Archive for Thursday, September 25, 2003

Lawrence rich in history

September 25, 2003


Lawrence's history is as fertile as the Kansas and Wakarusa river valleys.

The city was born out of political passions and played a role in the major stories of the United States -- the displacement of Native Americans, the migration west and the end of slavery.

"There are a lot of things that were decided here that were crucial to the nation," said John Jewell, a Lawrence historian.

The area was home for thousands of years to Native Americans, but by the 1850s, a steady stream of white settlers made their way westward.

After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, many assumed Kansas would become a slave state like neighboring Missouri.

But a group of New Englanders who wanted Kansas to be a free state formed the New England Emigrant Aid Co. and dispatched settlers to northeast Kansas.

The first group arrived in 1854 and camped out on Mount Oread, which later became the site of Kansas University.

The city of Lawrence was named after Amos Lawrence, a prominent Boston businessman who was one of the founders of the Emigrant Aid Co. The town quickly thrived.

It also was the headquarters of the Free State movement and one of its biggest victims during what has become known as Quantrill's Raid.

The period from 1854-1865 was called "Bleeding Kansas" as the fight over slavery raged guerrilla-war style on the Kansas-Missouri border.

William Clarke Quantrill had fought with Confederate troops, but felt they weren't aggressive enough, so he led his own group of irregulars in raids against Kansas towns.

On Aug. 21, 1863, Quantrill with more than 300 men rode against the city of Lawrence. The town offered little resistance in the surprise attack and the raiders killed more than 150 men and destroyed a major portion of the town.

In his history of Lawrence, Richard Cordley, a longtime minister who witnessed the attack, wrote; "History furnishes no other instance where so large a number of such desperate men, so heavily armed, were let perfectly loose upon an unsuspecting and helpless community. They were not restrained even by the common rules of war, and went about their work of death with the abandon of men with whom murder was a pastime and pity a stranger."

The sacking of Lawrence certainly had no impact on the outcome of the Civil War, yet it is probably the most historically analyzed event that happened in the city.

"Throughout the territorial period, Lawrence was probably the most important town in Kansas, considered one of the premier communities and leading free-state community in the territory," said Virgil Dean, research historian with the Kansas State Historical Society and editor of "Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains."

But it would be a mistake to think that all settlers were morally opposed to slavery. Many supported slavery, while some came to get inexpensive land that was essentially stolen from Native Americans. Some settlers opposed slavery because they believed it would hurt their ability to get jobs.

"A diverse group of people came here," Jewell said.

Thousands of Indians were removed from eastern Kansas between 1854 and 1871. Many settlers, farmers and railroad workers squatted on the land even before the land was officially taken by treaty.

Despite the mistreatment of Native Americans, Lawrence is home to Haskell Indian Nations University, an intertribal university for Native Americans. The institute opened its doors in 1884 as a grade school and later evolved into a college that integrates Native American culture into its studies.

After the Civil War, Lawrence focused on growth. Founded in 1864, Kansas University has developed into a top-flight school with about 28,000 students, including a medical center.

By 1870, the population of Douglas County had grown to 8,000. By 1900, the population had tripled to about 25,000, but there it stayed until after World War II.

"It was a fairly typical small college town for most of the century," Dean said.

Lawrence and Kansas University also became known for basketball prowess. Dr. James Naismith, who invented the game in 1891, came to KU in 1898 to coach. In its history, KU has two NCAA national championships in basketball.

The once turbulent Civil War-era town, then quiet college town, continues to evolve today with many of its new residents choosing Lawrence to live in while commuting to Topeka and the Kansas City-area for work. Douglas County's population reached nearly 58,000 in 1970 and topped 100,000 in the 2000 census, growing at a much faster rate than the rest of the state.

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