Kansas – Description & Brief History

Kansas Historical Image

By Henry Gannett in 1898

Kansas Territory

Kansas Territory

The Territory of Kansas was organized on May 30, 1854, after having formerly been under the jurisdiction of Missouri Territory. Nearly all the region comprising the Territory was originally acquired by the United States as a part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

In 1861 the Territory of Colorado was organized, taking from Kansas Territory all that part which lay west of the 25th meridian. At the same time, on January 29,1861, Kansas was admitted into the Union as a State, with its present boundaries. Besides the reduction for the formation of Colorado, Kansas was increased by the area on the southwest, which was taken from New Mexico. This addition was derived from territory brought into the Union by the annexation of Texas and purchase from that State by the United States.

Coronado Expedition by Frederic Remington

Coronado Expedition by Frederic Remington

Although the settlement of Kansas was practically effected within the first half of the 19th Century, its exploration began much earlier. In 1541, Spanish Conquistador, Vasquez de Coronado, led an expedition from Mexico through New Mexico and across Kansas toward the northeast, searching for the mythical city of Quivira. His expedition, however, came and went and left no trace behind. In later years settlement spread from New Mexico northward upon the plains of Colorado, but, so far as known, none reached the western or the southern boundary of Kansas, and there is no record of further attempts at exploration until the territory passed into the hands of the United States in 1803. Then commenced a series of explorations, under the conduct of army officers, beginning with the famous expedition of Zebulon Pike, in 1807, and ending with the Pacific Railroad explorations in the early 1850s. These expeditions traversed the region in all directions and in an exploratory sense, made the area well known.

William Becknell on the Santa Fe Trail.

William Becknell on the Santa Fe Trail.

In the days of the early movement to California, Kansas was traversed by a vast migration, which mostly followed two routes. One ran from Independence, Missouri, northwestward across the northeast corner of the State to Fort Kearney, Nebraska, and then up the Platte River. This would soon take on several names, including the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails. Starting from the same point, the second trail ran southwest to the Arkansas River, following it on to Santa Fe, New Mexico. This, which is called the Santa Fe Trail, traversed the whole breadth of Kansas from east to west. This vast migration across the State, however, left but few traces in the way of settlement, for in 1855 the region contained but 8,600 inhabitants. Five years later the number exceeded 100,000 and rapidly increased until, in 1888, it reached 1,518,552.

Voting in Kansas

Voting in Kansas

The early settlement of the State was affected by two factions, one largely made up of immigrants from Missouri, who were determined to make it a slave State; the other mainly from New England, equally determined that it should be a Free State. During the late years of its life as a Territory,  war between these factions was continuous and often bloody, and the struggle was terminated only by the election of the free-soil candidate for President in 1860. (See Bleeding Kansas)

After the admission of the State to the Union, its progress in population and industries was primarily dependent upon climate. Settlement commenced at the eastern end of the state and progressed westward. The eastern portion of the state is, in ordinary years, well-watered. On the other hand, only in occasional years was the rainfall sufficient for the needs of agriculture in the western portion.

The rainfall shows a somewhat regular diminution from east to west across the State. Settlement, in its westward progress, encountered this deficiency of rainfall, but, encouraged by a succession of rainy seasons, it pushed forward in the early 1870s much beyond the safe limit of agriculture; and this movement was efficiently aided and abetted by the railroad interests, which were concerned in the disposal of their lands. Then followed a succession of dry seasons, and the settlers in middle Kansas were literally starved out.

Abandoned farm near Syracuse, Kansas by Russell Lee, 1939.

Abandoned farm near Syracuse, Kansas by Russell Lee.

In the next decade, forgetting this bitter experience and encouraged by a second succession of wet seasons, settlement again advanced. Indeed, by 1886 or 1887 it had reached the western boundary of the State. The inevitable again happened in the form of a succession of dry seasons, and the western portion of the State was almost depopulated, the settlers suffering almost unheard-of hardships. In this second attempt to set the climate at naught the results were vastly more disastrous than in the first, inasmuch as the number of people concerned was many times as great. The entire state suffered seriously from the results. During the succeeding years, nearly every county lost population, and the entire state lost nearly one-seventh of its inhabitants. The rapid growth of Kansas between 1880 and 1887 was attended by a tremendous boom, land values rose enormously, not only in the rural portions but, also in the cities. The following reaction and depreciation in values were disastrous not only to farmers but to real-estate speculators. However, a slight increase in population in the mid-1890s indicated that Kansas was about to enter upon another period of prosperity.

