The Kansas Territorial Capital Trail

The historic Kansas Territorial Capital Trail

The Kansas Territorial Capital’s location bounced around Kansas for seven years. The Territorial Capital Trail tells a story of insider trading and ballot-box stuffing. Follow its trail from Fort Leavenworth twice to Pawnee, Shawnee Mission twice, Lecompton, Topeka, Lawrence, Minneola, and finally Topeka again.

Junction City, Leavenworth, Lecompton, and Lawrence have all hosted me, but all opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases at no cost to you.

Table of contents: Kansas-Nebraska Act | Fort Leavenworth | Shawnee Mission | Pawnee | Shawnee Mission again | Topeka | Lecompton | Lawrence | Minneola | Lecompton again | Topeka wins

The Cast Iron Monument defines Kansas geography
The Cast Iron Monument starts the boundary between Kansas and Nebraska.

Senator Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Act sparks trouble

The trouble in Kansas began with Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, who wrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Illinois Senator hoped for two benefits. 1) He wanted to stop the fight over slavery. Douglas expected Kansas to become a slave state, while Nebraska would become a free state. 2) Douglas wanted to provide a path for a Transcontinental Railroad. He thought it should run from Chicago to the West Coast. Coincidentally, Douglas owned riverfront property in Chicago.

But his hopes failed. The act didn’t unite the country. Instead, it ignited a guerilla war, Bleeding Kansas. In turn, Bleeding Kansas fueled the American Civil War. And Douglas would never see the Transcontinental Railroad. Exhausted from campaigning for President and battling disunion, Douglas died in June 1861. His death came two months after the country went to war against itself. The Transcontinental Railroad began construction in 1862 and finished in 1869.

Related: The Kansas-Nebraska Act defined Kansas’s northern boundary, and the Cast Iron Monument defined its northeastern point.

The Rookery, part of the Kansas Territorial Capital Trail
The Rookery is called “The State’s Oldest Bachelor Pad” because unmarried officers live there.

Fort Leavenworth, the first territorial capital of Kansas

President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act on May 30, 1854, and the most turbulent period in Kansas history began. The long Kansas-Missouri border opened Kansas Territory to invasion.

Territorial Governor Andrew Reeder arrived in Kansas on October 7, 1854. The fort provided offices across from the old military prison, but he lived in The Rookery at Fort Leavenworth. Reeder remained at the fort for only two months before moving to present-day Shawnee.

How to visit the Kansas Territorial Capital Trail: Visitors must follow a procedure for entry because the fort is an active military post. The Rookery is No. 18 on Fort Leavenworth’s Historic Wayside Tour. The fort tore down the former governor’s office in 1893. The garrison replaced it with Pope Hall, but Pope Hall burned in May 1957.

The first official Kansas Governor's Mansion, Shawnee.
The first official Kansas Governor’s Mansion is now a private home in Shawnee.

The governor moves to Shawnee

The territory built a Governor’s Mansion for Reeder at present-day 10910 W. 60th St., Shawnee.

Visiting the Kansas Territorial Capital Trail: Look for the historical marker, but remain off the property.

Nearly two months after Reeder arrived, Kansas Territory held its first election for Congressional Delegate. Pro-slavery Missourians poured into the state to vote illegally. Estimates put voter fraud at 61 percent.

Reeder held a second election on March 30, 1855. This time, the citizens voted for control of the territorial Legislature. Unfortunately, this election also included massive fraud. Twice as many ballots filled the ballot boxes as residents filled the state. Understandably, the free-state supporters called the Legislature the “Bogus Legislature.”

Reeder first threw out the most fraudulent districts’ results. Then he held another election in May to combat the fraud. He also moved the capital to Pawnee, near the Fort Riley Military Reservation. Pawnee was more than 100 miles west of the Missouri line near present-day Junction City.

Preparing in Pawnee

The slavery supporters hated Pawnee because it was far from their Missouri support base. Plus, the legislators had another concern. The election process had been dirty, but Pawnee wasn’t free from corruption’s stench. Instead, Reeder owned land in the town of Pawnee and benefited from its selection as the capital.

Also, Reeder had failed to prepare Pawnee for its status as the Kansas territorial capital. The legislators had to sleep in tents because hotels were few. Even worse, the capitol building was unfinished. When the Legislature arrived, nothing separated the first and second floors, and the building was open to the sky. Frantic work added the floors and roof, but no one installed doors.

