Happy Kansas Day everyone! Kansas turned 155 years old this past Friday and Geary County, or as it was known as back then as Davis County, played a big part in how the government of the territory shaped Kansas before and during the Civil War. To help commemorate the occasion we’re going to take a look at the history of how the short lived town of Pawnee came to be the capital and the subsequent history of the first territorial capital building.
In the summer of 1852, Colonel T.T. Fountleroy, former commander of Fort Leavenworth, recommended that there should be an establishment of a new post “at or near a point on the Kansas River where the Republican rivers unite,” this would later play a big part in the naming of “Junction City.” Because of this request, soldiers would establish such a site later that fall. It would be called “Camp Center” since it was believed that this location was the geographical center of the United States. When it turned out that “Camp Center” was not actually in the “center” it was renamed to Fort Riley to honor the Mexican war hero, General Bennett C. Riley.
Soon after the settlement and building of Fort Riley the Pawnee Town Association wanted to establish a town that was adjacent to Fort Riley in the early months of 1854. The first of six territorial governors came along with the Pawnee Town association. It was Reeder intent to name the newly established town site as the capital of Kansas and to hold the first territorial legislature at Pawnee. Once word got out that Pawnee was to be the capital of the Kansas territory, people came to town in droves. Infrastructure was heavily invested in Pawnee as many believed this would become the booming metropolis of Kansas. The stone capital building was built almost as soon as it was announced that Pawnee would be the capital. Laborers were recruited from among those who were arriving in Pawnee for the first time.
During the creation of the Kansas territory, there was a fired up debate on whether or not states should be allowed to enter the union as a free state or a slave state. Kansas became the hottest debated state in US history. This is why when it was made public knowledge that the election for territorial delegates for the legislature were to take place on March 30th, 1855, groups of armed, Pro-Slavery Missourians, crossed the border to vote in the election. For this reason, the first legislature that met in Pawnee was called the “Bogus Legislature” by the free-state opponents. Approximately 5,000 of these “Bushwhackers” voted to make Kansas a pro-slavery state, making it an invalid election. Evidence of fraud was blatantly obvious. When the elections started, Kansas only had 2,905 eligible voters. After all the votes were counted, there were a total of 6,307 ballots. With the events that unfolded, Governor Reeder was outraged and demanded a new election and deemed the recent election invalid. But with the result they wanted, the first legislature did not even bother to acknowledge, let alone participate in the second election.
With the drama unfolding, the “Bogus” legislature decided to convene in Pawnee, Kansas on July 1855. Those in the Pro-Slavery legislature were not too fond of the location of the Capital. They believed that it should be closer to the border to make travel easier for them as many had to commute from Missouri. The legislature only lasted a few days and left on July 6, 1855 with the intent of never returning again. The building which many had put such hard work into building would be abandoned and left behind. Perhaps more importantly, those who had established a life in what was supposed to be the capital city were disheartened and were looking at an uncertain future.
Just a few days after the legislature had left Pawnee and the building was cleared out and left empty. The bottom half was used as storage and the top half of the building was used as the living quarters for the Morris family of Pawnee. The town site of Pawnee would soon be integrated into Fort Riley and all the previous buildings, except for the capital building, would eventually be razed. The capital building then had an erratic history following the departure of the legislature where it was turned into a warehouse and was even a location where many homeless people would occupy without permission.
One of the more devastating events happened in 1877, when the roof was torn off by a tornado and leaving the inside exposed to the harsh Kansas weather. The movement for the buildings preservation began around 1900, but it wasn’t until 1926 when Geary County Senator G.W. Schimdt was able to get a bill introduced into the Kansas Senate for a $1,000 grant to help fix up the site. August 1, 1928 marked the first time since 1855 that there was an official meeting place at the old building. It was estimated that 15,000 had shown up to help celebrate the occasion. Finally in May of 2001, there was a “grand reopening” celebrated with an exhibit opening which told the history of not only the capital building but the short lived capital of Pawnee.
With all of the great history that the building has, it’s a good thing to see the continued efforts to keep the building in good shape!
The First Territorial Capital Building has been through some rough patches and this picture shows it. This was taken at the turn of the century after a tornado ripped through the roof of the capital building.