Boulder, plaque pay homage to pioneers

Monument in downtown park dedicated at city's 75th anniversary

For most, the Shunganunga boulder is but a peripheral pink blur as they drive through downtown Lawrence.

Tucked in Robinson Park, a tiny green oasis amidst Sixth Street’s intersections with the southern ends of the Kansas River bridge, the monument is difficult to reach by foot and obscured to motorists by traffic and trees.

If it is possible for a 10-foot-tall, 23-ton monolith to be inconspicuous, the Shunganunga boulder is.

But while the rock may go ignored among the hubbub of downtown traffic, it holds a significant — and sometimes controversial — place in Lawrence history.

Geologists theorize the boulder was pushed very slowly south from the Dakotas by glaciers during the last ice age.

In the 1800s, the boulder had come to rest near the junction of the Shunganunga Creek and Kansas River, close to what is present-day Tecumseh. It was one of several sacred sites for the Kanza Indians, the area’s dominant tribe and state’s namesake.

“The rock was an unusual phenomenon,” said Dennis Domer, a former Kansas University professor who teaches historical preservation at the University of Kentucky. Domer, who still maintains a residence in Lawrence, published an article on the history of the boulder. “The Kanza Indians, and other Indians, associated a lot of deity with unusual phenomenon. And this was one.”

As white settlers moved into the area, the Kanza were squeezed first into a reservation in Kansas, and, in 1872, down to Oklahoma. When the tribe left the area, the “prayer stone” that the Kanza had worshipped remained, as it had for centuries, in the Kansas River.

By the 1920s, Topeka, with the state Capitol, and Lawrence, with the state’s largest university, had grown into substantial municipalities engaged in something of a battle for pride.

In 1929, a Topeka man spearheaded a campaign to have the Shunganunga boulder removed from the Kansas River and brought to the lawn of the Statehouse. In an effort to display the city’s bravado, a group of Lawrence men quickly pieced together a plan to have the giant rock brought to Lawrence where it would serve as part of the city’s 75th anniversary celebration.

With the help of a crane borrowed from the Santa Fe Railway, the Lawrence group heisted the boulder before the Topeka faction knew what had happened.

“It was done in the dark of night,” said Karl Gridley, a local historian and member of the Lawrence Sesquicentennial Commission. “The Topekans had their eye on it, but the group from Lawrence got to it first.”

On Oct. 11, 1929, Lawrence dedicated the rock, with a copper plaque affixed to it honoring the city’s founding fathers as part of the anniversary festivities. The plaque reads: “To the pioneers of Kansas who in devotion to human freedom came into a wilderness, suffered hardships and faced danger and death to found this state in righteousness.”

Headed back home?

To the Kanza Indians, the movement of the boulder from its natural resting place was, and is, alarming. They consider many glacial monoliths, include the Shunganunga, to be sacred prayer rocks.

The tribe, now located in Oklahoma, has approached the city about the possibility of returning the monolith to its home in the Kansas River — a request complicated by the fact there are no specific records of the boulder’s original resting place.

Betty Durkee, historic preservation director of the Kanza, said the Kanza were serious about their desire to have the rock restored to its natural home.

“I can tell you that the boulder is very sacred to them,” Durkee said. “I don’t know what the most recent request was, but I do know that they would like to see something done.”

Steve Jansen, former director of the Watkins Community Museum of History, said if the tribe had documented ownership or spiritual connection to the rock, the city should consider a claim.

“As a historian, I feel that repatriation is very important,” he said. “It’s something that we should take very seriously.”

While Gridley acknowledged that the Kanza suffered injustices during the turbulent 1800s, he hoped that, in some respect, the city’s use of the boulder carried on the spirit that the Kanza worshipped.

“To the Kanza, these things had a life and a spirit,” Gridley said. “In some ways, the spirituality of the rock has been shifted to a different area. The boulder was very important to the residents of Lawrence who brought it here — it was kind of like their Plymouth Rock.”

— Kansas University journalism student Kendall Dix contributed information to this story.

The central feature of the monument dedicated to the early settlers of Lawrence and Douglas County is a quartzite boulder brought to Lawrence by the Santa Fe Railroad Co. in 1929, for the city’s 75th anniversary. The boulder, taken from the Kansas River at the mouth of Shunganunga Creek between Tecumseh and Topeka, was set up in Robinson Park, north of Sixth Street between the the river bridges.The huge boulder is estimated to weigh between 23 tons and 25 tons and was deposited in Kansas by glacial action between 350,000 and 400,000 years ago. It probably originated in northern Nebraska or southeastern South Dakota, surmised R.C. Moore, state geologist in the late 1920s.Robinson Park, in which the monument has been raised, was used as a public levee during the early settlement days, when river transportation was being attempted, and before the first railroads arrived.The monument bears a bronze tablet with an inscription prepared by Miss Hannah Oliver, an “Old Settler,” a graduate of Kansas University in its second graduating class and a member of its faculty for nearly 30 years. In addition to the inscription, the tablet bears the names, so far as they are found in history, of the men and women who came in the first parties — those arriving in August and September 1854.