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1st Kansas Territorial Capital
The First Territorial Capitol State Historic Site at Fort Riley.

Pawnee, the four-day territorial capital

The Legislature was outraged. Plus, the cholera epidemic at the fort terrified them. They wanted to leave. The pro-slavery Legislature stayed in Pawnee from only July 2-6. Adding to the chaos, some seats had two claimants, one from each election. The slavery supporters had a simple solution. They rejected the free-state candidates.

The Legislature also established counties. Davis County surrounded Pawnee, named for then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Then, the legislators moved the capital to the Shawnee Methodist Mission over Reeder’s veto.

How to visit the Kansas Territorial Capital Trail: You must enter Fort Riley to visit the First Territorial Capitol State Historic Site. Bring a photo ID with you and prepare by reading the procedure.

Roxie’s reliable report: Slaveholder Davis despised Pawnee. He sent surveyors to prove the settlement was on the fort’s reservation. Despite Davis’ opinion, the survey proved that Pawnee was not trespassing. Davis didn’t care. He ordered the army to raze the town instead of following the survey. Only the capitol building survived. It became a museum in 1928.

Davis later became the Confederacy’s President. Since Davis had betrayed his country, the name became unpopular. After the Civil War, Davis County became Geary County in 1889.

Related: Discover 37 reasons to visit exciting Junction City.

Shawnee Mission North Building
The North Building at Shawnee Mission, where Governor Reeder had his office.

Shawnee Mission, the second unofficial territorial capital

The Bogus Legislature reconvened at the Shawnee Methodist Mission in Johnson County on July 16. They adopted the harsh Missouri slavery laws. And, on August 8, they chose Lecompton as the permanent Kansas territorial capital. Eight days later, Pierce dismissed Reeder at the Legislature’s request. Lecompton remained the capital until 1861.

Reeder refused to go quietly. Instead, he helped lead the free-staters. They formed an opposition government.

While officials cared for territorial business, where was the education held?

Shawnee Mission West Building
More territorial government offices inhabited the West Building.

How to visit the Kansas Territorial Capital Trail: The Shawnee Indian Mission in Fairway is now a state historic site. Kansas State Historical Society buildings are closed on state holidays.

Kansas Territorial Capital in Topeka
The Topeka Territorial Capitol Building

Topeka sets up a free-state government

Lecompton began functioning as the Kansas territorial capital on October 20, 1856. However, the free-staters rejected the new capital location. Thus, they decided to form a government in Topeka. The Topekans wrote a constitution and held an election. The free-state voters approved their constitution and then elected state officers, including Gov. Charles Robinson.

Despite the free-state concerns, the national government opposed the Topekans. On January 24, 1856, Pierce said the Topeka government was in rebellion. Five years before the Civil War started, two rival governments fought for state control.

Six months later, the United States Congress rejected the proposed Topeka Constitution. The House had approved it, but the Senate rejected it by two votes.

Pierce ordered Fort Leavenworth soldiers to suppress the Topeka government. On Independence Day 1856, Col. Edwin Sumner led his troopers and a pair of cannons into Topeka to disperse the illegal Legislature. He called his responsibility “the most painful duty of my life.” The Civil War nearly started in 1856, but Sumner’s calm demeanor convinced the lawmakers to disperse without further coercion.

How to visit the Kansas Territorial Capital Trail: Topeka’s Constitution Hall is under restoration. A mural at the side depicts the dispersal.

Roxie’s reliable report: Downtown Topeka streets bear Presidential names, but Pierce’s isn’t one of them. Instead, Topeka named that street for Henry Clay, Pierce’s rival.

Kansas Territorial Capital
The Kansas Territorial Capitol stayed unfinished until the state sold the property to Lane University.

Lecompton writes a constitution

In January 1857, the official Legislature authorized a constitutional convention. They scheduled an election for six months later. The free-staters boycotted the election but joined the October 5 election for the territory’s Legislature. The free-state voters won.

Visiting the Kansas Territorial Capital Trail: Constitution Hall is now a state historic site. To learn more, walk the Historic Walking Tour.

Free-staters reject Lecompton for Lawrence

On December 7, 1857, when the free-staters took over the Legislature, they convened in Lecompton. But they didn’t stay. Instead, they adjourned to Lawrence’s Babcock & Lykins Building on Massachusetts Ave.

How to visit the Kansas Territorial Capital Trail: The bank building burned during Quantrill’s Raid in 1863. Use Lawrence’s Historic Sites of Quantrill’s Raid self-guided tour.

