Facts about Quindaro:
- Groundbreaking: January 1, 1857
- Location: present-day Kansas City, Kansas, Wyandotte County (on the banks of the Missouri River between Kansas City, Missouri and Leavenworth, Kansas)
- Claim to fame: mostly populated by freed blacks; Underground Railroad site
- Newspapers: Quindaro Chindowan newspaper published, co-edited by Clarina Nichols, May 13, 1857 through June 12, 1858
- Black Schools: Quindaro Freedman's School (a black high school, 1857-1865; Freedmen's University, which grew out of and replaced the high school in 1865 and was renamed Western University in 1881 and closed in 1943
- Meaning of the name: Quindaro was a Wyandotte Indian word translating to "bundle of sticks," which the town founders understood to mean strength in numbers and unity
- Townsite abandoned: 1940s-1950s
When Kansas Territory was opened for settlement in 1854, a number of towns sprang up along the Missouri and Kansas Rivers, and each attracted migration and commerce. Some settlements were predominantly proslavery, including Leavenworth, Lecompton, and Atchison, and others were Free-Soil, such as Lawrence, Topeka, and Quindaro. These towns competed with one another to draw people and business to their growing communities and when the struggle to claim Kansas was over, some towns remained and prospered while others crumbled and faded away. The town of Quindaro was among the latter; however, it would not fade away until leaving its mark on the Missouri-Kansas border war and laying the foundation for an African American community that would build and support one of America’s first all-black colleges.
Representing Northeastern abolitionists and land speculators, Charles Robinson, the extralegal governor of the Free-State Kansans and associate of the New England Emigrant Aid Company, searched up and down the Missouri River between Kansas City and Leavenworth on a barge for the best place to build a suitable port town. Once established, the town would serve as the port of entry for Northerners and supporters of the Free-State cause to Kansas Territory, as well as return high profits for the town’s Eastern investors who were the first to buy lots along the riverfront. The place Robinson chose—a natural levy with a level rock ledge and deep water—provided easy and safe portage for steamboats and was said to be the best landing on the Missouri River. On the other hand, the adjacent rugged valley was barely suitable for the planned town.
Robinson sought the aid of the Wyandotte (or Wyandot) Indians’ federal registrar and fellow Free-Stater, Abelard Guthrie, in purchasing that land for the Town of Quindaro Company from the Wyandotte Tribe. Abelard’s wife, Nancy Quindaro Guthrie, was the daughter of a Wyandotte clan chieftain, and the village was named after her. In the Wyandotte Indian language “Quindaro” means, “bundle of sticks,” and the town’s founders interpreted this as a metaphor for strength in numbers, united against the proslavery forces in Kansas Territory.
In the Wyandotte Indian language “Quindaro” means, “bundle of sticks,” and the town’s founders interpreted this as a metaphor for strength in numbers.The town soon thrived as the spring and summer of 1856 brought thousands of new settlers to Kansas Territory. During the peak traveling season, as many as 36 steamboats per week made portage at the Quindaro landing. A steam ferry just north of the town on the opposite bank at Parkville, Missouri, brought immigrants into Kansas, and stagecoaches ran regular routes from Quindaro to Lawrence and Leavenworth. Streets were graded up the valley away from the river landing, and almost overnight the town had a population of 600 people; a newspaper; a four-story, 45-room hotel; a brewery; two churches; dry good stores; the largest sawmill in Kansas; and a lumberyard. Some early investors in the town company easily doubled their money by purchasing and then selling river front lots at exorbitant prices.
The town’s newspaper, the Quindaro Chindowan, co-edited by abolitionist and suffragist Clarina Nichols, expressed antislavery sentiments, urged temperance, and predicted Quindaro would one day become a great center of commerce and culture equal to St. Louis or Cincinnati. The newspaper’s editorials supporting Free Labor and critical of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 gave the town a reputation as a hotbed of abolitionists and as a station on the Underground Railroad. For practical reasons of preserving the peace and maintaining commerce, the Chindowan downplayed the town’s abolitionist views, and at one point the town’s inhabitants invited proslavery sympathizers to inspect the town to demonstrate that they were not harboring fugitive slaves.
Helping slaves escape was a federal crime, and because of the secret nature of the Underground Railroad there is a paucity of written evidence for Quindaro’s role in helping slaves escape from Missouri. In her memoirs, however, Clarina Nichols recounted the town’s role in a few tales of what she described as “emancipation without proclamation.” Oral histories and local lore further support the contention that Quindaro was a way station on the Underground Railroad.
