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Site last updated
26 June, 2013
Kansas: The Prelude to the War for the Union
Chapter II: The Field
by Spring, Leverett Wilson


The territory of Kansas extended westward from Missouri to the summit of the Rocky Mountain and northward from the thirty-seventh to the fortieth parallel, embracing an area of about one hundred and twenty-six thousand square miles. The history of this vast, mid-continent region belongs mainly to quite recent times. In fact less than fifty years have elapsed since civilization touched it otherwise than casually and fugitively.

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado is reputed to be the first European who visited Kansas. In 1540 he set out from Mexico with a small army of Spaniards and Indians to seize Cibola, a province situated somewhere in New Mexico, and rumored to abound in magnificent cities which the prose of actual investigation discredited into a few wretched hamlets. Coronado's disappointments did not end at Cibola. Notwithstanding that dissuasive experience, he fell into the toils of a smooth-tongued fabling Indian nicknamed the Turk, "on account of his resemblance to the people of that nation," a rascal who vapored about a country of remarkable wealth and splendor lying far eastward across the plains and called Quivera.

In the spring of 1541 the credulous Spaniard broke camp at Tiguex, a province of the Rio Grande valley, near the mouth of the Puerco, to which he retired after a bootless exploration of Cibola, and began a new quest. In thirty-seven days he reached the Arkansas. Here provisions began to fail, and the bulk of the expedition retraced its steps to New Mexico. The route of Coronado, who pushed on with a few picked men, is bestead with uncertainties. Nothing better can be offered in regard to it than conjectures more or less plausible. He appears to have advanced from southwestern Kansas "through mighty plains and sandy heaths, smooth and wearisome and bare of wood.... All that way the plains are as full of crook back oxen as the mountain Serena in Spain is of sheep.... They were a great succor for the hunger and want of bread which our people stood in. One day it rained in that plain a great shower of hail, as big as oranges, which caused many tears, weaknesses, and vows." The expedition probably called a halt in northeastern Kansas near the Nebraska line. One point only is absolutely clear -- Coronado had been duped again. No rich spoils, no ancient and picturesque ruins were discovered; no imperial cities

"Such as vision
Builds from the purple crags and silver towers 
Of battlemented cloud, as in derision 
Of kingliest masonry." 


It is doubtful whether any single feature of the expedition afforded the Spaniards more retrospective satisfaction than the fate of the tricky Turk. Confessing that he had lured them into the desert to accomplish their ruin, he was promptly and it may be presumed enthusiastically strangled. This first reconnaissance of civilization upon Kansas achieved nothing of practical importance.

After the departure of Coronado no Europeans visited Kansas for an interval of more than a hundred and seventy-five years. Meanwhile Louisiana, a vast territory vaguely denominated as the region drained by the Mississippi and its effluents, passed into the possession of France. Of this enormous tract Kansas, with the exception of some unimportant territorial additions from the Texas cession of 1850, formed a portion. It was not until 1719 that Frenchmen found their way thither. In that year M. du Tissenet, acting under orders of M. de Bienville, governor of Louisiana, made a hasty tour of exploration, found the country "beautiful and well timbered," native warriors "stout, well made and great," lead mines "abundant,... and erected a column with the arms of the king placed upon it 27th of September, 1719."

In New Mexico there was a movement to save Kansas from the Frenchmen. An armed caravan left Santa he in 1721 on this errand, but it was ill-managed, and blundered into total destruction.

To guard against danger from New Mexico in the future, the French erected in 1722-23 a fortification called Fort Orleans, upon an island in the Missouri River near the mouth of the Osage, and M. de Bourgmont was put in command. During the following year Bourgmont made an extended tour in Kansas. With the various Indian tribes who inhabited the region he assiduously cultivated pacific relations. There were receptions, speeches, pipe-smokings, distributions of presents, peace-dances, and general assurances of profound and mutual regard. It is singular that the finale of this much-protesting intercourse should have been a tragedy of utter completeness and atrocity, but such is the case. In 1725 Fort Orleans was captured by Kansas savages and the garrison slaughtered. Details are wholly unknown, as not a white man survived to recount the story, and the stolid, close-mouthed Indian never broke silence.

