Tag Archives: History

Pawnee Indian Museum in Republic County, Kansas

The history and current stories of the native and emigrant tribes of Kansas have been on my mind these past few days. My Sisters in Crime chapter (that would be a group of writers, not a group of criminals) was lucky enough to host tribal law expert Traci McClennan-Sorrell as our speaker this past weekend. And today, a story of a Wisconsin bill that would loosen the protection afforded to earth mounds constructed by indigenous people more than a thousand years ago–protection put in place after nearly 80 percent of these mounds were destroyed by farming and development–showed up in my Twitter feed.

The more I study Kansas history, the more I realize how little I know and understand the stories of the people who were here long before the rectangle that is Kansas came to be. Which is why during our Republic County research trip last May, Jim and I made a point of allowing time to visit the Pawnee Indian Museum, which is just north of Belleville and a short jog from the Nebraska border.

The Pawnee Indian Museum is Kansas' first state historic site.

The Pawnee Indian Museum is Kansas’ first state historic site.

Here’s the first thing to know about the Pawnee Indian Museum: The land was not originally preserved because it tells the story of an amazing group of people who lived in Kansas hundreds of years ago. Landowners George and Elizabeth Johnson deeded it to the state of Kansas in 1899 (which accepted it in 1901, making it the first state historic site) because of the mistaken believe that explorer Zebulon Pike (of Pike’s Peak fame) stopped here in 1806 to raise the American flag west of the Mississippi River for the first time. And while he did stop in a Pawnee village to do so, it turns out that he was actually in the Pawnee village 40 MILES NORTH of the state historic site in the village the Pawnee moved TO after abandoning the one that was preserved.

However, this error in geography probably went a long way to protecting the Republic County site from being plowed into oblivion. The result is a truly wonderful site dedicated to sharing the story of the Pawnee in the late 1700s.

A map of the earliest tribes to live in the area now called Kansas.

A map of the earliest tribes to live in the area now called Kansas.

In this area by the Republican River, a band of Kitkehahki Pawnee built an entire village of earth lodges, which were surrounded by a fortification wall. After the village was abandoned, the earth lodges, which were built over carefully packed depressions, settled in place, complete with any remaining contents. Part of the fortification wall still exists. A handful of the depressions have been excavated. In 1967, the museum was built over the largest unexcavated depression in the shape of a Pawnee earth lodge, and archaeologists carefully unearthed the contents, exposing them but leaving them in place.

Pawnee Indian Village Scale model

A model of what the Pawnee lodge would have looked like when it was still in use.

As a result, when you enter the Pawnee Indian Museum, you don’t feel like you’ve entered a museum. You feel like you’ve entered a Pawnee earth lodge. Wooden posts that once held up the roof fell in place. Grains, shells, pottery, and other tools lay exactly where they were found. The storage pit–which is several feet deep (the Pawnee buried their supplies underground, hiding them from anyone poking around their village during the seasons they were elsewhere)–is visible. And then there is the faint scent of wood smoke, which will make you feel like the inhabitants could return at any moment.

A view of the excavated area in the Pawnee Indian Museum.

A view of the excavated area in the Pawnee Indian Museum.

The Pawnee did not live in the village all year long. During the hunting seasons, they followed herds of bison. The women also cultivated crops and stored them in the storage pits.

Earth lodge storage pits were very deep.

Earth lodge storage pits were very deep.

A sacred bundle–a bundle of items important religiously and symbolically to a Pawnee family–is reverently displayed over the sacred area of the earth lodge. It is the only artifact that cannot be photographed.

Around the perimeter of the excavated area are several displays about the history of the Pawnee. Audio recordings of memories, journals, and the Pawnee language make the visit to this site even more meaningful.

The museum does not end in the building. The site includes numerous depressions, and a walking trail and signage help you interpret the depressions and remaining fortification walls.

Signs along the walking trail help you interpret the depressions and remaining fortification walls.

Signs along the walking trail help you interpret the depressions and remaining fortification walls.

After centuries on the Plains, the Pawnee’s population began to decline. As other tribes were pushed into the area that would become Kansas, the Pawnee were pushed out, and the tribal members who were not killed off by disease ultimately ended up in Oklahoma. By 1900, only about 600 Pawnee remained.