However, the new free-state majority had boycotted Lecompton’s constitutional convention. With predictable results, the Lecompton Constitution supported slavery. With the free-staters again boycotting, the ratification election was also predictable: The pro-slavery voters approved the Constitution.

Related: Visit Eisenhower-themed sites in Abilene.

The 24-hour capital
Only crops occupy Minneola, the 24-hour Kansas Territorial Capital.

Minneola, the 24-hour capital

The free staters’ rejection of Lecompton attracted opportunists. Perry Fuller and his associates bought 14.5 sections in northeast Franklin County. After their purchases, they printed maps of beautiful Minneola, the new Kansas metropolis. They donated land and town company stock to the Legislators to entice legislative interest. These incentives persuaded the Legislature to approve Minneola as the next Kansas territorial capital.

Governor James W. Denver vetoed the bill, but the Legislature overrode him. Minneola’s promoters had six weeks to ready their Kansas territorial capital. Like Reeder before them, Fuller and his friends failed.

Roxie’s reliable report: Denver founder Gen. William Larimer Jr. named his city for Governor Denver, hoping to gain support for the town as the Arapahoe County seat in Kansas Territory. However, Denver was no longer the governor when Latimer bestowed the name.

Lane leads the charge against Minneola

On March 23, 1858, the Legislature came to Minneola for a constitutional convention. Free-state leader James Lane (PDF) was the convention president but refused to enter the proposed capital building. Instead, he led the fight against the new city.

Related: Lane led free-state settlers on the Lane Trail to break the slave-state blockade of the Missouri River. Visit the trail and other Kansas civil rights sites.

Over 24 hours of debate, all the places that desired to be the capital fought against Minneola. Minneola lost, and the Legislature left for Leavenworth. Minneola lived on for a time as the Franklin County seat, but eventually, Ottawa won that battle. Because the Legislature had removed the town’s mainstay, people moved the buildings to other places.

Visiting the Kansas Territorial Capital Trail: Minneola was one mile east of Centropolis at the Stafford and Iowa Road intersection. (Present-day Minneola, Kan., is in Clark County.) The Franklin County Historical Society in Ottawa has the door of Minneola’s Governor’s Mansion in its collection. The would-be state capitol moved to Second and Main in Ottawa. The building later burned.

Lecompton on the national stage

Even though the ratification process was tainted, President James Buchanan submitted the Lecompton Constitution to Congress. After much wrangling and an infamous assault, Congress admitted Kansas to the Union if a popular vote approved the slave-state Constitution. On August 2, 1858, the territory rejected Lecompton. Two months later, the territory’s voters ratified the free-state Wyandotte Constitution.

Related: Visit Lecompton, where slavery began to die.

Because of its dubious ratification, Lecompton became a rallying cry. When challenger Abraham Lincoln debated Sen. Douglas across Illinois, “Lecompton” appeared 55 times. The media across the country followed the debates, spreading the news about Bleeding Kansas.

Related: Lincoln visited Kansas in 1859. Walk in his footsteps on the Kansas Lincoln Trail.

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The state capitol building, Lecompton, and Fort Leavenworth are all in 100 Things to Do in Kansas Before You Die.

Kansas State Capitol, one of the top 10 things to do in Northeast Kansas
Cyrus K. Holliday donated the land for the Kansas State Capitol.

Topeka wins the permanent state capital

In a four-person field, Lincoln won the 1860 Presidential election. The events in Kansas helped split the parties, preparing Lincoln’s way. A month after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina seceded from the Union. More states followed. By January 1861, many Southern Senators had departed Washington. Their departure enabled the U.S. Senate to approve the Wyandotte Constitution. On January 21, the Senate approved Kansas’s entry into the Union. Kansas became the 34th state eight days later when Buchanan signed the bill.

The state has celebrated Kansas Day on January 29 after Paola began the tradition in 1877.

Paola’s role in Kansas Day is told in Secret Kansas: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

The capital battles end

The Wyandotte Constitution had made Topeka the temporary state capital. In a later election, Topeka defeated Lawrence to retain the capital. Cyrus K. Holliday helped Topeka’s cause by donating 20 acres for the new capitol building. Until the state moved into its new capitol building, the Kansas Legislature and the governor used Topeka’s original capitol building.

Lecompton shrank to a small town. The old capital building is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Visiting the Kansas Territorial Capital Trail: Tour the Kansas State Capitol.

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