On his way west in June 1842 explorer John C. Frémont encountered a cluster of burned and blackened lodges scattered in an open wood on the east bank of the Vermillion River, just north of the Kansas River in present-day Kansas. What Frémont saw were the results of a bitter event in a long and sometimes bloody war between the Kansa (or Kaw) and Pawnee people.
Situated near Belvue, this abandoned Kansa village had been attacked and burned earlier that spring by the Pawnees.The burning of the village was in retaliation for a massacre of Pawnees perpetrated by Kansa warriors in December 1840. Sixty-five Kansa warriors had surprised a Pawnee camp whose warriors had left on a buffalo hunt. The Kansa killed more than 70 people, mostly women and children, and captured 11.
The two tribes had been enemies longer than anyone could remember. From the 1500s, if not earlier, the Pawnees had lived and hunted in present-day Nebraska and Kansas. The Pawnees were organized into four independent bands: the Chaui, Pitahauerat, Skidi, and Kitkahahki, the latter having been victimized by the Kansas in the 1840 attack.
By 1700 the Kansas had migrated from the Ohio River Valley and established a village on the west bank of the Missouri River in present Doniphan County. At the time of the massacre of Pawnees, the Kansas were living in three villages—the Vermillion River village and two others near present-day Topeka.
The Pawnees were the dominant power of the Central Plains by the 1800s. Their numerous earth lodge villages were located near the Loup and Platte Rivers in present Nebraska and along the Republican River in what is now Kansas. Their hunting grounds covered much of the High Plains, and this meant conflict with almost every other plains tribe including the Kansa.
Both cultural practices and historical events fueled the conflict between the two tribes. The Pawnees and Kansas encouraged their young men in the practice of the martial spirit. Those warriors performing daring feats in battle and stealing horses from enemy tribes won honors and gained status in the tribe. Retaliation for violence and attacks was part of the culture for both tribes.
The arrival of Euro-Americans brought the fur trade to the plains, and competition between the tribes for the harvest of pelts—often encouraged by the traders for business reasons—became fierce. By the late 1700s Pawnee and Kansa warriors had become expert horsemen and were better able to travel long distances to raid each other. Most of these raids were essentially horse-stealing expeditions, but some escalated into violent encounters.
The U.S. government frequently attempted to arrange truces between the Pawnees and the Kansas, but these efforts met with little success. In 1830 pressure from the Kansas and their Osage allies forced the Kitkahahki band to abandon its village in present Republic County and to rejoin the other Pawnee bands to the north in the Platte River Valley.
By the 1870s, however, both the Pawnees and the Kansas were reeling from poverty, disease, and the loss of their lands. In June 1872 a large band of Pawnees traveled from their Nebraska reservation to smoke the pipe with the Kansas on their Council Grove reservation. The week long celebration concluded with an exchange of gifts and expressions of good will between the ancient enemies. At long last the Pawnees and the Kansas were at peace.
One year later the Kansas were removed to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma); the Pawnees were relocated there in 1876.
The Pawnee Nation at present numbers close to 2,500 members with many residing in the Pawnee, Oklahoma area. The Pawnees are very proud of their past and have many annual celebrations to honor their history. They also have a very active language program that helps keep their culture alive.
Today the Kansa tribal organization, known as the Kaw Nation, has a membership of approximately 2,600. Headquartered in Kaw City, Oklahoma, the Kaw Nation provides its members with many social, cultural, and health care benefits under the governance of the Kaw Executive Council.
The Kansas retain vital ties to their homelands in Kansas. In early 2000 the Kaw Nation purchased approximately 170 acres of former reservation land about four miles southeast of Council Grove. Named for their great chief, the Al-le-ga-wa-ho Memorial Heritage Park honors the heritage of the Kansas in the state that bears their name.
Pawnee Indian Museum State Historic Site near Republic tells the story of the Pawnee Nation.
Kaw Mission State Historic Site in Council Grove tells the story of the Kaw Nation.
Entry: Kansa-Pawnee War
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: April 2009
Date Modified: November 2012
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.