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Historic Lecompton, Kansas: The 15 best things to do

Lecompton says it’s the birthplace of the Civil War, where slavery began to die. That’s true. In this article, we will first discuss Lecompton’s significance and then explain what to do there.

The American Civil War began before the shots were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Instead, Bleeding Kansas was the war’s first battlefield. And Lecompton, the territorial capital of Kansas, was at the epicenter of the national debate over slavery. The fight over Lecompton was part of the chain of events leading to war.

The Lecompton Historical Society hosted my most recent visit, but I have visited the former Kansas territorial capital many times. If you use our affiliate links, including Amazon Associates and Stay22, to make a purchase, we might earn a small commission for our time and website costs (at no additional cost to you).  These links are always disclosed. 

Table of contents: Lecompton’s name | The Lecompton Constitution | Lecompton and Lincoln’s rise | Lecompton Reenactors | Constitution Hall | Territorial Capital Museum | Fort Titus | Democratic Headquarters | Murals | Walking tour | Kansas River Trail | Bald eagles | Café | Winery | Shopping | Vintage Iron Revelry

Slavery’s supporters wrote the controversial Lecompton Constitution in Constitution Hall, and Lecompton became the territorial government’s headquarters. Lecompton is currently a small town of about 600 people, but its rich tales of political strife and cultural upheaval make it a must-visit destination.

Ad: Lecompton is No. 76 in my book 100 Things to Do in Kansas Before You Die.

Take a day trip to Lecompton

Lecompton preserves many historic sites from its turbulent beginnings as a stronghold of pro-slavery politics.  Because of this, visiting Lecompton presents an opportunity to return to the 1850s. Take a day trip to where slavery began to die, just under an hour from Kansas City. In this article, we’ll explain Lecompton’s importance in American history and describe the places that made that history.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Avoid the Kansas Turnpike and enjoy a scenic drive to Lecompton. From Kansas City, drive Kansas Highway 32 west from Bonner Springs to US Highway 40 in Lawrence. Then take US 59 to Perry and turn south on Lecompton Road. From Topeka, go north on K-4 to US 24, then turn east to Lecompton Road.

Samuel Dexter Lecompte
Judge Samuel Dexter Lecompte

How Lecompton got its name

Perched on a bluff above the south bank of the Kansas River, Lecompton originally bore the name Bald Eagle but later received its name from prominent slaveholder Samuel Lecompte. Lecompte was the Chief Justice of the territorial Supreme Court and became a prominent defender of slavery. He eventually instructed a grand jury to indict free-state leaders. The resulting posse destroyed buildings and newspaper presses in Lawrence, the neighboring free-state stronghold.

After the war, Lecompte left the Democratic Party for the Republicans. Some say he was a political opportunist. He said his opinion of slavery had changed.

Related: The judge’s relatives live in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

Border ruffians invading Kansas
Border ruffians invading Kansas (William Cullen Bryant’s “A Popular History of the United States”

Lecompton becomes the territorial capital

Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois championed Popular Sovereignty in the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. Under the act’s provisions, Kansas and Nebraska would choose whether to be slave or free. Since Kansas bordered slave-state Missouri and Nebraska bordered free-state Iowa, Congress anticipated Kansas would become a slave state. Nebraska would likely choose freedom.

At first, the Missourians overwhelmed the free-staters. Border ruffians poured into Kansas. Their violence and massive election fraud overwhelmed abolition’s proponents. In the initial territorial election, Leavenworth’s ballot tally was five times higher than the town’s population. The fraud handed control of the territorial legislature to the pro-slavery party. The free-staters complained and gave the lawmakers a name, the Bogus Legislature.

Governor Andrew Reeder sent the Legislature to Pawnee, near Fort Riley, to distance the Legislature from Missouri’s influence. He also owned land there and hoped it would become the capital of Kansas Territory. Contrary to Reeder’s hopes, the angry Legislators accused him of corruption. They quickly abandoned Pawnee for Shawnee Mission. They eventually proclaimed Lecompton the capital of the Kansas Territory.

Related: Pawnee and Lecompton are stops on the Kansas Territorial Capital Trail

1856 map of the United States
The United States in 1856 with Kansas Territory shown as undecided between slave and free. (Library of Congress)

The infamous Lecompton Constitution

Passing a territorial constitution was next. Again, extensive fraud marred the Lecompton Constitutional Convention delegates’ June 1857 election. The free-state men boycotted it because they believed it was tainted. Therefore, pro-slavery delegates dominated the convention.

