Story of Manhattan’s early history told by native son

Chris Banner

By A Contributor

“Frontier Manhattan” traces the development of Manhattan from its founding to 1894, when it was the germ of the city of today. About two-thirds of the book concerns the pre-Civil War era when its residents were greatly involved in the struggle to establish a viable town as well as a free, territorial constitution and government.

Isaac Goodnow and five other men who pitched their tents at the then junction of the Kansas and Big Blue Rivers on March 27, 1855, formed a vanguard of the Boston party of abolitionists, which was sponsored by the New England Emigrant Aid Society. The men’s purpose was to establish a town having the values and interests typical of their home area. The main party followed in April.

They soon joined with nearby settlements of Canton, which was at the foot of Blue Mont Hill near the Big Blue River, and George Park’s Poliska (think Poliska Lane on Wildcat Creek; think also Parkville, Mo., and Parkville College), and were joined in June by Cincinnati and Kansas Land Company settlers who renamed it “Manhattan.”

All agreed that the Boston party would get the land north of the center of what is now Poyntz Avenue and Cincinnati party would get the land to the south. Over the years, others moved to Manhattan until the population reached about 3,000 in 1895.

One source of difficulty was the presence of Juniata, a small settlement and trading post near where Rocky Ford is on the Big Blue River, which was serious competition for Manhattan.  It had a bridge which was a part of the military road between Forts Riley and Leavenworth.  The flood of 1856 wiped the bridge out, the traffic went to Manhattan, and today no trace of the settlement remains.

In addition to beginning and growing farms, businesses, schools, churches and other things, the settlers worked to establish Manhattan as the county seat, and to establish a free-soil constitution for the present territory and the coming state, which was their purpose in moving here in the first place.

This required free-soilers to deal with a strong and well organized pro-slavery faction which, among other things, treated their opponents with threats of violence and actual violence, rigged elections, and moving the territorial capital around to suit their own needs. The town was largely spared attacks by Border Ruffians and other Bleeding Kansas events because of its distance from Missouri and the closeness of Fort Riley.

The Manhattan delegates worked hard for their cause, and their efforts were rewarded on Jan. 29, 1861, when Kansas was admitted as a free state.

The Civil War started a short time later. During the War, a number of Manhattan men fought for the Union, some in newly formed Kansas units, causing hardship for the settlers who stayed behind.  Also during the war, severe drought was a problem for all of the settlers.

After the war, Manhattan continued to grow and change, with popular government, orderly platting, bridges across the two rivers, railroads, people on their ways west, businesses, public schools, Kansas State Agricultural College, churches, gas, electricity, city water and sewer, graveled streets, and other modern necessities.

Practically from the beginning, African-Americans, called “Exodusters,” passed through or settled in Manhattan. Olson traces the courses of their numbers and their relations with the white settlers. What he discovers is surprising.  Read “Frontier Manhattan” to find out for yourself how things went.

Olson clearly has done a lot of research in writing “Frontier Manhattan.” He names the persons and discusses the events prominent in the town’s survival and development, with some of which you may have just a passing familiarity. In spinning his story, he also tells us, fairly frequently, the years that things happened, which is a welcome help to the reader in keeping track of events.

Olson includes a map of the city as it was originally laid out, a number of photos you probably have not seen before of persons and places, a table of population for 1855-1900, end notes, bibliography, and an index.

“Frontier Manhattan” is a good, short, enjoyable, up-to-date, and easy reading history of early Manhattan. To learn more about the life of early settlers generally, see Linda S. Johnston’s “Hope Amid Hardship:  Pioneer Voices from Kansas Territory,” which was reviewed recently on this page. Together, they give a good picture of the earliest days of Kansas Territory, with “Frontier Manhattan” being about Manhattan over a longer period.

Olson is a Manhattan native, now living in New York. He writes the enjoyable “This Day in Manhattan History,” which appears daily on page A3 of The Mercury.

Christopher Banner is emeritus senior specialist in music from Kansas State University, and a Manhattan resident.

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