Pawnee populations declined rapidly in the 1800s.

According to one of the displays at the Pawnee Indian Museum, Pawnee populations declined rapidly in the 1800s.

If you visit the Pawnee Indian Museum, give yourself several hours to explore the museum, listen to the audio clips, and wander the grounds. It’s also a great museum for asking questions. Museum site manager Richard Gould has been researching the history of the Pawnee for years, and his insight made our visit even more meaningful.

This site does an amazing job of making the story of the Pawnee accessible to visitors regardless of what knowledge they may have of the history of native tribes. I highly recommend making the time to visit this museum.

And then we discovered a town called New Lancaster and the New Lancaster General Store

The past few months, Jim and I have spent every available weekend to get out of the house for a few hours, even crossing into Missouri–gasp!–to visit Civil War battlefields we discovered through the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area website. So I have pictures and stories dating back to January that I’m just getting around to telling, and one of those stories is about the town of New Lancaster.

But first, some history. If you’ve read Jeff Guinn’s wonderful book Go Down Together: The Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, you know that Guinn suggests that part of the infamous duo’s success had to do with two recent inventions: the Rand McNally highway map and the motor inn.

Yes, before the early 1920s, Americans apparently bumbled around the countryside, following vaguely pointed fingers and obscure directions like “turn left at the Smith’s barn,” only to find out hours later that they were supposed to turn where the barn was before it burned down 20 years earlier, and which, as people from out-of-town, they had no reason to know about. And after an exhausting search for the long-gone barn, their only option for rest would be to pitch a tent in the field next to the dirt track that passed for a road when they were too tired to go on.

You can imagine how maps and motor inns might have improved the traveling experience.

Anyway. Jim and I were wandering around Miami County and I was studying Google Maps on my phone when Jim reached behind the seat and pulled out the giant paper Delorme Kansas Road Atlas, circa 1997. Despite cellphones and GPS, we haven’t let go of our paper maps, but I was still surprised when Jim actually found where we were on the back cover page index and flipped open the atlas and said, “New Lancaster? Have we been there?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, so off to New Lancaster we went, using an 18-year-old map, whose road names did not necessarily coincide with anything in reality.

But then we found New Lancaster, a town so tiny that you can stand in one place and see the “Pavement Ends” signs on both sides of the community just by turning your head. The the really amazing find was the New Lancaster General Store.

New Lancaster General Store

The New Lancaster General Store.

The New Lancaster General Store’s roots date back to 1874. After the original building was destroyed by fire, the New Lancaster Grange, a prominent community organization, bought the land and built a new structure in 1903. During the next century, the building would be bought and sold a few times, serving as a general store, a co-op, and a distributor for cream separators and John Deere implements. At different times it housed a telephone switchboard and the post office and operated a creamery, an ice stable, a poultry house, and a livery on the property.

Stephen and Kristin Graue, the owners and operators of Middle Creek Winery, took over the property, and last fall, they reopened it as a general store that specializes in Kansas goods and honors its historic roots.

The New Lancaster General Store is an outlet for Middle Creek Wine, and Kristin is happy to pour you a sample to help you decide what to take home.

Kristin Graue pulls down a bottle of Middle Creek Wine.

So many of these types of false-front general stores have had their bones destroyed by constant repurposing. The New Lancaster General Store managed to survive the decades without too much carnage. The original floors, shelves, and tin ceiling are still in place, and I was especially charmed to see they still have a functioning rolling ladder that long-ago clerks would have used to reach the high shelves.

The rolling ladder at the New Lancaster General Store.

The rolling ladder at the New Lancaster General Store.

The Graues have also turned one of the back rooms into a country-chic meeting room that would be a lovely place for a getaway luncheon, bridal shower or baby shower.

The meeting room at the New Lancaster General Store.

The meeting room at the New Lancaster General Store.

Should you find yourself in Miami County, this little country store is worth a stop. And feel free to ask questions! The Graues love to talk about the products they sell and the process of restoring the store.

And the Graues’ next project? Restoring the town’s old church-turned-Grange Hall, which will some day be another great place for weddings and other events.

