Osawatomie, Kansas was founded in 1854 by Free-State families from the Ohio Valley and New England. Osawatomie was a major point of interest during the Bleeding Kansas era. The Battle of Osawatomie, the most significant battle during the conflict over slavery during that time, stood as a rallying cry for Free State forces to fight proslavery forces in the Kansas Territory. In fact, after the sacking of Osawatomie by John Reed’s proslavery milia men, John Brown was inspired by the sacking of the town to start his abolitionist crusade. A great thing about exploring Osawatomie is that the historical society has put up signs throughout town by the historical attractions. It takes away the guesswork of wondering if the oldest church is this stone one or a similar one across the street.
Osawatomie can be found by exiting Kansas Highway 7, just south of Paola and about an hour south of downtown Kansas City, Missouri. After you exit the highway, you’ll pass the town’s huge cemetery and then continue into the downtown area on Main Street. It’s a little bit of shock when you first enter the town (I was looking for the “Welcome to Sunnydale sign”) but it really is a scenic, great small town once you get into it.
First, A Little Background About John Brown
Osawatomie is one of the towns in the area that had border skirmishes as a result of “Bleeding Kansas,” where pro-slavery militias from Missouri and free state supporters from Kansas often clashed. To be more specific, pro-slavery militants from Missouri were known for going in and sacking entire towns in the eastern portion of Kansas over the issue of slavery. In Kansas City, Kansas, for example, people in Kansas were known to cross the river and rescue slaves from the other side, bringing them into freedom in the Kansas territory. One such abolitionist was John Brown, born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut.
John Brown proclaimed his support of the antislavery movement after the murder of abolitionist and editorialist Elijah P. Lovejoy in 1837. He attended lectures by African American abolitionists Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth. He established a militant group to prevent the capture of those who were attempting to escape from slavery in response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. After his sons moved to the Kansas Territory and began reporting to him the encounters with proslavery supporters, Brown headed west to join the antislavery cause and to help of ensuring that Kansas remained a free state.
After arriving in Kansas, he stayed with his half-sister, Florella (Brown) Adair and her husband, Reverend Samuel Adair, near Osawatomie. He stayed in the cabin, today in the John Brown Museum State Historic Site, as he rallied support for the anti-slavery movement. After the sacking of Lawrence in 1856, and the death of his son Frederick at one of several massacres and battle sites in the area, Brown left the area to raise funds for the abolitionist cause. With the need to lead raids and free slaves, he returned to Kansas in June 1858. He returned east in early 1859 and planned a raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. He was captured, tried for treason and executed in Charles Town, West Virginia on December 2, 1859. Osawatomie, Kansas, has many sites and statues in commemoration of this man who is considered either a hero or a madman.
On March 20, 1854, the Republican Party of Kansas (National Union Party during the Civil War) was founded by a consortium of antislavery politicians who opposed the potential expansion of slavery into the Western territories. The “Bleeding Kansas” border skirmishes lasted until the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865.
Located on Main Street in historic downtown Osawatomie, the History Museum includes exhibits on the pre-Civil War territory and bleeding Kansas. It also provides information on rural culture, Osawatomie State Hospital, the railroad, and the social history of the area. The site also includes the MoPac Railroad Depot Museum and its history in Miami County.
Across the street and down at the end of the block is an old red building. On that plot of land stood the old building in which the Republican Party was founded in Kansas. On May 18, 1859, the Republican Party was organized by newspaper editor Horace Greeley at the Jillson Hotel. Later that summer in July, the Wyandotte Constitution made Kansas a free state. The Osage Valley Hotel was operating at the time. Over 5,000 people filled and surrounded the hotel. The original structure was later torn down, and the current building was built in 1890.
Located in John Brown Park, the John Brown State Historic site houses the log cabin inhabited by Reverend Samuel Adair and his family. Reverend Adair was the brother-in-law of John Brown, who was known to stay at his cabin. The cabin itself is inside the stone structure, with artifacts and exhibits about the struggles of early pioneers and of those who took a firm stand against the spread of slavery into Kansas Territory. After the August 30, 1856 Battle of Osawatomie, Brown was in and out of town and made a raid into Missouri on December 23 to liberate slaves and other property from slaveholders. Exhibits showcase how the group was hidden in the Adair Cabin and later made their way into Canada and freedom.
On August 30, 1856, the Battle of Osawatomie was fought on this battleground that is now a part of the town park. John Brown had led a force of about 30 Free State guerilla fighters in the battle against 250 proslavery activists. Brown’s battle plan was to distract the proslavery forces from attacking Osawatomie by making a strong stand and withdrawing.
Initially built in 1854, this land office is now the home of the Osawatomie Historical Society. The red building was used by H.B. Smith, the first mayor of Osawatomie, and his brother who were the first land patent agents in the Kansas territory. In the summer, it is operated as a tourist information center. Nearby is the Trail of Death plaque, a memorial to the Pottawatomie Indians.
Note: It can be tricky to find. Park at the parking lot/shopping center across the street from the Old Stone Church. You can walk across 6th Street to the church and then walk over to the Land office. It’s actually between two roads on Lincoln Avenue and in a little section of land. You can also follow the right side of the road to one of the oldest cemeteries in Osawatomie.
Built by the brother-in-law of John Brown, Reverend Samuel Adair dedicated the church on July 14, 1861. One of the first churches in Kansas, the Old Stone Church is typical of the church structures built during the pioneering days in Kansas. Like many buildings in the area, the church was made of native stone from the nearby hills. You can only view the outside of the church (although it’s easy to peek through the windows), and it can be rented for weddings and other special meetings.
125 1st St, Osawatomie, KS 66064 (across the street from the RV park)
This Queen Anne House was built in 1902 by William M. Mills, an oilman from Pennsylvania. The house is listed on the National Register. It is, however, a private residence so you cannot stop in and tour the home.
Founded more than 150 years ago, Osawatomie State Hospital is where Kansas treats mentally ill patients. The new facility is just your typical hospital. However, the old, De Jong central structure is one of several vacant structures can still be found on site. You can’t tour (nor do you want to), but it’s interesting to look at the architecture. How is any of this relevant? The Old Main Building was one of the oldest Mental Health Building surviving west of the Mississippi River. It was razed in 2003. The surviving De Jour Structure is the only portion of the original structures still standing. You can see a picture of Old Main on the grounds of the current state hospital.
Finally, What to Pack?
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