When the Hartford Steamboat ran aground on the Kansas River in 1855, just a few miles downstream from where the Smokey Hill and Republican Rivers join to form the Kansas River, the passengers on board weren’t the first immigrants to arrive in the area. They did, however, bring with them a name that stuck, just like their steamboat: Manhattan.
Riley County’s Early Residents
The first residents of the tallgrass prairies, the dominant landscape of the area that would become Riley County, were the Kaw or Kansa Tribe. The Kaw people’s territory covered most of present-day northeast Kansas, while their hunting grounds extended to the west. An 1825 treaty limited the tribe from their ancestral lands to a reservation that included present-day Riley County. By 1854, when the Kansas-Nebraska Act opened the area to white settlement, many of the Kaw people had moved south to Council Groves—their lives already disrupted by Oregon and Santa Fe Trail travel and settlement.
In order to provide order and guard the trails, the Federal Government established a military post in 1853. This post, later renamed Fort Riley. The establishment of the fort stoked settlement for the area, including the town of Pawnee, which served as the first territorial capitol of Kansas for four days, until the legislature voted to moved to the Shawnee Indian Mission. You can learn more about the history of the fort and visit the First Territorial Capitol at Fort Riley. Remember to have a photo ID to get on base to visit the First Territorial Capitol State Historic Site, the Custer House and the U.S. Cavalry Museum. You can also visit the 1st Infantry Division Museum and take a self-guided driving or walking tour of the base.
As the Riley County developed around the fort, Border War tensions plagued its new citizens. Although it was far removed from the Missouri-Kansas border, settlers in Riley County clashed politically, if not violently, over the issue of slavery. The communities of Ogden and Randloph harbored pro-slavery sentiment, while New England Emigrant Aid Colony, led by Isaac Goodnow established a settlement at the confluence of the Blue and Kansas Rivers and joined with two other existing settlements to form the town of Boston in April, 1855. In addition to helping establish the town that would become Manhattan, Isaac Goodnow and his wife Ellen were abolitionists who believed in organized and equal education. Goodnow helped establish Kansas State University. The Goodnow’s home, built in 1861, is open to the public as Goodnow House State Historic Site.
While the three communities were joining to form Boston, the Cincinnati and Kansas Land Company sent settlers from Cincinnati, Ohio, to establish a second community in Riley County. Two months later, the steamboat Hartford, having traveled down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi, Missouri and Kansas Rivers, ran aground near Boston. The residents of Boston invited the Hartford passengers to join their community. The Ohio emigrants agreed provided the town be renamed Manhattan to please a financier.
The Hartford steamboat carried numerous provisions, including prefabricated houses. One of these “Hartford Houses” is constructed on the grounds of the Riley County Historical Society’s museum. In addition to exploring the history of Manhattan’s early settlers, the historical society museum offers great insight into the development of the county. Visitors to the museum will get insight into the settlement of the county and enjoy a cool exhibit featuring a collection of artifacts that were made in Riley County.
In addition to operating the museum, the Riley County Historical Society also operates the Pioneer Log Cabin, the 1868 Wolf House, and the Rocky Ford School, as well as maintains online exhibits and temporary exhibits throughout the county.
Get a Lay of the Land and Take a Hike
While you’re in town, don’t miss the Flint Hills Discovery Center. The state-of-the-art discovery center provides interactive and interpretive exhibits that allow visitors to explore the ecosystem and history of the Flint Hills. The immersive theater experience and exhibits are a celebration of the last remaining stand of native tallgrass prairie.
Once you’ve learned about the landscape, it’s time to get out and experience it! Konza Prairie Biological Station and Research Park preserves 8,600 acres of tallgrass prairie. Just 6 miles south of Manhattan, trails of varying distance allow visitors to explore the flint hills and their native flora and fauna. Named one of the top 100 Day-Hikes in the country by Backpacker Magazine, Konza Prairie allows visitors a timeless experience of the flint hills.
Find a Treasure and Refuel your Tank
After a long day of history and hiking, it’s time to treat yourself! Luckily Manhattan has plenty of options for a Heritage Traveler looking to seek out a treasure or find a great meal. The 6-block neighborhood known as Aggieville is the oldest shopping district in Kansas. With over 100 shops, restaurants and taverns, visitors to Aggieville are sure to find a fun time. The newly-revitalized downtown area of Manhattan boasts some of the best restaurants in the city with great local shops ranging the gamut from clothing and gifts to art and antiques.
So take a trip to Riley County. While you won’t get stuck like some of the county’s early settlers; you’ll be sure to make memories that stick with you for a lifetime.