Happy birthday, Kansas!


January 29 marks the beginning of Kansas’ sesquicentennial year, a milestone that will be celebrated all over the state.  The State Library of Kansas is maintaining a fantastic blog of Kansas history and facts and other towns are using the occasion to remind Kansans of their state’s sometimes uncertain and sometimes violent beginnings.

For me, the interesting part of Kansas history is why non-native people chose to come here in the first place, giving up the relatively comfortable Victorian lifestyle (read: accessible food, clothing, shelter, a community support system) to trudge out to the wild, beautiful and often unforgiving prairie with little more than prayers and what little they could haul by horseback and wagon.

***

A few years ago, while at a university function, a professor and I were discussing the frustration of not knowing much about the backgrounds of ancestors who immigrated to the United States. “I wish I knew more about the lives of my great-grandparents,” I said to him, “but we just don’t talk about those things much.” Thoughtful, the professor said, “People don’t leave their homeland, give up family and friends and everything they know, because their lives are wonderful. If everything had been perfect, they would not have had a reason to leave. Sometimes those reasons are painful. Sometimes they want or need something more. But they leave for a chance to have something better.”

I’ve thought about what that professor said often, and especially when I am wandering through an older cemetery with settler’s graves. What was in Kansas that they couldn’t find at home?

Not everyone who came to Kansas would be famous. Not everyone would even live out their lives here. Yet, in those early years, those settlers, homesteaders, rebels — whatever you want to call them — brought their hopes and dreams to a harsh land that offered no guarantees.

***

My husband and I have now visited twenty-two of the nearly forty cemeteries in Lyon County, Kansas. Each cemetery, whether large or small, speaks volumes of the earliest people who came to Kansas. Evergreen and Greenwood Cemeteries boast many beautiful and substantial monuments in Welsh, proclaiming a successful ethnic community within the county. On the other hand, the Mennonite-Musselman burial ground, whose graves primarily belong to children, speaks of untold hardship in a community that would ultimately move on to the next county. The stones show wealth, hardship, family connections, religion, social membership, allegiance to causes, and even cause of death. The cemetery is the community that lives on long after its inhabitants have passed on.

Sometimes, those old headstones tell the story of settlers who discovered that Kansas was exactly the right place for them to be.

***

Cyrus R. Rice had an adventurous spirit. Born in Tennessee in 1833, he was the son of a physician and surgeon, and even graduated with a degree in medicine from Lebanon College in 1852 before realizing his destiny was to heal souls instead of bodies. In 1854, he because a licensed minister and was a circuit preacher in Missouri until he was sent to Kansas as a missionary  for the Methodist Episcopal Church a year later. During a brief trip back to Missouri, he met and married Louisa “Lucy” Ann McCormick.

They came to Kansas on their wedding trip, covering the entire 600 miles on horseback.

Lucy must have had a yen for adventure, too.

Rev. Rice organized community churches all over the state, sometimes holding services in school houses, other times under the shade of a big tree. When the Civil War broke out, he took his family to his wife’s parents home and enlisted in the Union army as a Scout. Whether or not he was a good Scout is questionable; he was captured many times; but luck was on his side and he always escaped unharmed, bringing spiritual comfort to soldiers along the way.

After the war, he established the Methodist Episcopal Church in Emporia in 1866.

Some people would have felt like they’d already achieved a lifetime of success at this point. But Rev. Rice went on to organize and serve as pastor for churches in Eureka, Independence, El Dorado, Augusta, Marton, Chetopa, Baldwin, Hartford, Americus, Pleasanton, Burlington, Ottawa, Douglas, and Burlingame. All this at a time when the distance between Emporia and Topeka was still two days by horseback. The “Pioneer Preacher,” as the Emporia Weekly Gazette called him, retired after delivering his final sermon in Baldwin in 1904, with fifty years of preaching behind him.

And yet he and Lucy still didn’t settle down.

In fact, they moved again, this time to Hartford, which became home base for their broader travels.  Their children, it turned out, were also adventurers, and the Rices traveled frequently to New York City, Detroit, and Spokane to visit them. In 1914, the Rices moved again, this time to live with their son, Rev. E.M. Rice, in Eureka.

Cyrus and Lucy Rice are not likely to appear in any broad academic books about the history of Kansas. And yet they played an integral part in establishing social bonds in more than a dozen fledgling communities, something they probably could not have done had Cyrus taken over his father’s medical practice in Tennessee, or on Lucy’s family farm in Missouri.

The legacy of the Rice family lives on in each of the communities they touched, even if the current residents of those cities and towns have no idea who Cyrus and Lucy Rice were. But in Emporia, were several members of the Rice family are buried, there is a monument with just enough information to let passersby know that if nothing else, their time in Kansas brought them a measure of success.

The headstone honoring Rev. and Lucy Rice, a pair of Emporia's earliest citizens, photographed in the summer of 2010.

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2 thoughts on “Happy birthday, Kansas!

  1. Simone Benedict

    I love your post! I too have wondered why my ancestors came to Kansas four generations ago. Although I know a lot about their history, their relocation to Kansas is not clear to me. My theory is these ancestors were free spirited and wanted to live in a wild and rough place because back then their struggles were difficult in ways that I cannot comprehend. Happy Kansas Day!

    Reply
  2. dianastaresinicdeane Post author

    Thanks so much for your feedback! I think you’re right – the biggest motivators for moving go Kansas were likely a sense of adventure or desperation. What part of Kansas did they originally settle in? That in itself may give you clues about why they ended up there.

    Reply

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