Kansas is a state rich in history. Originally just a stopping point in the westward movement during the nineteenth century, settlers eventually recognized the value of the prairie for cropland, grazing, and even oil.
Long before the European and African American settlers came, the land was inhabited by indigenous people – the Kansa(Kaw), Wichita, Osage, and Pawnee Native American tribes. Some of these were semi-nomadic, following the bison herds, but also pursuing agriculture. There were thousands of square miles of uninterrupted prairie. Many of the wagons passing over during the 1800s didn’t know the special characteristics of the Flint Hills that make them ideal for grazing cattle – or bison. For thousands of years, the Native Americans lived undisturbed, except for fighting among themselves, until the 1500s when the Spanish ventured north from Mexico. The Kansa were not a warlike people – and they suffered for it, being driven from their land by white and Native American alike, until by 1873, they were almost entirely in what is now Oklahoma.
Another indigenous group was the Potawatomi, who once ranged all over Illinois, Wisconsin, and around the Great Lakes, controlling millions of acres. They were pushed to Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas. In 1846, the United States government had an insatiable appetite for land. Congress forced the Potawatami to sell their land, in a little understood treaty, to the government. This was perhaps the twentieth treaty made (and later broken) with the tribe.
ARTICLE 2. The said tribes of Indians hereby agree to sell and cede, and do hereby sell and cede,to the United States, all the lands to which they have claim of any kind whatsoever, and especially the tracts or parcels of lands ceded to them by the treaty of Chicago, and subsequent thereto, and now, in whole or in part, possessed by their people, lying and being north of the river Missouri, and embraced in the limits of the Territory of Iowa; and also all that tract of country lying and being on or near the Osage River, and west of the State of Missouri; it being understood that these cessions are not to affect the title of said Indians to any grants or reservations made to them by former treaties.
ARTICLE 3. In consideration of the foregoing cessions or sales of land to the United States, it is agreed to pay to said tribes of Indians the sum of eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars, subject to the conditions, deductions, and liabilities provided for in the subsequent articles of this treaty.TREATY WITH THE POTAWATOMI NATION
June 5 and 17, 1846
In 1869, the Charles Ingalls family migrated to southeastern Kansas, and began the saga that became “The Little House on the Prairie”. The government renegotiated the treaties in 1861, 1866, and 1867, each time decreasing the land allowed to indigenous people, usually with the threat of military force – sign or else, often for as little as a dollar an acre.
In 1859, the railroads were expanding, and they needed land for tracks. This was what motivated Congress to renegotiate the treaties, treating the Native Americans as ignorant children who needed paternal protection. “It is solemnly agreed that the peace and friendship which so happily exist between the people of the United States and the Pottowautomie Indians shall continue forever; the said tribes of Indians giving assurance, hereby, of fidelity and friendship to the Government and people of the United States; and the United States giving, at the same time, a promise of all proper care and parental protection.” – 1846 Treaty
The railroad, finding Congress handed it more land than it needed, proceeded to sell land to settlers. Wherever the railroad went, villages and towns sprang up. In 1871, the Atchison and Topeka Railway was completed as far south as Cottonwood, about seventy miles south of Topeka or Abilene.
By 1878, Stephen and Louisa Jones brought their family from southeast Colorado and bought land from the railroad. Stephen started small at first, buying only 1400 acres or 2.1 square miles of land, paying $2.83 per acre. Cattle prospered in the Flint Hills, and the railroad gave easy access to eastern markets. Eventually, Stephen expanded to 7000 acres, or almost eleven square miles – ironically, about the amount left to the Potawatomi today. He built thirty miles of stone fence to surround the property, and constructed a mansion, along with the largest stone barn known in the territories. The barn boasted a huge windmill on top for the first few years, until it was lost in a storm. Louisa, terrified of tornadoes, made sure a strong storm cellar was included in the house. Stone was so plentiful, even the three-hole outhouse was stone and still stands.
Jones only stuck with the ranch for nine years, selling out to his wealthier neighbor, Barney Lantry. Lantry expanded to 15,000 acres, and made a fortune quarrying and selling stone to the railroad and burgeoning towns, while continuing to raise cattle. The ranch continued as a going concern, broken apart and then rejoined, until finally purchased by the National Park Service in 1994.
Today there are miles of undisturbed prairie and hiking trails, as well as a native bison herd. There are so many stories the land could tell. Take a walk, and listen to the wind – can you hear the Native American voices singing after a bison hunt? Or the cowboys relaxing after a hard day’s work? Or the lonesome whistle of a steam train, taking beef to market? Perhaps Louisa Jones, nervously waiting as a storm or tornado passed by? Come and listen to the voices on the wind – see the stars spread out in the heavens like a black bowl with millions of pinpricks.