The old Grange Hall is a block away from the New Lancaster General Store.

The old Grange Hall is a block away from the New Lancaster General Store.

Read more:

New Lancaster General Store National Register of Historic Places Application

The Potawatomi Trail of Death and St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park

On one of our weekend drives to nowhere in particular, Jim and I found ourselves heading east on K-68 and circling the roundabout to exit onto the Old KC Road when we encountered a sign.

Potawatomi Trail of Death directional road sign.

These brown “Potawatomi Trail of Death” signs point the way.

We definitely would have remembered if we had previously encountered signs marked “Trail of Death.” Curious, we turned our destinationless drive into a quest to follow the signs.

We found ourselves at a pretty little green square in Paola, where, serendipitously, a staff member from the Miami County Historical Society happened to be enjoying the early evening sun. She outlined the story of the Potawatomi and how they ended up in Kansas.

Like many Native Americans in the 19th century, the Potawatomi held lands that encroaching settlers wanted. In 1838, two years after signing a treaty that gave away all of their land for $8,000 in exchange for transportation to their new lands, 660 Potawatomi men, women and children were forced to leave their homeland. Mostly on foot, the Potawatomi marched across Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri before reaching Kansas, a trip that would take two months. They lacked proper nourishment and shelter, and despite being tended to by a Jesuit priest named Benjamin Petit, many became ill and died.

When they arrived at the Sugar Creek Mission, they discovered that no houses had been built for them. It was November in Kansas, and the Potawatomi were forced to shelter they best they could along the creek banks.

Fr. Petit became very ill and ultimately died February 10, 1839 after returning to St. Louis.

“You should follow the signs to the park,” the woman from the historical society told us. “The memorial park is worth seeing.”

***

Generally speaking, the signs were easy to follow. They are, however, spaced just far enough apart that you start to worry you missed an important turn somewhere before the next sign appears to reassure you. Travel tip: If you happen to be using the GPS on your cellphone and your cell service is through Sprint, Virgin Mobile, or Verizon, be warned: you WILL lose your signal. Because of this lost signal, I couldn’t get this handy map to work for most of our trip. Also important to note: we picked up the trail near Paola, but the trail begins in Indiana.

We traveled through Osawatomie, which is a historic town that deserves attention all on its own and merits a return trip. A charming bridge takes you across Pottawatomie Creek on the south end of town.

Osawatomie bridge

The bridge at the southern end of Osawatomie.

As you approach the tiny town of Beagle, the lack of signage will sorely tempt you to continue following the smooth and silky K-7 Highway instead of continuing south on Plum Creek Road. DON’T DO IT. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself having this conversation:

Diana: Shouldn’t we go straight? There’s no sign that says to turn.
Jim: There’s no sign that says to get off of the main highway, so we should keep following K-7.

Ten minutes later…

Diana: Have you seen any signs?

Ten minutes after that…

Jim: I think maybe we should have gone straight back there.
Diana: I think you might be right.

After Beagle, the signs reappear and and reassure you that you’re on the right path and will take you into Parker before turning south again.

If you’re a taphophile, Goodrich Cemetery is a short detour off the marked path and worth the visit. The cemetery includes at least one CSA Civil War veteran and one likely War of 1812 veteran, as well as many great examples of Victorian hand art. We found it by accident when the Trail of Death road, 1077, was closed for repairs, and we had to detour. Take a left at W 1800 Rd and a right onto Evangeline and you’ll find it. Travel tip: this area is pretty isolated and the west end of the cemetery leads to a woodsy creek area.

At a crook in the road, you’ll turn onto W 1525 Rd. As you grind down the gravel, you’ll be startled by a tiny cemetery on the southeast corner of Flint Rd and W 1525 Rd. There are only three headstones, but they’re worth examining.

Sharp-Morrison Cemetery.

The Sharp-Morrison Cemetery on W 1525 Rd in Linn County, Kansas.

Another mile or so east, and you’ll see the entrance to St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park, which stands on the land once occupied by the Sugar Creek Mission.

Entrance

St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park.

Jim and I were gobsmacked by this park.

Owned by the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, this park honors the Native American, Jesuit, and archeological history of the land. The foundations and locations of buildings are carefully marked with informative signs. The park’s sainted namesake was once a nun serving the Potawatomi community at this site.

