Kansas didn’t really get settled by Europeans until the mid-1850’s though most towns were founded in the 1880’s. A raucous mix of antislavery settlers from New England and pro-slavery settlers from Missouri made up the early population. They fought intensely over the issue, sparking what would become the US Civil War. Things are more harmonious now, and the ‘Heart of America’ as Kansas terms itself is full of friendly people and a surprisingly diverse and interesting landscape.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition had the goal of exploring the new Louisiana Purchase all the way to the west coast. They camped in Kansas City in 1804 at the site of today’s Kaw Point Riverfront Park. Another American explorer, Zebulon Pike, crossed Kansas in 1806, labeling it the Great American Desert―a label that discouraged early settlement.
The Santa Fe Trail was established in 1821 as a connection between the Southwest region and Missouri. The road passed right through Kansas, and the US Army built outposts like Fort Riley and Fort Leavenworth in 1827 to protect travelers from bandits and Indians. A section of the road was incorporated into the Oregon Trail when it opened in 1841, and these westward paths were the main transportation routes until the railroad entered the scene in the 1860’s.
Kansas was a vital stopover on the pioneer trails heading west, but it was also traditional Native American territory. In 1830, the Indian Removal Act began relocating natives to land in Kansas, which intended to be their new reservations. But by 1854, American settlers had convinced the US government to change the treaties and open the Midwest to settlement, and the Kansas Territory was opened for business.
Pro-slavery settlers from Missouri poured into the area to try and turn it into a slave state. Abolitionists from New England, known as Free-Staters, came in equal numbers to try and stop them. From 1855 to 1858, the violent period battles of Bleeding Kansas directly preceded the US Civil War, and are considered a major spark that ignited America’s worst internal war. In 1861, Kansas was the 34th state admitted to the Union as a free state.
The decade that followed saw the start of the Indian Wars, the roots of alcohol prohibition, and the first cattle drives. The cow towns that sprouted up as stopovers to the west became the modern cities of Kansas City, Dodge City, and Abilene. Men like Wild Bill Hickok policed these towns in the 1870’s, and the Wild West was born.
Cattle drives gave way to farming in Kansas. Most of the original settlers came to the Great Plains to farm, raising large families that would form the roots of today’s society. Pockets of German, Swedes, and other European ethnicities founded villages that grew into towns. In 1881, Kansas was the first state to prohibit alcohol. Public bars were not allowed in the state until 1987.
The hard work ethics, religion, and intolerance of drinking have all helped mold the culture of Kansas. Abolitionists helped keep the state free of slavery and the Progressive Movement of the 20th century found a home base in Kansas. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl also shaped the people here, making them hardy and determined. Today, the state is a strong mix of farmers, craftspeople, and business owners who know their history and take great pride in it.