most counties on the Colorado plains, Kit Carson County was hit hard by the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The number of farms reporting crop failure more than doubled between 1929 and 1934, going from 818 to 1,620. In 1930 the county population had reached an all-time high of 9,725, but as banks closed and farms folded over the ensuing decade, the population declined by more than 20 percent.
President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives provided some relief for Kit Carson County during the Depression. Burlington High School received a new gymnasium thanks to funds from the federal Works Progress Administration, and a soil conservation district helped residents better manage their land and avoid over-farming the prairie, which had helped create the Dust Bowl.
Despite the painful lesson of the Dust Bowl, agriculture in Kit Carson County and elsewhere on the Colorado plains continued to expand in the decades after World War II. Kit Carson County put an additional 131,430 acres under cultivation between 1945 and 1982—about 3,500 acres per year.
In 1957 Kit Carson County farmers became late additions to the state’s sugar beet industry, securing a contract with the Great Western Sugar Company to produce beets in 300-acre allotments. By 1959 the county had 453 acres planted in beets, but by 1964 that amount had increased to 7,915 acres. A 1963 article in the Fort Scott Tribune (KS) reported that, “this fall’s 10,000-acre beet harvest in Sherman and Wallace counties in Kansas and Kit Carson County in Colorado is by far the largest the area has produced.” Beginning in 1967, beets raised in Kit Carson County were shipped to the Great Western processing plant just over the border in Goodland, Kansas. As it did elsewhere in the state, the sugar beet industry in Kit Carson County faded after the Great Western Sugar Company went bankrupt in 1985; by 1987 the US Census of Agriculture reported no significant acreage of sugar beets in the county.
The county’s agricultural expansion was fueled by a number of innovations that began to take hold in the mid-twentieth century and revolutionized American farming. Combines and other machinery, in conjunction with new herbicides and pesticides, allowed for larger yields, but they also prompted consolidation of farmland by those who could afford to invest in the new machinery and chemicals. This shift is visible in Kit Carson County, where between 1950 and 1982 the number of farms dropped from 1,067 to 763, but the average farm size increased from just over 1,100 acres to 1,700.
Along with machinery and chemicals, diesel and natural gas–powered pumps were essential to the expansion of farmland in the mid-to-late twentieth century because they allowed access to groundwater that was previously unreachable. In Kit Carson County, this technology unlocked the so-called Paleo-water of the Ogallala Aquifer, part of which sits below the eastern two-thirds of the county. Underlying much of the Great Plains, the aquifer is the region’s largest natural water source, stretching some 174,000 square miles from South Dakota to Texas. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, farmers in Kit Carson County installed pumps that could bring 1,000 gallons of water per minute up to their fields, and with the new water source the county was able to irrigate an additional 635,259 acres between 1954 and 1978.
Expanded irrigation allowed Kit Carson County farmers to produce more corn, which requires far more water than the county’s reliable staple, winter wheat. Today, the county ranks second in corn production and is the top wheat producer in the state, with nearly 225,00 acres of winter wheat. As of 2012 Kit Carson County is also one of the state’s top cattle producers, with more than 350,000 head.
The county’s agricultural prowess, now and in the future, is largely dependent on the vast but finite waters of the Ogallala Aquifer. A 2013 study by the US Geological Survey reported that total water levels in the aquifer, which supplies eight states, had declined by 8 percent since 1950. But the future of Ogallala water use in eastern Colorado (or in any other region) depends on the depth of the underlying portion of the aquifer and how quickly that portion recharges.
A 2016 study by civil engineers at Kansas State University showed that water draws from the aquifer under eastern Colorado have outpaced the regional recharge rate since 1999 or 2000. However, the study projects that Colorado’s annual depletion of the aquifer will peak in 2023 and then decline, on account of a growing public awareness and efforts to reduce water use.
Water conservation efforts are already under way in Kit Carson County. For instance, beginning in 2011 the Republican River Water Conservation District, in partnership with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, has provided incentives each year to farmers who implement water conservation measures, such as reducing the amount of irrigated acreage on their farms. These efforts appear to be succeeding, as the Colorado Foundation for Water Education (CFWE) currently reports that rates of withdrawal from the aquifer “appear to have stabilized.”
The CFWE’s assessment, along with current scientific studies, suggests that Kit Carson County will likely have enough water to support its agricultural economy in the near future. But future droughts may place increased pressure on the aquifer and alter current projections. In any case, residents of Kit Carson County will need to continue monitoring and managing water consumption.
Beyond agriculture, the Kit Carson County Fairgrounds is home to the Kit Carson County Carousel, originally built in 1905 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company for Denver’s Elitch Gardens. The carousel, which was moved to Kit Carson County in 1928, remains the nation’s only antique carousel to feature original paint on both its animals and core.