How Kansas Got Its Shape

The shape of Kansas is rather convenient. It is basically a rectangle with a bite out of the upper-right corner, defined by the course of the Missouri River.

However, this shape leaves little to the imagination. As a consequence, few stop to ask how the boundaries evolved, when in fact some surprising stories surround this topic.

The Eastern Boundary

The eastern boundary of Kansas was determined as early as 1820 when Missouri was created. At the time, the meridian running through the mouth of the Kansas River marked the western boundary of Missouri. This meridian was found to be 94° 37′ 03.4″ W.

In 1836, the Platte Purchase added a jut-out to the northwestern corner of Missouri. This set the western boundary of that part of Missouri as the Missouri River, creating the bite in the northeast corner of Kansas.

As early as 1855, both the Kansas Territorial Legislature and the Missouri State Legislature debated transferring 60 square miles of territory including Kansas City, Missouri, to Kansas. In 1879, the Kansas City issue came up again, with a transfer to Kansas supported by some of the city residents and by the Kansas legislature. Neither proposal received sufficient support to make any real progress.

As late as 1949, the Kansas–Missouri Boundary Compact adjusted the boundary along the Missouri River. This agreement compensated for changes in the course of the river during flooding in 1944. Doniphan County, Kansas, lost some land to Buchanan County, Missouri, while Atchison County gained a small area from the latter.

The Northern Boundary

The Kansas–Nebraska Act set the northern boundary of Kansas at 40° N.

But when the Wyandotte Convention met to write a constitution for Kansas in 1859, a delegation from Nebraska showed up. The Nebraskans asked to have the northern boundary of Kansas set by the Platte River. They pointed out that the “Platte river is the natural northern boundary of Kansas while our present boundary is only an imaginary one.” Evidently, disputes over funding and the location of the Nebraska capital had prompted those south of the Platte to seek to cast their lot in with Kansas. However, the resolution was defeated 29 to 19, and the territorial boundary was retained.

The Southern Boundary

How Kansas Got Its Shape
Map of the territories of Kansas and Nebraska

The Missouri Compromise indirectly influenced the southern boundary of Kansas. This agreement stipulated that states organized north of 36° 30′ would automatically become free states. Of course, Stephen A. Douglas made other arrangements in the Kansas–Nebraska Act. Nevertheless, 36° 30′ seemed to be the logical border at first. After all, Missouri’s southwestern corner was located at 36° 30′. Furthermore, this boundary line would give Kansas Territory full control over the Santa Fe Trail all the way into New Mexico.

However, the writers of the act believed that the Native Americans owned the land up to the 37th parallel, and therefore set the southern state line accordingly. This created a disputed strip of public lands later called “No Man’s Land.” The western portion of No Man’s Land subsequently became the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Ironically, moving the border north to the 37th parallel still infringed on Cherokee Lands. The 37th parallel marked the northern boundary of Osage land, while the Cherokee Strip began north of that. The Cherokee unsuccessfully tried to have the southern boundary of Kansas moved still further northward, but in the end signed a treaty selling off the Cherokee Strip.

The Western Boundary

The summit of the Rocky Mountains originally served as the western boundary of Kansas Territory, thus including all of the plains and eastern foothills of present-day Colorado. This was why, when gold was discovered near Pike’s Peak, enthusiastic headlines proclaimed: “Gold in Kansas Territory!!”

But this meant that Kansas’s shape was not rectangular. The far western border ran jaggedly down the Continental Divide, then took a sharp easterly turn to bypass what was then New Mexico, then south again to reach the 37th parallel.

But some of the writers of the Wyandotte Constitution felt that this appendage made Kansas far too large and unwieldy. The population was located at either end and not in the middle. Furthermore, the interests of the two population groups were disparate. The eastern group was primarily concerned with farming and abolition, while the western group was of a mining character. Indeed, Denver residents had already been petitioning Congress for the creation of a separate Jefferson Territory.

Democrats and Republicans at the Wyandotte Convention divided on the issue. The Democrats favored keeping the boundaries intact, probably to increase their influence in the new state by augmenting the votes of the more westerly Kansas counties, particularly Riley County, with those of the mining centers. The Republicans, on the other hand, represented the better settled northeastern counties and sought to divide the territory.

In the end, the Wyandotte Constitution was adopted by the convention without any Democratic signatures. Those in favor of dividing the territory proposed meridians from 23 to 27 west of Washington. Accordingly, when Kansas was admitted to the Union under the Wyandotte Constitution in 1861, the western boundary was fixed at 25° W of the zero meridian in Washington. (When the Greenwich Meridian was adopted, the boundary became 102° 03′ 02.3″ W.)

Helpful Resource

Historical Atlas of Kansas

Kansas Historical Atlas
A series of excellent maps explains the boundary disputes. Read our full review.