Jump to Navigation

Shawnee County, Kansas

The county seat, and state capital of Kansas, Topeka, is located within the borders of Shawnee County, Kansas. It was in Shawnee County, at Topeka’s Constitution Hall, that the Topeka Constitution was written in 1855. Although it did not become the constitution adopted when Kansas became a state, it was influential and an important part of Kansas history.

Shawnee County, Kansas, established as one of the original counties in 1855, was named for the Shawnee Indian tribe. Within its borders is Topeka, the county seat of the county and the capital of the State of Kansas. The Oregon Trail passed through the county.

Before Kansas was opened for settlement with the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Indian tribes inhabited the area. Such tribes as Shawnee, Kansas, and Pottawatomie have connections with the county. The Pottawatomie were moved to the Kansas River, but their borders were not clear and ended up settling on the Shawnee Reservation. They moved after spending the winter there. A mission was established in the future township of Auburn.

The first county seat of Shawnee County was Tecumseh. In 1858, an election was held, and Topeka was the winner of the county seat. A biased judge, however called the election a void. The legislature eventually declared Topeka the permanent county seat.

The Topeka Constitution, a free-state constitution, was written in 1855 in Constitution Hall in Topeka. President Pierce and the Governor of the territory did not support this constitution. The Governor prohibited the legislature from meeting. In 1856, he sent troops from Fort Leavenworth to prevent them meeting. Colonel Edwin Sumner marched into the legislature that had met against orders and told them they must break up. The did this and many freestaters were present in the town, including John Brown. Throughout the territorial fight over slavery, Topekans were active, even coming to the aid of Lawrence. The Topeka Constitution, along with the Leavenworth Constitutions were stepping stones for the Wyandotte Constitution, which was the constitution used when Kansas was admitted as a state. Abolitionists like John and Mary Ritchie settled in the Topeka area. They came to help Kansas become a free-state. They were active in the causes of abolitionism, temperance, woman’s rights, had connections with the Underground Railroad. Ritchie also fought in the Civil War. He was even imprisoned at a point during the territorial years. One of the Ritchie’s causes, temperance, had an early start in Topeka, as meetings were being held for it even in the 1855.

Topeka was selected as the State Capital and construction began to construct a structure in 1866. Despite it not being finished, legislators first met in the first wing to be constructed in 1870. Construction occurred periodically over the next several decades. By 1913, there was four wings, and a rotunda. Before the capital building was constructed and in use, Constitution Hall was one of the buildings used for the state government. Railroads entered Topeka early on its history and the Union Pacific was one of the railroads there by 1866.

During World War II, a U.S. Navy ship was named U. S. S. Topeka, launched April 19, 1944, and commissioned December 23, 1944. The cruiser represented the city in Kansas.

In 1954 the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation, or the concept of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional in the well-known Civil Rights case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. While this case is a large part of the Civil Rights movement to follow, the movement in Kansas had started decades before. Many cases had been going before the Kansas Supreme Court. Three such cases Reynolds v. Board of Education of Topeka, 1903; Wright v. Board of Education of Topeka, 1929; and Graham v. Board of Education of Topeka, 1941; were cases from in the county.

In 1951, a flood hit the county and other counties as well. It caused much damage to property and two dozen deaths. In 1966, a disastrous tornado started in the county and wreaked havoc on Topeka. Washburn University saw much damage, including the destruction of their oldest buildings. Even the capitol building sustained damage. The cost of all the damage caused by the tornado was extremely high and the death toll was 17 and the number of injured reached into the hundreds.

Washburn University was found in 1865. Kaw Area Technical School, now called Washburn Institute of Technology is also located in Topeka. Many industries have come to the Topeka area, such as manufacturing companies, and Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. During World War II Forbes Air Force Base was established. A Navy vessel, U.S.S. Topeka was commissioned during World War II.

The Menninger Clinic, a renowned institute founded in Topeka, focused on treating the whole patient, body and mind. The clinic was begun by Karl Menninger and his father Charles Menninger in 1919. Menninger Clinic grew over the years and eventually the Menninger Sanitarium, and later the Menninger School of Psychiatry. The Menningers’ approach was focused on the goal of helping patients improve.

shawnee county kansas court for Sale OFF 70%In 1929 Charles Curtis, whose house is in Topeka, became the first Vice President not only from west of the Mississippi, but of Native American decent. He was Vice President under Herbert Hoover. Curtis grew up with his paternal grandparents in the county and in Morris County with his other grandmother on the Kaw Reservation. His Topeka house is on the National Register of Historic Places. Alfred Landon’s nomination for presidency in 1936, is another significant event in the county’s history. 

Shawnee County possesses many properties on the National Register of Historic Places and Register of Historic Kansas Places. Washburn Carnegie Library Building was built around 1904 and was established with the help of Andrew Carnegie and the Carnegie Corporations’ work in establishing libraries. The Union Pacific Railroad Passenger Depot was built in the 1920’s. Topeka High School, designed by Thomas Williamson, was built when overcrowding in the schools was becoming a problem. It was finished in 1931. Constitution hall was built in the early days of Kansas’s Territorial period. Cedar Crest, built for Frank Pitts MacLennan, was eventually given to the state for use as a governor’s mansion when his widow died in the 1950’s. The John and Mary Ritchie House, abolitionists and activists in many social causes, was believed to have been built around the 1856. Memorial Building, dedicated in 1914, was built as a memorial to Civil War veterans and was home to the Kansas State Historical Society for years. The state capital saw its first construction in 1866. The Sage Inn, was a hotel ran by the Alfred Sage in Dover, Kansas, and was built in 1878. The Potwin Place Historic District is an area of Topeka, that has house built-in the 19th Century and even as late as the 1920’s and 1930’s. The Pottawatomie Baptist Mission Site was the home to the mission which was started in the 1840’s. The Ward-Meade House dates back to the 1870’s, although The Wards first settled on the land in the 1850s. The U.S. Post Office and Court House was a project built after the Public Buildings Act, of Keyes-Elliot Act, of 1926 and amended in 1930, provided funding for public buildings. Sumner and Monroe Elementary Schools are National Historic Landmarks for their association with the Supreme Court Case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Individuals of note with connections to Shawnee County include Charles Curtis, the Menninger family, Governor Arthur Capper, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and U. S senators, congressmen, and state supreme court justices.

Quick Facts

Date Established: August 2, 1855
County Seat: Topeka
Kansas Region: Northeast
Physiographic Region: Glaciated Region and Osage Cuestas
Scenic Byway: Native Stone
State Park: Kaw River State Park
Courthouse: May 1, 1965


1854 - Kansas-Nebraska Act
1855 - Shawnee County is established.
1858 - Topeka becomes the county seat.
1861 - Kansas is admitted into the Union as a free-state.
1866 - Construction begins on the capital building.
1913 - The capitol is mostly finished with east, west, north and south wings along with a rotunda.
1954 - Well-known Civil Rights case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka rules that segregation in schools is unconstitutional.  

More on Shawnee County


Entry: Shawnee County, Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: February 2010

Date Modified: August 2023

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.