The pro-slavery constitution prohibited amendments for seven years. The document also banned free Blacks from Kansas and granted perpetual ownership over enslaved persons already in the territory. This meant that currently-enslaved Kansans and their descendants would be enslaved forever. 

Therefore, the electorate had no true antislavery option. They could ban non-Kansas enslaved persons or accept no limits on slavery. The outraged voters eventually rejected the constitution by 11,300 to 1,788 votes. The Lecompton Constitution became notorious, driving another wedge in the nation’s unity.

Kansas finally overcame ballot stuffing and elected a free-state Legislature on October 5, 1857. Even so, President James Buchanan tried to push the constitution through Congress, despite the territorial population’s overwhelming disapproval.

Senator Douglas rejected it. Popular Sovereignty’s author said the election did not meet his standard.

Buchanan and Douglas’s disagreement began to fracture the national Democratic Party. Douglas feared that Lecompton would push voters into the Republican Party, which had coalesced into the antislavery party. The United States Congress also rejected the constitution in 1858.

Lecompton’s population peaked at 4,000 in 1858, but people fled after the constitutional rejection. Lecompton also lost its Douglas County seat status that year.

Another constitutional convention in Kansas City produced the Wyandotte Constitution. Topeka became the Kansas state capital when Kansas Territory became the State of Kansas on January 29, 1861.


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Lecompton spurs Abraham Lincoln’s rise

Lincoln hoped to unseat Douglas from the Senate. Lincoln and Douglas agreed to seven debates throughout Illinois during the summer and fall of 1858. Lecompton was a major issue. The Illinois senatorial candidates mentioned it more than 50 times. Douglas eventually won the election, but the Lincoln-Douglas Debates pushed Lincoln into the national spotlight, where he remained. The clash between political giants was only part of the intense national debate over slavery.

Related: Lincoln visited Northeast Kansas at the end of 1859. Follow his footsteps on the Kansas Lincoln Trail.

Ad: Watch Lincoln the movie.

Where to experience Lecompton history

American history buffs will find much to savor within the Lecompton city limits. These destinations are easily walkable in friendly Lecompton.

Lecompton Reenactors
Jim Lane (Tim Rues) appeals to the audience while holding the “Admit Me Free” flag.

1. Lecompton Reenactors “Bleeding Kansas” play

Bleeding Kansas becomes more than a dry topic from history books during the Lecompton Reenactors’ performance of “Bleeding Kansas.” The players hold the simulated town-hall meeting in the Territorial Capital Museum’s second-floor auditorium. The first act feels like a melodrama. One side roots for the free-state side, and the other for the slave-state side. Like a melodrama performance, the performers encourage the audience to cheer and boo. The banners proclaiming the “teams” are obscured until the guests choose seats. We happened to sit on the free-state side. One of the players handed me a “Beecher Bible,” a/k/a a shotgun.

First, Clarina I.H. Nichols applied to attend the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention, which the men opposed. The entire audience was female, so we shouted for Nichols, loudly booing her opponents.

Waving competing flags

Then future Union General and U.S. Senator James Lane, Border Ruffian Felix Castor, and Sheriff Samuel Jones began to debate slavery. Lane and Jones waved opposing flags. Lane waved the Admit Me Free version of the Star-Spangled Banner. “Admit Me Free” surrounded one large star in the union with 32 other stars beneath it. Jones waved the Palmetto Guards flag. It bore a white star in the center of a red field with Southern Rights written in script across the top next to the flagstaff. The Guards joined Jones when he sacked Lawrence.

Related: Jones torched the Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence.

Brown v. Doyle

In the second act, John Brown entered in handcuffs, followed by Pottawattomie Massacre widow Mahala Doyle. Doyle read a letter to Brown recounting her losses during the massacre, his response to the Sack of Lawrence. Doyle begged Brown to spare her husband and children, but he only left her one son, John C. He murdered the rest. Unlike the first act, the audience went silent. Her tale was heart-wrenching. (The poverty-stricken family eventually returned to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and John C. later fought for the Confederacy.)

Brown read her letter while he was imprisoned for treason. The play ended with Brown’s hanging in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Roxie’s reliable recommendationContact Constitution Hall or the Territorial Capital Museum to schedule a performance. Tour and school groups are welcome. 

Related: Pro-slavery forces attacked Brown at Osawatomie in retaliation for the massacre.

Desk in Constitution Hall, Lecompton
Agent Boone’s land office desk below Buchanan’s portrait, the candle box and the bogus lawbook on its top. The land office stood across the street.

