Where slaves once found freedom, Quindaro Ruins in Kansas City, Kan., await new life

Quindaro Ruins a story of freedom, unity, community

Supporters want the ruins near the Missouri River to be designated a National Historic Landmark. They hope to attract more tourists and revive the surrounding area in northern Kansas City, Kan.
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Supporters want the ruins near the Missouri River to be designated a National Historic Landmark. They hope to attract more tourists and revive the surrounding area in northern Kansas City, Kan.

Ice blanketed the Missouri River the day Doc Harris arrived along its north bank in Parkville intent on fleeing slavery for freedom.

According to family lore, several Missouri slave families had banded together to make a run for Quindaro, a free-state port across the river in Kansas. Because of Quindaro’s abolitionist reputation, armed slave catchers often patrolled the area looking for runaways they could haul back to masters for a price.

But Harris’ group had a plan for avoiding them.

That escape story is just one reason why Harris’ great-great-great-grandson appreciates Quindaro and thinks, like many others, that more should be done to preserve its history and the old ruins that still exist on an overgrown hillside in northern Kansas City, Kan.

“Quindaro was about something,” Herbert Harris, 62, said recently, after reciting family stories for researchers collecting oral histories on Quindaro. “I think that history is something to be cherished by our kids. At this stage in the game, they don’t know that much about (it).”

Wyandot Indians and white abolitionists, settlers, business owners and land speculators helped the city boom starting in 1857, when it materialized in Kansas territory along the south bank of the Missouri River, near where 27th Street dead-ends today.

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Though best known for its Bleeding Kansas and Underground Railroad legacies, Quindaro also played a role in the women’s rights movement before becoming home to many freed slaves, their offspring and the first African-American university west of the Mississippi River. And it also remains special today for Native American tribes once forced to relocate to Kansas territory, as well as for European immigrants who traveled to Kansas looking for fresh starts.

“It is a fantastic story that we have to find a better way to tell,” said Bridgette Jobe, executive director of the Kansas City, Kan., Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The Quindaro Ruins are the second-most requested history-related tour in Wyandotte County, after only the Strawberry Hill Museum, she said.

Yet the ruins have no visitors center. No interpretive signs. No walking trails. The gate to the overlook pavilion usually is padlocked. Thick brush and young trees hide many of the old building foundations that archaeologists uncovered in the 1980s, as a landfill company prepared to bury the terrain in trash before extensive community outrage thwarted those plans.

Today, thousands of shards of Quindaro artifacts culled from the site are hidden in storage two counties away, in Topeka.

For many years, the chances of turning Quindaro into an acclaimed tourist venue have seemed even more distant.

“There are lots of people who have visions of what that site could be,” said Gordon Criswell, assistant county administrator for the Unified Government, one of many entities involved in the Quindaro discussion and owner of some of the old townsite terrain. “The challenge has been getting all those voices to come to consensus about what, how and when....”

The oral history project, a collaboration of the Kansas City, Kan., Public Library and the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, is part of a growing momentum to finally get something done about a site many call a treasure or even a gold mine — albeit one that borders an impoverished neighborhood marred by crime, empty lots and deteriorating buildings.

Committees have been meeting to discuss visions for the turning the site into a tourist mecca while also, ideally, jump-starting an area revitalization. Quindaro history supporters have been lining up speakers for a symposium being planned for April 2018 on many facets of Quindaro’s impact. And a longtime Quindaro champion has launched a campaign to get the site named a National Historic Landmark, a much rarer accolade with more meaning than its current status on the National Register of Historic Places.

If everyone embraces what Quindaro taught people, perhaps success finally can be achieved, said the Rev. Stacy Evans, a history buff and African Methodist Episcopal Church pastor who envisions a state-of-the art interpretative center someday greeting schoolchildren and others to the ruins area, most of which is owned by the Western University Association and the AME Church.

“I think the people that lived here (in the mid-1800s) had a good idea of what living in harmony was about in a very early time when even the country didn’t have a good grip on it,” said Evans, who helped excavate part of the ruins decades ago. “I also think they were living under some pretty adverse conditions… They seem to have pulled together, to have pulled this town together.… There were black people and Native American people and European people.

“I don’t think there was anything like it anywhere else in this area.”

Six years a city

Before the lumber mill arrived and first hotel appeared, Native Americans owned the hillside terrain that would become Quindaro.

