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Selecting a Suitable Country for the Kanza

By Ron Parks
Analysis | June 1, 2011

COUNCIL GROVE, Kan. - The Kanza slept with their leggings and moccasins on despite the warm June nights. The Indians tied their horses at their heads to be ready to run while others kept an overnight watch.

From the start it had been a Fool's Errand, a situation made plain when the ten men in the exploring party reached what in 1847 white people called "Grand Point," the Kanza name "Big Bottoms," today known as Junction City. Here the Indians became apprehensive. A few days before Kanza scouts spotted their powerful enemies, Comanches, near Big Bottoms.

The leader, U.S. Indian agent Richard W. Cummins, was informed the six Kanza in his party "were unwilling to proceed any further west." Recent events validated the Indians' fears. The previous July the Comanche and Kanza battled near the Pawnee Fork [west of present Larned], both tribes suffering heavy losses. At Cummins' insistence, the little expedition pushed a little further out into the plains. If detected, they would have been easily cut off by the Comanche, although Cummins thought at least some of the Kanza could have escaped. Not far west of Big Bottoms, the agent ordered a halt, concluding "it very dangerous to proceed any further." After another deliberation, the anxious men retreated east down the Kansas River valley.

The mission of the Cummins party was to reconnoiter a new home site for the Kanza in the vicinity of present-day Minneapolis, Kansas. To get there, they traversed on horseback a vast grassland expanse over a rolling terrain to about 150 miles west of present-day Kansas City. Here, flanked by a broad, tall grass-covered valley floor, the Solomon River, known by the Kanza as the "Nepaholla," snaked its way northwest-to-southeast across the prairie landscape.

In June 1847, two decades before the arrival of the plow, these grasslands were resplendently green, a new growth of bluestem, Indian, and switchgrass mixed with an assortment of shorter grasses sprinkled profusely by wildflowers, all nurtured by a moisture-laden winter during which snow fell uninterruptedly from February 16 to March 25.

The party probed reluctantly west because the treaty document signed by U.S. commissioners and Kanza chiefs on January 14, 1846, required an assessment of "a sufficiency of timber" in this area. If Cummins' party found in this region an adequate supply of hardwood timber to support the tribe in farming, the government would assist the Kanza in establishing permanent villages here.

Under the treaty scenario, the tribe was to abandon its villages in the Kansas River valley between present-day Wamego and Topeka, relocating to the Solomon. In their new homes the Indians would continue their traditional forms of subsistence, hunting bison on the adjoining plains and raising corn and other vegetables in the stream bottoms, while nearby groves of oak and walnut supplied sturdy timber for rail fences to protect their fields from marauding livestock. Here under the protective and benign guidance of an U.S. agent, the tribe would be supported by government financial and infrastructure assistance, while under the tutelage of government hirelings, Kanza children attended school and Kanza adults learned modern agricultural practices. As the bison herds disappeared, agriculture would supplant the hunt, confinement eclipse mobility, and civilization supersede savagery.

U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Luke Lea, articulated the overarching aims of this reservation policy in 1850:

"It is indispensably necessary that they be placed in positions where they can be controlled and finally compelled by sheer necessity to resort to agricultural labor or starve. Considering, as the untutored Indian does, that labor is a degradation, and that there is nothing worthy of his ambitions but prowess in war, success in the chase, and eloquence in council, it is only under such circumstances that his haughty pride can be subdued, and his wild energies trained to the more ennobling pursuits of civilized life. There should be assigned to each tribe, for a permanent home, a country adapted to agriculture, of limited extent and well-defined boundaries; within which all, with occasional exception, should be compelled constantly to remain until such time as their general improvement and good conduct may supersede the necessity of such restrictions."

The 1846 Treaty chopped off the eastern one-third of the Kanza reservation prescribed by the 1825 Treaty. The original reservation was a 30-mile-wide tract extending from near present-day Topeka about 300 miles west to the headwaters of the Smoky Hill River, a point a few miles inside today's state of Colorado. By signing the 1846 treaty, the Kanza agreed to cede two million acres encompassing the rich and productive river valley bearing the tribe's name.