The area of Kansas is 82,080 square miles. Speaking broadly, the surface is an undulating plain, rising gradually from an elevation of 700 or 800 feet at its eastern boundary to 3,000 or 4,000 feet at its western boundary. Most of the surface of the state bears out the above general characterization as an undulating plain, but in certain parts, it has been cut by erosion. On the east, the Missouri River flows in a broad bottomland, which is limited by bluffs 200 feet in height. The streams in the northeastern part of the state are also lined by bluffs of considerable height. In the southwest, many of the branches of the Cimarron River have cut courses which may almost be called gorges from their depth and abruptness, and in the central-western portion of the state, considerable relief has been produced by the erosion of the streams.

South of the Arkansas River, in the southwestern portion of the state, large areas are covered by drifted sand, forming irregular hills, the sand probably being blown from the bed of the Arkansas River.

The mean elevation of the State is estimated at 2,000 feet. The distribution of rainfall ranges from about 40 inches near the southeastern corner of the to about 15 inches along the western boundary.

Waving wheat in Kansas by Carol Highsmith.

Waving wheat in Kansas by Carol Highsmith.

Agriculture depends not upon the mean rainfall for a term of years, but upon the rainfall of each year, and is therefore practically controlled by the minimum rainfall. In such a phenomenon as rainfall, the range among different years is great, especially in a sub-humid region, as is most of Kansas.

The mean annual temperature of the State ranges from 52° to 58°, being least in the north and increasing southward. The prevailing winds are from the northwest. Only a small proportion of the state is covered with timber, and it is only in the extreme eastern part that any areas are wooded, except in the form of narrow belts that are closely confined to the streams. The trees are mainly broad-leaved species. Considerable progress has been made in the growth of lines of trees designed to serve as windbreaks. Even as far west as the middle portion of the State trees have been cultivated successfully for this purpose. The species selected are commonly cottonwood, locust, and poplar.

Missouri River at White Cloud, Kansas by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Missouri River at White Cloud, Kansas by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

The slope of Kansas from west to east, the course of the streams flow in the same direction. The state is drained by westward tributaries of the Mississippi River, the Missouri, Arkansas, and their branches. The Missouri River forms the northern part of the eastern boundary of the state. In its course along the border, it receives the waters of numerous small tributaries, and at Kansas City, the Kansas River, with its branches — Smoky Hill, Saline, Solomon, Republican, and Big Blue, drains the northern half of the State. The Osage River or, as it is commonly called in Kansas, Marais des Cygnes, drains a small area in the eastern part, while the southeastern corner is drained by the Neosho River to the Arkansas River. The Arkansas River itself, with its large branch, Cimarron River, drains most of the southern half of the State.

Kansas being, in the main, an agricultural State, its manufactures in the late 19th Century were comparatively limited. However, their numbers were increasing rapidly. In 1880 the number of establishments was 2,803. By 1890, it had increased to 4,471. The principal articles of manufacture in 1890 were meat, the result of slaughtering and packing, flour, printing and publishing, foundry and machine shop products, and men’s clothing.

At the same time, the mining industries of the state were mainly in the eastern portion. Coal mining was carried on primarily in Crawford, Cherokee, Leavenworth, and Osage Counties, with 1/2 coming from Crawford County. The coal product of Kansas in the year 1896 was 2,884,801 short tons. Lead and zinc were also mined in the southeastern portion of the State, producing 20,759 tons in 1896. The mines of zinc were came from Cherokee and Crawford Counties.

Politically Kansas is divided into 105 counties, their boundaries being determined mainly by township or section lines. The control of local affairs was divided between the township and county authorities.

Union Pacific train near Desoto, Kansas by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Union Pacific train near Desoto, Kansas by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

In the late 19th Century, Kansas was well supplied with railroads, the total mileage being 9,025, an average of one mile of railroad to every nine square miles of territory. These railroads were in very few hands, there being altogether but little more than a score of operating companies. Two of these — the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, with 2,487 miles, and the Missouri Pacific, with 2,386 miles — operated more than half the mileage of the State. Other operators included the Union Pacific with 1,255 miles, the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific with 1,124 miles, the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas operated 383 miles; the St. Louis and San Francisco, 435; the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, 260; the St. Joseph and Grand Island, 138; the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Memphis, 257; and the Wichita and Western, with 125 miles.

Kansas was also well equipped with good wagon roads. The level surface insured easy grades and the character of the soil provided with good dirt roads.

Compiled & Edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of Kansas, updated May 2020.

Frontier Expedition

Frontier Expedition

By Henry Gannett; A Gazetteer of Kansas; Govt. Print. Office, 1898, Washington D.C. Note: Gannett’s article, as it appears here, is not verbatim as it has been truncated, updated, and edited.

Also See:

Early Expeditions Through Kansas

Frontier Trails

Historic People

Kansas History Main Page

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