Shawnee Indians, along with many other eastern tribes, including Delaware, were moved to present-day Kansas in the 1820s and 1830s. Upon relinquishing their lands in the East, Shawnees received a large tract of land (about 1.6 million acres) west of Missouri in an area sometimes called the Great American Desert.
In July 1830 Chief Fish, leader of the Missouri Shawnees, requested a missionary through their Indian agent George Vashon. A missionary society was formed in September 1830. Reverend Thomas Johnson, a Methodist minister, was appointed missionary to the Shawnees and his brother William, missionary to the Kansa tribe.
The Reverend Thomas Johnson was born in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and later moved to Missouri. He married Sarah Davis at Clarksville, Missouri, in 1830, and that same year he arrived with his new bride in present-day Turner, Wyandotte County, Kansas.
Johnson proposed to the missionary society that a central school be built to serve many tribes. A site was chosen where a branch of the Santa Fe Trail passed through the Shawnee lands.
Building began, and the school opened at the present Johnson County location in October 1839. Indian children of many tribes were sent to this school to learn basic academics, manual arts, and agriculture. Some of the tribes represented were the Kaw (Kansa), Munsee, Delaware, Ottawa, Chippewa, Otoe, Osage, Cherokee, Peoria, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Wea, Gros Ventres, Omaha, and Wyandot.
At the height of its activity, the mission was an establishment of more than 2,000 acres with 16 buildings, including the three large brick structures, which still stand, and an enrollment of nearly 200 Indian boys and girls from the ages of five to 23.
The manual training portion of the school ceased in 1854. In 1858 Reverend Thomas Johnson turned the school over to his oldest son, Alexander, who ran the mission until it closed in 1862.
Thomas Johnson was murdered at his home in Missouri on January 2, 1865. The murderers were believed to have been Southern sympathizers who apparently were angered when Johnson, a proslavery man for many years, had sworn an oath of allegiance to the Union at the start of the Civil War. Johnson is buried in the Shawnee Methodist Mission cemetery (three blocks east of Mission Road on Shawnee Mission Parkway) along with several members of his family.
After several months of legal battles, the mission property was deeded to the Johnson family and was owned by various individuals until the State of Kansas acquired it in 1927. Since that time it has been administered by the Kansas Historical Society and today operates as Shawnee Indian Mission State Historic Site.
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