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Map of Indian lands in Kansas, 1830-1836

Kansas is named for the Kansas River that creates the northeast border. The river was named for the Kansa or Kaw people who lived for generations in the area. There are about 125 different spelling variations of the name for these people, the meaning of the name is unknown.


The evidence of our geologic past is buried underground in layers of rock. At one time the land was covered by a shallow ocean of salt water. The rock reveals fossils of marine animals like clams, oysters, fish, and sharks. Scientists from Kansas have discovered much about these early times through studying these fossils. George F. Sternberg was one of these paleontologists; he discovered the prehistoric skeleton "fish within a fish" in 1952. During these ancient times, a water source was created, which spans from South Dakota to Texas. The Ogallala Aquifer has provided water for farmers in this area from the earliest times.

There are 11 distinct geographic regions in the state: Arkansas River Lowlands, Chautauqua Hills, Cherokee Lowlands, Flint Hills, Glacial Hills, High Plains, Osage Cuesta, Ozark Plateau, Red Hills, Smoky Hills, and Wellington-McPherson Lowlands.

Early People

People have lived on this land for thousands of years. The earliest evidence is people who migrated from the north when glaciers pushed them to the south. These people hunted mammoths, mastodons, and giant bison. They domesticated dogs to assist with work. Waldo Wedel was a well-known archeologist from Kansas who specialized the Central Plains in his work for the Smithsonian Institution.

Farmers lived in villages around 800 years ago. These villages consisted of several structures and overlooked nearby rivers and streams. Some of the structures were built with poles and covered with thatched grasses. These farmers grew corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, and sunflowers, some of which they stored in pits underground. They made tools from stone, bone, shell, and wood. They traded goods with people in other villages.    


The Spanish explorers arrived in this area in 1541. The expedition led by Francisco de Coronado came into contact with some of these people living on the Great Plains. They left a written record about what they observed. Sections of chainmail armor similar to that worn by the Spanish explorers were found near Lindsborg. They introduced horses to the New World, which eventually came to be used by the many different peoples living on the plains.

The shared ancestors of the Wichita and Pawnee lived in this area. The Wichita moved to the south central part of what is Kansas. The Pawnee lived in the northern portion. The Wichita lived in dome-shaped lodges that were covered in grasses. The Pawnee lived in round earth-covered structures.  The Kansa and the Osage share similarities in their languages. They moved to the eastern part of what is Kansas from the Southeast. They lived in wood-framed lodges covered with grasses. The Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Arikara, and Comanche lived in the western parts of what is Kansas. Satanta, a member of the Kiowas, was known as the "orator of the plains" for his ability to negotiate at the Medicine Lodge Peace Conference. They moved more frequently and lived in portable housing. They hunted and gathered wild plants for food.

One hundred years after the Spanish explored portions of the plains, French explorers from Canada followed the rivers to form trade relationships with the American Indians. Claude Charles du Tisne and Etienne Veniard de Bourgmont led trade missions and established outposts in the area. When the United States acquired the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent a team to explore the new land. The Corps of Discovery, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, reached the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers in 1804. They documented what they observed about the northeast corner of Kansas. Zebulon Pike led the first American expedition across this land. Stephen H. Long was assigned to lead a mission to map the West. 

Indian Removal

These expeditions provided information about the geography, waterways, and inhabitants of this region. The information was of particular interest to President Andrew Jackson, who wanted to use the lands in the East for agriculture and settlement that were occupied by American Indians. President Jackson found a solution with the Indian Removal Act passed in 1830. American Indian tribes living in the East and Great Lakes Region would be removed to the new Indian Territory. These emigrant tribes were assigned to reservations, as were many of the tribes currently living in the eastern portion of the area. More than 25 tribes were given land in Kansas. Many churches sent missionaries to the area to provide aid to the relocated tribes and to encourage their conversion to Christianity.   

