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From boarding school to museum, Shawnee Indian Mission seeped in history

The Shawnee Indian Mission draws history fans to the grounds, including groups of schoolchildren.
The Shawnee Indian Mission draws history fans to the grounds, including groups of schoolchildren. File photo

The Rev. Thomas Johnson may not be a household name, but residents of Johnson County, patrons of the Shawnee Mission School District and those in the Shawnee Mission U.S. Postal area are beholden to him.

In 1830, Johnson arrived in unorganized Kansas Territory as a missionary at the behest of Shawnee Indian Chief Fish, who wanted a training school for Native American children. Fish was born William Jackson, then adopted and renamed by the Shawnee, said historian John Forbes.

Today the Shawnee Indian Mission and its collections are owned by the Kansas State Historical Society. Fairway is in charge of its day-to-day operation and the Shawnee Indian Mission Foundation runs its fundraising activities. The Mission, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968, has a rich history.

“It is a very valuable property,” said Kathy Gates, president of the Foundation, which is seeking a strategic plan with sustainability as the ultimate goal.

“The Mission will look like it was, but be environmentally correct,” Gates said. “We will lower the carbon footprint.”

The roots of the Mission

Johnson, a Southern Methodist minister, and his bride first established a day school in what is now Turner, Kansas, before Johnson convinced the Missionary Society of the need for a boarding school. Building began in 1839 in what is present day Fairway, with funds allocated by the Missionary Society and the U.S. government.

The school opened in 1839 with one building. Two more were added by 1845. Those three buildings remain today, with two furnished. The mission initially enclosed 400 of the 2,000 acres granted by the Shawnee, with the tribe providing the rails for the enclosure.

Crops were grown to help the school become self-sufficient and more land was tilled each year. Students farmed, sewed, cooked and assumed many other chores to lighten the cost of their support. The Annals of the Shawnee Methodist Mission from 1939 provides a record of expenses, student census, the missionaries and curriculum. The Mission clothed the children and boarded most of them at a cost of about $100 each.

Tuition per child varied from year to year and enrollment at one time reached about 200 students, including non-tribal children who attended. Most children were Shawnee or Delaware but other tribes were represented as well. The school was for years an outpost of civilization the frontier of the West, with the Santa Fe and Oregon trails passing near its doors.

Unlike some American Indian schools, the Shawnee school did not strive to separate the children from their families and culture, although students were required to learn English. The children and young adults learned skills to serve them in the larger world, said local Mission historian David Boutrus.

According to the Kansas Historical Society, the students ranged in age from 5 to 22. Boys learned trades such as running a grist mill, a lumber yard and blacksmithing.

Girls learned spinning, cooking, weaving and sewing.

A student’s typical day would start at 5 a.m. with light work until 7 a.m. Classes started at 9 a.m. and ended when homework wrapped up at 8 p.m. After 30 minutes of recreation, students returned to their dorms.

The Rev. Nathan Scarritt established the short-lived Western Academy at the Mission in 1848 to teach the classics including Latin and Greek.

From school to historic treasure

The U.S. government closed the school in 1862 during the Civil War and it became a billet for Union Troops.

Johnson, who was revered by some and reviled by others, was murdered at his home in Missouri in 1865. Whether his death was caused by a robbery gone bad or was revenge for signing a loyalty oath to the Union during the Civil War remains unknown. The same year, the Mission property was deeded to the Johnson family.

The property was divided and sold several times, including to businesswoman Barbara Bescher Kemp, who bought it in 1912 for $3,000 to refurbish as a resort. She failed to do so, and in 1927 the State of Kansas bought it through eminent domain.

The three-way partnership of the state, Fairway and the Shawnee Historical Society has proven to be successful. Attendance has consistently outpaced that of most other state historic sites, leaders say.

Nathan Nogelmeier, city administrator of Fairway, mayor Melanie Hepperly and former Mayor Jerry Wiley were concerned by Kansas budget cuts and put together the current agreement to sustain the property, as well as keep it open throughout the year.

Jennifer Laughlin, the site administrator, is an employee of Fairway. Minor repairs are done by the city and major repairs by the state. Under this 2016 arrangement the Mission is open for tours, day camps and history programs.

School field trips include Trails through the Mission, a fourth-grade program. Children learn about the history of the site and the era in which it existed. They also visit the five gardens planted by local Master Gardeners.

Hours and events can be found on the web. Shawnee Indian Mission is located at 3403 West 53rd St., Fairway, Kansas.

The 180th celebration of the opening of the first mission school will be celebrated Oct. 11-13 at the annual Fall Festival. It will include arts and crafts, wagon rides, Native American dancing, historical reenactments and music. The festival originated 34 years ago under the auspices of the Friends of the Shawnee Indian Mission.