The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: Local History and Description >> The West >> Kansas >> Cities and Towns

a city in and seat of Atchison County; population (2010 census) 11,021

location of Atchison County
location of Atchison


The first recorded expedition into what is now Atchison County was led by Sieur de Bourgmont in 1724 for the purpose of establishing trade relations with the Indians of the Platte River region. The next recorded visit was made by the Lewis & Clark Expedition, which celebrated the first Independence Day in the American West in the area on July 4, 1804. The first U.S. military outpost in what is now Kansas was established by Major Stephen H. Long at Cow Island, in the Missouri River six miles south of Atchison, during the winter of 1818.

On July 20, 1854, men from Platte City, Missouri, crossed the Missouri River and staked out a town site they named for David Rice Atchison, a U.S. Senator from Missouri who served as President of the United States for one day, March 4, 1849, when Zachary Taylor refused to take the oath of office on a Sunday. Atchison was incorporated as a town by the Territorial Legislature on August 30, 1855, and as a city on February 18, 1858.

The city thrived from the beginning because it had one of the best steamboat landings on the Missouri River, wagon roads to the West, and it was several miles nearer Denver, Colorado, than other river towns. In early years, at least two steamboats -- and sometimes four or five -- landed at the Atchison levee daily. During the great Mormon immigration westward, city leaders were able to persuade thousands of Mormons to cross the river and outfit at Atchison. The Overland Stage Line and Salt Lake City-based freighters made it their eastern terminus, and the stage coach line from Atchison to Placerville, Calif., was one of the longest and most important lines in the country. The U.S. Post Office made Atchison the headquarters and starting point for mail to the West. When the boom days of stage and river trade faded in the 1860's, Atchison leaders set their sights on making the city a railroad hub. With $150,000 from Atchison investors as the financial basis, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad was founded in Atchison.

downtown Atchison circa 1860
downtown Atchison about 1860

Not content with relying solely on the river and the railroads for its prosperity, city leaders courted a variety of major industries from 1870 to 1900, including banking, grains and milling, lumber, and manufacturing.

Other Information

Abraham Lincoln visited Kansas in December 1859, stopping and speaking in Atchison to try out his historic Cooper Union speech before unveiling it in front of national media several months later.

Atchison was immortalized by the Oscar-winning song "On the Atchison, Topeka & the Santa Fe" in the 1945 film The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland.

John J. Ingalls, an Atchison lawyer who became a U.S. Senator, was instrumental in framing the Wyandotte Constitution, under which Kansas achieved statehood, and established the state's motto, Ad Astra per Aspera.Atchison has provided Kansas with three Governors -- George W. Glick (1883-1885), John A. Martin (1885-1889), and Willis J. Bailey (1903-1905). Three Atchison lawyers have served as Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court.

Aviatrix Amelia Earhart was born in her grandparents' Atchison home in 1897 and lived there during her formative childhood years. That home is now the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum.

statue of Amelia Earhart in downtown Atchison
statue of Amelia Earhart

Other notable Atchison natives include E.W. Howe, founder of the Atchison Daily Globe in 1877 who gained national renown in the early 1900's as an author and columnist and helped bring prominence to the city; and Jesse Stone (nee Charles Calhoun), a prolific songwriter and arranger best known for the rock 'n' roll hit "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" sung by Big Joe Turner.

Among Atchison's early settlers were Benedictines who established St. Benedict's Abbey in 1858 and Mount St. Scholastica in 1863. The buildings where they lived, worked, and worshipped are still prominent cornerstones of the Atchison community today as part of Benedictine College, one of the top-ranked private Catholic universities in the country.

Atchison Area Chamber of Commerce
City of Atchison
Visit Atchison

Sieur de Bourgmont
Zachary Taylor
Denver, Colorado
Abraham Lincoln
John J. Ingalls
Wyandotte Constitution
Amelia Earhart

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: Local History and Description >> The West >> Kansas >> Cities and Towns

This page was last updated on August 25, 2017.