The Wyandots moved into the area after being forced west from Ohio in 1843 by a federal government that had promised them new lands but never delivered. Instead, the Wyandots purchased land from the Delaware, who had been forced west ahead of them.

Passage of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed new states to decide by popular vote whether to allow or prohibit slavery, prompted a rush of white settlers into the territory. Pro-slavery Missourians gained control of Atchison, Leavenworth and other border areas. That forced free-staters to travel deeper west, to places like Lawrence and Topeka, to create strongholds.

The free-staters, underdogs in the early years of the Kansas battle, needed a safe entry port. When Lawrence residents surveyed the Missouri River for one, they found a good site south of Parkville with deep water running near a natural rock shelf perfect for docking steamboats.

Abelard Guthrie, a white man who lived in the area with his Wyandot wife, Nancy Quindaro Brown Guthrie, joined a town-building coalition that included Lawrence residents with ties to the New England Emigrant Aid Company, a financial and resource supporter of free-state efforts.

Quindaro — named after Guthrie’s wife — sprouted rapidly after groundbreaking on Jan. 1, 1857. Within a year, it boasted 800 residents, two hotels, four groceries, a hardware store, dry goods stores, meat markets, drugstores, banks, blacksmith shops, churches, a Literary Society, doctors, lawyers, carpenters and others.

Back then, the city even had a newspaper. Its assistant editor, Clarina Nichols, would become a famous lecturer and women’s rights leader.

Other newspapers fed the population flow by touting Kansas territory for its “fertile and beautiful prairies.”

“There is a farm here for every one who will come and take possession, a soil whose richness is unsurpassed in the country, a climate unequaled, and a population who are brave, generour (sic) and hospitable,” said a March 17, 1857, article in the Hillsdale (Mich.) Standard. “So come on where there is room enough and to spare.”

The article called Quindaro a great investment opportunity and bragged that a 30-mile road soon would be built to Lawrence.

Though Kansas’ role in the Underground Railroad dates to the early 1850s, it’s unclear when the first freedom-seeking slaves arrived in Quindaro.

Some reportedly sneaked across the river at night aboard the Parkville-Quindaro ferry. When Missourians found out, they sank the craft.

Residents hid runaway slaves until they could be moved “to the comparative safety of the interior,” according to published recollections from Nichols, the newspaperwoman. She described one “freedom seeker” who hid in an empty Quindaro cistern all night so slave hunters wouldn’t find her.

Benjamin Franklin Mudge, a geologist who later became a Kansas State University professor, wrote in an 1862 letter to his brother about taking in four “contrabands” — a woman and her three children. “As their master lived almost in sight across the river he soon learned where they were,” Mudge wrote.

Late one night, loud knocking awakened him. Without opening his door, he asked three men outside what they wanted. They demanded the slave family. Mudge refused.

“We will have them for we’ve got men enough to tear the house down, so you had better let them go,” one said.

“That makes no difference,” Mudge answered. “I am well armed and ready for you. My 2 two boys are here to help me.”

The men eventually left, according to Mudge’s letter, which the Kansas Historical Society published in 1990.

Descendants of Doc Harris aren’t positive what year he fled Missouri. It could have been as late as 1865, Herbert Harris said.

According to stories passed down through generations, at least three extended families had decided to escape together by walking across the frozen Missouri River.

To avoid slave hunters, they took wagons to the river under the guise that they were going to harvest blocks of ice. Normally, ice gatherers wrapped blocks in corn husks before taking the ice back to their master’s land to be stored in the ground. The ice would last so long it helped cool food into the summer.

But this day, the slaves used the corn husks to cover relatives hiding in the wagons.

The ruse worked. And rather than migrate farther west, the families made their homes in the Quindaro area.

Roughly a decade later, 1875 Kansas census takers recorded nearly 600 African-Americans — 256 of them Missouri-born — among Quindaro’s 1,970 residents, a community so diverse that birthplaces included 30 U.S. states, the Indian territories, Germany, Ireland and a dozen other countries.

That census list included a 34-year-old Doc Harris, his wife, Emma, and their five children. Both adults had been born into Missouri slavery. All five children had been born into Kansas freedom.

“It is very interesting and exciting family history,” said Herbert Harris, who describes his ancestors as “change agents” who refused to submit to enslaved lives.

As a city, Quindaro survived only six years past its 1857 founding.

The initial building boom fizzled after a financial panic pulled money from westward expansion in the late 1850s. Kansas’ statehood in 1861 ended the free-state vs. slave-state battle, the reason Quindaro started. That statehood also helped launch the Civil War, which pulled away many young Quindaro men to fight for the Union, often after they moved their families farther from Missouri for safety.