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha memorial

Beautiful memorials and art honor both the Jesuit and Native American men and women who once lived here. This memorial honors Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, an Indian princess who was canonized in 2012.

A nature trail winds through the eastern side of the park. A fabulous discovery: the only known portion of the original Fort Scott and California Road is preserved in this hiking trail. Travel tip: When we arrived at this park last summer, we discovered the words “Beware of Ticks” scrawled on a paper plate and nailed Roanoke-style to the meeting hall wall, so we stayed away from the hiking trail that day. Winter or early spring might be a better time to explore the area under the canopy of trees.

Fort Scott and California Road sign

This sign marks the post of the only remaining fragment of the original Fort Scott and California Road.

I was most moved by the burial ground. Each of the crosses lists the names of the more than 600 Potawatomi men, women, and children who died at Sugar Creek.

Memorial crosses

Memorial crosses mark the area where more than 600 Potawatomi are buried.

Memorial Cross, list of names, detail

The names of every man, woman, and child are listed on the memorial crosses.

As we followed the path back to the entrance of the park, we found two more surprises. The first was an archeological site marking what might be a rock pit originally constructed by the Kanza Indians.

Possible Kanza Indian archeological site

This rock pit may have been constructed by the Kanza Indians.

The second was the text of the diary of Jesse C. Douglas, enrolling agent, who documented the struggles of the Potawatomi on their long journey to Kansas.

Trail Journal Display

Jesse Douglas’s trail journal is preserved in a series of panels at the park.

The Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, has manged to create a spirtual space that honors the individual men, women, and children who tried to make a life for themselves at the Sugar Creek Mission. There is a serene quality here that I have not found in many Kansas parks. There is no charge to visit, but the park does accept donations. It is one of my favorite accidental discoveries and I recommend it whenever I can.

***

What happened to the Potawatomi?

Despite building a settlement, the Potawatomi would not stay in Linn County for long. Just ten years later, the Native American band would be forced to move again, this time to St. Marys, a small town near Topeka, Kansas.

Further reading:

Trail of Death, Miami County Historical Society

Potawatomi Trail of Death Assn.

Potawatomi Trail of Death, Legends of America

Now Available in Audiobook Format!

I love, love, LOVE audiobooks. At least two out of every three books I read is an audiobook–CDs in my car or downloads on my mp3 player. I can’t imagine not listening to a book while folding laundry, cleaning guinea pig cages, cooking dinner, or mowing the lawn.

When the opportunity to create an audiobook version of Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Murder presented itself, I was thrilled.

Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder is now available in audiobook format from Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.

Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder is now available through Audible,  iTunes, and  Amazon. Both Audible and iTunes downloads can also be transferred to CD. Veteran narrator Kenneth Lee really captured the heart of the story, and he brings to life the ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances in 1925 Kansas.

A lot of people out there love a good story, but they don’t have time to sit down and read. Others spend a lot of time trapped in their cars during long commutes. Even more people out there have conditions that prevent them from being able to read–vision problems or arthritic hands that can no longer hold heavy books–even though they might long to do so. Thanks to the magic of the mp3 and the internet, thousands of audiobooks are readily available to this previously non-book-reading audience.

For you self-publishing authors out there, ACX s a company that produces and distributes audiobooks through Audible, Amazon, and iTunes, the biggest companies that sell directly to consumers. (Most libraries that offer mp3 or WMA formats use distributors like OverDrive and OneClickDigital.) Originally, I thought that audiobooks were not accessible without a substantial upfront financial commitment, but ACX offers writers the opportunity to connect with narrators who are willing to accept a profit-sharing option in lieu of up-front fees. This means more options for writers who are just establishing themselves (and narrators who are building portfolios and wanting to connect with rights holders willing to take a chance on them).

Go read this book now: Home, Home Plate on the Range by Tony Hall

Home, Home Plate on the Range: Historical Guide of Major League Players from Kansas and Baseball in the Sunflower State by Tony HallDespite not being a die-hard baseball fan, I am completely in love with what has to be the ultimate historical encyclopedia of baseball in Kansas: Home, Home Plate on the Range: Historical Guide of Major League Players from Kansas and Baseball in the Sunflower State by Tony Hall. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this book deserves to be on the shelves of every Kansas library and in the home of every Kansas baseball fan.

