Custer Lives!

Kansas State Museum

 

In July 2009 I visited the Kansas State Historical Society Museum in Topeka. The Museum building is a large concrete structure that was built in 1984 I believe. There was a ton of free parking. The Museum grounds have a series of Nature Trails that circle the complex. They are easy to walk, informative, and quite pretty.

I made my way toward the main entrance and came upon the Potawatomie Baptist Manual Labor Training School building. The school was opened in 1850 and housed close to one hundred Potawatomie Indian children. The school closed during the US Civil War. The Potawatomie Reservation is about twenty five miles north of here.

As I got closer to the entrance I passed by the Great White Buffalo sculpture designed by Lumen Martin Winter. The eight ton buffalo and Indian sculpture is placed in a shallow pool. Lumen Winter died soon after the design was approved and his son William completed it. It portrays the buffalo and an Indian living in harmony. The Indian on horseback is not attempting to kill the buffalo, he is riding with it to symbolize their unity.

Once inside, I paid my modest entry fee and was given a lot of helpful advice and printed materials from the enthusiastic and knowledgeable staffer at the desk. Directly across from the admission desk is the children's area known as the Discovery Place. It contains a tipi, costumes to try on, country fair games, carousel horses, and more. The little tykes inside were having a grand time. Next door was museum store which I decided to save until I was done in the galleries.

As you enter the galleries, the first area is set up for special exhibits. There until November 8, 2009 is the 'Lincoln in Kansas' exhibition. President Lincoln's Kansas connections were heavily stressed in the initial portion of the exhibit. There several items, including a flag, about the Black Union Soldiers representing Kansas. Several original documents signed by President Lincoln were displayed. I then saw the dreaded John Wilkes Booth display. A portion of the gallows crossbeam used to execute the Lincoln conspirators was there, along with a portion of a program from Ford's Theater stained with President Abraham Lincoln's blood. Exciting to me were memorial items from Indianapolis, my hometown, from when the Presidential Funeral Train passed through it. Several personal items belonging to President Lincoln were on display. I really enjoyed this portion of the museum. It was lighted well and you could actually see what was on display, unlike some later portions.

I exited the Lincoln In Kansas exhibit and entered the lobby again. As I was preparing to make my way inside the main gallery I spotted what I immediately recognized as dinosaur eggs. I really enjoy dinosaur exhibits as much as I do army aviation rotor craft and the Plains Indian Wars. The two eggs were a gift from China in July 2005. The Dendroolithus and Faveoloolithus eggs are about one hundred million years old.

I finally got the main gallery. I liked the way the museum was laid out, from the earliest Indians to the turn of the last century. The layout twisted and turned but almost always provided easy to read signs and information. There was usually ample room to take photos and get the exhibit in the frame. The only drawback to taking photos was that the museum is just too dark and flash photography is prohibited. Some of the exhibits are REALLY dark. I did the best I could by forcing f-stops to allow as much light as I could into the camera but I had left my tripod back at my room in Lawrence so I couldn't take any extended exposure shots. As you will see in my photos at the bottom, detail is really obscured in some photos.

The Indian displays were large and very informative. A lot of western museums I've visited dwell on the Indians during the time of their interactions with Whites. It was nice to see the prehistoric Indian displays and they were very informative. I was amazed at some of the craftsmanship on household items, clothing, tools, and dwellings. A vast amount of pottery was displayed. I really liked the horse equipment including saddles. The boots were also amongst my favorites. The entry of Whites, and their influence on the Indians, has a lot of items displayed.

There are some wildlife displays including buffalo and prairie dogs. Their impact on both White and Indian cultures is explained and leads into the forts and trails. The US Frontier Army and Mexican Army both have numerous uniforms displayed and a lot of hardware. A very large section of civilian artifacts are shown, including a covered wagon. This section concludes with the Indians being forced into White culture and it's impact on their own.

The US Civil War comes up next. A lot of Confederate artifacts are on display. I never knew how many battles were fought in Kansas by Rebel Troops. I was even more amazed to see the number of attacks made in the 1850's by southern states in Kansas. Some of John Brown's weapons and possessions are shown. There's a nice display of articles from Quantrill's Raid in 1862. There's a ton of Union Army uniforms and equipment to view. There's good lighting here and I got some of my best photos here. The Civil War slavery section was very moving. I was particularly moved while reading about an elderly slave who was sent to an Indian Reservation after she could no longer do any type of work. A shackle cut from an escaping slave also had me dwelling on it and the man who wore it. I hope he made it.

Next we had the settlements further west. A nice display of a prairie home dominated this portion. A lot of transportation items and White work implements were shown. A large display on the Battle of The Washita was informative and well laid out. It was really dark, as was much of the Plains Indian Wars displays. General George Armstrong Custer has several displays. His Cavalry boots are still on display but his weightlifting dumbbell isn't. The boots were a gift from Libby Custer and photos of General Custer wearing them are shown. For a guy close to 5'11" the General had small feet. They looked like a narrow size 9. Maybe it's because I'm 6'1" and wear a 13 wide. A gatling gun similar to the type General Custer did not take into combat at the Little Big Horn is shown. This thing is massive. I can see why he didn't want to take them. There's no way they could have been moved rapidly on the battlefield terrain out there. I've walked it and it would have been difficult at best. It was one of the darkest exhibits in the museum and my photos of it are really dark and devoid of detail.

The buffalo hunter display shows the effects of the declining herds on both the Indian and White cultures. Methods of hunting and the use of the carcasses by both cultures is displayed. The transition from the frontier to the late 19th century and early 20th century comes next. Lots of tools, clothing, and household items are displayed. A full size train is on the tracks and you can go inside it. This portion of the museum is very dark and photography was difficult. World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, Viet Nam all get displays. There are some nice displays about the 1950's that caught my eye. I knew I was really getting old when I saw some old computers I used to work with in a museum. I really enjoyed talking to a volunteer staffer as I neared the end. He was an older gentleman and was very well versed on Kansas and US history.

After completing my tour I headed to the well stocked museum store. There was a good selection of items for all price ranges and ages. All the ladies working in there were friendly as could be and were quick to offer assistance. I found a great old Godzilla book in the clearance section. I have no idea why Godzilla was in Kansas but I got the book for about one quarter of it's cover price so I didn't care. If you are visiting Kansas, add this museum to your can't miss list.

The Museum entrance.

The former Potawatomie Baptist Manual Labor Training School.

The Great White Buffalo sculpture.

A portion of the gallows used to execute the President Lincoln conspirators.

President Lincoln's blood stains this Ford's Theater program.

A portion of the display about early residents of Kansas.

One of the many Indian displays.

Early US Army items used to guard the Santa Fe Trail.

John Brown's Colt revolver and sword.

A slave shackle that was cut from an escapee in 1860.

7th Kansas Cavalry Company H guidon. This Union Army regiment was known for it's attacks on Missouri civilians.

The display about the Battle of The Washita.

Boots belonging to General George Armstrong Custer, donated by his spouse Libby.

A gatling gun similar to the type General Custer chose not to take to the Little Big Horn.

One of the displays about White pioneer industry in Kansas.

A Confederate flag left behind by one of Quantrill's Raiders.

 

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