The massacre effectually blighted the enthusiasm of Frenchmen for explorations in Kansas. Indeed, from 1725 until the United States purchased it of Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1803, the territory dropped almost completely out of the knowledge of mankind -- glided back into the blankness and vacuity of a terra incognita. The expeditions of Lewis and Clark in 1804-06, and of Lieutenant Z. M. Pike in 1806-07, furnish almost the earliest scientific and trustworthy information. A portion of it was traversed in 1819-20 by a detachment of Major S. H. Long's party. To these early American explorers Kansas hardly presented an attractive or promising appearance. The beautiful prairies of the eastern border,

	"Billowy bays of grass ever rolling in shadow and sunshine," 


kindled their enthusiasm, but in the interior and to the westward they found a hopeless reach of desert, well enough for Indians -- for white men untenantable. Lieutenant Pike considered "the borders of the Arkansaw river ... the paradise (terrestrial) of our territories for the wandering savages.... I believe there are buffalo, elk, and deer sufficient on the banks of the Arkansaw alone, if used without waste, to feed all the savages in the United States territory one century." But the region could not support white men in large numbers even along "the rivers Kanses, La Platte, Arkansaw and their branches.... The wood now in the country would not be sufficient for a moderate share of population more than fifteen years, and then it would be out of the question to think of using any of it in manufactories, consequently their houses would be built entirely of mud-brick (like those of New Spain) or of the brick manufacture with fire. But possibly time may make discoveries of coal mines, which would render the country habitable."

With the establishment of American occupancy an era of migration set in through Kansas toward the Pacific slope -- a migration at first slender, capricious, and without system, but acquiring ultimately volume, method, and persistence sufficient to imprint clear-cut trails sheer across the mighty plains. Traders, eager to seize upon new and inviting avenues of commerce; travelers, ambitious to compel the half unknown world beyond the Missouri to yield up its secrets; Kearney's soldiers, with greedy eyes fixed on New Mexico; Mormons, fleeing into the wilderness before the wrath of civilization; gold-hunters, aflame with visions of sudden wealth among the mines of California, such was the heterogeneous, intermittent mob that trooped across Kansas during the years immediately preceding the Kansas-Nebraska legislation.

At the time of organization the territory was an Indian reservation, inhabited by about a score of native and imported tribes, among which a white population of six or seven hundred civilians had drifted, who congregated mainly around the military station, the trading posts, and the half dozen denominational mission schools. The Kansas-Nebraska bill ejected the Indians from their homes and sent them elsewhere. This consideration was not overlooked by its opponents. Edward Everett protested in polished phrase. Senator Bell of Tennessee denounced federal perfidy in the matter of Indian treaties, which "set aside at our discretion and trample under foot the most explicit and solemn guarntees." General Sam Houston made an impassioned plea in behalf of Indian rights, but the spoliating measure could not be arrested. The aborigines were successfully bargained out of the way. Some of them removed at once, and others more leisurely.

Thus in the heart of the nation there was staked off a great territory for experiments in popular sovereignty as a Union-saving expedient, a territory substantially unhistoried, with no intrusive, meddlesome past that could mar the trial. Thither hurried artisans of the North and South -- representatives of incompatible civilizations -- to take a hand in the impending struggle. It was a cross-purposed and variorum migration, -- hirelings, adventurers, blatherskites, fanatics' reformers, philanthropists, patriots. That such a medley of humanity, recruited from Moosehead Lake to the Rio Grande, responsive to all the sectional animosities which distracted and imperiled the country, conscious after some vague sort that great destinies might hinge upon their mission, would transform the wilderness of Kansas into an immediate Utopia was hardly to be anticipated.

"So foul a sky clears not without a storm." 


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