Like many kids, Tony Hall collected baseball cards as a child. But it wasn’t until he was an adult that Hall–a writer with a passion for sports–and his son took to collecting cards at yard sales, rummage sales, and estate sales. Their interests began to focus on players who were born in Kansas or played in Kansas.

That’s when Hall’s passion for Kansas baseball history took off. Decades later, it turned into an amazing 600-page book that traces baseball to its origins in Kansas, follows it to the tiny towns with their own home teams, and on to the players who would play in the majors.

Remember the first time you opened a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records, and how you found your self just flipping through it, fascinated and amazed by the information you never knew you wanted to know? That’s what Home, Home Plate on the Range is like.

This carefully organized book is easy to read cover to cover, but it’s also fun to just open up for the sake of discovering some amazing little factoid. For example:

In 1925, the all-black Wichita Monrovians team played the all-white Ku Klux Klan club. To discourage favoritism, the game was officiated by two white Catholics.

Topekan Gil Carter hit was might be the longest home run in history. The ball sailed over a 60-foot light poll at the 330-foot mark and kept going. It was found the next day under a peach tree two blocks away. Some estimates suggest it was a 733-foot hit.

Four Kansas women played on the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was featured in the movie A League of Their Own.

There are chapters on Kansans who played in the Negro League, lists of the long-forgotten minor leagues that used to exist in Kansas, biographies of Major League baseball players born in Kansas, and information on umpires, sports journalists, and MLB administrators from the Sunflower State.

Because this book often examines the biographies of players and the times during which they played, it’s a unique historical perspective of the state of Kansas. And that’s why it is perfect for the sports fan and the history buff. If you’re from Kansas, chances are good you’ll find your town–no matter how small–somewhere in the pages of this book.

So if you’re feeling a little sad that the baseball season has drawn to a close, pick up a copy of Home, Home Plate on the Range. The book itself and the field trips recommended in Chapter 17 should tide you over until spring training.

This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and can be ordered through your favorite independent book store.


Disclaimer: I first saw this book in manuscript form several years ago and fell in love with it. I was overjoyed to receive a copy of the finished book from the author a couple of weeks ago.

Candles on All Souls’ Day

All Souls' Day Candles

Today is All Souls’ Day.

It’s easy to forget this holiday exists. At the stores, the Halloween costumes have already been replaced with Christmas decorations, and the grocery stores are trying to wedge Thanksgiving fare in between October and December.

Historically, Halloween is the day we pray for protection from evil. All Saints’ Day–November 1–is the day we celebrate those in heaven. All Souls’ Day–November 2–is the day we pray for the dead.

***

When I was a little girl, I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents. They lived only a couple of miles from my childhood home, and we saw them every few days, which means we were there to witness the routines of daily living.

My Croatian Catholic grandparents brought with them many of the Old-World rituals. Soup before every meal. Baking povitica every weekend. Special rituals like sprouting wheat seeds at Christmas.

It just so happened that I found myself at my grandparents’ house on November 2 one year. I remember walking into my grandmothers’ kitchen and finding a pie pan full of glowing white candles.

“What are the candles for?” I asked.

“Today we light candles for our family and friends who have died,” she said. And she pointed to each candle and told me who it was for. Her mother. Her father. Her grandmother. Her first husband. And on and on.

I was in awe of so many glowing candles on something other than a birthday cake.

“I don’t have anyone to light a candle for,” I said. Not really comprehending what those candles really meant, I was disappointed not to have any of my own to light.

“That means that everyone who matters to you is still here,” she said. “One day, though, you’ll have candles to light.”

***

I still remember when my brother called me in March of 2002 to tell me that my cousin was killed in a car wreck. It was the first time someone who truly mattered–a cousin we’d grown up with–was gone.

“We’re lucky, you know,” my brother told me before the funeral. “Somehow, we made it until now before anyone in our close circle of friends and family died.”

I was twenty-six.

And then it began.

