2021: History Boy Summer (Part 18) Lecompton, Kansas

One of the more interesting places that I have traveled to during this project it would have to be a small town in Kansas named Lecompton. Nestled off of I-70, not too far from Lawrence KS, this has been one of my greatest surprises of the entire summer. Driving into Lecompton, you definitely get that incredibly small town vibe let you get in smaller places like Arrow Rock, Missouri. I went on a Sunday, but that said it appeared that there were not that many people up and around town at all. I would do a group of entries for each of the four main sites in the town, but frankly I think it’s best to plan your trip according to trying to hit all four of the sites in one day. It can easily be done in just a few hours without too much driving. Just make sure you check museum times on their website to ensure you do not miss anything.

Lecompton, Kansas

Right away, I was impressed with how maintained the historical sites were. The entire city has matching signage for all of the areas of interest, making the entire town almost like a museum in of itself. Even driving in, you know you’re in for something special when visiting Lecompton.

Background:

According to Wikipedia:

“Lecompton was the de jure territorial capital of Kansas from 1855 to 1861, and the Douglas County seat from 1855 to 1858. However, anti-slavery Lawrence was the de facto capital during the latter part of this period, which is when the county seat was moved to Lawrence. This time period was known as Bleeding Kansas, due to the violence perpetrated by the pro-slavery, and to a lesser extent the anti-slavery, factions in the eastern part of the state. Lecompton was a hotbed of pro-slavery sentiment during the mid-1800s.

In August 1855, the city became the capital of the Kansas Territory after President Franklin Pierce appointed Andrew Horatio Reeder as governor and charged him and his officials with establishing government offices in Lecompton. The city soon became a stronghold of pro-slavery politics and Southern sympathy, which put it in conflict with nearby Lawrence, which had been founded by Free-Staters from Massachusetts.

In the fall of 1857, a convention met in Constitution Hall and drafted the Lecompton Constitution, under which Kansas would have been a slave state. The constitution was rejected by Congress after intense national debate and was one of the prime topics of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The controversy contributed to the growing dispute soon to erupt in civil war. The Lecompton Constitution failed, in part, because the antislavery party won control of the territorial legislature in the election of 1857. The new legislature met at Constitution Hall and immediately began to abolish the pro-slavery laws of what they called the Bogus Legislature, the territory’s pro-slavery lawmakers since July, 1855.


In 1865, the United Brethren Church established a university in Lecompton. Occupying the Rowena hotel that was originally built for the Territorial Legislature and visitors, the university later built a stone building in 1882 on the foundation of the started, but not completed, capitol building. Named “Lane University” after the free-stater James H. Lane […] Today it is used as the Territorial Capital Museum, maintained by the Lecompton Historical Society. Two blocks away is Constitution Hall, where the infamous Lecompton Constitution was written in 1857. Today Constitution Hall is a museum operated by the Kansas Historical Society.

Reading

Normally, I have a book that I try to read for each stop on this project. Truthfully I have been unable to find an actual book about Lecompton, Kansas that isn’t some sort of a book for the modern history of the town made for townspeople by the local Historical Society. The good news is this information is mentioned in a number of the Bleeding Kansas books I’ve been reading, and the town itself has a very robust website with as much information as I need with a possibly trip to the Wikipedia page I mentioned. I would honestly recommend just looking at that. I plan to use excerpts from their website on this article.

The Trip

Below you will find a blurb for each of the four main sites that I came across during my adventure as well as numerous pictures that I took during the trip.

Constitution Hall

“The Lecompton Constitutional Convention met that fall in this same second-floor assembly room. The purpose of the convention was to draft a constitution to gain statehood for Kansas. Newspaper correspondents from across the country gathered to report on the meetings. Many Americans feared a national civil war if the convention could not satisfy both pro slavery and antislavery forces. Regrettably, compromise proved impossible because pro slavery men dominated the convention. They created a document that protected slavery no matter how the people of Kansas Territory voted. This was intolerable for their antislavery opponents, who refused to participate in what they considered to be an illegal government. Eventually the Lecompton Constitution was defeated at the national level. It never went into effect.”

