Bluestem in the Flint Hills
"Texas shipped up the horns," Kansas cowmen used to say, "and we put the bodies under them." They meant that bony steers from Texas grew fat in the Bluestem pastures of Kansas. Stockmen drove their herds here along the old cattle trails, arriving by late April. The animals would graze and gain weight during May and June, then get shipped off to the Kansas City stockyards in July and August.
This yearly cycle began in the 1870s and by the late 19th century, cattle were shipped by rail. For thousands of years prior to that, the great bison herds roamed these acres. Their grazing and migration, along with periodic prairie fires shaped the ecology of the region. Eventually hunters drove the bison nearly to extinction. The Flint Hills extends from here to Oklahoma in a north-south strip approximately 60 miles in width. In the 1920s the Kansas Board of Agriculture began pushing a second name, "Bluestem pasture," as a marketing vehicle. This area remains one of North America's most fertile grazing belts.
In 1856 free-state colonists from Connecticut joined with earlier settlers to found the town of Wabaunsee, 15 miles northwest of here. Brooklyn abolitionist and clergyman Henry Ward Beecher helped raise funds to supply the settlers with the new Sharps repeating rifle for their defense during the sometimes-violent era of "Bleeding Kansas." According to an 1856 New York Tribune article, Beecher "believed that the Sharps rifle was a truly moral agency, and that there was more moral power in one of those instruments, so far as the slaveholders of Kansas were concerned, than in a hundred Bibles." Beecher's congregation also supplied the colonists with Bibles, perhaps leading to the widespread use of the term "Beecher Bibles" to describe the rifles. Wabaunsee residents soon became involved in the Underground Railroad, helping enslaved people to freedom in Canada. Between 1860 and 1862 the community completed the Beecher Bible and Rifle Church, now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The nearby Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie today interprets the history of this community.