COUNCIL GROVE, Kansas — Cornell University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and 30 other schools owe at least part of their existence to land taken from Kansas’ indigenous people.
In the 1800s, the U.S. government gave states that land in the interest of building land-grant universities. Then, the schools would reinvest the money they got from selling the land — which was mostly in the Midwest, including 920,000 acres in Kansas.
A recent analysis by High Country News shows tribes who were forced off of their land were paid less than 2% of what the states raised from selling that same land.
“It’s almost like a 19th century form of money laundering,” said Jim Leiker, a professor of history at Johnson County Community College.
‘The darkest period’
Before 1825, the Kanza tribe called 20 million acres in Kansas home. By the time President Abraham Lincoln signed the first Morrill Act in 1862, they’d been forced to live on 80,000 acres in the Flint Hills near modern-day Council Grove, less than half of a percent the size of where they’d been.
That same year, the federal government built 138 huts for the Kanza people — at the Kanza’s expense. And the huts were built of stone instead of their preferred rounded dwellings of bark. Sharp corners could trap the spirits the Kanza believed in, so the stone huts housed their horses instead.
“They were never ideal from the beginning,” said Pauline Sharp, a member of the Kaw Nation, which is one of many names the Kanza use.
Only three huts remain, a few crumbled walls, at Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park that’s a few miles south of Council Grove. They are a reminder of what Kanza head chief Allegawaho said in 1871 was the “darkest period in our history,” according to historian Ronald Park’s book, “The Darkest Period.”
“It’s horribly sad to know how your ancestors were treated,” said Sharp, who also serves as secretary-treasurer of the Kanza Heritage Society board.
The land that Kanza and other Kansas tribes were forced off of became a windfall for the newly created land-grant universities, including Kansas State. As of 2017, more than 1.7 million students were enrolled in land-grant institutions, which were inititally meant to research and train Americans in agriculture and engineering and are found in all 50 states.
The vast majority of Kansas land benefitted universities back East, like the following:
- 1,100 acres around Kanopolis Lake in the Smoky Hills helped pay for several land-grant universities, including ones in Delaware and Alabama.
- Just under 1,000 acres in Johnson County went to universities in Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina.
- More than 350,000 acres in the Flint Hills, between El Dorado Lake to Fort Riley, paid for schools like Rutgers University and Mississippi State University.
Indigenous Kansas land sold by universities
Search for specific addresses or zoom in on a parcel until you see information about which university received the land and how much it was sold for (not adjusted for inflation).
Source: High Country News Notes: Some parcels may be larger than the actual number of acres sold. Not all acres sold by universities are included in the map.
Kansas tribes were paid $18,000 for the 920,000 acres. But High Country News data shows states raised $1.15 million off of Kansas’ acres (a figure that is not adjusted for inflation).
That’s a more than 6,000% return on investment. And it upends the myth, Leiker with JCCC said, that western settlers were the only ones who benefited from tribes being pushed out of the state.
“The reality is that more of those resources … were diverted back east,” he said. “And the children of elite families who graduate from these institutions really have no idea that what made those institutions possible in the first place was the result of what was happening 1,500 miles to the west.”
Research, ranching and restoring land
Andrew Pringle regularly stumbles upon evidence of the Osage tribe that once lived on the land where he raises cattle near Yates Center in southeastern Kansas. Arrowheads often pop up near the creek or after plowing.
He said the history of the Osage’s removal from the area in 1825 is rarely talked about in town.
“Pushed them around, you might say,” Pringle said. “Wasn’t good.”
What he didn’t know was that part of his pasture was sold in 1870 to raise money for the creation of Ohio State University.
Ranchers like Mark Pringle, Andrew’s son, expressed pride knowing their connection to land-grant universities, which he called “such an amazing part of our nation’s history.”
“Kansas State University has been at the forefront for helping the agricultural part in this state,” he said.
Researchers at these colleges study ways to make soil healthier, farmland more productive and pesticides safer — along with more humanities-focused subjects.
In 1988, Willie Bressner donated about 600 acres to Kansas State University — land that had been sold by Ohio State before eventually making its way into K-State’s hands. The school uses the land for different grazing experiments, directly connecting to the mission.
“As a farmer, you can’t justify going out and doing some of these research plots,” according to K-State extension agent Dale Lanham. “But on the university level, we can do it, show that it works or show that it doesn’t work and save the farmers a lot of money.”
Pauline Sharp’s husband and father-in-law both graduated from K-State. Overall, she said, white Americans benefited from these universities, not the Kanza.
In 1846, about 1,600 Kanza tribe members were moved onto a small plot of land in central Kansas. By the end of the century, just 200 remained, having fallen to starvation and disease. Eventually, they were forced to leave Kansas altogether for Oklahoma.
Today, the Kaw Nation has 3,500 tribe members. In 2000, it bought 148 acres of the land near Council Grove, where Kanza members dance at at least once a year.
Sharp said she still feels the pain that her ancestors were forcibly removed from the Free State.
“You always have to wonder, you know, what if that hadn’t happened,” Sharp said.
Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @stevebisaha.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.