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New book tells of town’s beginnings as a Yankee settlement

By Paul Harris

Kevin Olson fell in love with Manhattan history at a young age. But he didn’t know that his encounter with Chief Tatarrax would lead him to write his first book.

“My spark of history happened when I was a small child at an Arts in the Park event, and I wandered off to find a monument of Chief Tatarrax,” said Olson, now a lawyer in New York City. “That’s when I became interested in the history of the area.”

The project started six years ago, when Olson was back in Manhattan visiting his parents during the city’s sesquicentennial. After four years of research and two years of writing and publication, Olson is set to release his book: Frontier Manhattan: Yankee Settlement to Kansas town, 1854-1894. The book showcases the early history of the city.

Throughout his research, Olson found three common principles in the city’s founders that have been passed through the city’s history. Those three were an emphasis on education, an emphasis on religion, and anti-slavery contention. All three can still be seen in Manhattan’s support of its local schools and churches, Olson said.

One of those principles —education — created problems among the city’s early settlers. New Englanders and Cincinnati businessmen argued about the location of Bluemont Central College, which has evolved into Kansas State University. Bluemont Central opened in 1860.

The college was built at the current site of the Founders Hill apartment complex. Those Cincinnati businessmen wanted it to be built on Poyntz Avenue, and wanted to establish the center of the town there. Friction between the two groups even led to one of the city’s founders, Washington Marlatt, calling the Cincinnati businessmen an expletive in one of his letters, Olson said.

The college, by then renamed Kansas State College, moved to its current location in 1875, which not only eased the tension between the settlers, but helped get it off to a running start. 

“Interests were not as divided,” Olson said. “Enrollment jumped because it allowed more students to go.”

At the time, students lived with families in town, or at a boarding school and the original location was difficult for students to travel to.

Not only did Olson want to tell the familiar stories of Manhattan’s founding, he wanted to find those important moments in the city’s history that had yet to be unearthed. That passion led Olson to a store of different research travels throughout the New England area, so he could explore the native land of the city’s founders, including New Haven, Conn. and Boston. He received a grant from the Kansas State Historical Society to fund his travels.

Finding these new facts provided its own share of challenges.

“It’s not like looking for a needle in the haystack, it’s like finding a spoon in a haystack,” Olson said. “It’s finding the interesting nugget (that motivated me), but it’s not something everyone would enjoy.”

One story that really caught the attention of Olson was an incident between a pro-slavery land-owner. The story ended up in a Kansas City newspaper before taking on national prominence, even appearing in a New Orleans and New York City paper.

“There was an early settler named Osborne who was a pro-slavery guy,” the author said. In anti-slavery Manhattan, that didn’t sit well. “He came in and jumped the claim and took over someone’s cabin. Other settlers eventually drove him away.”

Following that story was one of Olson’s highlights of writing the book.

“The idea that I could share this story with the people of Manhattan and get them interested their own history motivated me,” Olson said.

While history is a passion of his, he realizes that it can is considered by most to be a fairly dry subject. One of his goals in writing the book was to make history as interesting for his readers as it is for him.

“I wish I had some key that would get people excited about history,” Olson said. The history major at the University of Kansas said he was not particularly interested in the subject himself until he took a history class from local teacher Martha Scott. “I tried to make the story as compelling as possible,” he added.

The book is $29.95 and can be found at all local bookstores, the Riley County Historical Museum, and at the Flint Hills Discovery Center. The Manhattan native will be back in town on April 28 for a book signing at the Flint Hills Discovery Center.

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