The Kanza had reasons to reduce the size of their reservation. On January 23, 1844, the two principal Kanza leaders, Hard Chief and Fool Chief, wrote a letter addressed to "My Father" stating the tribe's willingness to sell a 45-mile-long section on the east end of the reservation. On a modern map this segment of the reservation extends from Topeka to near Manhattan. Describing their tribe as "very poor and needy," the chiefs said their tribe's next annuity payment -- $3,500 as stipulated by the 1825 Treaty -- would be their last, and $1,500 of this would go to cover debts owed their trader, Frederick Chouteau. The Kanza ordinarily paid their traders' debts with robes upon returning from a hunt, but the winter hunt of 1843-44 had been unsuccessful. Poverty and debt created an urgency to generate cash, and the fastest way was to sell tribal land. The chiefs' asking price was $61,000.

The tribe's predicament was compounded by one of the most horrific floods in Kansas history in the summer of 1844. Kanza women farmed plots of corn, potatoes, beans, melons, and other vegetables on the bottom lands of the Kansas River. That summer the valley overflowed from bluff to bluff, the flood sweeping off all of the Indians' fencing, houses, and crops, which, according to Cummins, "were very promising until they were overthrown."

The next spring another flood destroyed the Kanza's crops. Later that summer sickness struck the villages, killing about two hundred people, two-thirds of them children. At the same time a disease, characterized by swelling under the chest, killed many of the tribe's horses and area deer and raccoons. Reeling from these disastrous events, the Kanza chiefs assembled on January 14, 1846, at Mission Creek just west of present-day Topeka. They were eager to make a deal.

Sitting across the table from the Indian leaders were the two men who drafted the treaty document: Kanza agent Cummins and his St. Louis-based supervisor, superintendent Thomas Harvey. Nineteen Kanza chiefs and headmen signed the treaty, the order of signature indicating hierarchical status. The first Kanza listed was Kihigawahchuffe, or Hard Chief. Next to sign was Mechoshingah, or Broken Thigh, followed by Piiscahcah. The fourth name listed was Ishtalasa, or Speckled Eyes, a prominent Kanza leader over the next two decades. Among the eight witnesses to sign the document was a 33-year-old clerk employed by the Westport trading firm of Boone and Hamilton -- Seth M. Hays.

The two million acres were ceded to the United States effective May 1, 1847, at the rate of ten cents per acre. In exchange, the Kanza received the following:

  • Eight thousand dollars annually in the form of "annuities," interest payments from an initial payment of $202,000.
  • Each year one thousand dollars for education and one thousand dollars for agricultural assistance.
  • A mill located near their new villages.
  • A blacksmith.
  • A sub-agent to reside among Kanza, to direct their farming operations and oversee "general improvement."

The negotiation's sticking point was where to relocate the tribe. Presumably, the Kanza would establish their villages near the eastern boundary of their newly truncated reserve, the same locale the Cummins party was supposed to survey to determine sufficiency of timber. But the failure of both Cummins to reconnoiter and the Kanza to settle this area stemmed from the same formidable obstacle; it would have delivered the overmatched tribe into the jaws of their implacable enemies. Powerful and hostile tribes, not just the Comanche, but more prominently the Pawnee and Cheyenne, claimed this area as their bison hunting grounds. During the ensuing two decades, the Cheyenne in particular inflicted a tremendous loss of life and property on the Kanza, crippling the tribe's ability to successfully hunt the diminishing bison herds in central Kansas.

