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Happy Kansas Day!

Long before Kansas was admitted to the union in 1861, natives and early settlers made this territory their home on the range. From the early natives to the pioneers and settlers, through wars and industrialization, horses have shaped the history of Kansas. Today, on the 162nd anniversary of Kansas's statehood, here is a very brief look at how Kansas's history has been shaped by the horse.

Pioneer Bluffs in the Kansas Flint Hills

For thousands of years, the territory that is now Kansas was home to many diverse Native American tribes. The Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kansa, Kiowa, Osage, Pawnee, and Wichita tribes are all native to the area. Horses played an important part in the daily lives of many Great Plains tribes. Mounted hunters were able to hunt bison very efficiently. Without a horse, hunters were forced to stampede entire herds of bison over cliffs. On horseback, they could ride into a herd and hunt specific targets. This method of hunting provided more meat as well as an abundance of hides for clothing and tipis.

Horses also allowed the tribes to transport entire villages to follow seasonal hunting. When traveling, horses pulled large travois across the prairie. Before horses, the burden of transporting belongings had fallen on the women and dogs of the tribe. Horses were able to pull heavier loads, so the tribes were able to accumulate more belongings. The efficiency of the horses allowed more time for the creation of art and sacred artifacts.

Native Americans with horse and travois

These tribes truly valued their animals and considered them sacred. Horses were respected and well-treated.

In 1803, most of Kansas was acquired by the US as part of the Louisiana Purchase, and early settlers began moving west into the Great Plains. They traveled in covered wagons pulled by draft horses and oxen, and small settlements developed. The Santa Fe Trail, a trade route from Missouri to New Mexico, passed through Kansas. Horses pulled wagons loaded with manufactured goods and furs from Missouri, opening trade routes to the southwest. Deep wagon ruts can still be seen near Dodge City.

Map of the Santa Fe Trail

As more settlers moved west, a need for transcontinental communication developed. Before telegraphs were available, horses galloped across the country delivering the mail. Pony Express stations can still be seen in Marysville in northeast Kansas. When the Pony Express began, it consisted of 80 riders, 184 stations, 400 horses, and several hundred personnel. The stations were about 10 miles apart. At each station, the express rider would change to a fresh horse, taking only the mail pouch with him. Riders could not weigh more than 125 pounds and were only allowed to carry a revolver, a water sack, and a mail pouch, which could contain about 40 pounds of mail. Horses running the route averaged 14.2 hands and weighed about 900 pounds. They moved at a fast pace between stations, sometimes at a fast trot, but more often at a canter or gallop. Morgans and thoroughbreds were a popular choice of mounts. Mustangs were also used at the more western stations.

Map of the transcontinental route of the Pony Express riders.

In 1820, the Missouri Compromise was passed under President James Monroe. The legislation admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state and prohibited slavery in the remaining Louisiana Purchase lands north of the 36*30’ parallel. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska under President Franklin Pierce. The bill intended to open new lands for development and to facilitate the transcontinental railroad. The act in effect repealed the Missouri Compromise. States and territories were able to determine their slavery status by popular sovereignty or vote.

The Marais Des Cygnes Massacre in Kansas, May, 1858

In 1854, Kansas became the site of violent political confrontations as abolitionist “Free-Staters” or "Jayhawkers" and pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” battled to determine whether Kansas would be a slave state or free. Abolitionists and pro-slavery settlers alike moved to Kansas from the east solely to vote in territorial elections. Years of conflict ensued, with raids, assaults, electoral fraud, and murder frequently occurring. This violent time in Kansas history is known as ‘Bleeding Kansas.’ In 1861, seven states seceded from the Union after Lincoln was elected, and Kansas was admitted as a free state. The tensions in Kansas largely contributed to the start of the Civil War.

Tragic Prelude by John Steuart Curry hangs in the Kansas State Capitol Building in the second-floor rotunda.

During the Civil War, Kansas furnished more Union army troops than any other state in proportion to population. Kansas soldiers were divided into seven infantry, nine cavalries, and three light artillery regiments. In addition, the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment was the first black regiment organized in a northern state and was the first black unit to see battle during the Civil War. Horses and mules also served in the war effort and suffered great casualties. It is estimated that 3 million horses and mules served and that approximately half lost their lives. Generals and cavalry officers rode into battle. Horses also pulled ammunition, weapons, and ambulances to and from the battlefield. Horses were often targets on the battlefield, but most died from overwork, malnutrition, and disease.

As the war came to a close, frontier towns grew. The railroads in Kansas were destinations for cattle drives from Texas. Cowboys and horses moved hundreds of thousands of cattle north to railheads in Wichita, Abilene, Ellsworth, Caldwell, and Dodge City. These cowtowns became booming economic centers in Kansas.

Cattle drive through Kansas

Some settlers braved the unforgiving climate and farmed the prairie. Horse-drawn plows and mule-pulled threshers allowed early farmers to work the ground more efficiently than man-powered equipment. A five-horse plow sulky could work five to seven acres a day. These early farmers and their animals shaped the agricultural economy that still exists in Kansas today.

Hay wagon in Linsborg, Kansas

In growing cities like Wichita and Kansas City, horses provided both private and public transportation, pulling carriages, trolleys, and buses around town. They also hauled building materials and assisted with construction as the cities grew.

Horse outside American Cornice Works owned by Fred Buckley, Wichita, KS

Fires in busy cities were a regular threat to business districts. If one building caught fire, often others would catch and burn before bucket brigades could control the flames. The Kansas City Fire Brigade revolutionized firefighting and was world-renowned. Chief Hale invented a swinging harness that enabled firefighters to hitch horses to the fire wagons in a matter of seconds. Under his command, his firefighters and two gray Arabian horses named Dan and Joe famously traveled to Europe and won many fire-fighting competitions. Money prizes were offered to any team that could beat them, but it never happened. Fire horse Joe was killed in the line of duty in 1894. Dan retired in 1907.

Horse-drawn fire wagon in Kansas City at Pennsylvania Ave. and Westport Rd.

As industrialization and mechanization occurred at the turn of the century, machines slowly replaced horses. Horses were considered inefficient when compared to automobiles, tractors, and trains. Not only were the animals expensive to feed, but they were also outperformed by the mechanized alternatives. By the end of WWI, the horse population of Kansas suffered a significant decline as the animals were no longer being used as the primary means of transportation.

Livery stable in Lake City, Kansas in the early 1900s.

By the 1950s and 60s, the horse population began to recover, but now horses were being kept for recreational purposes. Today in Kansas, people participate in horse shows, rodeos, racing, and recreational riding. Many children enjoy equestrian activities through scouting groups or 4H. Some modern Kansas cattle ranchers prefer to work cattle from horseback, continuing the traditions of early Kansas cowboys.

Pleasure driving champion at the American Royal horse show in Kansas City.

Throughout the history of Kansas, horses have played a significant role in the movement of people and goods across the state. These animals have shaped the development of cities and economies, and have been a valued part of our culture. As we celebrate the anniversary of Kansas's statehood, take a moment to thank the horses that shaped our history.

Wild horses in the Kansas Flint Hills



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