Too much history in Leavenworth, Kansas

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Flag with words "Leavenworth: A Good Place to Call Home" against background of large star and stripes. Brick buildings in far background.
The history in Leavenworth reaches deep and wide. Photo by Jeanne Gehret

This past summer I made my third visit to Leavenworth, Kansas, where there was too much history for me to absorb all at once. Ever since my return home on Labor Day, I’ve been mulling over my discoveries and finding new connections.

Starting off from home in Rochester, NY, my husband Jon and I made the 1,000-mile drive to the Midwest, tracing the journey that Daniel Read (D.R.) Anthony first made in 1854. (He lived in Rochester before emigrating to Kansas.) That was three years before Kansas was even a state.

D.R., the brother of Susan B. Anthony, cut a huge swath across the border of Kansas and Missouri starting in 1854. Ten years later, he did something almost unimaginable to a contemporary mind. This dedicated frontiersman married a whaling heiress from Martha’s Vineyard who was 20 years younger than he. Talk about a culture clash!

Much history about the Anthonys in Leavenworth

Soon after Annie’s arrival in Leavenworth, she and D.R. built a home in Leavenworth, and there they remained until his death in 1904. Daniel’s sister Susan B. Anthony frequently visited that lovely residence overlooking the Missouri River. (See a previous post for a family tree showing Daniel’s place in the Anthony family.)

Annie is not a focus of this particular post, but you can read plenty about her by browsing this blog. The Dauntless Series, my trilogy about her life with Daniel, is mainly from her point of view. The Truth About Daniel, published in 2017, chronicles the couple’s early history, courtship, and marriage with some fun twists and turns and a tragic story.

Leavenworth Local Hotel

After our long drive across half the country, Jon and I settled into our centrally-located hotel, The Leavenworth Local, on Shawnee St.

What a wonderful surprise awaited us there! Our “room” was actually a suite the size of a one-time classroom. We quickly felt at home in the sitting room, full kitchen, bedroom with huge closets, and gleaming bathroom. The walls of the wide hallways occasionally featured posters regaling visitors with Leavenworth history. One of these recounted the arrival of a character later in my trilogy, Mother Xavier Ross, a Sister of Charity.

Kitty-corner from our hotel was the former site of Oddfellows Hall. This distinctive building served in its heyday as a social club and the setting for many fancy dress balls. One night a cyclone took its roof clear off, and its original third story was never rebuilt. Today it is occupied by the Davis Funeral Chapel.

I’ve written recently about the pleasures of walking where my characters walked. This time in Kansas was no different. Hitting the pavement on my first morning there, I had the sense of viewing my surroundings through two different lenses. One eye regarded the current town, while the other saw the buildings and streets corresponding to my 1876 map.

I found the alleys of Leavenworth particularly interesting. Running for many blocks behind the streets named for Native American tribes, they traverse the hills and valleys of town. An alley also runs behind the Anthony carriage house, where a fire erupted suddenly, probably by arson.  

Too much history

Following my morning stroll, Jon and I drove to the Leavenworth County Historical Society to meet Mary Ann Sachse Brown, who is president of the society and my good friend. She is an avid historian and author of more than a dozen books on Leavenworth. We first met in 2012.

After giving us a warm Kansas welcome, Mary Ann took us inside to orient us with maps of Leavenworth printed at various times throughout the 1800s. They are framed and tucked alongside bookcases and above doors. I was particularly taken with the map below. Isn’t it beautiful? It showed me that D.R.’s first rented office was within a stone’s throw from the Planters Hotel, the most happening place in town.

Leavenworth map with two buildings marked
Leavenworth map: #1 was the Planters Hotel and #6 was D.R. Anthony’s office

Throughout our two days together, she drove me up and down the streets of the business district and to the outskirts of town to show me Pilot Knob, where Daniel and Annie took carriage rides. She uncovered layers and layers of history, of both black and white peoples, and regaled me with new stories about Daniel Anthony. “The problem with Leavenworth history,” she said, “isn’t that it’s hard to find. The problem is that there’s too much of it.”

We lunched at a restaurant called The Depot, the repurposed 1887 train station in Leavenworth.

Author Jeanne Gehret in front of old building

This is the site of an 1887 train station

Later, Mary Ann and I stopped to admire the building originally known as Laing’s Hall, where Susan B. gave her first speech in Kansas. I hadn’t realized that she filled such a large venue so early in her Kansas travels! Book Two of my trilogy quotes some of my favorite lines from her speech. Laing’s Hall is also where Col. Jennison, D.R.’s nemesis in that period, stole the gas meter so he wouldn’t have to give a speech.

long gray building, two stories
Susan B. Anthony spoke at this building, originally known as Laing’s Hall

D.R. amassed considerable wealth because he had two or three concurrent careers during his early life. For many years he was the postmaster and mayor of the town, which was booming at the time. Mary Ann explained that during his tenure as postmaster, the post office occupied rooms in whatever building he owned at the time. When he constructed his own office building he made room for Dr. Tiffin Sinks, who saved his life from a gunshot wound that would’ve killed anyone else. (Plenty has been written about his warlike temperament.)

Daniel’s stints as postmaster fluctuated according to the pleasure of U.S. presidents. During Lincoln’s final term in office and during Ulysses Grant’s term, Anthony held the position. However, Andrew Johnson (who undid many of Lincoln’s civil rights reforms) replaced D.R. for failing to follow discriminatory laws.