Forts and Trails

The expeditions also led to further organized travel along numerous overland trails. Kansas was at the crossroads of many of these trails that connected the East to the West. The Santa Fe Trail was a commerce route that established trade between Santa Fe in Mexico with the United States. Begun in 1821, the trail commenced in Independence, Missouri, and passed from northeast to southwest in what is now Kansas. The Oregon-California Trail was an immigrant route for those headed to the West Coast. Established in 1841, travelers passed through the northeast corner of the state lured by the gold fields or new settlement opportunities. The Pony Express, begun in 1860 in St. Joseph, Missouri, introduced coast-to-coast mail service. Just 18 months later the transcontinental telegraph brought an end to this service. The Smoky Hill Trail provided stagecoach service to the Colorado gold fields. The army established nine principal forts in Kansas to protect travelers on the trails. Fort Leavenworth was established in 1827. Fort Hays, now a state historic site, was established in 1865. Home to the famed Seventh U.S. Cavalry, among the posts well-known commanders were General Philip Sheridan and Colonel George Armstrong Custer. The Ninth and Tenth Cavalries, also known as Buffalo Soldiers, served at this post. Travelers on the trails encroached upon the traditional hunting grounds of many of the Plains Indians, leading to conflicts and wars.

Kansas Territory

As the nation expanded to new territories in the West, the debate over slavery grew. Some were in favor of allowing slavery in the new lands, some were violently opposed. The U.S. Congress passed the Missouri Compromise in 1820 that preserved the balance between new free and slave states and banned slavery in the Louisiana Purchase. The Compromise of 1850 allowed California to enter the Union as a free state but required citizens to assist in the recovery of runaway slaves. With the belief that the U.S. should expand its reach, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was established in 1854, opening Kansas and Nebraska territories for settlement. The act supported popular sovereignty: voters could determine whether the new states were free or not. Supporters of the act assumed that Nebraska would be free, while Kansas would be a slave state.

The large area of Kansas Territory extended west to the Rocky Mountains. With the opportunity to influence the state’s future, some people moved to the territory prepared to fight for a cause. Immigrant aid societies sponsored settlement from the Northeast who supported the free-state movement. Southerners particularly from Missouri crossed the border to vote for slavery. Famous abolitionist, John Brown, and his sons came to the territory to fight proslavery forces. The conflicts between these factions brought national attention to the area, which earned the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.”

After drafting four constitutions, Kansas eventually entered the Union as a free state on January 29, 1861, forming a state government based largely on the federal government and other state models. The state’s borders were redefined: the southern border is latitude 37 degrees north, the northern border 40 degrees north, the eastern border longitude 94 degrees, 35 feet west and the western border 102 degrees, 3 feet west, or the 25th meridian. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1862 offering incentives to settle in the West.

Civil War

As the 34th state entered the Union, Southern states were seceding to form the Confederate States of America. Within months, the turmoil that brewed in Bleeding Kansas had engulfed the nation. The Civil War officially began when shots were fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Kansas immediately came to the support of the North. Senator James Lane led a group of Kansas men in a frontier guard to protect the White House. Kansans began to form numerous Union regiments to support the war effort, including two African American regiments. Besides sending troops into battle, the war affected Kansans in other ways. William C. Quantrill fled the Confederate army to lead a band of guerillas in raids against Union sympathizers. The most well-known of these is his raid on Lawrence on August 21, 1863. More than 50 men died and more than 200 homes and businesses were destroyed. Confederate General Sterling Price led his men west in an effort to capture Missouri. Union brigades engaged Confederates in the Battle of Mine Creek, October 25, 1864, in Linn County. This would be one of the largest cavalry battles in the Civil War and a major battle fought in Kansas.


After the war ended, thousands of Civil War veterans from both sides of the conflict made their homes in Kansas, earning the state the nickname the “Great Soldier State.” Some of those who came to Kansas were formerly enslaved people who found hope and opportunity in a free land. Benjamin "Pap" Singleton organized African American colonies in the state. The Exodusters settled in Kansas around 1879. In an effort to preserve the unique history of the state, the Kansas Editors and Publishers established the Kansas Historical Society in 1875.

Railroad construction had begun in the East prior to the Civil War, but the war effort interrupted most building activity. The nation needed a way to connect the West with the industrial East and agricultural South—and Kansas was at the crossroads. A federal land grant program was established to encourage railroad development. The creation of the Santa Fe Railway, chartered by Cyrus K. Holliday, Union Pacific, and the Kansas Pacific Railway, opened the state to business and industry and settlement. Kansan Fred Harvey established  restaurants along the railroad to make traveling more convenient.

In addition to rejecting slavery, Kansas’ constitution allowed women more rights than most other states. Kansas women had rights in child custody, married women had property rights, and women could vote in school board elections. In 1867 Kansas hosted the first national referendum on women’s suffrage. Leaders like Susan B. Anthony came to the state to help Clarina Nichols in a valiant but futile campaign to equalize voting rights. Kansas women would be given full voting rights in 1912, prior to the passage of the national women’s suffrage amendment in 1919.

