Kansas Lincoln Trail title

Abraham Lincoln visits Kansas after the Kansas-Nebraska Act

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 took 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? The spread of slavery could engulf every state.

Leavenworth has hosted me several times, but all opinions are my own.

My book Secret Kansas includes the story of the 6888th Central Postal Battalion, honored at Fort Leavenworth.

Table of contents: “A Crime Against Kansas” | Lincoln arrives | Troy | Doniphan | Atchison | Leavenworth | White House | Legacies | Statehood | Lincoln’s Little Correspondent | Kansas State University | Homestead Act | Emancipation | Lincoln collection | Ford Theater piano | Lincoln’s Avenger | Lincoln County

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s brainchild, had destroyed the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, which had retained a balance between free and slave states. The act had enshrined popular sovereignty as the governing principle in the Kansas-Nebraska Territory. That meant the popular vote would determine the state’s decision on the question of slavery. Jayhawkers and border ruffians had flooded the state to gain control of the territorial legislature, then in Lecompton. However, the territorial government was divided, and the capital had bounced around the territory before landing in Lecompton.

Related: Follow the Kansas Territorial Capital Trail to Lecompton and beyond.

Brooks beats Sumner editorial cartoon
A Northern caricature of Brooks beating Sumner

“A Crime Against Kansas”

Three years before the future President arrived in the territory, prominent Republican United States Senator Charles Sumner had denounced the slave staters’ conduct in Kansas in a two-day speech, “The Crime Against Kansas.” He called out Douglas and South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler by name on the Senate floor. Congressman Preston Brooks, Butler’s relative, assaulted Sumner with a cane. Sumner’s severe injuries prevented him from tending to his duties for months. 

As Kansas bled and the ties that bound the nation frayed, Lincoln came to the state. Let’s follow Lincoln’s footsteps on the Kansas Lincoln Trail. We’ll visit Elwood, Troy, Doniphan, Atchison, and Leavenworth and then tour other Lincoln connections throughout Kansas.

In 1859, former Kansan and staunch abolitionist John Brown 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. (Brown’s group was the most notorious of the bloody bands infesting Kansas. Pro-slavery settlers and free-state pioneers massacred each other.) Northeast Kansas was Lincoln’s chance to test his presidential campaign themes before a smaller audience than he would face back East.

Related: Osawatomie enshrines John Brown’s Cabin.

map of Elwood, first town on the Kansas Lincoln Trail
Elwood was already a victim of the Missouri River by the time Lincoln arrived. Successive floods would carve much of the town into the riverbed. (Kansas Memory)

Lincoln arrives in Kansas

On December 1, 1859, a beardless Lincoln, Daniel Webster Wilder, and Mark Delahay sat in the dirt in St. Joseph, Missouri, 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.

Wilder noticed Lincoln’s shirt had missing buttons as they awaited the ferry. The Presidential candidate folded his legs, reminding Wilder of the hind legs of a Kansas grasshopper.

Great Western Hotel ad
Ad for the Great Western Hotel, where Lincoln stayed in Elwood. (Newspapers.com)

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.

Look deeper into Lincoln’s time in Kansas.

A warm welcome in Elwood

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 speak. 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 discussed the slavery issue. 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.

Site of the original Doniphan County Courthouse
Lincoln spoke in the original Doniphan County Courthouse, at this site across the courthouse square from the current courthouse.

Lincoln freezes on his way to Troy

The following day, the weather had turned to bitter cold and snow. Lincoln and his party stopped at the new McClelland’s Tavern a half mile west of Blair, 4.5 miles east of Troy, to warm up. A private home later replaced the tavern, which was razed to the ground. The site is now a field.

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, now a home at First and Myrtle.

Frigid winds rock the Troy courthouse during Lincoln’s speech

Villard, Richardson, and the others attended Lincoln’s Troy speech. About 40 people crowded into the new brick courthouse to hear him as the winds rocked the 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. Andrew G. 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.

Nelson Rogers House, on the Kansas Lincoln Trail
Legend says that Lincoln visited Sidney Tennent’s home.

When the speeches ended, legend says 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.

Lincoln Plaza in Troy, Kansas
This Lincoln Memorial stands next to the Nelson Rogers House.

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.

Pre-Civil War Doniphan County trails
Trails in pre-Civil War Doniphan County (Kansas Memory)

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 speaking, the tall, gaunt Lincoln walked off the speakers’ platform and placed his hand on 9-year-old Louisa Kentzler’s head. “How do you do, little girl?” he asked. Guests had booked all 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.

Kansas Avenue Methodist Church on the Kansas Lincoln Trail
The Kansas Avenue Methodist Church, where Lincoln spoke. (Kansas Memory)

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. When 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 suppressed all news of Lincoln’s speech.

Atchison in 1860, a year after Lincoln walked the Kansas Lincoln Trail
Atchison a few months after Lincoln’s visit. (Kansas Memory)


“How about John Brown?”

The Commonwealth of Virginia had executed abolitionist and former Kansan John Brown 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.”

1876 map of Leavenworth on the Kansas Lincoln Trail
Map of Leavenworth in 1876

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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, at Fourth and Delaware.

Leavenworth in 1867
Leavenworth in 1867, eight years after Lincoln’s visit. (Kansas Memory)

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.

Stockton Hall on the Kansas Lincoln Trail
Stockton Hall, where Lincoln spoke and Booth performed, is now home to a title company and an insurance shop.

In December 1863, Lincoln’s future assassin, John Wilkes Booth, performed on the Stockton Hall stage at Fourth and Delaware.

Planter's Hotel steps on the Kansas Lincoln Trail
The replica of the Plainter’s Hotel steps encloses a time capsule.