2. Constitution Hall State Historic Site

The 1856 Constitution Hall is the state’s oldest wood-frame building in its original location. The National Historic Landmark retains the original native cottonwood floor planks and black walnut lap siding. The territorial Supreme Court, Legislature, and constitutional convention delegates ascended steep stairs to meet on the second floor. The first floor held Kansas Territory’s first land office. 

Roxie’s reliable report: The Kansas Historical Society hosts the annual Bleeding Kansas Lecture Series in Constitution Hall beginning on Kansas Day at the end of January until March.

Look for the U.S. land office desk, statute book, and candle box. Albert G. Boone, Daniel Boone’s grandson, sat at the land office desk. The proslavery legislators wrote the 1855 Statutes of Kansas Territory, and the antislavery party called them “Bogus Laws.”  Surveyor General John Calhoun buried fake ballots that supported the proslavery Lecompton Constitution in the candle box.

Related: Calhoun hired surveyors to determine the state’s borders. Read more about Kansas geography.

Territorial Capital Museum, Lecompton
The Territorial Capital Museum never served as the state capitol.

3. Territorial Capital Museum

Congress appropriated $50,000 to build the Kansas Capitol building in Lecompton. Workers had erected the walls to the bottom of the center section’s first-floor windows when the House of Representatives rejected the Lecompton Constitution. Work ceased in early 1858, even though the materials to finish the stone building’s first section were already on the grounds.

Two years before, Lecompton’s citizens had used the walls as a fort when free state leader James Lane sought to rescue Charles Robinson. The illegal Topeka free-state government had elected Robinson as governor, and the pro-slavery government imprisoned him for four months as a traitor. Cavalry from Camp Sackett helped fend off Lane’s raid. 

Roxie’s reliable report: Constitution Hall and the Territorial Capital Museum are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Rev. Solomon Weaver founded Lane University in 1865. He originally housed it in the Rowena Hotel (PDF). The site is now Rowena Park at Woodson and Elmore Street.

The university soon outgrew the hotel, and the State of Kansas donated the former territorial property to the university. The university erected a building on the old foundation’s south half in 1882. By 1900, the university boasted 11 faculty members and 178 students. Lane merged with Campbell University in Holton two years later to form Campbell College (Kansas).

Marv Kellum's display case in Lecompton
Marv Kellum never had to change uniform colors. The Lecompton Owls, Wichita State Shockers, and Pittsburgh Steelers all used black and gold.

A Super Bowl champ and a President’s parents

Look for two-time Super Bowl champion Marv “Buddy” Kellum‘s display in the museum. The display includes his Super Bowl rings. Kellum was a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He recovered a fumble during Super Bowl IX’s second-half kickoff. The announcers said that Kellum had played 8-man football in Lecompton, Kansas. He graduated with the final Lecompton High School class. He was also a freshman on the Wichita State football team when the Shockers’ team plane crashed in Colorado in 1970. 

Related: President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s parents David J. Eisenhower and Ida Stover met and married at Lane in 1885. Read about Eisenhower in Abilene.

Christmas at the Kansas Territorial Museum, Lecompton
See Christmas throughout the decades at the Kansas Territorial Museum, Lecompton.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: During the winter holidays, the museum decks the halls with numerous antique Christmas trees and ornaments. The season begins on November 1 and ends the Saturday after New Year’s Day. The museum holds a Vespers service on the first Sunday in December.

Related: Lecompton’s Christmas display is one of our 12 nights of Kansas Christmas.

Fort Titus, Lecompton
Fort Titus was one of several pro-slavery strongholds in Douglas County.

4. Fort Titus

Fort Titus was one of three pro-slavery forts in Douglas County. Colonel H.T. Titus built the log cabin about 2 miles south of Lecompton. Lane and about 50 free-state partisans attacked it with a cannon on August 15, 1856. After a short siege, the fort’s occupants surrendered. The attackers captured 400 muskets, numerous knives and pistols, 13 horses, several wagons, provisions, and 34 prisoners. Several were wounded on both sides, and three people died. Afterward, the free-state men burned Fort Titus to the ground and freed Titus’s slaves.

A replica cabin sits 100 yards southeast of the Territorial Capital Museum. Look for battle artifacts on the Territorial Capital Museum’s first floor and a painting in the second-floor chapel.

Kansas Democratic Headquarters, Lecompton
This stone building beside the Kansas River was the original Kansas Democratic Headquarters.

