Many stories have been told to explain how Pawnee Rock got its name. One tale relates that it was sacred ground for the Pawnee Indians who held tribal councils on its flat top. Another describes a great battle in which a small band of Pawnees was destroyed by a force of Kiowas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos. Both of these attribute the name to events in Pawnee lore that occurred near the Rock. A tradition among white plainsmen was that the Rock received its name in 1826 from an embarrassing mistake by Kit Carson. A raw youth of seventeen, Carson was on his first trip into the West. The wagon train with which he was working camped for the night near the Rock. He was given guard duty. In the dark, he shot his own mule, thinking it was an attacking Pawnee. His unkind associates commemorated his unfortunate experience with the name, Pawnee Rock.
Whatever the source of its name, the Rock was important to both Indians and whites. Many of the Plains tribes reportedly used it as an observation point from which they could track and swoop down upon buffalo herds and wagon trains. At times, travelers on the Santa Fe Trail regarded it as the most dangerous place they had to pass. However, it was also a welcome landmark for travelers, signalling that about half of their journey was now behind them. Hundreds stopped to write their names in the soft sandstone beside the ancient drawings that the Indians had engraved before. In 1848, James Birch, a soldier on his way to the Mexican War, wrote: "Pawnee Rock was covered with names carved by the men who had passed it. It was so full that I could find no place for mine."
Unfortunately, much of Pawnee Rock was destroyed in the 1870s by the railroad and by settlers who were in need of building stone. The remaining portion was acquired in 1908 by the Woman's Kansas Day Club. The next year it was turned over to the State of Kansas as an historic site. On May 24, 1912, a stone monument was dedicated with great celebration before a crowd of some eight thousand onlookers.