The Wyandotte Trail and Underground Railroad

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Kansas City, Kansas has a unique history unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. On a hosted trip at the beginning of August, I learned how the Wyandotte Indians embraced the escaped slaves considering them, “people of the earth”. Come along with me on my journey.  See what fascinating history Kansas City has to offer.  Learn how the Underground Railroad and Wyandot story intersect.

Wyandot National Burying Ground

Our first stop was the Wyandot National Burying Ground. There we met Louisa Libby and her daughter Anna of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas. The Cemetery also known as the Huron Cemetery was first established in 1844 after the forced migration of the Wyandotte nation from Upper Sandusky, Ohio. Louisa Libby shared a bit of her clan’s history. “We came from the Georgian Bay area Ontario. In 1649, we officially left  because the Iroquois kept attacking.”

The Wyandot that settled in the area are part of the Turtle Clan.  Anna continued her story. “A Jesuit Priest took some (of the Wyandotte Nation) and they went to an island on Quebec.  The rest went to Mackinaw Island. We always had a sister city, and that was the Sandusky, Ohio area.  That was where we settled until 1843 when 664 of us were forced to move.”

Underground Railway and Wyandot
Louisa tells us the story of the Wyandotte Nation.

The 660 members of the Wyandotte Nation along with the wagons and horses took two weeks to travel.  They arrived at the steam boat that then transported them to what was supposed to be good bottom land. However, once they arrived, they found the good land was already occupied.

The group was dropped off at what is now Kansas City and was at the time swamp land. “We soon lost 100 or so people,” Anna said. “We got along with the Delaware and purchased land around Kansas City.”

Underground Railway and Wyandot
Helena Conley warns about desecrating the graves she fought so hard to protect during her lifetime beyond the grave.

“We built a cemetery to have a place for our family to rest,” Louisa explained. Until recently the Wyandotte Nation had to fight year after year and day after day to keep this land. As Kansas City grew up, developers wanted the land the cemetery was located on. “Two sisters, the Conley sisters, Eliza (Lyda) and Helena (Lena) fought to protect the cemetery and keep from selling it,” Louisa said.

In fact the sisters built a shack on site to protect the graves. The were armed and diligent.  “They were arrested and had to be bailed out,” Louisa added. Lyda Conley went on to graduate from law school.  She  became the first Native American Lawyer and first woman admitted to the Kansas Bar in 1902. She sued the Secretary of the Interior and challenged the sale and development of the cemetery before the United States Supreme Court. She was the first American Indian to try a case before the Supreme Court.

They lost, but the sale of the land was stopped. Louisa added that for years continued to fight developers. The Wyandotte Nation of Kansas stood up to the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma who wanted to expand the casino on into the cemetery area.  Thankfully now the cemetery is protected, and is listed on the National Register of historic places.

Today the Conley sisters still protect the cemetery. Their graves are next to their parents and their gravestones have a message that I surely wouldn’t want to cross. Helena Conley’s grave reads “Helena Conley, floating voice. Cursed be the villain that molest their graves.”

Quindaro Ruins & Museums

Quindaro Ruins is an overlook, of a historic “station”.  It is part of the route of the Underground Railroad where many African-American slaves found freedom.

Underground Railroad and Wyandot
Louisa Libby (right), Anthony Hope(center) and his cousin, Vietnam War Veteran Corranzo Lewis(right) pose in front of the Quindaro Archeolgical Site.

There is a lovely pavilion with flags.  We met Louisa and Anna along with Anthony Hope and his cousin, Vietnam War Veteran Corranzo Lewis. Anthony is a 4th generation of the Monroe family of a slaves that escaped. “They escaped across when the River iced. Then the Wyandotte adopted us.”

Underground Railroad and Wyandot
This was an underground Railroad station and busy town for a few years.

The history is incredible. The name Quindaro means, “A bundle of sticks – stronger together than apart”.

The town of Quindaro was founded in 1856 by Albelard Guthrie.  He married Nancy Quindaro Brown, a Wyandot Indian that owned the land. According to the group, it was their consensus that Guthrie married Nancy for the land.

“The town just lasted for a few years. There were a few churches, a sawmill that was once the largest in Kansas, and a rock quarry that the Monroe family once owned,” Louisa said. “Slaves came across the Missouri River in the winter on the ice. The Wyandot believed that they were people of the Earth like us. We hid them in the Quindaro Hotel cistern etc. This place and relationship is very dear to us.  We are intertwined.”

Quindaro thrived for a while.  Serving as a steamboat landing and underground railway station, the Civil War changed things. “The town didn’t last long after the Civil War,” Anthony said. “Solders stored horses in the hotel, and only one family stayed.”

With the War and the downfall of the economy the town was abandoned. However, Western University survived.  The statue of John Brown pays homage to one of the nation’s opponents to slavery. This statue is also important because it is the only physical remains of Western University. You can view some cornerstones and the statue which was erected in 1911.

Underground Railroad and Wyandot
The statue of John Brown is all that remains of Western University.

Our next stop was the Old Quindaro Museum.  Anthony shared family history and told the story of Western University which began as the Quindaro Freedman’s School. Founded in the 1860s by the Presbyterian Minister, Eben Blachley, the Freedman’s School educated the children of escaped slaves and black families that had begun to settle in the area. The school continued until the 1940’s.

Underground Railway and Wyandot
The Old Quindaro Museum shares history of the families and slaves and the Wyandot relationship.

At the Old Quindaro Museum we learned a bit more about the runaway slaves.  We also saw some old fashioned shackles on display. To learn more about the ruins and the Old Quindaro Museum, call 816-820-3615.

The last stop in this fascinating story was the Quindaro Underground Railroad Museum. Housed in the historic Vernon Multi-Purpose Center, the museum has several artifacts and documents. The museum tells the story of the town and people of Quindaro. Luther Smith shared information about the beautiful quilts blocks like the “sail boat”, the “flying geese” etc. These blocks were used as messages for slaves escaping along the Underground Railway.

Underground Railroad and Wyandot
Luther Smith shared information at the Quindaro Underground Railroad Museum.
Underground Railroad and Wyandot
These quilts help tell a story of the Underground Railroad.

 

 

 

At the museum there is a biography of William Tecumseh Vernon.  A teacher and minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Rev. Vernon was later appointed in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt as the Register of the United States Treasury.  This was the nation’s highest governmental post ever occupied by an African American at that time. For more information about the Quindaro Underground Railroad Museum call 913-287-4323.

The buildings are not  glorious, the architecture isn’t awe inspiring, but the story is heart touching and moved me. This is a history, a blending of two struggling groups of minorities that found strength in one another. I was honored to be able to share what I learned. I hope if you are in the Kansas City, Kansas area you will take the time to look up some of this.  It is a story you won’t learn in the history books, but one that is just as real, and perhaps even more important.

4 Comments


  1. //

    Cindy, that was a fascinating story of how these two outcasted groups formed a community together. I’m intrigued by the quilt squares used in the Underground Railroad. I guess I’ll have to visit the museum if I’m ever in Kansas City, Kansas, to find out what the squares mean and how they were used. Thanks for sharing this story. You’re right that this wasn’t in my history textbooks, but it is an important part of our country’s past for us to know and understand.


    1. //

      True, I was glad to learn this new history on my visit!


  2. //

    Wow so much pain and struggle! So important to remember stories like these though. Thanks for sharing this history.

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