Osawatomie featured image

Ride with history in Osawatomie

In the late 1850s, Bleeding Kansas dominated the nation’s headlines. John Brown’s name often appeared in those headlines. Because Osawatomie’s most famous (or notorious) citizen caused much of the bleeding, he became known as “Osawatomie John Brown.” 

No one man started the Civil War, but Brown fanned the flames that led to the war. Those sparks flew in Osawatomie, making Osawatomie The Cradle of the Civil War. However, Osawatomie is more than John Brown. The railroad and mental health treatment played a role in the city’s development. The MoPac Railroad Museum and the Osawatomie State Hospital show the community’s contributions in those areas.

Roxie’s reliable report: Osawatomie’s name is a combination of Osage and Pottawatomie, a nod to the tribes in the area. It’s pronounced “OH-sah-WAH-toe-mee.”

John Brown’s body lies a-moulderin’ in the grave, but his soul goes marching on.

Union marching song

John Brown and the Battle of Osawatomie

John Brown in the 1850s (Library of Congress)

Osawatomie was a convenient location for slavery’s foes. The town was only a few miles into Kansas for easy access to Missouri’s slave population. The distance between the settlement and the state line was also far enough to provide warning time of approaching raiders.

In March 1855, the abolitionists Samuel and Florella Adair settled in Osawatomie. A few months later, her half-brother John Brown arrived with a wagon full of guns. Most of the free-state settlers wanted Kansas to be free from plantation agriculture. The territory should belong to free white farmers. They didn’t desire Black citizens. Unlike most of the free-staters, Brown cared about the enslaved people. He believed them to be equal. In consequence, he rejected white supremacy. 

Brown also believed that slavery’s extermination would require violence. He did not hesitate. A year after he arrived in Osawatomie, Brown heard about pro-slavery violence in Lawrence. The violence in Lawrence outraged Brown. No one avenged Lawrence, and Brown called the lack cowardly. He would wreak vengeance. In May and June, Brown murdered five pro-slavery men and then won the Battle of Black Jack.

Related: The John Brown State Historic Site is No. 77 in my book 100 Things to Do in Kansas Before You Die. Buy an autographed copy here.

John Brown statue in Osawatomie Kansas
John Brown’s lifesize statue guards John Brown Park, where he fought the Battle of Osawatomie.

Frederick Brown and others die for freedom

Brown’s notoriety spread throughout the nation. Violence breeds violence, and pro-slavery forces led by John Reid came for Osawatomie. The raiders first shot Frederick Brown to start the Battle of Osawatomie. When the news reached John Brown, he rushed to Osawatomie with reinforcements. Reid’s raiders outnumbered Brown’s defenders. Therefore, Brown fought a delaying action to give Osawatomie residents the time to flee. Reid looted and burned Osawatomie before he left. The Adairs’ cabin was one of only three buildings to survive the raid. David Garrison, George Partridge, and Theron Powers also died in the attack. The next day, Brown proclaimed that he would die fighting slavery.

He died at the end of a hangman’s noose on Dec. 2, 1859, at Harper’s Ferry, now West Virginia. He had tried to start a slave uprising but failed. However, his execution created a martyr for freedom.

Related: Experience the top 19 Kansas civil rights sites.

John Brown Museum State Historic Site
John Brown Museum State Historic Site in Osawatomie’s John Brown Park

Following John Brown in Osawatomie

In 1912, people moved the Adairs’ cabin to John Brown Memorial Park’s highest point. The structure overlooks the battlefield. In 1928, the Daughters of the American Revolution built a stone pavilion around the cabin, and the Kansas Legislature named it a state historic site. Exhibits include a melodeon that Brown gave his daughter Ruth for a wedding present. Someone played the melodeon during Brown’s New York funeral

A trail in the park interprets the battle. Enjoy a picnic in the stone picnic shelter and cool off in the swimming pool.

In 1910, President Theodore Roosevelt gave his New Nationalism speech at the park’s dedication. President Barack Obama referenced Roosevelt’s speech 101 years later at Osawatomie High.

