MARCH 14, 2001

by Ron Parks

Smelling the Big Knife


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

In March 1851 the Kaw Mission would have been a silent and lonely place. After five months of frenetic construction activity, the workers had completed the building in February, then returned east to the Shawnee Mission. The Methodists had not yet arrived to assume operation of the school, and the Kaws were more than likely still away on the plains hunting buffalo.

In May the Indians would return, as they always did, to take up residence in their Neosho Valley villages located three, seven, and ten miles downstream from Council Grove. At this time the women would prepare their gardens and plant beans, pumpkins, potatoes, and squash.

The Treaty of 1846 had propelled the Kaws out of their native Kansas River Valley onto the much-smaller Neosho River Reservation. One of the stipulations of this treaty was that "One thousand dollars . . . shall be applied annually to the purposes of education in their [the Kaws] own country." This money was to fund the construction and operation of the Kaw Mission.

By March 1851 the Kaws had been inured to American efforts for over two decades to educate and convert them to Christianity. In spring 1828 Bishop Rosati of the St. Louis Diocese appointed young Joseph Anthony Lutz "Missionary Priest With the Kanzas."

By the end of the summer Lutz was considerably disillusioned. In September he wrote to Rosati "The superstition of the Kanzas tribe is more gross than any one could believe and in view thereof I am not in the least hurry to offer baptism to the adults." By December 13 the young priest had returned to St. Louis.

Soon after Father Lutz’s return, the Baptists were making formal proposals to the Secretary of War to establish a mission among the Kaws. However, the Methodist Episcopal Church was the first Protestant denomination to actually begin work among the Kansas tribe.

On December 19, 1830, Methodist William Johnson came to a point on the north side of the Kansas River seven miles upstream from present-day Lawrence. Here he ". . . opened a school in a room which the agent invited me to occupy; but for three months the weather was so extraordinarily cold that I did but little, there being but few children in a situation to attend school."

By 1832 William Johnson withdrew from the Kansas River school having accomplished very little with the Kaws. Many obstacles prevented progress. The largest Kaw villages were located several miles west of Johnson’s school and the chiefs of these villages would not let their young people attend the Methodist school.

The language barrier was formidable and the Kaws’ poverty extreme. And attendance was severely hampered by the tribe’s tradition of leaving their Kansas River villages twice a year for several weeks at a time to hunt buffalo on the plains.

Another barrier dogging the Kaw missionaries was the hostility of the government agents. "These theological gentry," wrote Kaw subagent Marston Clark in 1833, "sap the foundations of our Republican Institutions, [and are] only interested in patronage, power and money."

In September 1835 William Johnson returned to work with the Kanzas. This time he set up residence and built a school near a Kaw Village on Mission Creek, located a few miles west of present-day Topeka.

In June 1836 William wrote to his brother, Thomas Johnson, superintendent of the Shawnee Mission, that ". . . in all their worship there [was] no confession of sin or knowledge of a Saviour. If they only knew Jesus and would worship in His name with the same promptness that they attend to their own ceremonies, they would doubtless be a happy people."

Nevertheless, the Methodists appeared to be making some inroads among the Kaws until irruptions of smallpox in 1839 and, subsequently, a series of bloody encounters between the Kaws and their traditional enemies, the Pawnees. William Johnson wrote in December 1840 that the situation "was paralyzing all our efforts."

In response, the Methodists began to remove Kanza children from their villages to educate them at the Shawnee Mission near present-day Kansas City For this purpose, Thomas Johnson obtained $10,000 from the Methodist Missionary Board in New York.

In the spring of 1841, while escorting eleven Kanza boys to the Shawnee Mission, William Johnson became critically ill. He never recovered, dying in April, 1842. The Kaw boys were returned to their villages, and several died soon after their arrival home.

Following these deaths, Hard Chief, a principal chief, would not allow any more Kaw children to go with the Methodists because, he said, "They at the mission smelled the big knife so much that when they came back to the tribe they soon died."

Two more efforts were made by the Methodists to establish a missionary presence at the Mission Creek site. Both ended in dismal failure, the last effort being abandoned in 1846.

Now, in the Spring of 1851, at the new Kaw Mission in Council Grove, after a five-year hiatus, the Methodists prepared to try again. Perhaps here, in this beautiful stone building, Kaw intransigence would be finally overcome and "civilization successfully brought to the savages."

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