Quindaro Townsite is an archaeological district in the vicinity of North 27th Street and the Missouri Pacific Railroad tracks in Kansas City, Kansas. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 22, 2002.
The settlement was established by abolitionists in late 1856, with construction starting in 1857. The town was rapidly settled by migrants aided by the New England Emigrant Aid Company, who were trying to help secure Kansas as a free territory. One of a number of villages hugging the narrow bank of the Missouri River under the bluffs, the town was a Free State port-of-entry for abolitionist forces of Kansas. It was established as part of the resistance to stop the westward spread of slavery. Quindaro’s people also aided escaped slaves from Missouri and linked them to the Underground Railroad.
After Kansas was established as a free state, there was less unique need for the port and the growth slowed in the commercial district. At the same time the economy in Kansas suffered from over-speculation.
In 1862 classes were started for children of former slaves, and in 1865 a group of men chartered Quindaro Freedman’s School (later Western University), the first black school west of the Mississippi River. Former slaves continued to gather in the residential community, which became mostly African American by the late 19th century. The area was incorporated into Kansas City in the early 20th century.
Gradually the lower commercial townsite was abandoned and became overgrown. The townsite was rediscovered during archaeological study in the late 1980s, which revealed many aspects of the 1850s town.
Quindaro was founded in the 1850s by abolitionists, settlers sent by the New England Emigrant Aid Society; Wyandots, and freedmen. The Society had aided more than 1200 settlers in their migration, hoping to secure Kansas as a free territory. The decision was to be left to the vote of the territory’s residents.
Quindaro was one of several competing small ports on the Missouri River. Planners seeking to establish a Free-State port noted the site’s advantages:
At a point six miles above the mouth of the Kansas river, on Wyandotte Indian land, they found a fine natural rock ledge where the river ran along the bank six to twelve feet deep, making a convenient landing. Plenty of wood and rock were at hand for building purposes and fertile land was adjacent.
Abelard Guthrie, credited as the founder who purchased land for the settlement, named it after his wife Quindaro (meaning “bundle of sticks” or “strength through numbers”) Nancy Guthrie. She was a member of the Wyandot tribe and had persuaded them to sell land to her husband.
Construction started in January 1857, and the town soon contained numerous stone houses and starts of several businesses. Its sawmill was the largest in Kansas. The lower townsite near the river was the commercial core, and most residences were higher on the bluff, at the upper townsite. In the first year there were 100 buildings completed, with many of stone and brick, “including hotels, Dry Goods, Hardware and Grocery stores, a Church [two churches] and School house.”
John Morgan Walden was one of many young men attracted to Quindaro, where he founded a Free-Soil paper called Quindaro Chindowan. The name Chindowan was a Wyandot word for “leader”. Walden also was a missionary to freedmen and later became a bishop in the Methodist Church.
After the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854, a western branch of the Underground Railroad was developed in Kansas. Quindaro was linked to this and the Lane Trail. It provided a new route of escape for slaves from Missouri. It was most important in the years before Kansas was established as a free state in 1861. Quindaro became a legendary port for fugitive slaves and, later, blacks arriving as contraband during the American Civil War.
Clarina Nichols was a writer for the Quindaro Chindowan, a friend of Susan B. Anthony and fellow crusader for the rights of women and children. She was an important Conductor and Station Master of the Underground Railroad in Quindaro. She left a letter telling about a time when a Freedom Seeker named Caroline was brought to her house. Caroline’s slave master and other slave hunters were camped on the edge of town and looking for her. Clarina tells of hiding Caroline in an empty cistern overnight and then sending her on the road North as soon as it was safe.
Due to economic pressures that afflicted much of Kansas, the commercial townsite declined. Later arriving African-American residents settled in the upper town on the bluff. The economy declined because of over-speculation in Kansas, and in 1862 the legislature withdrew the town charter, putting the town company out of business. Difficulties in reaching the interior from below the bluff hampered commerce, and changes after the war reduced the need for the port. In addition, the topography was difficult, surrounding Wyandot land limited expansion, and problems with land titles inhibited growth. After being abandoned water bottle best, the early lower commercial townsite became overgrown, with some areas covered by earth falling from the bluffs. In the early 20th century, all of the townsite was incorporated into Kansas City
Even before the war ended, however, in 1862 Eben Blachly, a Presbyterian, started classes in his home for the children of former slaves. The Reverend Eben Blachly had been a farmer in Dane County, Wisconsin, one of the early pioneers who had migrated from Pennsylvania. According to Blachly family legend, he was nearly hung as a “northern spy” while trying to find his oldest son, a Union soldier who had been captured by the Confederates. With the noose around his neck he asked to say some final words, a wish that was granted by the rebels. After praying out loud for the welfare of their souls (the rebels were about to hang an innocent man), they took the noose off his neck and sent him home to Wisconsin. This traumatic experience, apparently, led him dedicate his life to helping former slaves by organizing the Quindaro Freedman’s School (later Western University, which was chartered in 1867, and which he ran until his death in 1877. It was a historically black university (HBUC) started at the upper town site of Quindaro. Its principal in 1872, when the state legislature added a four-year normal school, was Charles Henry Langston, a leading black abolitionist and activist, educator and politician in Ohio and Kansas.
In the early 20th century, Western University became known for its outstanding music program. Music historian Helen Walker-Hill, writing in the Black Music Journal, states that “Western University at Quindaro, Kansas, was probably the earliest black school west of the Mississippi and the best black musical training center in the Midwest for almost thirty years during the 1900s through the 1920s.”
In the early 1900s, Western University also added a full industrial curriculum, with buildings to house livestock and another for a laundry. Later a building was added for teaching auto mechanics and repair. The university closed in 1943, and nothing but cornerstones of some early buildings still exist. Some buildings were lost to fire, others to demolition as sites were redeveloped. The last structures remaining were three faculty houses, which were demolished near the end of the 20th century.
An archaeological study in 1987-1988 required for a public project revealed the remains of the 1850s townsite. The foundations of 20 main buildings, two outbuildings, three wells, and one cistern were found. From original maps, newspapers and letters, researchers know other structures exist. Because of the significance of the town, the townsite has been designated an archaeological district on the National Register of Historic Places. A number of public history projects have been undertaken to engage the public and share the discoveries.
In 1993 heart Bracelet, Kansas State University, in cooperation with the Mayor’s Underground Railroad Advisory Commission and the Quindaro Town Preservation Society, commissioned graduate students to develop proposals for a park to incorporate the ruins and archaeology of Quindaro. Their 13 proposals were presented at a major public meeting, displayed at the state capitol’s rotunda, and presented in numerous venues around the state. While consensus is lacking on how to develop a park, the plans have been successful in engaging the public and teaching history.
In 1996, the University of Kansas sponsored a major oral history project, in which more than a dozen professors interviewed people among the nearby African-American community for their family accounts of Quindaro. The history and legends of the settlement lived in stories told by their descendants and friends. Because of the brief life of Quindaro, it was not much documented in written records. Public history projects have identified some new sources.
In December 2007, the Kansas Humanities Council awarded a grant to the Concerned Citizens of Old Quindaro, Kansas City, for In Unity There is Strength: The African American Experience, an exhibit to interpret the history of former slaves who escaped to Quindaro from across the Missouri River in the mid-19th century. The exhibit will address religious, educational, and business elements of the community which they created.
The Missouri Archaeologist, 49 (1988), 89-145.