Often overlooked historical site brings Kansas history to life
It is an unfortunate fact, but sometimes we overlook historic sites in our area. Certainly I’ve been guilty of that, because as a Civil War buff I had never visited Lecompton, which is billed as the “Civil War Birth Place” and “where slavery began to die.” Lecompton is just west of Lawrence and about 40 miles or so from Bonner Springs.
Earlier this fall, Jean and I visited the Lecompton community, and it was like stepping back in time. The town of 631 residents has maintained some vital historic sites, including the territorial capital. Constitution Hall was built in 1856 and may be the oldest wooden building in Kansas.
The community was born in the caldron of the pre-Civil War era when the struggle over the Kansas Constitution became violent. It was the site of many deadly clashes between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions.
In fact, probably the first battle of what would become the Civil War was fought in Lecompton, and the site is marked. A pro-slavery strong hold, “Fort Titus” was a fortified log cabin owned by Col. Henry Titus. On Aug. 16, 1856, it was attacked and destroyed by Free State men who suffered three fatalities. This was just the beginning of the violence known as “Bleeding Kansas.”
During that period Lecompton was certainly the most famous town in Kansas and there were articles about the violence in many eastern newspapers. Lecompton was the territorial capital of Kansas. Probably the toughest job in the history of Kansas was serving as territorial governor. There were six in the seven years Kansas was a territory. In addition there were four acting territorial governors.
It is interesting to note that the community was originally named “Bald Eagle” but was changed to Lecompton in honor of the chief justice of the territorial Supreme Court Samuel D. Lecompte.
In all, four constitutions were written. Talk about voter dishonesty – fraudulent ballots were discovered hidden in a wooden candle box that is on display.
Attacks by Missouri “border ruffians” and retaliation by Kansas “Jayhawks” spread through the area. Missourians crossed the border to stuff the ballot box to bring Kansas in as a slave state. After several attempts, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state and the capital was moved to Topeka.
The territorial capital building was abandoned, however it was completed in 1882 and became the home of Lane University, which continued until 1902. Named for Sen. James Lane it was operated by the Brethren Church.
The building and museum is an excellent tour site. It contains a wealth of artifacts and information. It is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Donation admissions are accepted. And, yes, it is accessible to those who have mobility issues.
We had a very nice, friendly and knowledgeable lady who guided us through the rooms filled with displays. To me, the most interesting fact I learned was that President Eisenhower’s parents were students at Lane University and were married in Lecompton in 1885. Mannequins depict their wedding attire.
One of the museum’s big events is its Christmas season program that continues until Jan. 1. The Territorial Capital Museum will have three floors decorated with 40 unique Christmas trees.
While there is a walking tour, you can drive a short distance to Constitution Hall, which is the meeting site of the Territorial Legislature. You get a real sense of history walking through the building where the famous Lecompton Constitution was written.
Lecompton is a great day trip that takes you back to a time when the future of our nation hinged on happenings in Kansas. We certainly enjoyed our trip back through time.