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11 best ways to visit John Brown in Osawatomie, Kansas

In the late 1850s, Bleeding Kansas dominated the nation’s headlines, often with John Brown’s name attached. 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, the City of Osawatomie is more than John Brown. The railroad and mental health treatment played a role in the city’s development. The MoPac Railroad Museum, in a replica Missouri Pacific depot, and the Osawatomie State Hospital show the community’s contributions to those areas.

The Miami County city is an easy day trip from Kansas City. Join the John Brown Jamboree 2.0 party at John Brown Park each Juneteenth weekend. The event begins with a parade down Main Street.

Roxie’s reliable report: Osawatomie’s name combines Osage and Pottawatomie, a nod to the natives in the area. Say it like, “OH-sah-WAH-toe-mee.” The locals shorten the name to “Oz.”

Related: Explore Oz-themed places in Kansas.

Table of contents: Battle of Osawatomie | John Brown in Osawatomie | Presidential speeches | John Brown Park | Soldiers Monument | Stone Church | Railroad | Flint Hills Trail State Park | Republican Party | Original Jayhawk | State Hospital | Shop | Eat and stay

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 as abolitionists whisked away slaves on the Underground Railroad. 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. They believed the territory should belong to free white farmers and didn’t desire Black citizens. Unlike others, 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 city was a victim of the Missouri and Kansas Territory border war. The Lawrence violence outraged Brown.

Related: Lecompton Sheriff Samuel Jones burned Lawrence’s Eldridge Hotel in the Sack of Lawrence. Learn more at the Watkins Museum of History.

No one avenged Lawrence, and Brown called the lack cowardly. Instead, 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.

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 died 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 23 Kansas civil rights sites.

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

1. Follow 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 as 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.

President Roosevelt dedicates John Brown Park

In 1910, former President Theodore Roosevelt gave his New Nationalism speech at the park’s dedication. At the time, Roosevelt was upset with his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, but didn’t want to bring their divisions into the open. The former President hardly mentioned Brown in the speech to dedicate his monument. Instead, he talked about economic conditions and the necessity for increased government regulation of the economy.

Roxie’s reliable report: Eventually, the speech became the Progressive Party’s platform in 1916. Because the former President said he felt “as strong as a Bull Moose,” the party became known as the Bull Moose Party.

Related: Roosevelt and Emporia Gazette editor William Allen White were great friends. Learn more in Emporia.

Obama speaks in Osawatomie

President Barack Obama referenced Roosevelt’s speech 101 years later at Osawatomie High School. He also cited his Kansas roots, saying that his mother was a Wichitan, and her parents grew up in Augusta and El Dorado. The American economy produced the world’s largest middle class, he said, but the “basic bargain” that hard work produced rewards “had eroded.”

He finished his speech by saying, “And we still believe, in the words of the man who called for a New Nationalism all those years ago, ‘The fundamental rule of our national life,’ he said, ‘the rule which underlies all others — is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.’ And I believe America is on the way up.”

A view of John Brown’s earthwork from ground level with the state historic site on the background.

2. Brown rises from the earth at John Brown Park

Noted artist Stan Herd unveiled his Brown earthwork during the 2023 John Brown Jamboree 2.0. In the artwork, a grim, beardless Brown stares at the viewer. His glare declares his hatred for slavery and his eternal desire to cause its end. The photographer shot the original image while Brown lived in Kansas. The work highlights Osawatomie’s critical role in American history as the “Cradle of the Civil War.”

Dedication of the Soldiers Monument (Library of Congress)

3. Honor Osawatomie defenders at the Soldiers Monument

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.

The Soldiers Monument with sign and park bench.
The Soldiers Monument stands in a pocket park near John Brown Park.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: The monument is uphill from John Brown Park, so rest your legs on the park bench.

Related: Explore the Kansas Territorial Capital Trail.

Old Stone Church, Osawatomie
The Old Stone Church is available for events.

4. Attend events at the Old Stone Church

Samuel and Charles Adair built the Old Stone Church from native stone and dedicated it on July 14, 1861. The Congregational church is now an all-faiths chapel available for special events, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

MoPac Museum in Osawatomie
Envision Osawatomie’s railroading past at the MoPac Museum.

5. The railroad and Osawatomie

Roosevelt arrived in a private railroad car. The Missouri Pacific provided special trains for people to hear Roosevelt’s speech, and 30,000 people came. The former President enjoyed large crowds at every stop across the state.

The Osawatomie History Museum and MoPac Railroad Depot Museum honor 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.

Mile Zero sign and John Brown Osawatomie mural on the Flint Hills Trail State Park
John Brown and Osawatomie’s bridges welcome travelers to Mile Zero of the Flint Hills Trail State Park.

6. 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 a horse, but bring water and sunscreen.

The Flint Hills Trail is featured in the book Midwest State Park Adventures.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: For a different form of recreation, tee off at the 18-hole Osawatomie Golf Course beside Osawatomie City Lake. Watch a movie at one of the state’s last drive-in movie theaters, the Drive-In at Midway. It’s midway between Osawatomie and Paola.

Republican Party of Kansas organization point
New York Tribune editor and future Democratic presidential candidate Horace Greeley addressed Kansas Republican delegates here.

7. The Republicans organize in Kansas

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 the delegates would be at war.

Related: Walk with Lincoln on the Kansas Lincoln Trail.

After Osawatomie, Greeley went to Denver via stagecoach. He followed 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.

Pat Devlin sign
Pat Devlin’s sign stands in front of Pat’s Signs & Banners.

8. Original home of the Jayhawk

Legend says Pat Devlin from Ireland rode into Osawatomie with some Missouri plunder. When asked about it, he said he had been “jayhawking.” A jayhawk bird, he said, worries its prey before devouring it. The mythical bird became the term for troublemaking Kansans who rode into Missouri, and the Jayhawk later became the University of Kansas mascot.

Charles Metz, who renamed himself “Marshall Cleveland,” became the Last Jayhawk. “Cleveland” and his henchmen ruled Atchison and raided its surroundings. The citizens eventually quashed the gang, but their leader escaped. He took refuge in Osawatomie, where Sixth Kansas Cavalry troopers found him at the Geer Hotel on Fourth Street. Metz fled toward Pottawatomie Creek. He was riding down the creek bank when Pvt. Johnson shot and killed him. His girlfriend buried him in Osawatomie’s Oakwood Cemetery.

Osawatomie State Hospital
The Osawatomie State Hospital from the Asylum Bridge

9. Osawatomie and mental health

The state opened Osawatomie State Hospital (OSH) in 1866. “The Lodge” was its first building. The Legislature intended to provide a more compassionate alternative to jailing mentally ill people. The first patient, a 21-year-old man from Leavenworth, arrived on November 5, 1866. The Reverend Samuel L. Adair served as the first chaplain at Osawatomie State Hospital.

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. OSH is one of two state psychiatric hospitals. The other one is in Larned.

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 crumbling and full of potholes; therefore, 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 2022 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 Bridge and Pottawatomie Creek Bridge. They are two of eight Marsh Arch triple-span bridges in Kansas. Anglers can snag paddlefish but need to buy a license first.

Related: See more Marsh Arch bridges in Fort Scott and on Route 66 in Riverton.

10. Shop in Osawatomie

What could be more relaxing than creating and painting your Oz souvenir? Head to the Ceramic Studio for that. Find delicious deli items, jams and jellies, artisanal sauerkraut, salsas, pickles, and relishes at Palace Market.

11. Eat and stay in Osawatomie

Sit in 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.

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