JULY 24, 2001

by Ron Parks

They Worked Well on the Farm

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

In July 1851 the corn crop was thriving on the Kaw Mission farm. The rains had been timely and, according to Kaw Mission teacher Thomas Huffaker, the Kaw boys attending the school "worked well on the farm."

The corn was growing on one hundred acres of land the Methodists had fenced and plowed earlier in the spring on the east side of the Neosho River east and northeast of the Kaw Mission.

To mold the young Kaws into educated farmers in fulfillment of the Jeffersonian ideal required that the students be taught how to farm like white people. The Methodists contracted with H. W. Webster to take charge of the farm and provide the Kaw boys with instruction in agriculture. Webster lived with his wife in the Kaw Mission as did Thomas Huffaker.

Horticulture was not alien to the Kaws. For generations Kaw women had raised corn as well as beans, pumpkins, squash, potatoes, and melons. In 1838, a decade before the Kaws came to the Council Grove area, agent Richard Cummins reported that 300 acres were under cultivation and "a few women were beginning to use the plough." Up to this time women wielded hoes to plant the seeds and cultivate the crops.

Several times in 1844 the Kaws planted corn and other vegetables, only to see the seeds washed away in a succession of horrific floods that at their height exceeded the 1951 flood.

The agricultural revolution the Methodists and the government attempted to introduce was both social, technological, and economic. First, Kaw men were expected to do what had been heretofore women's work. Secondly, the plow supplanted the hoe. And finally, it was a novelty that the Kaws were expected sell their corn and vegetables rather than consume their crops or share with other tribes.

William E. Unrau, author of The Kansa Indians, described the "considerable confusion and concern when government authorities learned in 1839 that the Kaws were sharing their very limited corn supply with 'most any tribe' that asked for it." Such gift-giving was a deeply embedded practice in the Kaw culture as it was in other Indian tribes.

The successful corn crop on the Kaw Mission farm in1851 had far-ranging consequences for the practice of agriculture in this region. John Maloy, author of Chronicles of Morris County, analyzed the impact of the successful Kaw Mission crop:

"When the first settlement was made in our county during the years 1848, 1849, and 1850, it was believed that our large American corn could not be produced on account of the severe drouths that prevailed all over this portion of the "Great American Desert."

There was no corn planted until the farm for the benefit of the "Kaw School" was opened, in 1851. This being a good crop season, and there being an unusual rain-fall that year, the yield was abundant. The success that attended this venture induced others to attempt the growing of corn."

That the Neosho Valley land could produce an abundant crop was clearly demonstrated in 1851; however, how much was actually harvested is not so clear. In his quarterly report of January 1852, Thomas Johnson, superintendent of both the Shawnee Mission and the Kaw Mission, paints a rather bleak picture of Kaw ineptitude and lack of self-restraint:

"They [the Kaws] stole nearly all our potatoes when they were only about half-grown, and most of the garden vegetables. They then commenced stealing the green corn & I cannot tell how much of the crop they took though it was considerable."

Johnson's description underscores the difficulty of looking through the lense of one's own culture at the motives and actions of those from a radically different culture. The question vexing the whites was how on one hand could the Kaws be generous to a fault in giving away their corn and on the other hand be such incorrigible thieves?

The answers are speculative. For one, while living on the Neosho Valley Reservation the Kaw people were often stalked by hunger. Additionally, whereas the precepts of property boundaries and individual ownership have long been lofty and inviolable principles in the Anglo-American mind, these ideals were mostly alien to the Indians.

That the Kaws bitterly resented the whites is indisputable. While the whites were outraged by the Kaws' acts of petty thievery, they seemed incognizant of their own acts of massive thievery in illegally squatting on Kaw lands. Though opaque to the whites' view of themselves, this hypocrisy was crystal clear to the Kaws.

Three years after the Kaw Mission school closed its doors to the Indians, the Kaws' criticism of the whites expanded to include Thomas Huffaker and the management of the Kaw Mission farm.

Speaking with the Indian Commissioner James W. Denver in late July, 1857, Kaw chiefs Hard Hart, White Hair, and The Wolf said Huffaker was a "bad missionary" and a teacher "who didn't teach anything." The three Kaw leaders charged Huffaker with forcing fifty young Kansa "scholars" to work for him in two fields "the size of Washington" where corn and other crops were raised for sale to the white settlers.

Back to list of Sesquicentennial Articles

Back to Mission Construction

Back to Kaw Mission Today