For many years after he settled in Kansas, Anthony also sold insurance and published a newspaper. Eventually, after he bought up all the dailies in town, he gave up the insurance business.

Memorable Mansions

The Carroll Mansion on Fifth Avenue, home of the historical society, is a gem not to be missed. Originally built for Edward and Mary Ellen Carroll, it received most of its elegant details when Lucien and Julia Scott owned it from 1882-1887, during the Anthonys’ era. My eyes drank such beautiful features as stained glass windows and parquet floors that are unique to each room; inglenook fireplaces; a breathtaking stairway; doors and shutters that “disappear” into pockets; and sleeping porches.

Hallway with ornate window and wooden stairwayow above door and
Carroll Mansion, Leavenworth, used with permission

Mary Ann did a wonderful study of residents on the street where the Anthonys lived for four decades at #417 North Esplanade. It turns out that many of those neighbors supported woman suffrage, as did Annie Anthony. Driving down the street evoked more 19th century elegance as I admired all the beautiful Victorian homes. Because several had been for sale recently, I was able to get an “inside tour” of them on Zillow. Through the decades, homeowners have updated many of the interiors. But since the North Esplanade is now a historic district, the exteriors must remain like they did when Susan B. visited.

Although a terrible fire engulfed many residences on the Esplanade during the 1880s, the Anthony home was spared. When Annie sold the house after D.R.’s death, the new owners bought the adjacent property on Pottawatomie Street, tore down its house, and added to #417. I assume that’s when external changes were made that rendered the Anthony home’s exterior unrecognizable from archival photos. Even so, it still retains a carriage house and trellises. These remind me of those in the original images of the house during Daniel and Annie’s time.

The first public park in Kansas lies across the street on the bluff. Looking over to the Missouri River, I imagined the tobacco and hemp crops that grew there by slave labor. We also visited many 1875-era landmarks of Leavenworth— the levee where Annie first set foot in Kansas; City Hall, where Daniel Anthony worked as mayor; and the Anthony Building that housed his newspaper, the post office, and the medical practice of Dr. Sinks.

What my walkabouts revealed

Several truths came home to me during these forays. First, Daniel Anthony was a big fish in a little pond. The Leavenworth of his day occupied a relatively small footprint. His home lay only a few blocks away from his various offices and his post as mayor at City Hall. It probably took more time to saddle a horse than it did to simply walk from place to place.

Second, Kansas is not flat, contrary to what I’d heard. Far from it. It’s more rolling hills, at least in the eastern region. One stretch of road reminded us of a roller coaster! (What fun it would have been on our tandem bicycle!)

Third, the black history of Leavenworth is just coming to light, as it is in many other American locales. In 1975, when Jon and I took our honeymoon trip to Williamsburg, VA, the costumed docents were almost all white. The second time we went in 2005, many black re-enactors added their own perspectives to the story. These made it both richer and more poignant.

The same is true in Leavenworth. For detailed information on the black residents of town, Mary Ann referred me to the Richard Allen Cultural Center. I sincerely hope that every visitor to this city rounds out their view of history by also touring the Richard Allen.

Black History Museum in Leavenworth

William Wallace, our guide at the Richard Allen introduced us to two early groups of black soldiers in Kansas. The First Kansas Volunteer Regiment fought in the Civil War; and the Buffalo Soldiers fought against the Indians after the war.

Black civil war soldier in dress uniform

William D. Matthews, a successful African-American businessman in Leavenworth, employed 100 men to protect his Waverly House Hotel from Confederate sympathizers. They rightly suspected that he was harboring runaways. D.R. had his office near the Planters Hotel and Waverly House. (Photo courtesy of Kshs.org.)

Partway through the war, Matthews recruited a whole regiment of black men to form the First Kansas Volunteer Regiment. Soon after, though seriously outnumbered, they prevailed against Southern sympathizers in Missouri at the Battle of Island Mound.

While Matthews was guiding the black troops, D.R. recruited a white regiment that became the Kansas Seventh. After freeing slaves from Confederate farms in Missouri, he frequently delivered them to Matthews’ basement to hide. From there they were escorted to safety in Canada, sometimes with funds from Anthony.

The proximity of Mathews’ and Anthony’s places of business, coupled with their common goal of ending slavery, makes for some intriguing connections.

During the war, thousands of black refugees from the South flooded Kansas. It attracted them because since it entered the Union it was a “free state” (against slavery). Many of these formerly enslaved settled in Leavenworth, perched on the border of slave-holding Missouri.

Jobs were hard to come by for former slaves. So when the U.S. government offered a steady wage to soldiers who maintained the security of the Western Frontier, many African-Americans signed up. These black troops were nicknamed the Buffalo Soldiers. Their task was to defend settlers from outlaws, squatters, and warring Native American tribes. Ironically, the Natives were, in turn, defending their own territory.

Living off the land, the Buffalo Soldiers killed many of the buffalo that the Natives needed to live on. They also enforced policies that forced tribes to retreat onto reservations. (Another sad chapter of civil rights.) These troops also became the country’s first park rangers.

Mission accomplished

I went to Kansas with two goals in mind:

  • To get a better feel for the size and feel of Leavenworth, and
  • To learn more about the lives of the black population there before, during, and after the Civil War.

Thanks to my friends at the historical society and the Richard Allen Cultural Center, I came back with all that I hoped for to complete my trilogy. In fact, I could probably write a fourth book about Leavenworth. Too much history!