The state Legislature pulled the city’s incorporation in 1862. Within a few years, Quindaro’s commercial heart sat mostly abandoned. Yet as a community, Quindaro continue to grow, especially up along the bluffs. Churches, a school, a university and eventually an African-American hospital blossomed there.

It’s fitting, Harris said, that so many gained their freedom and education in Quindaro, which in the Wyandot language means “bundle of sticks.” Diverse people working together made Quindaro a place for many to improve their lives.

“It’s the old adage, you know,” Harris said. “The idea that once you’ve reached where you wanted, a place that you know is a good place, and not everybody is there, you reach back and help somebody get there.

“That’s what Quindaro was about. The unity of a bundle of sticks.”

Hopes for future

Evans, the pastor of Allen Chapel AME Church in Quindaro, recently stood at the Quindaro Ruins overlook, built in 2008, and pointed out the route of the old Kansas Avenue all the way down to the Missouri River.

No ruins are visible from the overlook. But in a hidden clearing below, the facade of the old brewery still stands. And if you know where to look, other foundations can be visited.

When Evans arrived eight years ago to pastor the oldest AME congregation in Quindaro, longtime church member Emanuel Northern grabbed a long blade to hack through the undergrowth as he led Evans down the hillside past some of the foundations and over to the Old Quindaro Cemetery, still used as a burial ground on a hill overlooking the Missouri River. Northern was nearing 80 years old then, and he implored her to carry the torch for a dying generation, the last that still remembered the old university, which closed during World War II.

Evans feels impatient about carrying out that challenge. She wants the past to become more visible in the near future.

A trails system with interpretive signage would cost about $4 million done right, she said. A state-of-the-art visitors’ center would run perhaps $16 million.

“I am interested in it being safe and fun and informative and educational to the best degree,” she said. “I am also looking to create the revenue source that will maintain it and sustain it over the years. I think because … we own the majority of the property, it is our responsibility to make it the best for all the so-called stakeholders.”

She’d like to see some of the artifacts now stored in Topeka displayed some day in Quindaro.

Archaeology students at Washburn University recently studied some of those roughly 90,000 artifacts, which were uncovered in the 1980s, when excavation work pinpointed the remains of 22 buildings, including the newspaper office, retail stores and a hotel. The students dated some platters and bowls, according to a Kansas Preservation article about the work. And they learned from an old trash pile that the hotel guests liked beef, canned French oysters and “an abundance of wine and champagne.”

The Kansas Historical Society acquired the artifacts about a dozen years ago to protect them for future research, said State Archaeologist Robert Hoard, one of many parties also interested in seeing the site improved for history’s sake.

About 15 months ago, longtime Quindaro champion Marvin Robinson II shipped a letter and heavy box of supporting documents to U.S. Department of Interior officials that asked what it would take to get the ruins designated as a National Historic Landmark, a title only 26 Kansas locations currently claim.

Such a title could help spur tourism and perhaps help with funding, he figured.

“It boggles my mind that we haven’t been able to move this thing further along,” he said.

The return letter finally arrived in January. It offered support for the idea plus technical assistance from the National Park Service. But it also called the task “no small matter.”

Applicants would need to show Quindaro’s “national significance,” which could require telling the region’s larger story and expanding the discussion to include Native America and post-statehood periods, the five-page letter said. It recommended considerable additional research.

“It’s enormous,” Robinson said of the work required. “But at least it gave us a road map.”

Copies of the letter went to 16 other people — part of the current “bundle of sticks” now working to give Quindaro a brighter future.

“Before the country got it together, this little area had it together,” Evans said. “That to me is the beauty of it.”

Wendat, Wyandot, Wyandotte

Members of today’s Wyandot Nation of Kansas and the separate Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma are descendants of the nearly 700 Wyandot people who relocated to the Kansas City area from Ohio in 1843.

The last Native American tribe to be moved from east of the Mississippi, the Wyandot had expected to live on land promised by the U.S. government. When that land never materialized, the Wyandot bought land from the Delaware in what became Wyandotte County.

They trace their roots to the Wendat Confederacy, which formed in the mid-1600s in what became Canada. Over centuries of forced movement, the members gradually split into what today are four distinct tribal entities. The others are the Wyandot of Anderdon Nation in Michigan and the Huron Wendat of Wendake in Quebec, Canada.

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