The U. S. government could not fulfill its treaty obligations in 1847 because it could not protect the Kanza at the proposed place of resettlement. The eastern margin of the new reservation was over 140 miles from the nearest military post, Fort Leavenworth. The place was largely unexplored by Americans. At that time no viable wagon road extended from present-day Kansas City to the Solomon River valley, a feature vitally necessary to effect communication and supply linkage between the Office of Indian Affairs and its Kanza charges. Finally, Indian Office officials never addressed the imposing, if not impossible, task of securing, then retaining the required agent, blacksmith, farmer, and school teacher for deployment at this isolated and precarious post.

Cummins defined the predicament:

"...the Kansas Indians could not live their, unless the Government would constantly keep a sufficient, Military force their to protect them, the Camanches & the Pawanees, to say nothing about other tribes, have been at war with the Kansas for a long time. Either of these tribes greatly out number the Kansas, the country left them by their session is occupied a portion of almost every year by these tribes, particularly by the Pawanees without constant protection the Kansas could not live their." (source)

Oddly, proximity of enemy tribes never surfaced as an issue in the official accounts of the treaty negotiations, the documents reflecting concerns only about the sufficiency of timber. The Kanza chiefs protested that "they could not live on the Kansas River or its watters, any where west of the Grand point," because there was no timber there "except cotton wood & some very short scattering timber of other kinds." In response, Cummins and Harvey inserted into Article Five this qualifier: "the President of the United States shall be satisfied that there is not a sufficiency of timber, he shall cause to be selected and laid off for the Kansas a suitable country, near the western boundary of the land ceded by this treaty, which shall remain for their use forever."

In fact, in the area proposed for Kanza resettlement, today's Ottawa and Lincoln counties, abundant bur oak and walnut timber did thrive in several places along the Solomon River and its tributaries, including Salt and Pipe creeks. Government officials probably did not know this, but the Indians did, having hunted this area for generations.

Following the Article Five prescription, Cummins investigated at least two more alternative reservation locations during the summer of 1847. He "examined the country immediately west of the Shawanee lands," in present eastern Dickinson County. Here again, despite the fact that abundant hardwoods grew along Lyon Creek and its tributaries, Cummins pronounced "the timber insufficient for agricultural purposes...what their are is short and scrubby and will not answer to make rails." He also rejected the divide between the Kansas and upper Neosho valleys, present northern Morris County, accurately declaring "there are almost no timber."

What then, to do? "I then examined," wrote Cummins, "the country known as the Council Grove on the head waters of the Neosho."


  • Kanza agent Richard W. Cummins to Superintendent Thomas Harvey, July 17, 1847, Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, Record Group 74, Microfilm 234, Fort Leavenworth Agency, National Archives and Records Administration (cited hereafter as LR, OIA, Fort Leavenworth Agency);
  • Louise Barry, comp., The Beginning of the West: Annals of the Kansas Gateway to the American West, 1540-1854 (Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1972) 516, 564, 622, 688;
  • Charles J. Kappler, comp., Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904), 2: 222, 552-54;
  • Luke Lea, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1850-53, quoted in Francis Paul Prucha, The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1984) 112-113;
  • Fool Chief and Hard Chief to "My Father," January 23, 1844, LR, OIA, Fort Leavenworth Agency;
  • Richard W. Cummins to Thomas Harvey, March 6, 1844, LR, OIA, Fort Leavenworth Agency;
  • Cummins to OIA, September 21, 1844, quoted in "High Waters in Kansas," Kansas Historical Collections 8 (1903-04) 476-477;
  • "Fatal Malady at the Kaw Village," Niles National Register 69 (November 1, 1845): 134;
  • John C. Fremont to William Wilkins, Secretary of War, August 28, 1844, LR, OIA, Fort Leavenworth Agency;
  • Elias. S. Stover to Thomas Murphy, December 5, 1867, Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, Record Group 74, Microfilm 234, Roll 367, Kansas Agency, National Archives and Records Administration.


Ron, I really enjoy your history lessons. The western movies and TV reproductions give an entertaining story, but they glamorize the westward movement and skirmishes with the Indians.

Enjoyed reading this, thanks.

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