More than 150 years ago, in 1854, adventuresome men and women in search of a new beginning and a better life turned their gaze westward to the Kansas Territory, newly opened to settlement, a vast region with lush prairies and grasslands, timbered, abounding in prairie chickens, quail, and wild turkey.
Historian Alice Nichols said the exodus from points east included farmers with their families and livestock, anxious to turn the virgin soil, and men in search of easier plundering. Nichols termed the territory a gigantic seedbed where North and South met and where blood was spilled in the struggle to extend or contain slavery.
Nathan Parker, who wrote a handbook designed to whet appetites for the West, said "Physicians, lawyers, clergymen, real estate brokers and the like had better stay home; for the Territory is already bountifully supplied with them." As expressed by one pioneer of the female persuasion, "Kansas was heaven for men and dogs, but hell for women and horses."
Nichols called the Territory's eastern reaches a park-like region in "a huge spread of land, 200 miles wide and nearly 700 miles long," first seen by white men as early as 1541 when Coronado passed through the region in quest of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola. The Kansas Territory had been home to various Native American tribes such as the Kansa, the Delawares, Munsees and Kickapoos, and to vast herds of buffaloes whose flesh fed the Indians and whose skins stretched across tepee poles gave them shelter.
About 1744 the French established an outpost in the vicinity of the present day Kickapoo community to the north and west of Leavenworth. They called their log settlement Fort de Cavagnial, in honor of the French governor at New Orleans. De Cavagnial's small garrison engaged in fur trading with the Indians for about 20 years.
Frederick Simpich, writing in the National Geographic Magazine in 1937, said the fur-trading post was in the vicinity of Oak Mills. From there, in a single year, 1757, the French shipped 10,000 pelts to Paris, via New Orleans. Explorers Lewis and Clark reported seeing the ruins of De Cavagnial when they passed through the region in 1804. Their diaries stated the abandoned fort was located a mile inland from an Indian village. Archeologists searched in vain for the site in the mid-1900s. It was not until 1986 that David Campbell, an army officer from Fort Leavenworth, finally found the location on a farm about five miles west and north of present Fort Leavenworth.
With Missouri's admission to the Union in 1821 as a slave state, Kansas became part of the unorganized territory above 36" 30' that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 said should remain forever free.
Col. Henry Leavenworth, under orders to establish a cantonment on the east side of the Missouri River within 20 miles above or below the mouth of the Little Platte River, left Jefferson Barracks at St. Louis in April 1827, together with four companies of the 3rd Regiment, U.S. infantry. When Leavenworth reached the area specified in his orders he could see that the terrain on the east bank was subject to flooding, while the higher ground further up the river on the west side was more defensible.
Page 2 of 2 - Washington subsequently approved Col. Leavenworth's choice. It was named Cantonment Leavenworth. As westward expansion over the Oregon and Santa Fe trails increased in the 1820s the presence of soldiers in the region gave a degree of protection for settlers moving west. With the opening of the Kansas Territory in 1854 the first territorial governor, Andrew H. Reeder arrived at Fort Leavenworth, establishing the territorial capital. He lived in the Rookery, the oldest building in Kansas still in use.
If there is a recurring theme in these tales, it is one of violence, underscoring the correctness of the term historians bestowed on that era: "Bleeding Kansas."
Tales of Old Leavenworth, a book written by J. H. Johnston, is a collection of incidents and events drawn from Leavenworth's earliest days and even before. There are tales of fires and flood, of murder, lynching and kidnapping, gold fever, encounters with Indians, census fraud, and how, in the mid-1860s, Leavenworth lost the railroad race.
But despite the contaminate evils that beset the town, Leavenworth prospered because she grew up in the shadow of Fort Leavenworth, supplying guns and goods, and girls who became the brides of men in uniform, causing Leavenworth to be called "the mother-in-law of the Army," ultimately to find a place among the best known small communities in America.
Annie Johnston is a Leavenworth resident and wife of the late J.H. Johnston III, former Times publisher.