Digging Topeka

05 topeka nameLinda Burton posting from Topeka, Kansas – “It is novel, of Indian origin, and euphonious of sound.” Rev S Y Lum is purported to have said that about the word “Topeka” when he proposed it for the city’s name on January 1, 1855. He also claimed it was “a name not found in the list of post offices of the United States, nor in any lexicon of the English language.” Fry W Giles, one of the founders of Topeka, recorded that the founders liked the name – “since it is composed of three consonants 05 skyline 3alternating with three vowels, it is easy to pronounce.” It was adopted unanimously the next day. Topeka. I was in track-down mode, looking for the name origin of the city. Little did I suspect that potatoes would be part of the story I found. John Dunbar, a professor at Washburn University in the 1870’s, wrote that the name “Topeka” is composed of three words common in the languages of the Iowa, Omaha, and Kansa Indians; “to” means potato, “pe” means good, and “okae” means to dig. He believed that the word Topeka literally means “a good place to dig potatoes.” To dig potatoes? I had to dig deeper. Who originally used the name? Do potatoes really grow around here? I learned that Missionary Johnston 05 wagon campLykins drew a map in 1849 while living at the Potawatomi Baptist Mission and used the word “Topeka” as the name of the Smoky Hill fork of the Kansas River. His map was published in 1853; likely the city founders had seen it when they named Topeka in 1855. And I found much written about the “Psoralea esculenta” or prairie potato, by explorers and settlers crossing the Kansas River and heading west. Like John Fremont, who led multiple surveying expeditions through western territories.

05 freemont jIn the 1840’s John Fremont (with Kit Carson as his guide) mapped the land along the Oregon Trail for the government. He had scientists in his party who helped him carefully record scientific names for the flora and fauna they saw as well as recording the survey descriptions of the place where the specimen was found. On June 4, 1843 (170 years ago) he wrote in his journal: “We met here a small party of Kansas and Delaware Indians, the later returning from a hunting and trapping expedition on the upper waters of the river (Kansas River) and on the heights above were 5 or 6 Kansas women, engaged in digging prairie potatoes (Psoralea esculenta).” (Fremont used the scientific names for the plants he mentioned in his journals.)

05 breadrootMany other travelers and explorers on the trail to Oregon or California described this plant and its importance in the diets of native people living on the prairie, and modern biologists corroborate their descriptions of the plant. The Psoralea esculenta is not the same as an Irish potato; sometimes called “white apple” or “Indian bread root,” it is oval shaped and about three inches in circumference; the interior is a white pulpy substance much like a turnip in taste. It generally grows at a depth of three to four inches in the soils of hillsides, and can still be found in undisturbed native grasslands throughout the Great Plains. The plant appears in May and blooms in June; it can be harvested into July. Pretty good evidence that people were “digging potatoes” in this area long ago, I’d say. So what led to the actual settlement that is now Topeka, a city of 127,473 (US 2010 Census) and the capital of Kansas?

05 wagon paintingIt began as a ferry crossing on the Kansas River; established by three Indian sisters married to the French Canadian Pappan brothers; it was known as Pappan’s Ferry. Wagon trains making their way west from Independence, Missouri found it a reliable spot to cross, though little else was there through the 1840’s. In the early 1850’s, traffic along the Oregon Trail was supplemented by trade on a new military road stretching from Fort Leavenworth to the newly established Fort Riley to the west. It was 1854 when nine men established the Topeka Town Association – among them was Cyrus K 05 hollidayHolliday, an “idea man” who would become mayor of Topeka and founder of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. Topeka was laid out as one of the Free-State towns after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and opened new lands for settlement. It effectively repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise by allowing settlers to determine whether they would allow slavery.

05 bleedingThe first organized immigration to Kansas Territory was by citizens of slave states;  pro-slavery settlements were established at Leavenworth and Atchison. At the same time, several anti-slavery organizations organized to establish Free-State settlements further into the territory, in Topeka, 05 bk coverManhattan, and Lawrence. “Bleeding Kansas” became the fitting name for the territory over the next years as pro-slavery and free-soilers fought to establish control; hostilities raged until the violence ended in 1859.

The pros-slavery group wrote a constitution favoring slavery, but Kansas voters rejected it. A shift in the legislature occurred and anti-slavery citizens took charge. Pro-slavery laws were repealed and a constitution forbidding slavery was written. Kansas voters approved this constitution and asked the United States Congress for statehood. In interesting political turns, it wasn’t until after several Southern states had left the Union (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana) that Kansas was admitted as the 34th state on January 29, 1861.

The first territorial legislature met at the Shawnee Mission at Fort Leavenworth in 1854. During the years of turmoil and controversy, Lecompton was recognized as territorial capital; when Kansas became a state Topeka became its capital. In 1862 Cyrus Holliday (remember the “idea man”?) donated land for the construction of a capitol building; when the Civil War ended the city began to experience growth and prosperity. By the late 1860’s Topeka was a 05 cabincommercial hub providing many Victorian-era comforts; steamboats docked at the landing depositing meat, lumber and flour; they returned east with corn, wheat, and potatoes. Yes, potatoes.

I got a glimpse of Topeka’s early years at Old Prairie Town today, there’s an 1854 replica log cabin with blacksmith shop and an 1870’s Victorian Prairie Mansion; I wandered brick-paved sidewalks from the schoolhouse to the general store, and I 05 victoriansat and watched the roses bloom in the Botanical Gardens. I also drove the brick-paved tree-lined streets of Potwin Place, a neighborhood of homes dating back to the 1880’s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And since it’s June, and almost harvest time, I plan to head out onto the grasslands in a day or so to look for the Psoralea esculenta plant; I’ve always loved potatoes.