Friday, August 3, 2012

Shawnee Indian Mission Historic Site

How many times have I driven down Shawnee Mission Parkway in Kansas City, unaware of the name's significance?  Hundreds perhaps?  I laughed at the bumper sticker on the car in front of me:  I brake for Historic Markers.  That is exactly what I do, and it has sent me down a path of discovery, which has delighted and appalled.  History is often ugly, brutal and unfair.

This area of Kansas City is known as Shawnee Mission and, of course, was named after the Shawnee Indian Mission built here in the 1830's.  I spent a morning there last week to walk the grounds and visit the site's  excellent museum.  There is a lot of history here and it took me awhile to absorb.

By the time the Shawnee Indian Mission was built in 1839, the tribe had been pushed further and further west by white settlers who wanted their land.  The Shawnee were Algonquin-speaking people from Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana.  They were one of many tribes who had been coerced into selling their land, signing treaties and ultimately banished under Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act.  Those who tried to fight were overpowered by a growing U.S. army.  Eventually they landed in  the Kansas Territory.  Would they finally be allowed to stay?

It looked promising.  The Reverend Thomas Johnson, a Methodist minister, adopted Thomas Jefferson's original plan to "civilize" the native Indians.  Several sturdy brick buildings were constructed to serve as schools and dormitories for Shawnee children.  His task was to teach them the ways of the white Christian man.  They were forbidden to speak their native language.  They dressed like the settlers and learned to read and write from the Bible.  The boys, however, were also taught skills like blacksmithing and farming.  The girls were taught to sew and clean house.  Perhaps for the time, Johnson's intentions were noble, but all you have to do is see the faces of the children in the picture below, to see it was not working.

I question, too, the Reverend Johnson's real motives.  After all, he owned slaves and offered the mission as a meeting place for the first territorial legislature in 1855, whose proslavery members were fraudulently voted in by Missourians next door.  These beautiful buildings had "government" written all over them.  As early as 1845, Johnson allowed Andrew Reeder, the first territorial governor of Kansas, to locate his office in one of the dorms.

Once the Civil War erupted, the buildings were used to house the Union troops and the Shawnee and their families who now called Kansas "home" were forced once again to move.  They were banished to Oklahoma.

I find it interesting that Johnson County, one of the most affluent counties in Kansas, was named after this man.  Johnson was murdered in 1865.  His death remains a mystery, although it is safe to say when he switched allegiance to the Union, his Southern sympathizers were not too pleased.  This was a bloody time for anyone living along the Kansas-Missouri border.  Savage atrocities took place on both sides:  massacres, theft, arson, rape and lynchings.  So much for the ways of the civilized Christian white man!  The irony here is profound.

Today, in Johnson County, there are several towns named after the Shawnee Indian Mission.  There is Mission, Kansas; Mission Hills, Kansas; Shawnee, Kansas; and Mission Woods, Kansas--all named in honor of a tribe who was never really native to the area or allowed even to stay.

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