Farming and Ranching

Kansas in the 19th century was primarily agricultural. Farmers experimented with a variety of crops. They learned that farming in the eastern half of the state was different from the western half. Through droughts and floods, they learned how to improve their farming techniques. Thousands of farmers from agricultural regions in Germany and Russia—Mennonites, Lutherans, and Catholics—urged by the railroads, brought their knowledge to the central part of the state in the mid-1870s. C. B. Schmidt became known for his efforts in encouraging these migrations. Kansas surpassed other states in the production of winter wheat in 1876. By the early 20th century Kansas had gained a new nickname, “Wheat State.”

In the mid-18th century cattle were plentiful in Texas, but demand in the North was great. No method existed to transport the animals the long distance. Joseph McCoy established a hub in Abilene in 1867 where cattle could be herded and loaded on a train to be shipped to points in the East. By the end of the year 35,000 head of cattle had been shipped out of Abilene. The cowboys who drove the cattle on the trails were young men, and often African American or Hispanic. Other cowtowns were begun in Ellsworth, Wichita, and Dodge City, and Kansas became a leader in the beef industry.  

Politics and Government

Kansans built an impressive seat for state government in the capital city, inspired by the U.S. Capitol. Construction began on the Kansas State Capitol in 1866; it was finally completed in 1903. Among the most well-known works of public art, Tragic Prelude created by Kansan John Steuart Curry, is featured on the second floor at the Capitol.


Education was important to the new settlers to Kansas. Schools from elementary to secondary and higher level were built in the new towns and cities being established across the state. Baker University in Baldwin City and Highland College were established in 1857. In 1863 Bluemont College in Manhattan, now Kansas State University, became part of the national land grant college system. Country schools were part of every rural community until unification in the mid 20th century.


Kansas reformers worked to change unsafe and unhealthy conditions in the state in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their reform efforts were often at the forefront of national movements including William Allen White's editorial, "What's the Matter with Kansas?" editorial against the Populist Party, Samuel Crumbine's efforts on behalf of public health, the fight against the Ku Klux Klan, labor strikes, and restrictions on child labor. The Prohibition movement, led by Carry Nation, was among the most well-known of these reform efforts.


Once the Wright brothers made a successful first flight on December 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, interest in aviation exploded, with many others testing their own inventions. The Kansas landscape provided ideal conditions for early aviators to experiment with flight. The level terrain in the west and south, along with steady winds, attracted many early barnstormers including Charles Lindbergh. Several of these Kansas aviators, men like Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, and Lloyd Stearman, went on to open aviation factories making Wichita the “air capital of the world.” Amelia Earhart focused her efforts toward setting aviation milestones.

Many inventors and entrepreneurs call Kansas home. Walter Chrysler was born in Wamego and grew up in Ellis. He established Chrysler Motors and was considered among the most successful men in the nation. As business and manufacturing grew, immigrants from other countries continued to find opportunities in Kansas. People from Mexico moved to the state to work on the railroads and in the manufacturing industry.

World War I

Almost 80,000 Kansas men joined the armed forces during World War I. Camp Funston at Fort Riley was established to train the men going into the service. Fort Riley housed about 26,000 men and thousands of horses and mules. Some believe that the Flu Epidemic of 1918 emerged from this camp. The epidemic would spread to Europe, Russia, North Africa, India, China, Japan, the Philippines, and New Zealand, affecting one fifth of the world’s population.

Dust Bowl

Arthur Capper, a newspaperman and Kansas governor, was a longtime U.S. senator from Kansas who served from 1919 to 1949. Kansan Charles Curtis served as vice president of the U.S. with Herbert Hoover from 1929 to 1933 as the nation faced the Great Depression  Kansas businesses, industries, and families were impacted by the downturn. Manufacturers saw a decline in orders, and cut production. Businesses and banks no longer offered credit, stores closed, and unemployment soared. To add to the economic impact, drought conditions began to plague the semi-arid portions of the Midwest in 1933. While the area received more moisture than usual in 1930, the next four years were deprived of rain; crops shriveled and top-soil eroded. During the rainy years preceding the drought, ranchers had allowed over grazing. With the philosophy that “rain follows the plow,” large areas of the plains were cultivated, leaving them exposed to erosion and drought. The Dust Bowl reached a peak in spring 1935 when about 300,000 tons of topsoil was removed from the plains. To help Americans survive these economic times, the federal government launched the New Deal. Some of these programs offered jobs to the unemployed planting forests, making public art, and constructing reservoirs, bridges, roads, and buildings. Kansas received $119 million for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that put people to work. Kansas Governor Alfred Landon was selected as the Republican Party candidate for president in 1936. He ran an unsuccessful campaign against President Roosevelt.

