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Atchison, Kansas

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Located in northeastern Kansas on the Missouri River, the site that would become Atchison was first home to the Kanza Indians. Their abandoned village was noted by Lewis and Clark when they explored the area on July 4, 1804 and celebrated the first Independence Day in the American West.


Fifty years later, Atchison was founded in 1854 and named in honor of David Rice Atchison, a United States senator from Missouri, who, when Kansas was opened for settlement, he and several friends, began making plants to form a city in the new territory.


However, it seems that all were not agreed upon the location he had selected, and on July 20, 1854, Dr. John H. Stringfellow, Ira Norris, Leonidas Oldham, James B. Martin and Neal Owens left Platte City, Missouri to decide definitely upon a site.


Atchison, Kansas around 1860

Atchison, Kansas around 1860, photo by C. H. Masters




They crossed the Missouri River near Fort Leavenworth and continued to travel up stream along the western bank until they reached the place where Atchison now stands. There, they found a site that was the natural outlet of a remarkably rich agricultural region just open to settlement. They also found that two men named George M. Million and Samuel Dickson had staked claims near the river. Million's claim lay south of what is now known as Atchison Street and consisted of a quarter section. Dickson had built a small cabin on his claim, and this cabin was the first structure erected on the site of the present city. Million had a ferry, on which he crossed to the Missouri side to his home, but on the day the prospectors arrived, he was on the Kansas side. From a map in his possession, the prospectors found that they were at the location decided upon before leaving Missouri.


As all the men in the party, except Dr. John H. Stringfellow, had already taken claims in the valley of Walnut Creek, he was the only member of the party who could select a claim. He therefore took a tract north of Million's. The proposition of forming a town company for the future city was laid before the first settlers. Dickson was willing, but Million did not care to cut up his claim. He offered to sell his claim for $1,000 -- an exorbitant price for land at the time -- but the men from Platte City had determined to found a city on that particular spot, and the purchase was made. A town company was formed and a week later, a meeting was held under a tree on the bank of the river, about a half block south of where Atchison Street now runs. There were 18 persons present when the town company was formally organized by electing Peter T. Abell, president; James Burns, treasurer; and Dr. John H. Stringfellow, secretary.


The site was divided into 100 shares by the company, of which each member retained five shares, the remainder being reserved for common benefit of all. By September 20, 1854, Henry Kuhn had surveyed the 480 acres and made a plat, and the next day was fixed for the sale of lots, an event of great importance as it had become understood that Senator David Rice Atchison would make a speech upon the political question of the day, hence the sale would be of political as well as business significance. At his meeting on the 21st, two public institutions of vital interest to a new community were planned for -- a hotel and a newspaper. Each share of stock in the town company was assessed $25, the proceeds to be used to build the National Hotel, which was completed in the spring of 1855 on the corner of Second and Atchison Streets, and $400 was donated to Dr. John H. Stringfellow and R. S. Kelley to erect a printing office. In February, 1855, the Squatter Sovereign was issued. The first post office in Atchison was established March 15, 1855, with Robert S. Kelley as postmaster.


For years there had been considerable trade up and down the Missouri River, which had naturally centered at Leavenworth, but in June, 1855, several overland freighters were induced to select Atchison as their outfitting point.


Overland Freighter

Overland freighter.

This image available for photographic prints  and downloads HERE!


The most important firms were Livingston, Kinkead & Co. and Hooper & Williams. The outfitting business done in Atchison was one of the greatest factors in establishing the town as a commercial center. Some of the first merchants to open stores in the new town were George Challis, the Burns Brothers, Stephen Johnston and Samuel Dickson.


On August 30, 1855, Atchison was incorporated. The town company had required every settler to build a house at least six feet square upon his lot, but when the survey was made it was discovered that some of these buildings were upon school lands.


The title to the school lands remained in question for some time, but in 1857 all lands embraced within the corporate limits of the town were acquired by the town company from the general government, and in turn, conveyed the lots to the individual purchasers, the titles being finally confirmed by the court.


During these early days of Atchison's history, the city was heavily involved in the Kansas-Missouri Border War, as the vast majority of her initial settlers were pro-slavery advocates. Despite these troubles, Atchison grew very fast and by the fall of 1856, she boasted some 50 new buildings.


Atchison, Kansas around 1860The first schools in the town were private, the first of which was opened in 1857 by Lizzie Bay. The first school district was established in October, 1858, and a month later the Atchison free high school was opened at the corner of Atchison and Commercial Streets.


Dr. John H. Stringfellow had North Atchison surveyed and platted in the fall of 1857, which started more new additions. In February, 1858, West Atchison was laid out by John Roberts, and in May, Samuel Dickson had his property surveyed as South Atchison. Still another addition was made by John Challis some time later.


On February 12, 1858, the legislature issued a charter to the city of Atchison, which was approved by the people on March 2nd at a special election. The first city officers were elected at a second special election on March 13, 1858. That same year, Atchison also became the county seat, with Lancaster, some 11 miles west, and Sumner, 12 miles south, as rivals. The following year the Atchison County courthouse would be built in the city. It would later be replaced by a stone courthouse built in 1897, which continues to stand today.



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