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Potawatomi Mission

Powatomi Mission, 1930

Years ago, someone painted a red cross on a wall inside the Potawatomi Mission west of Topeka. We may never know who drew that cross. The artist may have been one of the students from the Potawatomi or other Indigenous nations attending the mission boarding school here in the 1850s. The artist could have been a child playing in the building when it was used as a barn in the 1950s.

The Kansas Historical Society preserves this cross along with the original stone mission, built in 1849. The cross is one of many unknown stories surrounding the students who lived at this mission school. It is difficult to tell the mission's story from the children's viewpoint because their voices are included in few written records. Even the records of the white missionaries who taught at this school are incomplete.

The Potawatomi had lived in the Great Lakes region, often conducting business with French traders. The Civilization Fund Act in 1819 authorized white missionaries and church leaders to partner with the U.S. government and work with Indigenous nations to replace tribal practices with Christian practices. Indian removal treaties forced many of the region's to present-day Kansas. The Potawatomi were among those nations that experience devastating loss on their long walk to reserves in the late 1830s.

Government funds from these treaties poured into the area along with traders, land speculators, and railroad companies all battling to take advantage of the tribal money and lands. Religious organizations established missions with the money to convert Indian students to adapt to white society. Through the process, their traditional tribal cultures were lost in the assimilation process.

The Potawatomis were assigned to Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, and non-denomination missionaries. An 1846 treaty with the Potawatomi established a reserve on 576,000 acres, 30 square miles, west of Topeka. Johnston Lykins was a Baptist missionary, physician, and teacher assigned to the Potawatomi. Lykins submitted plans for the Baptist manual labor school to the superintendent of Indian Affairs on August 10, 1849. The three-floor mission had dormitory accommodations for male and female students, separate classrooms and dining halls, mission offices, and kitchen. 

Potawatomi Baptist Mission plans August 10, 1849

Students began attending the school in January 1850 according to the mission reports. By spring 1850 the building was complete and 17 Indigenous students were in attendance. Lykins was a physician and teacher. Communication was a challenge. A Potawatomi translator was hired to assist at times. Since many of the Indian students spoke French, missionaries supplied French Bibles.

Two close competitors for treaty money were the Potawatomi Baptist Manual Labor School, just south of the Kansas River near present-day Topeka, and St. Mary's Catholic Mission about 12 miles up-river. Both missions received start-up money from the federal government and from $50 to $75 for each student on their rolls. In exchange, the missions fed, clothed, and schooled the children.

Two Potawatomi brothers, Richard and Bernard Bertrand, are listed on the rolls of both schools from 1848 through 1850. Many Potawatomi children attended both schools sporadically, and the two missions often listed the same students on their rolls to keep their numbers up and receive continued payments from the federal government.

A child's early days at the mission was traumatic. Native dress was taken away and replaced with "white" Potawatomi at St. Marys, 1867clothing, and Potawatomi names were replaced with Christian ones. Family visits were discouraged because they exposed children to the very way of life the missions were trying to eliminate.

After the seasonal pace of tribal life, the mission's highly scheduled days must have been a difficult adjustment for the children. Mission life followed a strict schedule of prayers, study, and classroom work. Girls also learned to cook, sew, and launder clothes. Boys like the Bertrand brothers worked in the fields, cared for livestock, and learned blacksmithing.

The Potawatomi Mission near Topeka operated until 1861. It suffered from sporadic shortages of funds and staffing throughout its short history, but the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 made these problems insurmountable. When Kansas became a state that same year, the Potawatomi reservation was reduced dramatically in size, and most of the tribe moved to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).

The stone building was converted to a barn after the mission closed its doors, and it operated as Prairie Dell Farm for a time. The Kansas Historical Society bought the property and surrounding 80 acres in 1974, where its headquarters are now located.


Barr, Thomas P. "The Pottawatomie Baptist Mission Manual Training School," Kansas Historical Quarterly, Winter 1977.

Entry: Potawatomi Mission

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: April 2009

Date Modified: April 2023

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