Early History to the 1860s

In prehistoric times the Kansas, Pawnee and Osage Native American tribes roamed the land drained by the Kansas, Missouri and Osage Rivers. Later, hunters and trappers ventured into the area, and after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the explorations of Lewis and Clark encouraged frontiersmen to move into the Trans-Mississippi West.

Overland trade with Mexico along the Santa Fe Trail brought enterprising merchants, the military and the first settlements to the western borders of the United States. Government treaties forced many woodland Native American tribes to move into what is now eastern Kansas. The Rev. Thomas Johnson immigrated with the Shawnee tribe to the new reserve in 1829, and established a mission.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 created the Kansas Territory, opening the land to pre-emption by home seekers of European descent from the more heavily populated states. Counties were formed late in 1855.

In the early months of 1857, the survey of the Shawnee lands was followed closely by land speculators, among whom was Dr. John T. Barton, a physician assigned to the Shawnee tribal headquarters. Preemption law provided for town sites that gave town companies the opportunity to gain power, money, political influence, and concessions such as post offices.

Barton and his associates chose the geographic center of the county, crossed by Mill Creek and the Santa Fe Trail, to claim for their town. Olathe, a Shawnee word understood to mean “beautiful,” was incorporated in 1857, and because of unstable political institutions, again in 1858. The Mahaffie family was among the first to settle near Olathe. The first Board of Trustees, headed by John T. Barton, was elected in 1859. Olathe legally became the county seat in October of that year.

Pat Cosgrove took the Johnson County Census in 1860. Of the 4,364 enumerated, 52 percent of the population were less than 19 years old; 11 percent were foreign born, mostly from Germany or Ireland; .01 percent was age 60 or older. Olathe’s population was 341.

The few homes and businesses were built of rough lumber and native stone. Public amenities did not exist, and streets were left to the imagination. One building, 12 feet by 14 feet, served as grocery, drug store, dry goods store, salon, and hotel. By fall, severe drought caused many settlers to pack up and return to the East.

About 1859 or 1860, Barton left Olathe for good. He served in the Confederate Army and later settled in Kansas City, Mo.

The Shawnee Mission was established as a school for Shawnee children from 1839 to 1862. Plan your visit to the Shawnee Indian Mission State Historical Site in Fairway Kansas to learn more about this Native American nation that influenced the founding of our City and other municipalities throughout the Greater Kansas City Metropolitan area.

Kansas came into the Union under the Wyandotte Constitution in January 1861. The Civil War began in April. Two-thirds of all adult males in Kansas served in the Union Army. The infamous Quantrill raided Olathe on Sept. 6, 1862. General Price was forced from Westport to defeat at Mine Creek in 1864.

More than half the buildings standing in Olathe in 1861 were moved or destroyed long before the end of the war. During this time, city government was very chaotic, but after Appomattox, Olathe was reincorporated as a city of the third class.

Native American Shawnee Chief Black Bob led the Hathawekla band that later became known as the “Blue Water Indians” because they lived on the Big Blue River, East of Olathe County. Black Bob’s Band retained this land until his death until 1864.

The 1865 Johnson County census was 6,093. The Institute for the Deaf and Dumb was organized in Olathe in 1866. Olathe’s first public school was built of stone in 1868. The railroad reached the eastern edge of the city in 1867, and the southern edge of the county by 1869.