At the heart of America’s heartland, Kansas has played a pivotal role in shaping America’s migration routes, the battle over slavery, and the cultivating of the nation’s breadbasket. For those fortunate enough to have Kansas ancestors, a treasure trove of records and stories awaits your discovery.
Kansas became part of the United States along with the rest of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Prior to that, the area had been inhabited by various Native American tribes (including the Wichita, the Osage, the Pawnee, and the eponymous Kansa, or Kaw) but claimed for France, then Spain, then France again.
In 1830, the Indian Removal Act called for the forced relocation of Native American tribes from the east and southeast of the United States to designated federal lands across the Mississippi (notably in Kansas’ neighbor, Oklahoma). But even before then, individual tribes such as the Delaware and Ottawa agreed to move from their ancestral lands into modern Kansas—often at the expense of tribes indigenous to the region.
Settlers were moving in even before treaties with the Native American tribes were signed, with the ﬁrst permanent white settlement in Fort Leavenworth in 1827. As a result, the formal surveying process was delayed, and the Preemption Act of 1841 played an outsized role in the settlement of the state. Through it, settlers claimed preemptory rights to property long before the government could properly codify their land ownership.
It wasn’t until the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed in 1854 (creating the Kansas and Nebraska Territories) that emigration from the East Coast and Europe began in earnest. As the new territory opened for white settlement, Native American tribes were again forced off their lands, this time south to Oklahoma. Notably, the Kansas-Nebraska Act also allowed for popular sovereignty to determine whether slavery would be legal in the territory. Waves of activists from both sides of the issue migrated to Kansas, eager to vote either for or against.
This set the stage for “Bleeding Kansas,” a series of violent conﬂicts over the issue of slavery that some historians believe led directly to the Civil War. More than 50 people died in the well-publicized skirmishes between pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” and antislavery “Free-Staters.” Kansas was ultimately admitted as a free state in early 1861, shortly before the Civil War began.
Emigration surged after the Civil War for two primary reasons. First, the Homestead Act in 1862 gave 160 acres to any settler who would remain on the land for ﬁve years and make improvements. Union Civil War veterans enjoyed an added bonus under the Homestead Act—they could deduct their years of service from the ﬁve-year occupation rule. Second, the railroads were moving west—and fast. The Sante Fe Railway (officially the Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe Railway) was chartered in 1859, and the Kansas Paciﬁc Railway (originally the Union Paciﬁc Railway, Eastern Division) broke ground in 1863. The railroads actively promoted settlement in Kansas to would-be pioneers in the East and immigrant-hopefuls in Germany and across Europe. The railroad companies themselves also spurred migration. The Paciﬁc Railway Act of 1862 offered government incentives to railroads in the form of miles-wide land grants on either side of the tracks. The companies, in turn, sold this prime real estate to settlers to recoup the costs of laying the rails.
Other notable migrant groups include the “Exodusters,” formerly enslaved African Americans who left the South during and after Reconstruction. One prominent destination was Nicodemus, a town founded in 1877 that became one of the largest majority-Black settlements west of the Mississippi. Between 1854 and 1929, more than 250,000 children from Eastern cities were sent west on “orphan trains” to ﬁnd new lives with pioneer families. Kansas became home to 5,000 to 6,000 of them. While records of individual placements are almost non-existent, their stories are recorded at the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia.
Kansas History Timeline
Spaniard Francisco Vázquez de Coronado visits Kansas during his search for the Seven Cities of Gold 1762 Spain acquires France’s land west of the Mississippi River; it cedes the land to France again in 1800
Modern Kansas becomes part of the United States in the Louisiana Purchase 1820s Native tribes in Kansas are removed from their lands to make room for tribes forcibly relocated from other areas 1821 Missouri becomes a state; modern Kansas (formerly part of Missouri Territory) becomes “unorganized territory”
1854 The Kansas-Nebraska Act creates the separate territories of Kansas and Nebraska; conflict over slavery leads to “Bleeding Kansas” 1861 Kansas becomes the 34th state to join the Union; western portions of the Kansas Territory become part of the new Colorado Territory 1868 Construction begins on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway
1893 Finney County annexes Garfield County, the last major shift in Kansas’ county boundaries 1935 “Black Sunday”: A massive dust storm crosses the southern Great Plains, typical of the Dust Bowl
Kansas ﬁrst kept statewide births and deaths in 1911, but cities or counties may have kept them earlier. Pre-1911 birth and death registers were most often recorded in city or county clerk offices. Not all records have survived, but the Kansas Historical Society has microﬁlm records of some; search vital records in the archive catalog.
The state began keeping copies of divorce records in 1951, but the same privacy rules apply. Earlier records were kept by the territorial legislature’s Sessions Laws (1855–1861) or the individual county district court (1861–1951).
Kansas ﬁrst appeared in the 1860 federal census as Kansas Territory, then as a state in its own right in 1870. But genealogists interested in searching this early Kansas roots are fortunate to have other rich enumerations draw upon. Start looking in Ancestry.com’s collections of voting registers and elections lists from the mid-1850s.
Kansas also took state censuses every 10 years from 1865 to 1925, making them nice complements to the decennial federal census. While the state censuses are not as comprehensive as their federal counterparts, genealogists will still ﬁnd excellent information in them: name, age, gender, race, relationship to head of household, marital status, birth-place, and (of course) place of enumeration. You can search these (as well as the territorial voting lists, which are some-times called “territory censuses”) in one Ancestry.com collection.
Don’t be surprised if you ﬁnd a Missourian in these early voting lists and censuses! Many crossed the Missouri-Kansas border speciﬁcally to vote in Kansas elections in the hopes of swaying Kansas’ vote on slavery.
Since Kansas is a public-land state, early land sales there were made by the government. You can obtain patents (ﬁrst title records)—including for homesteaders—on the Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records website. Federal land entry ﬁles (the purchase application ﬁles) may be obtained from the National Archives using Form 84 for a fee. Records of transactions between railroad companies and settlers are in county land track books or railroad company records, some of which are at the Kansas Historical Society.
Fort Hays State Historic Site: Visit this US Army post — active from 1865 to 1889 — and you’ll see the original 1867 blockhouse and 1872 guardhouse, furnished officers’ quarters and American Indian artifacts.
Fort Scott National Historic Site: The US National Park Service maintains Fort Scott’s 20 historic structures, a military parade ground and 5 acres of restored tallgrass prairie. Established in 1842, Fort Scott now serves as a tribute to western settlement and civilization.
Frontier Army Museum: This museum showcases weapons, uniforms and other equipment used by soldiers serving west of the Mississippi River between 1804 and 1917.
Kansas Museum of History: View a panorama of Kansas history in special and permanent exhibits, featuring artifacts such as a Cheyenne tepee, a covered wagon and a locomotive made for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.
Mennonite Heritage Museum: Comprising eight buildings, this museum offers a glimpse into the lives of Russian Mennonites who settled here in 1874.
Shawnee Indian Mission State Historic Site: Between 1839 and 1862, this 12-acre site was a school for Shawnee, Delaware and other Indian nations. See teachers’ living quarters, classrooms, dormitories and tools the children used.
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