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Kansas History

Kansas History

Kansas is rich with history. In fact, Kansas' history predates statehood and even that of the United States. From the first documented traveler, over 400 years of trials, tribulations, and triumphs have helped mold Kansas into the vibrant, prosperous, rich State we know today.

In 1540, Coronado found his way to Kansas as he was exploring the “new world” in search of gold. Gold he did not find. But, what he did find was land which he viewed as “the best that I have ever seen for producing all the products of Spain” (The Capper /MRI Quick-Fact Book of Kansas, p. 23)

Although Coronado is believed to be the first traveler to Kansas, it is also believed that Native Americans were the first inhabitants. There were many reasons why Native American nations came to this land. Much like the Kansas we know today, they saw great opportunity in moving here. Buffalo as far as the eye could see roamed the prairies; the fecund soil was perfect for growing crops; the many rivers and streams provided enough of a water supply to settle and live peaceful, stationary lives.

The exploration of the western half of the United States probably can be considered the most important event in the development of Kansas. As the highly populated east coast began to crowd and promises of new world success diminished, people followed the stories of opportunity and prosperity west. Thus, the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails opened and acted as a river of hope flowing to the Pacific Ocean. As pioneers followed dreams and fled hardship, they found Kansas to be the best of all worlds. For in Kansas, people could settle their families on wide open, farmable land, escape societal and religious persecution, and begin to live their dreams.

Unfortunately, the pioneers didn't find themselves free of all trouble. As more and more settled, disputes arose among Native Americans and settlers, and settlers themselves. There just wasn't enough of this great land to go around. A solution was to build forts to keep the peace and protect travelers. As a result, towns like Fort Leavenworth and (Fort) Hays were established.

The territorial years began for Kansas in May of 1854. The boundaries included much of Colorado, as well as what is now known as Pikes Peak. This period in our state's history wasn't without difficulty. The familiar term “Bleeding Kansas” was coined during this time, and marked the fight for freedom in this state. There was deep conflict regarding the politics of slavery in Kansas. Many people believed in freedom for all Kansans. Those “freestaters” fought with pro-slavery forces on a number of fronts. Practically every issue divided the two philosophies, and too many times violence erupted. Lawrence was attacked and ransacked in 1856 because pro-slavery forces wanted to put an end to Lawrence residents' harboring of slaves. Retaliatory efforts were led by John Brown, his sons, and others. These led to the Battle of Black Jack, where several hundred slave-state Missourians avenged Brown's actions. Osawatomie was almost completely destroyed in a later encounter between Brown and the Missourians.

The implication concerning whether or not Kansas should become a slave state was a far-reaching one. There was such a delicate balance of opinion that it took four attempts at writing a constitution for ratification by Congress. On the fourth attempt, in July of 1859, freestaters successfully drafted a no-slavery constitution and set the current boundaries of the state. In April of 1860 the Kansas constitution was approved by the House of Representatives, but was refused by the Senate which was under a pro-slavery majority. Because of the Senate's refusal to admit Kansas as a state, the issue erupted into a national political issue. In order to be admitted, there had to be a substantial shift in power in the Senate and the presidency.It wasn't until January 29, 1861, that the bill making Kansas the 34th state reached President James Buchanan's desk and was signed.

If Kansas had a victory entering the United States as a free state, then their contribution to the Civil War effort helped provide a victory to all of America. All told, over 20,000 Kansans fought on behalf of freeing the Union—two-thirds of the fighting-age male population at that time. Most of these soldiers fought elsewhere; however, one major Civil War battle in Kansas was the Battle of Mine Creek in 1864. Had this battle been won by the Confederacy, Kansas' infant existence as a free state would have been in jeopardy.

The Civil War ended, violence ceased, and a rebuilding process began in other states. Unfortunately, for Kansas, violence continued as white settlers moved in and encroached upon the territory of Native Americans. Even though forts on the plains continued to provide protection for settlers, many raids and mini-battles were fought, reaching an apex in 1867 when nearly 130 settlers were killed. Native American-Settler skirmishes waned in the latter half of the 1860's.

Meanwhile, Kansas continued to grow and develop. Schools, farms, and main streets cropped up all over the State. Railroads paved the way for the further proliferation of modernization. People could travel and transport goods and services more easily, resulting in the establishment of towns like Wichita, Dodge City, and Newton. The great prairie enabled Kansas to establish the country's eminent cattle industry. And, the farmland that attracted Indians and impressed Coronado earned Kansas the nickname - the Wheat State.

Technology advanced, enabling planes to fly and trains to run on diesel instead of steam. In the early 20th century, Kansas began what is now the greatest airplane producing center in the world. More efficient farm equipment helped make Kansas the largest exporter of wheat, and energy drawn from its oil wells helped power a nation. Kansas has never been free of adversity. Throughout its proud, yet difficult history, the citizens of this state have fought for prosperity and success.

The message inscribed on our State Seal, "Ad Astra Per Aspera", or "To the Stars Through Difficulty", reflects the adversity of this great State's history and the promise of its present and future.


For more in-depth information on Kansas history visit the Kansas Historical Society.