Exploring Native American History in Johnson County

Group of Native Americans in the early 1900s

Four Native Americans meet with six visitors and a dog (courtesy of the Lenexa Historical Society).

November is Native American Heritage Month. Reminders of Native Americans’ legacy are abundant in Johnson County.

School districts and buildings, streets, neighborhoods and cities are adorned with dozens of tribal names, Indian words and famous chiefs or their spouses.

The most popular tribal name in Johnson County is Shawnee, as the county was created on reservation land once belonging to the Shawnee tribe.

The City of Shawnee had three name changes in its history, beginning with Gum Springs, then later Shawneetown and finally shortened to Shawnee in honor of the Indian tribe.

Chief Charles Bluejacket, a historically important Shawnee Indian chief, Methodist minister, prosperous farmer and landowner, served as the official interpreter in treaty negotiations between the tribe and the federal government. In Shawnee’s Herman Laird Park, a life-size bronze statue depicting Bluejacket with two of his 23 children memorializes the historic figure.

The Shawnee Indian Cemetery, also known as Bluejacket Cemetery, is located near 59th Terrace and Nieman Road. The City of Shawnee also has Bluejacket Street, which touches parts of Lenexa and various stretches of Overland Park, along with Bluejacket-Flint Elementary School.

Another statue honors the namesake of Lenexa. The city’s name is derived from the name of Shawnee Chief Thomas Blackhoof’s wife, who was variously recorded on census records as Na-Nex-Se and Len-Ag-See. There’s a statue of the city’s namesake at the Lenexa City Center. A small park named after her is located at 83rd Terrace and Lackman Road. Black Hoof Park is located at 9053 Monticello Road. (Note: Research reveals both Blackhoof and Black Hoof as the spelling of the chief’s name.)

Olathe, too, has a historic connection to Native Americans, derived from a Shawnee word understood to mean “beautiful.” The city’s history includes Chief Black Bob, a chief of the Hathawekela division of the Shawnee tribe and head of the Black Bob Reservation, or Black Bob Reserve. Black Bob Park, Black Bob Road and Black Bob Elementary School all honor him.

Native American heritage in eastern Kansas and the Kansa tribe

Statue of Native American woman, Na-Nex-Se

Lenexa was named for Na-Nex-Se, wife of Shawnee Chief Thomas Blackhoof. Lenexa City Center features a statue of her in recognizing the city's namesake.

Native Americans have left their mark in other words, deeds and history. Indian, the word, is used in several school names along with a few streets and some subdivisions. For instance, Indian Creek snakes through part of Johnson County.

The legacy started in the 1820s and 1830s when several Native American tribes were relocated to the designated “Indian Territory” west of the newly formed state of Missouri. The Shawnee tribe of Ohio and Missouri joined the migration in 1825 with a treaty setting aside 1.6 million acres in what would become eastern Kansas, including Johnson County and stretching to Topeka.

“The Shawnee way of life was already changing when they arrived ... Some were developing settled farming practices and had embraced Christianity. Others resisted these changes and tried to follow the ways of their ancestors,” according to Johnson County, Kansas: A Pictorial History, 1825-2005.

Establishing themselves along the banks of the Kansas River and nearby creeks, including Bull and Mill creeks, the Shawnee were skillful traders, hunters and farmers. They also produced the first newspaper in the Indian Territory and in Kansas before statehood. The first printing press was established by Baptist missionary Jotham Meeker and used an alphabet for the Shawnee language to print religious texts and the Siwinowe Kesibwi (Shawnee Sun) from 1835 to 1842.

By 1846, the territory in what would become eastern Kansas was home to at least 19 Indian reservations, including the Shawnee, Cherokee, Delaware, Wyandot, Ottawa, Wea, Miami, Pottawatomie, Chippewa, Quapaw, Osage and Kickapoo, to name a few.

The Kansa tribe also had a reservation adjoining the Shawnee reservation. Kansas was named after the Kansas River, which was named after the Kansa tribe who lived along its banks. Kansa is generally believed to be from the Sioux Indian word for “south wind people” or “people of the wind.”

The Kansas-Nebraska Act and its effects on the region

Native American mission two-level building in the early 1900s

The Shawnee Indian Methodist Mission's North building in 1940, located in what is now Fairway and designated as a National Historic Landmark.

The Kansas Territory was established by the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, opening up the new territories for settlement after a new treaty was signed with the Shawnee, reducing their reservation to 200,000 acres. The following year, Johnson County was created as one of the original 33 counties, founded on Aug. 25 by the Legislative Act of 1855 in the Territory of Kansas. Statehood came six years later.

As part of the nation’s westward movement, the federal government made it easy for white settlers to acquire land in Johnson County by making the Shawnee reservation private land. After the privatization of their reservation, some Shawnee left Kansas for new land in the new Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), while others took an offer of 200 acres to each Shawnee “man, woman and child,” and built their homes in Johnson County among the new white settlers.

Shawnee Indian Chief Charles Tucker and his wife, Mary, were among the members of his tribe to remain and farm in Johnson County, accepting the lifestyle of new settlers. The Atlas Map of Johnson County, Kansas (1874) noted their efforts to assimilate: “Messrs. Tucker, Bluejacket, and other leading Shawnee had fine farms, good houses, lived well, dressed well, gave their children the best education attainable and were considered equals in all respects of the best classes of whites.”

While Bluejacket, Tucker and other chiefs accepted changes encouraged by missionaries and allotment treaties, Chief Black Bob and his small tribe did not, refusing to farm their 33,000 acres in the southeastern corner of Johnson County and living a nomadic lifestyle.

The nearly 40-year residence of the Shawnee came to an end by 1879 when federal legislation opened the remaining unallotted land of the Shawnee reservation for settlement. The final members of the Black Bob Band and many other Shawnee sold or abandoned their property, moving to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.

The Blackfeather Farm in Stilwell includes a historic stone house on land associated with the Shawnee Indians. The original land patent, which once belonged to the Black Bob Band, was awarded to To Wah Pea and her heirs, including Joseph and Johnson Blackfeather, in 1885. The property is privately owned.

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