Our interest in American history continually evolves with our travels. Learning the unique history of a place enriches our travel experiences, gives us a deeper understanding, and shapes our itineraries. It opens our eyes to the lives of so many people of the past whose actions, intellect, drive, bravery, love or hatred still reverberates through time. So with that, we heeded our friends (fulltime RV travelers) Lorraine and Spencer’s advice and visited the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City.
We didn’t realize coming into the museum how much it would contribute to our Civil War history lessons. The museum is full of preserved artifacts that were saved from the sunken ship that was loaded with immigrants as well as goods being delivered to the western territories, including Kansas. It is an extraordinary time capsule of a most fascinating period in U.S. history. Many patents were being created and with so many people immigrating to western territories, a large supply of new-fangled products for home building and farming, guns, clothing, housewares, food and medicines were being shipped along with them.
What makes this even more fascinating is that everything contained on the Arabia was well preserved within the mud (devoid of oxygen and light) of the Missouri River for over a century. Check out this slide show to see some of the remarkable displays, including the preservation lab.
It was the museum and then later, a visit to Lawrence, Kansas that enlightened us to the civil war that had been going on years before THE Civil War began. And this pre-civil war conflict began in Lawrence, Kansas in 1855. Indeed, it was these words from Senator Atchison of Missouri who wrote in September 1855 to his southern friends, “the Kansas contest is one of life and death, and it will be so with you and your institution if we fail…the stake the “border ruffians” are playing for is a mighty one… in a word, the prosperity or the ruin of the whole South depends on the Kansas struggle”.
It is clear from this letter that the institution of slavery was under attack and Kansas played a big role in determining whether slavery would survive or not. A few months earlier, Horace Greeley (editor of the New Your Tribune) wrote a celebrated editorial predicting the great battle between Freedom and Slavery was at hand and that the little cloud hovering over a handful of people in the far West foreshadowed the coming storm.
So how did Kansas get drawn into the fight? The short of it is, organization of western territories was in demand and this required railroads. Since 1820, the country was divided by the 36th parallel – above it, free states; below it, slave states. Realizing the importance of a transcontinental railway for taking hold of the western territories, southern slaveholders wanted it to run below the 36th parallel and this included Kansas.
A violent conflict exploded between slave-state Missouri and the Kansas territory which was increasingly populated with abolitionists transported from New England. Much of the violence occurred in and around Lawrence, Kansas. Both sides shipped immigrants and armaments to the region. This is where the Arabia Steamboat comes into the story as it was a common means of transporting immigrants and guns to Kansas. Among supplies and goods shipped to western territories were the Sharps Rifle that were later known as “Beecher Bibles”. These rifled designed and patented in 1848 were known for their long-range accuracy and became icons of the American West. A leading abolitionist and part of the New England Emigrant Aid Company, Henry Ward Beecher believed the Sharps Rifle was a “truly moral agency, and that there was more moral power in one of those instruments, so far as the slaveholders of Kansas were concerned, than in a hundred Bibles.” His sister, by the way was Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the famous anti-slavery novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.
After years of violent conflict, Kansas was admitted as a free state on January 29, 1861, and this was only because enough southern Senators had departed during the secession crisis that led to the Civil War. Our lessons into the tragic events leading up to the Civil War culminated at the Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence, Kansas. The college town ambience made us feel at home, and from its museum, we came to appreciate its contributions to civil rights activism, including a recent Black Lives Matter protest.
We spent two full days in the area of Kansas City, Lawrence while camped in Topeka. The stark yet refreshing contrast from our western Kansas experience did not go unnoticed while visiting a vibrant city market and an eclectic college town. But that’s not what we came for. No, we wanted to go to Wamego. Why Wamego? To see the Wizard, of course! And with that, we leave the great plains and head south.