|Map of Kansas and Nebraska Territories, 1854|
So I was surprised today, when I discovered in a January, 1859 Ranney Letter that “more than two hundred persons in this county” in southern Michigan were planning to go to Kansas in search of gold the following summer. It hadn’t occurred to me–maybe because I’m familiar with the flat, drive-through Kansas you can see on current maps–that the Nebraska and Kansas Territories extended to the Rocky Mountains and contained quite a bit of what is now Colorado and Wyoming, as well as a big section of the northern foothills (including the Black Hills) that in 1861 would become the Dakota Territory.
In other words, Gold Country. Between 1854 and 1861, Kansas and Nebraska were part of The West in a way they no longer are. Fort Laramie, the site of the 1868 Treaty between the U.S. and the Lakota, Dakota, and Arapaho nations, was originally in the Nebraska Territory. Pikes Peak, now 100 miles south of Denver and 30 miles west of Colorado Springs, was in Kansas.
“How did I miss this?” I thought, with some alarm. But when I flipped through the pages of books from the “Western” part of my library, such as Patricia Nelson Limerick's The Legacy of Conquest, I find a Kansas and Nebraska embroiled in Stephen Douglas’s expansionism. Similarly, on my “Impending Crisis” shelf, David Potter’s book of that name devotes many pages to the 1854 Act and to the Lecompton Constitution. But Lecompton is in the northeastern corner of present-day Kansas, and Stephen Douglas was from Illinois. The free-state revolutionaries of Topeka and the Bleeding Kansas border war with Missouri were likewise situated on the eastern borders of the present state.
|Published by Oliver Ditson, Boston, 1856|
It just goes to show, I guess, how much complex and interesting detail lies just under the surface of the broad brushstrokes we use to integrate local and regional histories into American History. The Kansas State Historical Society’s site includes a reprint of a 1967 article from their journal written by Calvin A. Gower of St. Cloud (MN) State University, titled “‘Big Kansas’ or ‘Little Kansas,’” which describes the Pikes Peak gold rush and the controversy over Kansas’ borders. We’re lucky to have more and more of these resources online at our fingertips. Does their availability obligate us to rethink the relationship between the broad strokes and the details–at least for the regions where we live, write, and teach?