The Big Deaths. The ones that truly alter the flow of your life. The ones that make you realize that generations are passing, that things will never be as they were. That there will come a time when you realize people you loved have been gone from your life longer than they were in your life, even though some part of you thought they would always be there.

And now I understand why my grandmother lights candles. It is more than a prayer for their souls. It is a day to remember the people who touched our lives and to celebrate how they shaped us.

***

Today, I pulled out my own pie pan and found myself filling it with candles.

My husband and I light candles for my cousin, my mother, my paternal grandmother, my mother-in-law, my husband’s four grandparents, my husband’s uncle, a candle for all of our pets, and one more candle for everyone else who touched our lives and has since passed on.

After lighting her own candles and offering prayers and reflection, my grandmother went on with her day. Cooking. Cleaning. Folding laundry. And the candles were allowed to burn. Because those who touch our lives are always a part of us, always glowing in the background, even when we aren’t thinking about them at all.

Mine Creek Battlefield State Historic Site, home of one of the least-known battles of the Civil War

The most fascinating thing about the Battle of Mine Creek is how little your average Kansan knows about it. It was one of the most important cavalry battles of the Civil War. It marked the end of the South’s last major campaign west of the Mississippi River.

Ask Kansans to rattle off important Kansas people or Kansas events connected to the Civil War, the list will probably be limited to William Quantrill, John Brown, the Lawrence Massacre, James Lane, and Bloody Bill Anderson.

Yet if you ask them about the day that brought nearly 10,000 men to a Kansas field and left more than 600 of them dead or wounded, they’ll probably look at you in bewilderment.

Welcome to the Battle of Mine Creek.

Here is a simplified version of events:

By late 1864, the War Between the States was shifting in favor of the Union. Fearful that the reelection of President Abraham Lincoln would lead to the South’s defeat, they CSA decided that if they could recapture a Union state and seat a Confederate governor, they might be able to change the outcome of the election and the war.

When most people think of border war states, they think of Kansas. But by the time the Civil War was underway, Kansas had pretty much settled on being a Union anti-slavery state, even if all of it’s residents didn’t agree. Missouri, on the other hand, was much more on the fence. Many of the pro-slavery people who fled from the sometimes-dangerously enthusiastic Kansas abolitionists ended up in Missouri, and though Missouri technically fought for the Union, many of its citizens owned slaves and sympathized with the Southern cause.

Enter Maj. Gen. Sterling Price.

In an effort to gain control of Missouri, Price was given this to-do list:

  • Conquer St. Louis, the most abolitionist of Missouri cities.
  • If that’s not possible, take over Jefferson City, and while there, seat a new governor.
  • If that’s not possible, smack down the areas around Kansas City.
  • If all that fails, destroy as much of Kansas as possible on the return trip.

While he was on his march across Missouri, he was to accumulate additional men and commandeer supplies. So began what was to be known as Price’s Raid.

By the middle of October, things were not going too well for Price’s men. St. Louis was too heavily fortified, as was Jefferson City. So they continued marching west, successfully adding men to the ranks and filling wagons with supplies, weapons, and ammunition. When the reached what now the Kansas City metro area, they were forced into retreat at what would be called the Gettysburg of the West: the Battle of Westport.

Missouri was lost, but Price and his men still had one item on the list they could accomplish: do damage to Kansas.

The Kansans, though, were ready. In October, the governor called the Kansas militia into service, and Gen. Samuel Curtis declared the state was under martial law. The Union was in hot pursuit of Price.

Meanwhile, Price and his men was storming through Kansas along the road to Fort Scott. That’s when the weather and geography sealed their fate. Heavy rains had filled the Marais des Cygnes River and Mine Creek. The ground was soft and muddy and both waterways were hard to cross. The men on foot could have managed, but the problem was the wagons and horses. By that time, Price’s men had amassed a fortune in ammunition, weapons, and other supplies, enough to form an entire wagon train–a slow-moving, frequently-stuck-in-the-mud wagon train. Price and many of his men rode ahead, but the wagons and the men guarding them found themselves in the bottom of a ravine trying to cross a swollen creek at a small rocky ford when the Union men caught up with them.

A view from the rocky ford in Mine Creek. Slowed down by heavy wagons sinking in the mud, Price's men were trapped when the Union cavalry arrived.

