Key to Kansas
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Immigration to Kansas

The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged settlers to move to Kansas. The act gave 160 acres of federal land to anyone who paid a fee of ten dollars and lived on the land for five years. With the passage of this act, and with the railroads providing transportation, the population in Kansas grew rapidly during the 1870s and 1880s. 

Immigrants from the eastern United States and Europe came to Kansas in search of a better life. The abundance of cheap open land and freedom from religious persecution encouraged many groups to come to Kansas. German Mennonites emigrated from Russia. They settled in south central Kansas and established farm communities such as Hillsboro, Goessel, Inman and Buhler. They brought with them a variety of wheat called Turkey Red. This wheat was planted in the fall and harvested in the earlier summer. It soon became the top agricultural crop in Kansas. Kansas remains one of the top wheat producing states in the country today.

Other European ethnic groups also immigrated to Kansas during this time. The Swedish settled in the Lindsborg area. English and German Catholics established settlements in Victoria, Catherine and Liebenthal. These immigrants built many impressive churches during this era. One of the more famous is St. Fidelis Church in Victoria, shown at right, also known as the Cathedral on the Plains. It is still in use today. 

As farms increased in Kansas, conflicts arose over the use of the land. The invention of barbed wire in the 1860s provided an inexpensive means to fence large portions of land. By 1885, enclosed pastures had replaced much of the open range of the Old West. Sometimes sheep herders and cattle ranchers fought over grazing rights and access to the limited water supply. The Cottonwood Ranch in northwest Kansas is one example of a sheep ranch founded by an English immigrant.

During the early 1880s, many black Southerners migrated to Kansas in search of economic opportunity and to escape the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in the South. They settled in the major cities such as Leavenworth, Topeka and Kansas City. Nicodemus became a well-known African-American settlement in western Kansas. Unfortunately, the conditions for black people in Kansas were not much different than what they left behind in the South. They faced discrimination by most businesses. Their children were not allowed to attend the same schools as white children. They couldn't buy houses in white neighborhoods. It would still be many years before their full rights would be protected by law.

Although immigrants to Kansas were hoping for a better life than what they had previously, they discovered that Kansas was not an easy place to live. In 1874, a grasshopper invasion devastated western Kansas. The late 1880s and early 1890s were a time of very harsh weather. Deadly blizzards struck Kansas in 1886. In 1887, a drought caused many farmers to lose their farms. In addition, the farmers were unhappy with the high interest rates charged on loans by the banks, and the high freight charges by the railroads. Consequently, they formed the Farmers' Alliance and won control of the state legislature in 1890.

The Alliance also helped create the Populist party in Kansas. Populist governors were elected in 1892 and 1896. Limits were placed on the banks' interest rates and railroads' freight charges, as well as other restrictions on large companies. Many people felt the Populists were neither well enough educated nor experienced enough to run the state government. After the 1892 elections, a dispute arose as to who had a majority in the legislature. The Populists barricaded themselves in the Capitol with weapons to gain control of the legislature, and the Republicans had to break in to take over the building. 

In 1893, forty-four Kansas banks went bankrupt. All of these problems caused many people to question the future of Kansas. William Allen White, a journalist for the Emporia Gazette, wrote against the Populist movement and became nationally known with one of his most famous essays, What's the Matter With Kansas?, published in 1896. As the century ended, the Populist party's popularity began to diminish.

Women also made political gains during this time as they fought to expand their right to vote in Kansas elections. They succeeded in winning the right to vote in city elections in 1887 and, in that same year, Susanna Salter became the first woman mayor of a town in Kansas.

Additional Resources

bulletA first hand account of life in Kansas during this time can be read in Emigrant Life in Kansas, by Percy G. Ebbutt.
bulletLearn more about Nicodemus and African-American migration to Kansas.

Study Guide Questions

  1. Why did so many people emigrate to Kansas during this period?
  2. What was so important about the German Mennonite migration to Kansas?
  3. How did the use of the land change during this period?
  4. What conditions adversely affected farmers in the late 1800s?
  5. What was the Populist movement and what impact did it have on Kansas government during the 1890s?

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