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 Kansas Republicans won.

Roxie’s reliable report: Fort Leavenworth’s Frontier Army Museum preserves the carriage Lincoln used in Kansas.

“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 potential 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.

Lincoln and New York banner
The New-York Historical Society celebrated the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech in 2009-10.

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 Republican Party members invited Lincoln for a whirlwind tour. Lincoln continued to impress those who heard him.

At the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Lincoln became the unanimous nominee on the third ballot. Despite Lincoln’s favorable Kansas reception, Lincoln did not have the support of the Kansas delegation. Instead, the delegation voted for Seward as the Republican candidate.

Lincoln hoists the 34-star flag
Lincoln hoists the 34-star flag, including Kansas, above Independence Hall, Philadelphia.

Extend the Kansas Lincoln Trail with Lincoln’s Kansas legacies

While Lincoln did not return to Kansas, his legacy stands in many Kansas places.

Lincoln’s election ensures Kansas’s statehood

Four candidates sought the Presidency in 1860. They split the vote, enabling Lincoln to win without a single Southern electoral vote. Southern states began seceding in protest of Lincoln’s election, and their Senators began leaving. Without the slave states blocking Kansas statehood, Kansas Territory became the State of Kansas on January 29, 1861. In Philadelphia, Lincoln hoisted the first 34-star flag above Independence Hall on February 22, 1861. On March 4, 1861, Lincoln became the 16th President of the United States.

The girl who encouraged Lincoln to grow a beard

Grace Bedell Billings, Lincoln's Little Correspondent

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?” Lincoln grew a beard despite his concerns, 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.

Products from K-State Ag
Enjoy great food from Call Hall Dairy Bar, a Kansas State University College of Agriculture project.

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's homesteaders came to the land offices.
After obtaining their land patents, the settlers would establish a bank account at the Bank of Oberlin, now the LandMark Inn.

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.

Quindaro in Kansas City, Kansas
Many escaping enslaved people fled slavery across the Missouri River to Quindaro, now part of Kansas City, Kansas.

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 on 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.

Related: Experience Kansas civil rights sites.

One of Lincoln's final telegrams held in the University of St. Mary's collections.
An autograph hunter clipped Lincoln’s signature from this telegram addressed to Mary Lincoln.

See Lincoln’s last telegram and other Lincoln treasures

The University of St. Mary in Leavenworth preserves one of Lincoln’s final telegrams in its special collections. He addressed the handwritten message to his wife Mary. Unfortunately, autograph hunters clipped the signature.

The telegram is displayed, but the collection’s greatest treasure is locked away. After Congress approved the 13th Amendment, Lincoln, Senators, and Congressmen signed commemorative copies of the proposed 13th Amendment. Because amendments are not Presidential business, Lincoln was not supposed to sign the document. Congress mildly censured him for it.

Only 14 of the commemorative copies remain — and USM’s Keleher Learning Commons has one. The university displays a facsimile of the document, but the original is carefully preserved away from damaging light.

The Chickering piano that witnessed Lincoln's assassination
This piano witnessed Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865.

The piano that witnessed Lincoln’s assassination

The Jack Wyatt Museum in Kansas City displays the Chickering piano 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.

Boston Corbett
Against orders, Boston Corbett executed Lincoln’s assassin. (Kansas Memory)

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.

Nine years later, Corbett became Assistant Doorkeeper for the Kansas House of Representatives, but the job didn’t last. He heard a blasphemous comment and brandished his pistol in the House. Officials committed him to an asylum in consequence. Corbett escaped in May 1888 and vanished.

Lincoln County in 1901
Lincoln County in 1901, showing the City of Lincoln in the center. (Kansas Memory)

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.

Learn more about Lincoln in Kansas in the Kansas Museum of History’s online exhibit.

Lincoln in Leavenworth
A beardless Abraham Lincoln stands on the Leavenworth Municipal Building’s lawn across the sidewalk from Lady Liberty.

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 with Leavenworth information. However, Leavenworth has excellent historical walking tours. Find a sculpture of Lincoln without a beard on its city hall lawn. Read more in the Midwest Road Trip Adventures book.

The Cast Iron Monument defines Kansas geography
The triangular witness stones at each cardinal point direct visitors’ view to the Cast Iron Monument.

While in Doniphan County, climb to the Cast Iron Monument, where the Kansas-Nebraska boundary begins. Remember those who fought for freedom in the Civil War when you reach the top. After all, the first Civil War battles happened because of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that the boundary represents.

Related: Learn more about Kansas geographic oddities.

The depot in Leavenworth
The depot in Leavenworth preserves many of the features of the city’s train depot.

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. While in Leavenworth, celebrate the city’s role in railroad history by eating at The depot and The Pullman Place Family Restaurant.

The Leavenworth, Pawnee, and Western Railroad began in 1855, and stockholders reorganized it into the Union Pacific Eastern Division in 1863. The UPED took advantage of the 1864 revision of the 1862 Pacific Railway Act and built toward Denver. The UPED was not connected to the Union Pacific Railroad despite its name. Because the UPRR’s financing became notorious, the UPED changed its name to the Kansas Pacific in 1869.

Leavenworth Local Hotel
The Leavenworth Local is a boutique hotel in the former Immaculata school building.

Establish your headquarters at the Leavenworth Local Hotel, formerly Leavenworth’s Immaculata High.

Related: Leavenworth is one of our 12 best places to visit in Kansas.

Related: Lincoln was the 16th President. Visit the 36th President, Lyndon Johnson, at his Texas ranch.

Kansas Lincoln Trail title
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