A view from the rocky ford in Mine Creek. Slowed down by heavy wagons sinking in the mud, Price’s men were trapped when the Union cavalry arrived.

In a field that rarely saw humans moving through it, about 10,000 men clashed with cannons, swords, rifles, and guns on October 25, 1864. The Confederates outnumbered the Union men nearly three to one, but the Northerners had higher ground and better weapons on their side, and by the time it was over, nearly 1,200 of Price’s men would be wounded, captured, or killed. The women from the nearby farm houses were tasked with caring for the injured and dying men. The dead were piled into a ravine and buried, and the smell of death lingered long after the battle was over.

Looking south at the Mine Creek Battlefield site. The land has been returned to native prairie, recreating how it would have appeared to men who fought there in 1864.

Looking south at the Mine Creek Battlefield site. The land has been returned to native prairie, recreating how it would have appeared to men who fought there in 1864.

It was an amazing defeat. Soon after, those very wagons were set ablaze so that they couldn’t be confiscated by the Union or further hold back the retreating men.

What amazes me about the Battle of Mine Creek is the fact that all we know about it is what was recounted in the letters and journals of the men who were there. The battle didn’t even have a proper name, because it didn’t happen in a town; it happened in a field with only a few farmhouses in the area. There were no reporters or photographers nearby. Yet it ended Price’s efforts to destroy Kansas.

Fortunately for us, the battlefield isn’t in an area where it was paved over and planted with houses before anyone realized they’d destroyed a piece of history. The Mine Creek Battlefield State Historic Site has preserved the land (even though their original land acquisition turned out to be west of the actual battlefield). The land has been returned to native prairie, making it look and feel much more like it would have 150 years ago. Mowed paths walk you through the battlefield, and kiosks highlight important elements of the battle. You can see for yourself where Price’s men found themselves trapped trying to cross the rocky ford on Mine Creek.

Get oriented at the historic site's museum, where you can watch a video detailing the history of the battle, see evidence of the battle recovered by archeologists, and study maps of the battlefield.

Get oriented at the historic site’s museum, where you can watch a video detailing the history of the battle, see evidence of the battle recovered by archeologists, and study maps of the battlefield.

But before you tackle the battlefield, I recommend visiting the museum itself. The 45-minute video, which originally aired on the History Channel, will orient you to the finer points of the battle (much of which I glossed over here). Artifacts collected by archeologists are thoughtfully interpreted and displayed. One of our favorite objects was a binder explaining the archeological process that helped determine the actual location of the Fort Scott road and the battlefield. Give yourself at least 90 minutes at the museum to really take in the information and ask questions.

Mine Creek Battlefield Sharps Carbine Bullets

One display shows the various types of ammunition found by archeologists on the site of the Battle of Mine Creek.

Then hit the trails, which are easy enough to follow (it’s pretty easy to see a trail when the grass is six feet tall on either side of a mowed path). Amazingly, we only confused ourselves when we tried to follow the trail map, which did not accurately represent the trails. If you go before a hard freeze, douse yourself in bug spray.

Well-maintained trails through the grasses and woody area by the creek are dotted with kiosks that tell the story of the Battle of Mine Creek. Bug spray is a good idea if you visit during the spring, summer, or fall before a hard freeze.

Well-maintained trails through the grasses and woody area by the creek are dotted with kiosks that tell the story of the Battle of Mine Creek. Bug spray is a good idea if you visit during the spring, summer, or fall before a hard freeze.

The battlefield land is quiet, save for the sound of insects and the wind blowing through the grasses and trees. It is easy to forget the present day, and as you look north up the hill from the creek, you can lose yourself in the moment and imagine what it must have been like for those Confederate soldiers, who were trapped by their wagons, as they watched the Union soldiers ride over the hill.

***

The battlefield trails and interpretive kiosks are open all year long from dawn to dusk. However, the museum is only open from April through October. If you’re traveling far to visit, consider spend the entire day in the area and visit the Marais des Cygnes Massacre Site  and the town and cemetery of Trading Post for a more complete understanding of how the area was repeatedly assaulted in the times leading up to and including the Civil War.