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National Historic Landmark SHAWNEE MISSION

Location: Johnson County, West 53d Street and Mission Road (35th Street), one block north of U.S. 50-69, Fairway (Kansas City suburb).

Shawnee Mission was one of the earliest, largest, and most successful mission schools in pre-Territorial Kansas and the West. Founded in 1830 at the first of two locations and under the first of various names as the Shawnee Methodist Mission and Indian Manual Labor School to educate and provide religious instruction for Shawnee Indian children, it grew into a vocational training center for many tribes. Situated near the beginning points of the Santa Fe and Oregon-California Trails, it was an outpost of civilization and a social center on the trails. During the years 1854-55, it was also the capital of Kansas Territory.

In 1829, by which time most of the Missouri Shawnees had relocated to a tract in eastern Kansas in accordance with an 1825 treaty and 3 years before their tribesmen from Ohio joined them, the Missouri group requested missionaries. The Reverend Thomas Johnson of the Methodist Episcopal Church established a two-story log mission school near present Turner, Kans., in 1830-31. Until 1837, when emphasis shifted to vocational training and enrollment surpassed 35, he taught English and arithmetic to both sexes, home arts to the girls, and crafts to the boys. In 1834 he received the first printing press in Kansas and utilized it to advantage in his educational program. Four years later he recommended to the Methodist missionary society the establishment of a central manual labor school for the benefit of all tribes. The War Department, which administered Indian affairs, agreed to finance it but stipulated a site on Indian lands and outside the State of Missouri.

Johnson chose another location on Shawnee lands, a few miles to the southeast. Construction began in January 1839, and in October the Johnson family and the students moved from the abandoned first school to the new one and into the West Building, the first completed. Indian laborers plowed and enclosed some 400 acres of land and planted orchards and gardens that came to yield rich harvests, including grain to feed the herds of livestock. In February 1840 some 60 students from various tribes were enrolled, and others had been turned away because of lack of space. Most of the males studied agriculture, and some of them learned blacksmithing, wagonmaking, and shoemaking; the girls learned domestic arts; and all students, religion. At its peak the mission accommodated 137 pupils and consisted of about 2,240 acres and 16 brick, stone, and frame school structures, workshops, and out buildings. Ill health forced Johnson to return East in the years 1841-47, though the school continued to operate.

The institution was renamed the Fort Leavenworth Indian Manual Training School in 1847. Yet the next year Johnson began a shift toward academic instruction by organizing a separate classical department, the "Western Academy." Offering courses in Latin and Greek, as well as in English, this 3-year experiment attracted both white and Indian students.

The year 1854 was an eventful one. On November 24 Andrew H. Reeder, first Territorial Governor of Kansas, moved his executive offices from Fort Leavenworth, where he had been inaugurated on October 7, to the mission's North Building. For a few weeks in June and July 1855 he relocated to Pawnee, Kans., adjoining the Fort Riley Military Reservation, and convened the first Territorial Legislature. The proslavery party, determined to legislate nearer home, charged him with speculating in Pawnee real estate, unseated all but two of his fellow Free Staters, and transferred the seat of government back to Shawnee Mission. There, in the East Building, the so-called "bogus legislature" adopted the proslavery statutes of the State of Missouri virtually in their entirety, but the Free Staters refused to recognize them.

North Building
Restored North Building, Shawnee Mission. (photo by Jackson W. Moore, Jr., National Park Service)

In 1854, when the Shawnees ceded most of their lands in eastern Kansas to the U.S. Government, they granted portions of the mission lands and improvements to the missionary society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, on the condition that the church pay them $10,000 to use for the education of their children. The next year the Indian Bureau, which had taken over Indian affairs from the Army in 1849, agreed with the society to pay it $5,000 annually and credit the $10,000 due the Shawnees at the rate of $1,000 per year if it would board, clothe, and educate a certain number of Shawnee children at the school. The school was renamed the Shawnee Manual Labor School, though children from other tribes continued to attend.

The Shawnees soon became dissatisfied with the school. In 1858 the Tribal Council considered withdrawing their funds from the mission school and setting up another system of education. A joint Indian-missionary society committee recommended to the Indian Bureau that the contract be terminated at the end of the school year and that the funds be administered by a Government commissioner, who would disburse tuition to any institution of the parents' choice. Apparently the Indian Bureau took no action on the recommendations.

That same year Thomas Johnson moved to Kansas City; although he retained the superintendency of the school until 1862, his son Alexander operated it. Early in 1860 the Tribal Council again complained to the Indian Bureau. It charged school officials with poor management, the squandering of money, and physical neglect of the children. Finally, in September 1862, the Shawnee Mission closed and the contract between the Government and the Methodist Episcopal Church ended. Union troops occupied the mission during the Civil War. In 1865 Johnson's heirs acquired title.

In 1927 the State gained possession of the present 12-acre site, now a State park administered by the Kansas State Historical Society. The park consists of three of the original brick structures, in excellent condition. The West Building (1839), a two-story structure that has been extensively modified over the years and is now occupied by the custodian, originally provided classrooms and a dining hall but sometimes served as a residence for the superintendent, teachers, and their families, as well as Territorial officers. In the 2-1/2-story East Building (1841) were a chapel, classrooms, and an attic dormitory for male students. Restoration of the two-story North Building (1845), separated from the other two buildings by 53d Street, was completed in 1942. This structure contained girls' classrooms and dormitory, but on occasion housed teachers, Territorial officials, and the superintendent. It features a piazza across most of its length. The East and North Buildings are furnished in period styles. Reverend Johnson is buried in a cemetery a short distance from the mission.

NHL Designation: 05/23/68

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Last Updated: 19-Aug-2005