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Kansas Historical Society

President William H. Taft addresses audience members at the laying of the cornerstone of the Memorial Building, Topeka, 1911Following the end of the Civil War, Kansas newspaper editors and publishers sought a way to record the founding of the state and its heroic role in the fight against slavery.  A committee of the Kansas Editors' and Publishers' Association met December 13, 1875, and formed the Kansas Historical Society to collect newspapers and manuscripts on the territorial period.  One of the things these early newspaper publishers did was to start a tradition of donating copies of all newspapers published in Kansas to the Kansas Historical Society.  Publishers became members of the Historical Society by donating issues of their newspapers.  For all others, the annual membership fee was $2.  Consequently, the Historical Society has one of the most comprehensive collections of state newspapers in the nation.

At first the Historical Society was able to store its small collection in a bookcase on the fourth floor of the south wing of the Kansas State Capitol.  In 1879 the state enacted legislation that recognized the Historical Society as "the trustee of the state" for the purpose of maintaining the state's history.  Within 10 years, the Historical Society had collected more than 16,000 books and pamphlets and more than 3,700 bound volumes of newspapers and periodicals.

"Kansas has the fullest collection ever made by any state in its early years, because this was the first Society that began its career by collecting and preserving every copy of every newspaper published in the state," said Secretary George Martin, in his 25th annual address of the Historical Society in 1900.

The Historical Society collections continued to grow.  In 1893 the legislature authorized the Historical Society to occupy three rooms in the south wing of the statehouse.  The board of directors reported that collections filled "every nook and corner of the main room of the Society from floor to ceiling; they occupy cases in the corridors, and they occupy three rooms in the cellar of the State House."

In 1905 the Kansas Legislature passed a bill establishing the Historical Society as the repository of official government records.  Thus, the Historical Society became the State Archives for Kansas, receiving non-current government records that need to be retained permanently.  This responsibility continues today with the relatively new challenge of preserving and providing access to state government electronic records.

A $90,000 Civil War claim from the federal government and a legislative appropriation helped to solve the Historical Society's immediate space concerns.  On September 27, 1911, President William Howard Taft was the honored guest at the laying of the corner stone of the new Memorial Building.  Built as a monument to the Union veterans of the Civil War, the building opened when collections were transferred with the assistance of veterans on May 27, 1914.  The Historical Society moved more than 440,000 objects and effects to the new quarters, shared with the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans organization.

The Historical Society added a new type of collection in 1901 with the acquisition of Pawnee Indian Village. Accepted by the legislature, the site was reportedly the first raising of the American flags in Kansas by explorer Zebulon Pike in 1806. Subsequent research showed that original claim to be in error, but the site’s archeological history provided further understanding of the Pawnees and this 17th century village. In 1927 the annual meeting report celebrated the addition of "Shawnee Mission in Johnson County, [and] the old Capitol at Fort Riley. . ." Other historic sites have been acquired over the years. In 2015 the Last Chance Store in Council Grove was donated to the state. Built in 1857, this was the final supply point before heading west on the Santa Fe Trail. It will be reinterpreted and operated jointly with Kaw Mission in the coming years.

In addition to growing collections, the Historical Society expanded its programs. Archeology, historic preservation, and museum services were added.  In 1973 the Kansas Legislature approved the purchase of the Potawatomi Mission northwest of Topeka and the surrounding 81 acres for the purpose of building a museum on the grounds. Ground was broken near the mission on August 29, 1981, and construction began in early 1982. The museum and education departments moved to the new building in 1984, establishing the Kansas Museum of History.

The Historical Society established a website in 1993, one of the first historical societies to do so. Construction began on the west Topeka campus for a new facility to house the Historical Society's remaining departments. In 1995 the library, archives, manuscripts, newspaper, archeology, historic preservation, and administrative functions moved to the complex. The Kansas Legislature separated the functions of the Historical Society in 2001. The membership, retail, and fund raising portion of the organization became the Kansas State Historical Society, Inc., dba Kansas Historical Foundation. In January 2001 a third storage bay was added to the State Archives building, providing an additional 22,000 square feet of space for storing mainly library and archives collections.

The Kansas Historical Society operates as a state agency supported by state appropriations. More than a half million individuals benefit from our programs and services each year. All activities and programs are conducted by the private organization and the Historical Society's divisions: Administration, Cultural Resources (comprising archeology, historic preservation, and historic sites), Museum and Education, and State Archives.

The Kansas Historical Foundation, a nonprofit corporation supports the work of the state agency.  The Foundation offers membership to the public and institutions, manages grants for the state agency, operates the museum and historic sites stores, and provides fiscal support for various programs, including the Historical Society's award-winning scholarly journal, Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains. Past publications include  a children's magazine, Kansas Kaleidoscope, and a popular history magazine, Kansas Heritage, Reflections, highlighting the Historical Society's collections.

During the past century, the Historical Society's role expanded beyond its original emphasis on collecting and publishing research. Today the Society continues these fundamental activities and has added a broad array of interpretive and educational programs that combine with historic sites, technical assistance, and field service programs. Through collections, exhibits, programs, and services, the Society enriches the lives of thousands and serves in understanding and valuing the heritage of Kansas.

The Kansas Historical Society received the Kansas Reading Association Professional Literacy Award in 2014. The agency's 40-year Kansas Archeology Training Program was acknowledged with the Society for the American Archaeology's Excellence in Public Education Award in 2015.

See a list of secretaries and executive directors of the Kansas Historical Society.

Entry: Kansas Historical Society

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2009

Date Modified: July 2019

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.