Situated along the Kansas River in northeast Kansas, Topeka is the capitol city of Kansas and the county seat of Shawnee County. Having long been the home of the Kanza Indians, the name “Topeka,” means “to dig good potatoes” in the languages of the Kanza and the Ioway. The potato referred to is the prairie potato, a perennial herb which was an important food for many Native Americans.
Early missionaries were working with the Kanza Indians as early as 1830, but, the first permanent white settlers were the three French-Canadian brothers – Joseph, Ahcan, and Louis Pappan who married three Kanza Indian sisters and moved to the area from St. Louis, Missouri in 1840.
Two years later, they established the first ferry across the Kansas River, long known as Pappan’s Ferry to accommodate travelers between Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and New Mexico. Afterward, it also became a favorite crossing for the California and Oregon traders and emigrants. Soon, more ferries were established in the area to accommodate the many travelers heading westward. In the early 1850s. Traffic along the Oregon Trail was supplemented by trade on a new military road stretching from Fort Leavenworth through Topeka to the newly-established Fort Riley.
In October 1854, Cyrus K. Holliday, a young Pennsylvanian, arrived at Lawrence, and the following month, in company with Dr. Charles Robinson, agent of the New England Emigrant Aid Society, proceeded up the valley of the Kansas River to locate Free-State townsites for the fast coming Eastern emigrants. Among others, the present site of Topeka was selected as one especially desirable.
On December 5, 1854, nine men met on the banks of the Kansas River and drew up an agreement, which later became the basis for the Topeka Association, the organization mainly responsible for the establishment and early growth of Topeka. These men included Cyrus K. Holliday, F.W. Giles, Daniel H. Horne, George Davis, Enoch Chase, J.B. Chase, M.C. Dickey, Charles Robinson, and L.G. Cleveland. Soon the townsite was surveyed and lots divided, and early in 1855, a meeting was held to choose a name for the new town. After debating several names, Topeka was selected because it was novel, of Indian origin, and sounded good.
Some of the first buildings constructed were sod huts by Daniel Horne and L.G. Cleveland. More emigrants soon followed and soon about 36 people joined the new settlement.
F. J. Case built a log house, with a blacksmith shop in the rear; more sod huts and shake cabins were put up by spring, and A.W. Moore established the first boarding-house. On January 13, 1855, the town was promoted in the Herald of Freedom, published in Wakarusa, Kansas:
“Topeka – A new townsite with the above name has been selected, and is now rapidly filling up with Eastern people. It is located about twenty-five miles above this point, on the Kansas River, and will probably be a place of considerable importance. Several of our most active business men are connected with the movement, and they are bound to make it ‘go ahead.’ It is said there is fine country around it, and nature has been prolific in her bounties. A steam saw-mill and all the various appliances of civilization will be introduced there, upon the first renewal of navigation in the spring. The name is said to be the original Indian one for the Kansas River.”
In January 1855, M.C. Dickey and Cyrus K. Holliday made a journey to Kansas City as agents of the Emigrant Aid Society, to bring up the steam engine for the new sawmill which was completed and put in operation in the spring.
In March, a post office was established in a log cabin that also served as a blacksmith shop. Fry W. Giles appointed Postmaster. Also occurring that month, the first church in town was organized by the Methodists with Reverend A. Still at the “pulpit.” The first religious service was held in a grove on the bank of the Kansas River. Early in the spring, another party of 42 emigrants arrived and the town was dotted with the camps, wagons, farming implements, and household furniture. To accommodate the increased population, another boarding-house was opened –The Pioneer Hotel. A simple log cabin with berths one above another, around the sides, and a long table in the center, it was busy in the short-term but soon outlived its usefulness as better buildings took its place. Afterward, it continued to stand for several years, serving as a shelter for cattle and known as the “Pine-away House.”
In April, two new stores were established, one by J.T. Jones and the other by the Farnsworth Brothers (afterward famous as Constitution Hall.) That same month, Enock Chase built the first house with a wooden floor and J.C. Miller began to construct the first brick home in the city. A brick-yard was established by L.W. Horne just outside of town and Daniel Horne found enough men to form a military company, which he organized and called the Topeka Guards.
When the settlers of 1854 came to the banks of the Kansas River at Topeka, there was no road directly up the river, that part of the country being broken by ravines, ridges, and streams. To encourage settlement a new road was laid out early in May 1855 branching off from the California Trail, a little east of Big Springs, and running east to Topeka.
From the beginning, Topeka was a temperance town. On the evening of July 4, 1855, after a temperance demonstration, the mass meeting resolved itself into a committee of the whole and destroyed all the liquor in the vicinity.
During the last week in May 1855, the first steamboat of the season, the Emma Harmon, arrived at the Topeka Levee. That summer Allen & Gordon completed another store and put in a large stock of goods and a potential newspaperman, named E.C.K. Garvey arrived from Milwaukee. Garvey proposed to establish a newspaper and move his family and business interests to Topeka if sufficient encouragement could make the project feasible. With the Town Association’s help, a two-story building was erected and Garvey published the first city newspaper, the Kansas Freeman on July 4, 1855. Later the “Garvey House” was enlarged helped serve other functions, including housing the post office, a hotel, and the town’s political and commercial center. However, the newspaper didn’t last, being suspended in the spring of 1856.
Another newspaper called the Kansas Tribune was founded by John Speer and began publishing in Topeka in December 1855. It would continue periodically through 1868 when it was finally discontinued. Numerous other newspapers would follow throughout the years
The Big Springs Convention, held in September 1855, was a prelude of something better to come for Topeka – it was the beginning of a series of well concerted and skillfully executed movements to draw attention to the city as the future capital of the state. The next month, a Free-State Constitutional Convention met at Topeka on October 23, 1855, drawing up documents in an attempt to make Kansas free of slavery. This constitution and the resulting turmoil between the Free-State and pro-slavery factions would lead to the desperate times called Bleeding Kansas. Kansas would have a long way to go before she would become a state in 1861.