By the 1930s almost 90 percent of urban dwellers had electricity, but only 10 percent of farms were connected.  The expense of running lines in the country outweighed the benefits for private electric companies. On May 11, 1935, the Rural Electrification Administration was created and a year later Congress passed the act that provided loans to farmers seeking electrical power. In the midst of depression, farmers avoided loans by establishing cooperatives. Power reached the state on April 1, 1938, in Brown County.

World War II

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the nation quickly went to war. More than 227,000 men and women from Kansas were involved in the armed services between September 16, 1940 and June 30, 1946. General Dwight D. Eisenhower from Kansas was appointed to lead both the United States and Great Britain in an effort to liberate France and fight the German army. As Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower wrote the order to launch D-Day, one of the most significant moments of World War II. At home, Kansans contributed to the war effort on the farm and in manufacturing. A number of military aircraft were built in Wichita. During the war, Harry Colmery drafted what became the G. I. Bill of Rights. The bill, passed in 1944, transformed America by providing a monthly stipend for veterans who enrolled in colleges and universities.

In 1952 Eisenhower was elected the 34th president of the United States. Veterans organizations, like the American Legion, grew in number during the 1950s. Following the Korean and Vietnam wars, people from Southeast Asia moved to Kansas to find opportunity. Some Hmong families from Laos settled in western Kansas.

Civil Rights

Kansans made several attempts to address segregation in the state. While state statute barred segregation in public accommodations, businesses found ways to skirt the law. A group of students in Wichita staged the nation’s first student-led lunch counter sit-in at Dockum Drug Store in 1958. Only larger cities were allowed to segregate elementary schools; segregation was banned in high schools, Wyandotte County was the only exception. African Americans in the state tested the application and enforcements of these laws in 11 state Supreme Court cases from 1881 to 1949. In 1948 a group of Topeka parents formed the Citizens Committee on Civil Rights and began to fight the “Jim Crow” laws that kept students segregated. McKinley Burnett and Lucinda Todd served as president and secretary of the local NAACP chapter. The parents attempted to enroll students in their neighborhood school. They were all denied admittance to the white schools. The group of 13 parents on behalf of their 20 children filed a class action suit in U.S. District Court against Topeka schools. Their next step was to take their fight to the U.S. Supreme Court. On May 17, 1954, the court found in favor of Brown v. Board of Education.

Science and Technology

Kansans have been at the forefront of scientific and technological advances. The Menninger family established a respected mental facility in Topeka. Kansan Jack Kilby invented the microchip in 1958 for Texas Instruments. Earl Sutherland received the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1971. Three Kansans have served as astronauts in the space program: Joe Engle, Ron Evans, and Steven Hawley. Robert Ballard, born in Wichita, explored the ocean depths.

Arts, Literature, and Sports

Several leaders in arts, music, and literature, hail from Kansas. The Reverend Charles Sheldon of Topeka authored one of the top bestsellers of all time, In His Steps. A number of those influential in the Harlem Renaissance were Kansans including Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas, and Charlie Parker. Author and newspaperman Damon Runyon from Manhattan became known for his work Guys and Dolls. Pulitzer Prize winning author Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka. Author Rex Stout of Topeka was famous for his literary character, Nero Wolfe. Gordon Parks, photographer, journalist, author, film director, and composer was born in Fort Scott. Clementine Paddleford was "America's Number One Food Editor."

Sports have been popular passions since the late 19th century in Kansans. James Naismith created the game of basketball before coming to the University of Kansas in 1898 to coach basketball, teach physical education, and serve as chaplain. Women have played basketball since these early days, and softball dates from the early 20th century.

The state has become known for its severe weather. Kansas ranks fourth in the total number of tornadoes. A few of these storms have made national news including the May 25, 1955 Udall tornado, June 8, 1966, Topeka tornado and the May 4, 2007, Greensburg tornado.

Kansas has been represented by several well-known statesmen. Senator Bob Dole was the G.O.P. nominee for the vice-presidency in 1976, serving as Gerald Ford's running mate. He was the Republican presidential nominee in 1988. Nancy Landon Kassebaum followed in her father's footsteps and served as U.S. Senator from 1978 to 1996.

Entry: 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: May 2012

Date Modified: January 2018

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.