When Isaac Goodnow and five fellow New Englanders arrived at the junction of the Kansas and Big Blue rivers in March of 1855, they pitched a tent and launched a town. Harassment and homesickness almost drove them back east, but they held their ground to establish an antislavery and educational stronghold: the town of Manhattan, Kansas.
Kevin Olson's lively history of Manhattan's founding illuminates the divisive forces that had to be overcome amidst the turbulence of the Civil War era and the sheer drama of building a town from scratch on the Great Plains frontier. With an eye for vivid detail and reflecting a native's deep knowledge of the city, Olson chronicles the first four decades of Manhattan as it grew from tent to town.
Although spared much of the Bleeding Kansas violence, Manhattan saw its share of shootouts and lynching in its Wild West days. Olson evocatively recaptures those rough-and-tumble times and effectively describes the town's key social and economic transformations. He also highlights the emergence of a college town and "New England village" by 1866, followed by Manhattan's growth and modernisation in the 1890s.
Drawing on town records as well as the personal papers of boosters, Olson mirrors the history of Kansas through the lens of this one community by interweaving ecology, relations with Native Americans, agriculture, literature, architecture, social mores, politics, economic issues, and university origins to recreate a vibrant cross-section of town life. His account of Kansa Indian settlement Blue Earth Village shines a light on a prehistory that until now has been little covered; his retelling of the emigration of the New England settlers recalls one of the most compelling stories of the antebellum era; and his coverage of the 1860s surpasses that of most previous histories.
Written for general readers while boasting an impressive depth of scholarship, Frontier Manhattan takes us on a journey into the past to shop at Higginbotham and Purcell's or enjoy a stay at the Manhattan House hotel with jovial mayor Andrew Mead. With its strong sense of place and personality, Olson's book is as engaging as it is informative in celebrating the origins and early life of this quintessential Kansas city.
Manhattan native Kevin G. W. Olson has gone from Little to Big Apple, where he is now assistant attorney general in the Environmental Protection Bureau of the Office of the New York State Attorney General.