5. National Democratic Headquarters

Lecompton was the Birthplace of the Kansas Democratic Party. Italian stonemason Mark Migliario added the current stone building to a log cabin. It has since disappeared. Ambitious and influential men gathered in the territorial Democratic headquarters to discuss issues and plan strategy. After Lecompton lost its capital status, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad used the building as a pay station.

Roxie’s reliable report: The original log cabin probably belonged to the Kansas (Kaw) River ferry owners. They built the Fairy Queen from sycamore logs.

Interior of the Old Lecompton City Jail
Few comforts existed in the 1892 city jail.

6. Old Lecompton City Jail

Claustrophobes will loathe the 1892 Lecompton City Jail. The tiny stone building has little ventilation and a heavy door. The hardware and window bars are hand-forged. The period artifacts provide a glimpse into inmate conditions.

Sheriff Jones with his tombstone.
Reenactor Sheriff Jones, a/k/a Paul Bahnmeier, stands above the real Sheriff Jones’s original tombstone.

Roxie’s reliable report: Look for Sheriff Jones’s original tombstone in front of the old jail. His original cemetery was abandoned in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Lecompton retrieved his tombstone.

Resilience mural on the former Lecompton High School gym
The bald eagle flies on the former Lecompton High School gym.

7. Murals

View a pair of Lecompton murals, one at the post office and one on the exterior of the former Lecompton High School gym.

Post Office Mural

Lecompton Artist-in-Residence Ellen Duncan researched historic photographs of Elmore Street’s east side before Lecompton’s devastating 1916 fire. Then she painted the mural of Downtown Lecompton inside the post office.

Resilience

On the former Lecompton High School gym’s south wall, a huge bald eagle flies above the Kansas River’s bluffs. Its wings shelter Lecompton. The Resilience eagle carries a banner in its talons, reading “Populi voce nata.” The territorial motto, “born of the popular will,” references Popular Sovereignty. Artist Rick Wright painted the mural in 2021.

8. Historic Lecompton Walking Tour

Explore Lecompton historic sites on the one-mile-long walking tour. The brick sidewalks lead guests beside numerous structures and signs that explain Lecompton’s past.

9. Kansas River Trail

Paddle the Kansas River from the Lecompton Bridge Boat Ramp to the Massachusetts Street Bridge in Lawrence. Note that river channels change constantly, and the route may have obstacles.

10. Bald eagles at Riverview Park

Riverview Park is Lecompton’s best place to watch bald eagles in winter. Park in the Democratic headquarters parking lot and go behind the stone building.

Aunt Netter's peanut butter pie
Take home an entire pie from Aunt Netters Café.

11. Aunt Netters Café

Dessert is the first menu link on Aunt Netters website, as it should be. Their pies are on my Kansas Pie Pantheon list for heavenly decadence. Their fruit and cream pies are marvelous. However, if you must eat something else, try the Philly quesadilla. I chose steak, but grilled and breaded chicken are options. The filling of onions, cheese, peppers, salsa, and sour cream is divine.

Related: Made from Scratch in Wilson is also a Kansas Pie Pantheon member.

Empty Nester's Winery selection
All of the Empty Nester’s wines have Lecompton-themed names.

12. Empty Nester’s Winery

The husband-and-wife team at Empty Nester’s specializes in fruit wines, from the sweetness of strawberries to tart cranberries. Taste the wine or ask for a wine slushie. Yum, yum!

I recommend Rowena, a cranberry/apple wine. The Great American International Wine Competition thought so, too. Bring home some of their fruit preserves and butters, along with a Christmas ornament made from a bunch of wine-cork grapes.

Come on Thursdays for game night. The back patio is perfect for an evening hangout.

Recollections/Bald Eagle Mercantile
Enjoy the selection at Recollections.

13. Recollections/Bald Eagle Mercantile

Look no further for fun vintage pieces than Recollections. Pick up jewelry, accessories, décor, and more. Hunt for treasures at Bald Eagle Mercantile. Today’s treasure might be a bat from Iowa’s Field of Dreams. Another day might unearth a set of jingle bells — in July. Seek and you shall find at the mercantile.

Vintage cars in Lecompton
Vintage cars line the streets during Vintage Iron Revelry in Lecompton.

14-15. Bald Eagle Speed Shop and Vintage Iron Revelry

Do you love vintage automobiles? Bald Eagle Speed Shop sponsors Vintage Iron Revelry each June. Historic Lecompton’s streets fill with historic cars on that weekend. Don’t miss out!

Oh, yes, Lecompton has history. You must partake.

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