Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Kansas Gold Rush

Dan Allosso

Map of Kansas and Nebraska Territories, 1854
Kansas! For most East and West-coasters, it’s one of those flyover states.  Even for Midwesterners like me, it’s most frequently remembered as a long flat stretch of driving, on the way to someplace else.  With apologies to Kansans, for many other Americans Kansas is either a band from the 70s (“Point of Know Return,” remember? “Dust in the Wind”?), the gray place Dorothy lived before being swept into Technicolor Oz, or the scene of an early, bloody civil war that helped push the nation over the brink between the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act and statehood in 1861.

So I was surprised today, when I discovered in a January, 1859 Ranney Letter that “more than two hundred persons in this county” in southern Michigan were planning to go to Kansas in search of gold the following summer.  It hadn’t occurred to me–maybe because I’m familiar with the flat, drive-through Kansas you can see on current maps–that the Nebraska and Kansas Territories extended to the Rocky Mountains and contained quite a bit of what is now Colorado and Wyoming, as well as a big section of the northern foothills (including the Black Hills) that in 1861 would become the Dakota Territory.

In other words, Gold Country.  Between 1854 and 1861, Kansas and Nebraska were part of The West in a way they no longer are.  Fort Laramie, the site of the 1868 Treaty between the U.S. and the Lakota, Dakota, and Arapaho nations, was originally in the Nebraska Territory.  Pikes Peak, now 100 miles south of Denver and 30 miles west of Colorado Springs, was in Kansas.

“How did I miss this?” I thought, with some alarm.  But when I flipped through the pages of books from the “Western” part of my library, such as Patricia Nelson Limerick's The Legacy of Conquest, I find a Kansas and Nebraska embroiled in Stephen Douglas’s expansionism.  Similarly, on my “Impending Crisis” shelf, David Potter’s book of that name devotes many pages to the 1854 Act and to the Lecompton Constitution.  But Lecompton is in the northeastern corner of present-day Kansas, and Stephen Douglas was from Illinois.  The free-state revolutionaries of Topeka and the Bleeding Kansas border war with Missouri were likewise situated on the eastern borders of the present state.

Published by Oliver Ditson, Boston, 1856
On the pages of the Kansas Historical Society’s website, I learned that the people of Kansas were apparently divided in 1859 over whether their state should be a “Big Kansas” including the western gold region, or a “Little Kansas” without it.  Kansas entered the Union in January, 1861, during the (extremely) lame-duck session between Abraham Lincoln’s election and his inauguration, with a population of 107,206.  William Seward had introduced a bill in the Senate in February, 1860, to admit “Little Kansas” under its free-state Wyandotte Constitution, which fixed the border at 102 degrees west longitude, excluding the Rockies.  The bill was defeated by Democrats who opposed Kansas as a free state; but they also objected to the “Little Kansas” borders, saying the Wyandotte convention had exceeded its authority in changing the territorial boundaries.  Were they afraid that the country around Pikes Peak would soon have sufficient population (the target was 93,000) to become yet another free state?

It just goes to show, I guess, how much complex and interesting detail lies just under the surface of the broad brushstrokes we use to integrate local and regional histories into American History.  The Kansas State Historical Society’s site includes a reprint of a 1967 article from their journal written by Calvin A. Gower of St. Cloud (MN) State University, titled “‘Big Kansas’ or ‘Little Kansas, which describes the Pikes Peak gold rush and the controversy over Kansas’ borders.  We’re lucky to have more and more of these resources online at our fingertips.  Does their availability obligate us to rethink the relationship between the broad strokes and the details–at least for the regions where we live, write, and teach?


Randall said...

I'm from Kansas... and I must confess, I didn't know about little and big Kansas! So much for my Kansas history curriculum from grade school. I do remember what our official flower and bird are. Sunflower and Meadow Lark. Both very pretty.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

My student worker is from Kansas--I can't wait to share this with her. It is very fun to start my day knowing about "Little Kansas" and "Big Kansas."

It is useful as well, of course, to be reminded that borders have a history and that there was no predetermined pattern to our states' formation. This is a lovely little lesson.

hcr said...

So much of the mid-19th C is incomprehensible without knowing about these fights, and no, I didn't know this, either.

The one that floored me when I figured it out was that the 1820 Missouri Compromise only covered the territory the U.S. acquired with the Louisiana Purchase (because, of course, the rest of the Southwest was Spanish in 1820). That seems to me a rather important point that one would think would be emphasized in antebellum histories. But somehow I, anyway, missed it.

I think the reconstruction of the territorial history of the West is crucial to understanding American politics. So thanks for this, Dan. Very cool.