Explore Freedom’s Frontier in Bates County, Missouri
Bates County, Missouri, defies expectations for heritage travelers. For a county that was completely depopulated and destroyed in the late summer of 1863, Bates County has a lot of history to explore.
Our Forgotten Stories: Order No. 11 & Island Mound
Bates County holds the key to many of the “forgotten” stories that play a role in Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area. On August 25, 1863, Union General Thomas Ewing issued General Order No. 11, which ordered residents of Jackson, Cass, Bates and the northern part of Vernon counties to leave their homes and relocate outside of the Missouri-Kansas border area. This forced evacuation and the subsequent destruction of homesteads had a huge impact on Bates County. The population of Bates County went from 17,000 in 1860 to zero after Order No. 11. For years following the war, the stories of the people who were forced from their homes stayed locked in census data and oral traditions while the remains of their lives were buried under layers of topsoil. Recent efforts by archeologists and historians are bringing the forgotten story of those affected by Order No. 11 back to the surface. In 2010, archeologist Ann Raab completed a dig of two sites, one a farmstead and one a grocery store, in Bates County to learn more about the impact of the Border War on civilians living in Bates County. You can learn about Raab’s digs and her findings at Bates County Museum, 802 Elks Drive, Butler, (open April 1 – October 31). For the past several years, local historian Tom Rafiner has been doing a different kind of digging to learn more about the people affected by Order No. 11. Rafiner has dug through voluminous archival records and census data to create a picture of the people who lived in the area affected by Order No. 11. Rafiner has completed a study of the residents of Cass County, Missouri, before and after Order No. 11 and is currently researching the residents of Bates County. Rafiner’s research is compiled in two books Caught Between Three Fires and Cinders and Silence available online through his website. You can learn more about the impact of Order No. 11 at the Bates County Museum and through an interpretive panel and murals on the Butler Courthouse Square.
Another key piece of the Freedom’s Frontier story played out in Bates County on October 29, 1862. The Battle of Island Mound represents the first combat engagement of African American troops in the Civil War. James Lane used his appointment as Commissioner for Recruiting for the Department of Kansas to raise a regiment of African Americans, the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers. These men were sent into Bates County in response to bushwhacker attacks along the border. Reports from the battle noted that the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers “fought like tigers” and their participation allayed national doubts about whether African Americans could or would fight.
In 2008, the citizens of Bates County dedicated a statue of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantryman on the courthouse grounds. The State of Missouri purchased a portion of the historic battlefield and developed the Battle of Island Mound State Historic Site. The site includes a walking trail and interpretive panels explaining the battle and produced a video sharing stories of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers.
Quirky Past: The All-Electric City & “Dean of Science Fiction Writers”
The history of Bates County isn’t limited to the Civil War era! This fact is easy to see as you turn off the road and drive up to the Bates County Museum. In 2006, the museum gained a new home at the 1915 Bates County Poor Farm. The museum has lots of space to interpret its significant Native American and Civil War history, but there is plenty of room to share stories of Bates Countians and celebrate the quirky past of Bates County.
In 2015, the Bates County Museum will have a new outdoor exhibit of early agricultural equipment and updates to their Veterans exhibit.
While you’re visiting the museum, keep your eyes peeled for the always-fun exhibit of collection curiosities. The museum also has an exhibit dedicated to Robert Heinlein, the “dean of science fiction writers.” You can also learn why Butler came to be the All-Electric City—the first city west of the Mississippi to have electric power.
While the Battle of Island Mound State Historic Site is open year-round, the Bates County Museum’s season runs from April 1 through October 31. (Insider information: The museum is typically open during regular business hours November 1 through March 31, but call ahead to make sure. Visitors are welcome when the museum is open, however, hours aren’t advertised due to potential weather concerns and exhibit updates and maintenance.) While you’re in Butler, follow the historic Jefferson Highway (present-day Main Street) to the Courthouse Square to spend some time visiting the murals and monuments and taking in the historic commercial buildings and the recently-restored 1901 Courthouse. Call ahead and make an appointment to visit the Papinville Museum, 417-395-4288, southeast of Butler, which interprets the county’s earliest settlement, Harmony Mission. Be sure to “Like” the Poplar Heights Living History Farm’s Facebook page for announcements of upcoming events. Poplar Heights sponsors creative “back to the farm” events with a special modern twist, like “Creatures of the Night” and “Cooking with Herbs.”
No matter when you visit Bates County, plan ahead and you’ll be sure to get more than you bargained for!
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