If you love learning about the history of Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, you’ll love a visit to Shawnee County. Topeka, the county’s largest city is also the state capitol. Topeka’s historic sites allow heritage travelers to follow the themes of the heritage area from Settling the Frontier to the Border War through the Enduring Struggle for Freedom. Topeka’s North Side, known as NoTo, is growing into a lively and unique artistic center with fun shops to explore and places to grab a bite. Read on and you’ll find out why we “capitol” L-O-V-E Topeka.
Settling the Frontier
While the Kansas Museum of History is always a good first stop to learn about all things Kansas, it is also a good place to learn about the Native Americans who called Kansas home. Kansas gets its name from the Kaw Nation or Kanza whose lived along the Missouri River near Doniphan and along the Kansas River. As the European Americans moved farther and farther inland, Native American peoples were relocated from their homelands in the east to “Permanent Indian Territory” west of Missouri’s western border. The area that became Kansas was once home to many tribes including the Shawnee, Delaware, Ottawa, Kickapoos, Piankeshaw and Wea, Kaskaskia and Peoria, Otoe, Sac and Fox, Potawatomi, Wyandots, Chippewa, and Cherokee. You can learn about these people and follow Kansas history through the Border War and Enduring Struggle for Freedom at the Kansas Museum of History.
As every good heritage traveler knows, the State Museum is a good place to start your journey, but you can’t stop there. To get a different perspective on “Settling the Frontier,” head over to The Great Overland Station. Railroads were a key player in the history of Freedom’s Frontier and the grand age of the railroad is on display at Great Overland Station. Soak up the beautiful Classical Revival architecture of the wonderfully restored historic railway depot. The station isn’t the only historic thing about the location of Great Overland Station, however. While you are browsing through the exhibits at the Great Overland Station, including the Kansas Hall of Fame, be on the look-out for information about Papin’s Ferry. The station sits near the historic location where the Oregon-California Trail crossed the Kansas River.
Constitution Hall – Topeka is just a quick trip across the river from Great Overland Station. Here in 1855, resident settlers wrote the antislavery Topeka Constitution, in response to the “bogus legislature” of 1855 and pro-slavery constitution that was being drafted nearby in Lecompton, Kansas. While the building is still undergoing restoration, the site was home to intense political fighting and Underground Railroad activity during Kansas’s territorial period.
Many early Kansas pioneers and Civil War soldiers have a final resting place at the Topeka Cemetery. The oldest chartered cemetery in Kansas, the Topeka Cemetery dates back to 1859. Keep an eye out of the Historic Topeka Cemetery Facebook page for upcoming events. Just in time for spring strolling weather, the cemetery plans to launch a self-guided tour, supported in part by an Interpretive Grant from Freedom’s Frontier.
The John and Mary Ritchie House and Shawnee County Historical Society’s Cox Communication Heritage Education Center is a must-see for folks interested in Territorial Kansas and the Underground Railroad. John and Mary Ritchie were abolitionists from Indiana who came to Kansas to make it a free state and used their house as a station on the Underground Railroad. Tours are available on Monday and Wednesday at 10:00 and 2:00 or by appointment. If you’re going with a group, be sure to call ahead and request a visit from John Ritchie to learn his story as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
Enduring Struggle for Freedom
Before you leave the Ritchie House, be sure to inquire about the connection between the Ritchies and Monroe Elementary School. Just a few blocks separate these two historic sites and the connection between the two spans 100 years of history and gives insight into how 19th-century Topekans shaped their town in ways that affects the city even today. Established in 1992 in the restored Monroe Elementary School, one of four African American elementary schools in Topeka, Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site shares the story of the ordinary people who changed history. The national historic site not only examines the story of the fight against segregated schools in Topeka, but also helps visitors understand the case within the context of the larger Civil Rights movement in the United States.
Continue in your exploration of Topeka’s history with the National Park Service’s “From Brown to Brown: Topeka’s Civil Rights Story” driving tour. Pick up a tour brochure at Brown v. Board National Historic Site and dial in on your cell phone to visit and learn more about important historic sites in Topeka’s Civil Rights history. Stops include the Kansas State Capitol, Mamie Williams House, Buchanan Elementary School, Sumner Elementary School, Charles Curtis House Museum, First Washburn University School of Law, Old Federal Building, St. Mark’s AME Church, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and the Great Mural Wall of Topeka.
There’s More to L-O-V-E
Shopping for the perfect gift for someone you love? Check out the North Topeka Arts District. Located close to The Great Overland Station in North Topeka, you can sniff out a great find for your sweetheart. Our Topeka friends recommend Pinkadilly and Four Girls’ Garage for fun finds and antiques. Topeka’s self proclaimed History Geeks have lots of recommendations for dining, including NoTo Burrito.
Want a history-making dinner to go along with your exploration of Topeka’s history? Make a reservation for you and 11 to 17 of your closest friends and head to Old Prairie Town at Ward-Meade Historic Site. Cozy up close to the fireplace in the Ward Cabin with a down-home meal. Costumed interpreters will serve hearth-cooked ham and Irish potatoes with cooking demonstrations and some history to boot. Make your plans quickly! The family style meals are only served between October 15 and March 15.
No matter if you’re traveling in a big group or solo, heritage travelers find more to love in Topeka.
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