Kansas River - Explorations Beyond Missouri
Playing a prominent part in the exploration of the west, the
river derives its name from the Kanza or Kaw tribe of Indians, which lived on
its banks for hundreds of years. The river has been given various names by map makers and
explorers, such as Riviere des Cans, des Kances, des Quans, Kanza, Konza, Kanzan,
etc. One of the earliest references to the river was by Antonio de Herraray Tordesillas, historiographer to the King of Spain. Marquette mentions
the Kanza in 1673. A map of the British and French settlements in North America,
published in 1758, calls it the "Padoucas River."
The Kansas River is formed by the junction of the
Smoky Hill and
at Junction City and flows in a general easterly direction through Geary and
Riley Counties, forms the boundary between Pottawatomie and
Wabaunsee Counties, crosses Shawnee, forms the boundary between Jefferson and
Douglas, and of Wyandotte and Johnson Counties in part, and empties into the
River at Kansas City. From Junction City to the mouth is about 240
The first map showing the Kansas River is Guillaume de l'Isle's "Carte de la Louisiane," which was drawn about 1718. This map, with
very few changes was published in English in 1721. As more and more traders
began to interact with the Indians at the beginning of the 19th century, more
accurate reports of the river began to appear.
Among the early accounts of the river there is much fiction.
H.M. Brackenridge in his journal in 1811 said: "The patron of our boat informs
me that he has ascended it upwards of 900 miles, with a tolerable navigation."
Morse's Gazetteer in 1823 said: "the Kansas River . . . rises in the
plains between the Platte and the Arkansas Rivers and joins the
It is navigable 900 miles." In 1820, Stephen H. Long Expedition
ascended the river about a mile in a boat, experiencing considerable difficulty
in getting over a deposit of mud left at the mouth by a recent flood on the
Major Stephen H. Long said: "The Gasconade,
Kansas Rivers are navigable in the spring season, but their navigation seldom
extends far inland from their mouths, being obstructed by shoals or rapids . The
Kansas River is navigable only in high freshets (sudden overflow) for boats of burden, and on such occasions not more than 150 or
200 miles, the navigation being obstructed by shoals." In the travels of
Maximilian, in the early '30s he said: "The steamboat has navigated the Kansas
River about seven miles upward to a trading post of the American Fur Company,
which is now under the direction of a brother of Pierre Chouteau." During the
period of early overland travel to the far west much emigration went up the
valley of the Kansas River, travelers bound for
crossing the river at
Topeka at Pappan's Ferry, or following father up stream and
crossing at Uniontown over a rock bottom ford. Another ford was located near
Fort Riley, and considerable travel went by that way.
Prior to the opening of the territory the river was practically unknown
as an artery of commerce. The keel boats and flat-bottomed boats of the early
trappers and hunters, laden with supplies for the camp or returning to
civilization laden with pelts and other trophies, or the canoes and bull boats
of the Indians were practically the only craft to disturb these
waters. Shortly after the signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill
the first great
influx of settlers arrived by way of the
in steamboats, landing
Missouri, or going up the river a short distance to
Leavenworth, near which was soon to spring up the city of
Leavenworth. As Kansas sought to become a
Free-State more towns in the interior were
established, but more rapid means of getting inland was needed. As a result, an
enterprising river man named Captain Charles K. Baker, anticipated the
opportunity by the purchase of the steamer Excel for the Kansas River
Early River Commerce.)
While the subject of navigation was a live one, the
Legislature of 1857 passed an act to encourage the navigation of the Kansas
River. The act provided for the establishment of the Kansas River
Navigation Company for the purpose of employing one or more steamboats to
navigate the Kansas River and its tributaries to convey passengers, tow
boats, vessels or rafts, and the transportation of merchandise.
In 1864 the railroads secured the passage of an act by the
legislature declaring the Kansas,
Big Blue Rivers
not navigable and authorizing the bridging of these rivers. This was
intended to remove any competition that might develop if the rivers of the
state were left open for free navigation.
In carrying out a provision of Congress requiring an
examination of the Kansas River with a view of its being kept navigable,
J.D. McKown, of the United States Engineer Corps, submitted a report on
January 8, 1879, of an investigation made of the river between
Junction City and the mouth, with the recommendation that an appropriation
of $450,000 be made for the purpose of widening the
channel and for the protection of the banks and removal of snags. However, no
action was taken by Congress on that report. In 1886 the Kansas
Legislature again resurrected the matter and passed a resolution that
declared the Kansas River navigable and appropriated funds to remove
certain impediments. However, with new forms of transportation already in
place, the river was never again utilized for large scale transportation.
The Kansas River drains an area of 36,000 square miles
in Kansas -- almost the entire northern half
-- 11,000 miles in Nebraska, and
6,000 miles in
Colorado -- in all, 53,000 square miles. In times of excessive
rainfall the channel of the river has not always been able to
carry off the flood waters of all its incoming sources, among the most
important of which are the
Compiled and edited by
of Kansas, updated March, 2017.
the Article: The majority of this historic text was published in Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History,
Volume I; edited by Frank W. Blackmar, A.M. Ph. D.; Standard Publishing
Company, Chicago, IL 1912. However, the text that appears on these page is not verbatim,
as additions, updates, and editing have occurred.
Kansas River showing the the Bowersock Dam in
photo by Miles Smith, courtesy
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