Follow Abraham Lincoln’s footsteps on the Kansas Lincoln Trail
“If I went West, I think I would go to Kansas — to Leavenworth or Atchison.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1860
Lincoln wasn’t blowing smoke when he said he’d go to Kansas. He had already visited the state before politics’ requirements take him back East permanently. In the 1860 election, Bleeding Kansas was the central issue. Why? Because if the government could force or induce Kansas to allow slavery, how could any part of the nation remain a free state? Lincoln came to Kansas to investigate the answer to that question. Let’s follow Lincoln’s footsteps on the Kansas Lincoln Trail. We’ll visit Elwood, Troy, Doniphan, Atchison, and Leavenworth.
In 1859, former Kansan and staunch abolitionist John Brown had attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown saw the attack as a step toward slavery’s overthrow. Lincoln disagreed. Coming to Kansas, where Brown had earned his violent, radical reputation, could cast Lincoln in a more reasonable light.
Lincoln arrives in Kansas
On December 1, 1859, a beardless Lincoln, Daniel Webster Wilder, and Mark Delahay sat in the dirt in St. Joseph, Mo., waiting for the ferryboat Ebenezer to take them across the Missouri River. Delahay’s wife, Louisiana (Hanks) Delahay was Lincoln’s second cousin on his mother’s side.
As they awaited the ferry, Wilder noticed that Lincoln’s shirt was missing buttons. The Presidential candidate folded his legs, reminding Wilder of the hind legs of a Kansas grasshopper.
The ferry trip was short. Since the ferry ran every 15 minutes, the journey from Kansas to Missouri had to take less than 15 minutes.
Elwood and the weather offered Lincoln a warm welcome
A man walked around Elwood banging a gong to draw attention to Lincoln’s imminent arrival on the Kansas Lincoln Trail’s first stop. The citizens knew about Lincoln. For some time, the Elwood Free Press promoted a Republican ticket of William H. Seward for President and Abraham Lincoln for Vice-President.
The crowd and the weather offered Lincoln a warm welcome. The temperature at nearby Fort Leavenworth reached 65 degrees.
Lincoln was tired from his long journey from Illinois and felt “under the weather,” but the crowd begged him to make a speech. He consented to make a few remarks at the Great Western Hotel, at Fifth and Doniphan, the state’s largest. The short address filled almost an entire column in the next Free Press issue.
In his speech, he said the Constitution’s Framers believed slavery would die on its own, and they refused to use the word “slavery” in the document. “… They did not want a word there to tell future generations that slavery had ever been legalized in America.”
The Great Western Hotel is no more; only a field remains.
Lincoln freezes on his way to Troy
The following day, the weather had turned to bitter cold and snow. To warm up, Lincoln and his party stopped at the new McClelland’s Tavern in Blair, 4.5 miles east of Troy.
Henry Villard, Albert Deane Richardson, and two other men met Lincoln’s party. Villard noticed that Lincoln’s skin was blue, and he was shivering. He loaned Lincoln a buffalo robe. When the Lincoln party arrived in Troy, they ate breakfast at the Smith Tavern, currently a private home at First and Myrtle.
Frigid winds rock the Troy courthouse during Lincoln’s speech
Villard, Richardson, and the others attended Lincoln’s talk. About 40 people crowded into the courthouse to hear him as the wind rocked the little frame building. At first, Richardson was unimpressed. Within 15 minutes, Richardson was fascinated by the power of Lincoln’s mind. Lincoln spoke for another hour and a half.
After Lincoln concluded, those listening desired to hear the other side’s rebuttal. They called for the state’s largest slaveholder, Col. Ege, to answer Lincoln. The man said he had heard “all the ablest public speakers.” He dissented from everything Lincoln had said, but Ege said Lincoln had given “the most logical speech” he had ever heard.
When the speeches ended, legend says that Lincoln walked a few yards to the Sidney Tennent house for a visit. Tennent and John Calhoun, formerly Kansas Territory’s Surveyor-General, had been friends until Calhoun’s death six weeks earlier. Calhoun met Lincoln during their Black Hawk War service.
The Doniphan County Historical Society has preserved the Nelson Rogers House, named for its original owner, at 138 E. Walnut. A small museum built from recycled bricks stands in the house’s backyard.
A marker topped with a Lincoln bust next to the Rogers House commemorates his speech.