Dedication of the Soldiers Monument (Library of Congress)

The Soldiers Monument at Ninth and Main marks the graves of free-staters slain during the Battle of Osawatomie. All four of Osawatomie’s sacrificed defenders rest there. Unfortunately, the abolitionists never recovered Charles Kaiser’s body. The free-staters believed the pro-slavers captured and shot him. On the battle’s 21st anniversary, dignitaries dedicated the monument between the abolitionists’ graves.

Related: Visit the Kansas Territorial Capital Trail.

The Republicans become a Kansas party

In Osawatomie on May 18, 1859, the Kansas Free State Party dissolved and became the Kansas Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln was invited but declined to come. The party did not ask Horace Greeley, but he showed up at the red brick building at Sixth and Main. Greeley spoke for an hour and a half, but the delegates did what they wished. Two years later, most of them would be at war.

Related: Walk with Lincoln on the Kansas Lincoln Trail.

After Osawatomie, Greeley went to Denver via stagecoach. He was following his own advice to “Go West, and grow up with the country. Ironically, the Democrats endorsed Greeley for President in 1872. The Liberal Republicans also nominated him, making Greeley the first person to be selected for President by two parties.

Related: See Greeley in the “They Also Ran” Gallery and at stagecoach Station 15 in Norton.

The railroad and Osawatomie

Roosevelt arrived on a private railroad car. The Missouri Pacific provided special trains for people to hear Roosevelt’s speech, and 30,000 people came. 

The Osawatomie History Museum and MoPac Railroad Depot Museum honors Osawtomie’s contribution to the railroads and more of its unique history. The railroad demolished its depot, so the city built a replica. The museums are connected.

Ride the MoPac on the Flint Hills Trail State Park

The MoPac abandoned its rail line from Osawatomie to Herington in the 1980s. Kansas has now rescued the railbed and turned it into a trail. The Flint Hills Trail State Park is open from Osawatomie to Council Grove. It begins west of the 12th and South St. intersection. It’s the longest trail in Kansas and the seventh longest in the United States. Walk, ride a bike or horse, but bring water and wear sunscreen.

Osawatomie State Hospital
The Osawatomie State Hospital from the Asylum Bridge

Osawatomie and mental health

Samuel and Charles Adair built the Old Stone Church from native stone and dedicated it on July 14, 1861. The elder Adair served as the first chaplain at Osawatomie State Hospital. The church is now an all-faiths chapel and is available for special events.

The state opened Osawatomie State Hospital (OSH) in 1866. The Legislature intended to provide a more compassionate alternative to jailing mentally ill people. Unfortunately, some staff abused and neglected patients. As a result, the state moved some patients to community mental health centers. The current OSH resides in newer buildings, but many original buildings remain. They are off-limits to the public but are visible from the road.

Kansas City (Mo.) Bridge Company built the Asylum Bridge from October through December 1905. The bin-connected reverse Parker truss structure spans 219 feet and stands 16.5 feet high. Originally it had gas lights on each end. No other bridge of that type exists.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: The bridge is closed to all traffic. To see it, use the W. 339th Street exit from Highway 169. Drive past OSH on Osawatomie Road. The road is full of potholes. Do not drive it at night. 

Osawatomie State Hospital cemetery
Graves No. 178 and 179 in the Osawatomie State Hospital cemetery

The OSH Cemetery is on the north side of 339th, a short distance west of Highway 169. The tombstones are marked only with numbers, but FindaGrave.com identifies the bodies.

Related: The state hospital made our list of the 13 haunted Kansas places.

Creamery Bridge in Osawatomie
The Creamery Bridge spans the Marais des Cygnes River on Eighth Street.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Cross more cheerful bridges at the Creamery and Pottawatomie Creek Bridges. They are two of eight Marsh Arch triple span bridges in Kansas. Anglers can snag paddlefish there but need to buy a license first.

Where to eat and stay in Osawatomie

Experience the lap of luxury in the country at Netherfield Natural Farm 10 miles southeast of Osawatomie. RVers may stay at the Mills House RV Park. Then, grab some grub at the railroad-themed Whistle Stop Café. Try the Baggage Car Omelet or the Gandy Dancer (chicken-fried steak with all the trimmings). The restaurant offers buffets on the weekends.

More to explore

Visit Northeast Kansas and Kansas as a whole.

Osawatomie Pin
Pin this post.