FEBRUARY 7, 2001

by Ron Parks

The House Ready to Be Occupied

This year the Kaw Mission State Historic Site and area residents celebrate the 150th birthday of the historic Kaw Mission. This is the sixth in a series of monthly articles describing themes, events, and personalities associated with the Kaw Mission 150 years ago.

In a letter to his brother in Illinois dated February 23, 1851, Allen T. Ward, foreman of the construction crew that built the Kaw Mission, announced that the construction of the Kaw Mission was now complete:

"Since I wrote to you last I have been to Council Grove & put up a large stone building intended for a Mission house & School among the Kansas, or (Kaw) Indians; the place selected for the improvements was the bank of the Ne-o-sho, 125 miles west of this & near the Santafe road–

"I started out about the first of last September, with 25 hands & finished the mason work in about three months, I then came home [to the Shawnee Mission near Kansas City] leaving the carpenters to finish their work. They have just got back & report the house ready to be occupied."

The carpenters had trimmed the interior of the stone building with native walnut. Floor boards, ceiling molding, baseboards, door and window trim, and the stairways were all of walnut.

Today only two pieces of this original woodwork survive and both are displayed at the Kaw Mission: a 4"x4"x3" cube of walnut and the original newel post cap. This cap, gracefully milled with fine curving lines and ornamentation, indicates that the original interior of the mission was not without elegance.

Although little is known about the demographic backgrounds of the twenty-five carpenters, masons, and laborers who toiled on the Kaw Mission through the fall of 1850 and the winter of 1850-51, there is an excellent chance that a fair number of Irish and Germans were among the construction crew.

From the mid-1840s to 1850 the Irish were the leading national group immigrating to the United States. From 1850 to 1890 more Germans came to the United States than any other ethnic group. Both the Irish and the Germans supplied a large percentage of the workforce on the Kansas frontier in the 1850s. The Germans in particular were skilled stone masons.

The stonemasons would have made $3.00 to $4.00 per day; carpenters $2.50 to $3.00; and laborers $2.00 per day. These would not have been bad wages in 1851. However, compensation for the uncomfortable working and living conditions endured by the men working through a Kansas winter in a primitive frontier settlement would have been out of the question.

The total cost of constructing the Kaw Mission, erecting a log workshop and log kitchen, and digging a twenty-seven-foot-deep well was $3,452.00. This amount was to be paid under a contractual arrangement by the United States government to the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. This Society was headed by Thomas Johnson, who, as superintendent of the Shawnee Mission, was responsible for overseeing the construction and operations of the Kaw Mission.

The contract also stipulated that the Methodists would fence and plow one hundred acres and fence thirty acres for pasture. When costs for this work were added, the total bill Johnson sent to the government was $4,325.05.

However, the Kaw Mission project is proof that cost overruns for government work are not just modern phenomena. In his report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Johnson states his reasons for asking the government for full remittance:

"This account you will perceive by reference to the contract is $825.05 more than the Government was to pay the Missionary Society. But I respectfully submit for your considerations whether it would not be better for the Government to pay that additional amount to the Missionary Society."

What follows in this letter is Johnson seemingly threatening the government that if it does not pay the extra $825.05, his Missionary Society would claim for its own those improvements equal in value to the overrun dollar amount:

"So that should the Government wish to make any change in the location of the Indians or in the management of the school, it could be done without any trouble. The Society could take the loose property and leave the buildings and farm for the Government."

Although the contractual wrangles between the government and the Methodists were still unresolved in February 1851, the Kaw Mission was now an accomplished fact. And at the time it must have been an incredible sight: this stately, elegantly-crafted limestone building, a portentous statement of advancing civilization, standing on the banks of the Neosho River 120 miles west of the frontier, far into the interior of that region then known as Indian Country.

March2001: Smelling the Big Knife
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