The Kansas Lincoln Trail continues in Doniphan
Despite the cold and near darkness, Lincoln and his party continued 10 miles south to Doniphan, now a ghost town on the Kansas Lincoln Trail. While Lincoln was eating at Asa Low’s hotel, a crowd gathered. Lincoln spoke to the citizens. After he finished speaking, the tall, gaunt Lincoln walked off the speakers’ platform and placed his hand on top of 9-year-old Louisa Kentzler’s head. “How do you do, little girl?” he asked. Guests had booked all of the rooms, and Lincoln had nowhere to stay. Julia Boyington and her mother gave up their rooms for Lincoln.
The hotel site is now an open field.
The Kansas Lincoln Trail heads to Atchison
After Doniphan, Lincoln headed to Atchison. A brass band marched through Atchison’s streets to advertise the 8 p.m. meeting. By the time Lincoln arrived, the Methodist Church at Fifth and Parallel was packed. He could hardly get through the crowd to speak. Lincoln spoke for 2 hours and 20 minutes.
The Atchison Champion editor, John A. Martin, was pro-Seward, and he suppressed all news of Lincoln’s speech.
“What about John Brown?”
The Commonwealth of Virginia had executed abolitionist and former Kansan John Brown on that day, and the crowd was tense. Lincoln did not mention Brown until someone shouted, “How about John Brown?”
Lincoln replied that Brown had deserved his hanging. He had “violated the laws of his country.” Lincoln continued, “Brown has shown great courage, rare unselfishness.… But no man, North or South, can approve of violence or crime.”
Lincoln goes to Leavenworth
Leavenworth Republicans decided to outdo their Atchison counterparts. Citizens gathered behind a band and people waving banners. They escorted him to the Mansion House Hotel, Shawnee and Fifth, where Col. John C. Vaughn welcomed him. Lincoln replied gracefully and told the citizens he would speak that night at Stockton Hall, Fourth and Delaware.
Again, citizens packed the hall. Lincoln predicted that Kansas would soon become a state with the responsibilities of statehood. Then he explained how the doctrine of popular sovereignty in the Kansas-Nebraska Act had turned Kansas into a bloody battleground. If the slave states wished to destroy the Union to keep slavery, “it will be our duty to deal with you as old John Brown has been dealt with.” At the end of his speech, he asked people to think “soberly and maturely” and always vote.
In December 1863, Lincoln’s future assassin, John Wilkes Booth, performed on the Stockton Hall stage.
Lincoln makes a second Leavenworth speech
On Sunday, December 4, Lincoln visited the Delahays‘ home on Kiowa Street near its Third Street intersection. Friends also visited.
On Monday, Lincoln walked around Leavenworth. So many people desired to hear him that he spoke again from the steps of the Planters Hotel on North Esplanade between Seneca and Shawnee streets. The crowd standing on Main Street grew to about 1,500 people.
A reporter said Lincoln’s speech “was the greatest address ever heard here.”
On Tuesday, Lincoln remained in Leavenworth to see the territorial elections. The Republicans won.
“Your friend, A. Lincoln”
Before he boarded the train for Illinois on Wednesday, Mary Delahay, Mark’s daughter, asked him to write in her autograph book. He wrote, “With pleasure, I write my name in your album. Ere long, some younger man will be more happy to confer his name upon you. Don’t allow it, Mary, until fully assured that he is worthy of the happiness.… Your friend, A. LINCOLN.”
Lincoln’s probable second Kansas visit
He may have stopped in Kansas on August 11, 1859, during his trip from St. Joseph to Council Bluffs, Iowa. After that, he never returned to the Sunflower State.
From Kansas to the White House
On February 27, 1860, Lincoln spoke to 1,500 people at the Cooper Union in New York City. The audience included many prominent New York Republicans. Lincoln had developed the speech in Kansas, and the people who had heard him there recognized what he had said.
After his New York success, New England Republicans invited Lincoln for a whirlwind tour. Lincoln continued to impress those who heard him.
At the Republican convention in Chicago, Lincoln became the unanimous nominee on the third ballot. Despite Lincoln’s favorable reception in Kansas, the state’s delegation had voted for Seward.
Extend the Kansas Lincoln Trail with Lincoln’s Kansas legacies
While Lincoln never returned to Kansas, his legacy stands in many Kansas places.
Lincoln’s election ensures Kansas statehood
Four candidates sought the Presidency in 1860. They split the vote, enabling Lincoln to win without a single Southern electoral vote. In protest of Lincoln’s election, Southern states began seceding, and their Senators began leaving. Without the slave states to block Kansas, Kansas Territory became the State of Kansas on January 29, 1861. In Philadelphia, Lincoln hoisted the first 34-star flag above Independence Hall.
