In March 1848 two government Indian agents, Richard Cummins and Alfred Vaughan, chose a new site for a Potawatomi Indian trading post. It was located where the Oregon Trail crossed the Kansas River near the present town of Willard.
Proclaiming the site of their new village, Uniontown, Cummins and Vaughan went to work building a community that held several promising advantages. These included a high, level elevation, plenty of water, and an immense trading business. Uniontown quickly became a last chance stop for emigrants on the Oregon Trail and a trading center for the local Potawatomi Indians, who received their government payments here and whose reservation was only a short distance away.
Uniontown grew rapidly in the spring and summer of 1848. It had a population estimated at around 300 and 60 buildings were constructed, many of them last chance trading stores for the pioneers heading west. Soon, many emigrants were bypassing the famous Pappan ferry crossing location at present-day Topeka in order to cross the river at Uniontown. The community offered the emigrants a much better crossing point because the current near Uniontown was slower and the water much more shallow than the Pappan crossing.
Though the trading business at Uniontown was good for several seasons, the town was beset by major disaster within a year. In the spring and summer of 1849 and 1850, a cholera epidemic ravaged the community, changing the town's future forever. Many of the settlers abandoned the village, and those who stayed died. The Potawatomi Indians were not immune from the epidemic. Hundreds died, 22 of them were buried in a mass grave in the Uniontown cemetery. The town was then burned in order to insure that the cholera epidemic would not spread again.
This, however, was not the last chapter in the history of Uniontown. Traders returned and the town was reestablished in 1851. Once again, it played a dominant role as a trading point for western travelers. It became a designated stop for almost every trail in northeast Kansas during the four years preceding the opening of Kansas Territory.
When Kansas Territory was established in 1854, it was the beginning of the end for Uniontown. New towns sprang up nearby in the Kansas River valley; towns such as Topeka and Tecumseh. While at its peak, Uniontown was the only community for miles; now competition for trade became stiff. Topeka attracted more settlers and businesses and soon the traders of Uniontown abandoned their homes to make their fortunes elsewhere. By 1858 no one was left, and Uniontown became a ghost town.
Today, little remains except a country cemetery, a few charred and broken pieces of glass, and old steps in the prairie that lead nowhere. The heritage of one of the oldest communities in the state contains few reminders of the unlucky times in the settlement of Shawnee County and the state of Kansas.
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: November 2004
Date Modified: April 2013
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