Quindaro had an antebellum free African American community, and some residents of the town, local farmers, and the Wyandotte Indians networked to help slaves escape into Kansas. At times, they confronted slave catchers directly and refused to cooperate in returning runaways to their owners. More often they secretly and quietly fed, hid, and sheltered the escapees on their journey to freedom. The nearby Quindaro-Parkville Ferry is said to have made clandestine night runs, causing the proslavery side to sink it in frustration in 1861. Undeterred in their pursuit of freedom, some of the enslaved people boldly walked across the Missouri River to freedom in Kansas during the unusually cold winter of 1862 when the ice formed a solid sheet.
At times, they confronted slave catchers directly and refused to cooperate in returning runaways to their owners.Quindaro’s dramatic two-year growth spurt came to a halt when the economic depression of the Panic of 1857 began to ripple through the regional economy. Travel through the town slowed to a trickle, merchants no longer offered credit, and the town’s Northeastern investors sued one another when the loans became delinquent and creditors foreclosed on the debts. By 1858, the struggle to possess Kansas for the Free-State cause was over, and Quindaro faced stiff competition from many other Kansas towns for commerce, especially the town of Wyandotte City (present-day Kansas City, Kansas), which became the county seat when Wyandotte County was organized in 1859. The Civil War drew many residents away and the town continued to decline until the winter of 1862, when the state legislature revoked the city’s charter and the 9th Kansas Volunteers, using the town as an outpost, dismantled and burned many of the abandoned buildings for firewood.
In 1862, even before the war was over, Presbyterian Reverend Eben Blachly and his wife, Jane, began educating free blacks and escaped slaves in Quindaro. After the war they continued operating one of the first high schools for young black men. With support from the state of Kansas, the community, and the A.M.E. Church (African Methodist Episcopalian), a group of men, including Eben Blachly, chartered the Quindaro Freedmen’s School on the bluffs above the old Quindaro townsite.
With financial backing from the state and the steady flow of Exodusters into Kansas, the college prospered and became Western University in 1881, the earliest college for African Americans west of the Mississippi River and the only one in Kansas. Western University became nationally known as one of the best in the nation, and its music department was renowned as the preeminent training center for black musicians in the Midwest. Nora Douglas Holt (a singer and composer, and the first African American woman to receive a Master’s degree in the U.S.), Etta Moten Barnett (a composer, singer, actress, and U.S. cultural ambassador to Africa), and Eva Jessye (composer, music director with George Gershwin, and Civil Rights activist) were all graduates of Western University. Additionally, Charles Henry Langston (Langston Hughes’s grandfather) served as principal of the school.
Western University and a new community surrounding the old Quindaro townsite thrived into the early 20th century, and several nearby subdivisions, homes, and parks were built in this era. In 1911, as an indication of their gratitude for his sacrifice, and as a symbol of their faith in education as a means toward progress for African Americans, the citizens of the community and college erected a statue of abolitionist John Brown holding a graduation diploma in his right hand.
See a letter from Abelard Guthrie, one of the Quindaro founders, to James Henry Lane.Because most of its students came from backgrounds of poverty and still faced Jim Crow laws after graduation, the school always struggled to establish an endowment and remain economically viable. The Great Depression was an era of decline and deterioration at the school when the state legislature trimmed funding to a minimum and the A.M.E. withdrew support of the college in 1933 over a political dispute with Kansas’s governor Alf Landon about the appointment of the school’s superintendent. The depletion of male students due to World War II and the national draft marked the final era of the school, and the last graduating class of only six people in 1943 was all female.
After the close of the college in 1944, the Quindaro townsite continued to decline, and the abandoned site became covered by underbrush, partly destroyed by floods, fires, and a series of highway, railroad, and gas pipeline construction projects. By the 1950s, only the remains of a few of the original structures could still be seen. The old town was all but forgotten until the 1980s when a proposed sanitary landfill threatened to destroy the site. Descendants of the community, archeologists, and historians organized to halt the landfill, and portions of the Quindaro townsite were finally placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. Today, the John Brown statue still stands in a memorial plaza and there is a public overlook from which one can view the archeological park and ruins of the old Quindaro town.
Eickhoff, Diane. Revolutionary Heart: The Life of Clarina Nichols and the Pioneering Crusade for Women's Rights. Kansas City, Kansas: Quindaro Press, 2006.
Greenbaum, Susan. The Afro-American Community in Kansas City, Kansas: A History. Kansas City, Kansas: City of Kansas City, Kansas, 1982.
Murray, Orrin McKinley, Sr. The Rise and Fall of Western University. Kansas City, Kansas: self published, 1960.