First up, was a stop at Constitution Hall, however due to hours of operation I would actually recommend visiting it second if you are going on a weekend. The old building is reconstructed from as close to old materials as it could be, utilizing original floorboards, and many artifacts of the time. The site itself is a two-story museum with the history of Bleeding Kansas and the events that led up to the attempted pro-slavery Constitutional Convention that, in many ways, led Abraham Lincoln that much closer to the presidency. You see, had there not been such a strong push towards making Kansas a slave state, the Democratic Party would not have fractured as much, perhaps not paving the way for a Republican in office.  

Territorial Capital

“Here is where the Kansas Capitol Building was to be built.  This building was started with an appropriation of $50,000 from the United States Congress. It was completed to the bottom of the first floor windows when the United States House of Representatives defeated the Lecompton Constitution by only eight votes.  (The U.S. Senate and President James Buchanan encouraged its adoption.)  This meant that Kansas failed to enter the Union as a slave state with Lecompton as its capital.”

The Territorial Capital Museum has an enormous amount of artifacts to look at from the period of Bleeding Kansas, all the way up to modern times. In many ways this is the Douglas County Museum, as a large percentage of the artifacts are for the county as a whole. As with other county museums that I have visited, the Clay County museum for example, it is somewhat cluttered and hard to navigate but well worth a visit. It’s interesting to see how the site was used over the last 170 or so years, saying that it went into this world attempting to be in capital building, was converted into a church, then a college, then a church again, and later a museum. You can see small hints of each one of these evolutions of the building wherever you look. For presidential fans, this building was the place where Dwight D Eisenhower’s parents were married.

Fort Titus

“On August 16, 1856, some fifty Free State men under Captain Samuel Walker attacked Ft. Titus. After a brief battle, Ft. Titus and its thirty-four defenders, including Colonel Henry Titus, surrendered. Also surrendered were 400 muskets, a large number of knives, 13 horses, several wagons, a large stock of household provisions, farm equipment and $10,000 in gold and bank drafts. Slaves and servants owned by Titus were set free and instructed to go to Topeka. Two proslavery men defenders were killed and Titus and five other combatants were seriously injured. Eight free state men were wounded, Captain Henry Shombre mortally. The fort was then burned to the ground.”

Outside of The Territorial Capital Museum lies a recreation of Fort Titus, the site of one of the very first battles and Bleeding Kansas, and perhaps one of the very first battles in The Civil War if you consider that timeframe the same period. The actual fort was burned to the ground, and not located exactly where it sits now, but it is cool to have a remembrance of the site on the grounds.

Democratic Headquarters

“This stone building was the headquarters of the Democratic Party during the Kansas Territorial period (1854-61). The cabin was used during a time when Lecompton, known as “The Birthplace of the Kansas Democratic Party,” was the territorial capital and stood at the center of national attention. Within these walls ambitious and influential men gathered to discuss issues, plot strategies, and make decisions that helped to shape the destiny of Kansas politics and government.

Built in the 1850s by Italian stonemason Mark Migliario, this structure was attached to a log cabin that has since disappeared. It may have been the residence of William Simmons and his son Thomas. In 1853 the Simmons traveled from Indiana to this place where they “squatted” a year before Kansas Territory legally was open for settlement. The Simmons made their living on the Kaw River, where they fished and operated the Fairy Queen, a twenty-foot ferry made from hollowed-out sycamore logs.”

On the final leg of my trip, I drove a couple of blocks away to the side of the Democratic Headquarters. only the stone portion of the building still exists today, but it’s still cool to see a building with so much history still maintained an available for people to view. It’s interesting to me that in areas more densely populated, a lot of these old historic buildings were torn down and replaced with modern buildings. So it’s cool to see structures like this still standing just as they were hundreds of years ago.

Misc.

Conclusion

Lecompton, Kansas was perhaps one of my favorite day trips in this entire project. The trip itself is very easy, with only the ordeal of dealing with toll road booths to deal with. Everyone was very nice, and I felt like there was good value for my time spent considering multiple attractions, two museums, and historical signage throughout the town giving an out-of-stater like me the helping hand that I needed to navigate such a place. My only issue with the town itself is that it does not appear to have any restaurants or gas stations within the city limits, or at least any that I saw. Because of that, make sure that you plan accordingly and stop on the way in or bring your own food in the car. As with any trip on a toll road the opportunities to go outside of the ordained path is very limited, and make sure to bring come cash to pay tolls easily. If you have not been there, I would highly recommend visiting Lecompton, Kansas.

This article is part of my summer series History Boy Summer, which you can keep up with by following this LINK.

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