Topeka: History

Westward Expansion Targets Kaw River Valley

Two historic nineteenth-century movements combined to create the city of Topeka—one was the antislavery issue and the other was the westward expansion made possible by the railroad, which connected the East with the vast unsettled territory in the West. Before the Kansas frontier was opened by the federal government to settlement, the first people of European descent to live on the site of present-day Topeka were the French-Canadian Pappan brothers. They each married a woman from the Kaw tribe in 1842 and opened a ferry service across the Kaw River. The ferry was temporarily replaced in 1857 when bridge builders ignored warnings from the local Native Americans, who insisted that structures built too close to the Kaw would not be secure against flood waters. The bridge was destroyed in a flood the following year.

Colonel Cyrus K. Holliday, a native of Pennsylvania, came to the Kansas Territory in 1854 with funding from Eastern investors to build a railroad. Holliday and a few pioneers had walked 45 miles from Kansas City to Lawrence, where Holliday approached Dr. Charles Robinson, agent of the New England Emigrant Aid Company, an antislavery organization, about his plan. Then Holliday and Robinson traveled 21 miles to Tecumseh, but businessmen there wanted too much money for their land. Holliday located a spot 5 miles from Tecumseh along the river and purchased land from Enoch Chase, who had previously bought it from the Kaws.

Holliday formed a company, naming himself as president and the Lawrence contingent and Chase as stockholders. Holliday wanted to name the town Webster after Daniel Webster, but the others preferred a name whose meaning was local; they chose Topeka, a Native American word meaning "smokey hill," according to one version, or "a good place to dig potatoes," according to another. The City of Topeka was incorporated February 14, 1857 with Holliday as mayor. Dr. Robinson attracted antislavery New Englanders to settle in Topeka, thus counteracting the influence of a proslavery group in Tecumseh. A Free State constitutional convention was held in Topeka but federal troops arrested the new legislators when they tried to meet on July 4, 1855.

Kansas Statehood Brings Capital to Topeka

The Kansas constitution was framed at Wyandotte (later named Kansas City), and Kansas was admitted to the Union in 1861. The constitution specified that the state capital would be selected by election. Dr. Robinson ran for governor, favoring Topeka over Lawrence as the site for the capital; he also supported the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway system, which began laying its westward track in 1869. Holliday served as the company's first president, with general offices and machine shops located in Topeka. Topeka's population increased from 700 people in 1862 to 5,000 people in 1870; it then made another dramatic population jump in the late 1880s.

Foundation in Topeka Gains International Fame

During the 20th century Topeka was known internationally as the home of Menninger, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the study of mental illness and founded by Dr. Karl Menninger and his father, Dr. Charles F. Menninger. In 1920 the Menningers opened a group psychiatric practice that they named the Menninger Clinic; they were joined in 1925 by William, Charles's younger son. The Menningers opened the Topeka Institute of Psychoanalysis in 1938 after the brothers had studied formally in Chicago. The family is credited with introducing psychiatry to America. Karl Menninger's The Human Mind was the first book on psychiatry to become a bestseller. The Menningers opened the nonprofit Menninger Foundation, the world's largest psychiatric training center, in 1941. The Menninger Clinic moved to Houston, Texas in 2003.

Today, Topeka is recognized for its strong economic development efforts and high quality of life. In 2003 Business Facilities magazine wrote, "While the national economy lags, relocations and expansions are happening all over Kansas, with Topeka leading the way." Expansion Management magazine gave the city its highest rating in the Annual Quality of Life Quotient survey.

Historical Information: Kansas State Historical Society, 6425 SW Sixth Ave, Topeka, KS 66615; telephone (785)272-8681; fax (785)272-8682