The girl who encouraged Lincoln to grow a beard
In 1860, 11-year-old Grace Bedell advised Lincoln to grow a beard. Lincoln wrote back, “Do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affection if I were to begin it now?” Despite his concerns, Lincoln grew a beard, and the voters elected him. Lincoln and Bedell met in her hometown, Westfield, New York, on February 16, 1861, when he was President-elect.
When she was 17, Bedell married George Newton Billings. They eventually moved to Kansas, settling in Delphos.
Find the “Lincoln’s Little Correspondent” monument in Delphos’s town square. The pen she used to write the letter and other family artifacts are in the Delphos Museum. George and Grace rest in the Delphos Cemetery. A mannequin of George wearing his Civil War uniform stands in the Ottawa County Museum, Minneapolis. In 1999, Westfield installed a statue of Lincoln and Bedell.
Lincoln and Kansas State University
In 1862, Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, also called the Land-Grant Colleges Act. The act provided land to endow colleges specializing in “agriculture and the mechanical arts.” Kansas State University became the first operational land-grant university.
Lincoln and the Homestead Act
Also, in 1862, Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. Settlers flocked to take up claims. Oberlin enjoyed one of the westernmost land offices, where pioneers who “proved up” their claim could obtain a title. After the settlers received their title, they would establish accounts at the Bank of Oberlin, now the LandMark Inn.
One of those homesteaders was William Johnson, a Black Tennessean who fought for the Union. He homesteaded in Sherman County.
Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, wasn’t the only person to free enslaved people
On Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Two years and one month later, he signed the Joint Resolution of Congress, sending the 13th Amendment to the states. Sadly, Lincoln did not live to see its ratification on December 6, 1865. Blacks had been emancipating themselves for years as they followed the Underground Railroad in Kansas. Extend the Kansas Lincoln Trail at Leavenworth’s Richard Allen Cultural Center & Museum and the Kansas African-American Museum, Wichita.
The piano that witnessed Lincoln’s assassination
The Jack Wyatt Museum in Kansas City displays the Chickering piano that was on stage in Ford’s Theater the night Booth shot Lincoln. Booth waited for a famous laugh line to mask the gunshot’s sound. The museum displays the last words Lincoln heard above the piano.
Lincoln’s Avenger moves to Kansas
Boston Corbett joined the hunt for Booth, Lincoln’s assassin. Despite orders to capture Booth, Corbett shot him. People called him “The Avenger of Lincoln.”
He moved into a dugout near Concordia in 1878.
Corbett became Assistant Doorkeeper for the Kansas House of Representatives in 1887. The job didn’t last. He heard a blasphemous comment and brandished his pistol in the House. Officials committed him to an insane asylum. Corbett escaped in May 1888 and vanished.
Kansas names a county for Lincoln
Not quite two years after Lincoln’s assassination, Kansas named a county for the slain President on February 26, 1867, a few days after Lincoln’s birthday. In 1870, George Green founded the city of Lincoln in the county’s center. Every February, Lincoln holds the Lincoln Reenactment.
Learn more about Lincoln in Kansas in the Kansas Museum of History’s online exhibit.
How to experience the Kansas Lincoln Trail
Drive the trail with the Lincoln in Kansas brochure, but bring a printed copy. Cell service is spotty. Unfortunately, the flyer is missing its second page. However, Leavenworth has excellent historical walking tours that include the Kansas Lincoln Trail. Find a sculpture of Lincoln without a beard on its city hall lawn. Read more in the book Midwest Road Trip Adventures, available in our travel store.
While in Doniphan County, climb to the Cast Iron Monument, where the Kansas-Nebraska boundary begins. When you reach the top, remember those who fought for freedom in the Civil War. After all, the first Civil War battles happened because of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that the boundary represents.
Where to eat and stay on the Kansas Lincoln Trail
In Troy, eat at the Feed Store Café on the Doniphan County Courthouse Square. In Atchison, eat at Paolucci’s Restaurant, Deli & Lounge, and in Leavenworth, eat at The depot. Leavenworth is one of our 12 best places to visit in Kansas.
Establish your headquarters at the Union Park Guest House, Leavenworth; the Tuck U Inn at Glick Mansion, Atchison; or the Troy Bed & Breakfast at the Windermere.
Lincoln was the 16th President. Visit the 36th President, Lyndon Johnson, at his Texas ranch.