Wichita: History

A Cow Capital

The city of Wichita is named after the Wichita tribe, who settled on the site of the present-day city along the banks of the Arkansas River during the U.S. Civil War to avoid conflict with pro-Southern tribes in Oklahoma. James R. Mead and Jesse Chisholm, who was part Cherokee, opened a trading post next to the tribe's village. Chisholm, on a return trip from the Southwest where he had ventured on a trading expedition, was traveling through a rain storm, and the wheels of his wagon carved deep tracks into the prairie soil. Thus the famous Chisholm Trail was blazed, and the route was used in subsequent years by cattlemen driving cattle to their eventual market destinations.

After the forced relocation of the Wichita tribe to Oklahoma in 1867, the Mead trading post became a center of commerce. As Texas cattlemen drove their longhorn steer up the Chisholm Trail to Abilene, the settlement around the trading post provided a stop on the way. The "first and last chance saloon" was opened there for thirsty cowboys. The settlement, named Wichita, was platted in 1870 and incorporated in 1871. When rail transport reached the town in 1872 and 350,000 cattle were driven in from the grazing ranges, Wichita became the "cow capital" of eastern Kansas. Wichita was a rough place despite signs posted at the corporation limits that warned visitors to check their guns before entering town.

Exit Cattle; Enter Wheat, Oil, and Airplanes

Boom times lasted until 1880, when the Chisholm Trail was blocked by barbed-wire fences protecting land planted with wheat, barring drivers from bringing their cattle to Wichita. Businessmen who made their livelihood from cattle relocated to Dodge City, and Wichita land values temporarily tumbled. But revenues from grain quickly outdistanced cattle when farmers brought their harvest to Wichita, transforming the city into a trading and milling center. Whereas the cattle business had supported dance halls and gambling houses, the wheat industry brought the civilizing forces of churches and schools.

Wichita's population steadily increased in the twentieth century, and new forms of wealth and business opportunity emerged. A major oil deposit discovered in Butler County in 1915 earned the nickname "door-step pool" because of its proximity to the city limits. Wichita's first airplane was manufactured the following year, and during the 1920s the city became known as the "Air Capital of America" in recognition of the number of airplane factories located there. By 1929 Wichita produced a quarter of all commercial aircraft in the United States. The aviation industry played an increased role in the city during World War II, and even more so after the establishment of McConnell Air Force Base in 1951. Beech Aircraft Corp. and Learjet Inc. were founded in Wichita, and such heavy-weights as the Boeing Co., Bombardier Inc., Cessna Aircraft Co., and Raytheon Co. established major facilities in the city. The population explosion that grew from the aviation industry attracted other types of companies. Two big names in the fast-food industry—Pizza Hut Inc. and White Castle System Inc.—were both founded in Wichita. By the turn of the century the city was headquarters for the Coleman Co. and Koch Industries Inc.

An All-American City

Three-time winner (since 1962) of the All American City award, Wichita's residents value the small-town atmosphere with modern-city amenities afforded them. A low crime rate, a nationally-recognized school system, low cost of living, ample opportunities for culture and recreation, and revitalized downtown are part of Wichita's success.

Historical Information: Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, 204 S. Main, Wichita, KS 67202; telephone (316)265-9314; fax (316)265-9319