Kansas: A Unit Study

Kansas: A Unit Study
Kansas: A Unit Study

On January 29, 1861, Kansas became the 34th state in the Union, an event which had long been delayed due to intense conflict between free-state and pro-slavery proponents.

Kansas History

The first white man to explore Kansas was Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who came through in 1541. He left in disappointment when he found no gold, and few Spaniards set foot in Kansas thereafter. The first Europeans to take a lasting interest in Kansas were the French. In 1691, La Salle discovered the mouth of the Mississippi River, giving him the right to claim for France the lands located within its drainage system—including all of Kansas. At first, Spain resented this intrusion on the lands they had conquered, but a massacre in 1720 brought them to acknowledge French claims. For several decades the French enjoyed the right to trap and trade furs across the area that they called Louisiana after Louis XIV, but at the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 this broad territory went back to Spain. Napoleon later reclaimed French rights to the area and sold the land to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.

Explorers were soon sent out to examine the new Louisiana Territory. Lewis and Clark passed through the northeastern corner of the state in 1804, but a more thorough exploration was led by Zebulon Pike in 1806. When he mapped Kansas, he labeled it as the “Great American Desert.” Since few Americans had any cause to doubt the word of a prestigious explorer such as Zebulon Pike, when the young nation began its course of westward expansion, it tended to avoid Kansas as much as possible.

In 1830 the Indian Removal Act was passed, which populated the eastern part of the territory with tribes from other states. But the white man could not be kept out of the new Indian Territory. Beginning in the early 1840s, covered wagons began to cut across northeastern Kansas on their way to Oregon and California. As the stream of emigrants increased, more and more people began to realize that Pike had been somewhat mistaken, at least about the eastern part of the area. Squatters happily relinquished their visions of the Pacific Coast and set up illegal claims in Indian Territory, meanwhile suggesting to Congress that the region should be opened for settlement.

At the same time, Congress was seriously considering a number of proposals to build a transcontinental railroad. Reclaiming part of Indian Territory would make construction easier, so once again the native tribes were moved to new homes, this time in present-day Oklahoma. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois next proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act to organize two new United States territories and pave the way for railroad building. This law was passed in 1854.

However, there was a critical flaw with the Kansas-Nebraska Act that temporarily thwarted the railroad plans: it repealed the Missouri Compromise, which had kept the uneasy nation together for over 30 years. This agreement had outlawed slavery in territories north of 36º 30’ in latitude, the southern boundary of Missouri. Senator Douglas replaced the restriction with the concept of “popular sovereignty,” often bitterly referred to as “squatter sovereignty” in the years to follow—the people of the territory would decide whether or not to allow slavery.

Bleeding Kansas

Then began the infamous epoch of Bleeding Kansas. A pro-slavery raid was launched on the free-state town of Lawrence, which was instantly followed up by several murders committed by the notorious abolitionist John Brown. One violent act provoked another, and, as the chaos proceeded, an early form of yellow journalism prevailed, making matters worse.

Several attempts were made to write a constitution for Kansas and make it a state, but national gridlock kept these efforts from moving forward until the South seceded from the Union. Then at last Kansas became the 34th state. A jubilant spirit can be felt in the words of the new state’s motto: Ad astra per aspera, “To the stars through difficulty.”

Guerrilla conflict continued throughout the Civil War, but Kansas was soon set for prosperity. In 1863, construction began on the Kansas Pacific, a branch of the Transcontinental Railroad. This line and several others, most notably the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, crept their way across the state, bringing significant changes to what was still a rather sparsely settled area. For instance, new markets led to the frequently romanticized era of cowboys and cattle drives. The railroads also brought the quieter but more lasting influence of homesteaders, who slowly populated the state and firmly established its agricultural bent.

Much has changed since those times. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, farming became mechanized and industry began to prevail. This trend was hastened by the onset of World War II, which increased the need not only for grains but for various manufactures, as well. After the war was over, farms continued to increase in size, but more and more people migrated to urban areas within the state.

Kansas Geography

Kansas is almost a rectangle, missing a bit of the northeast corner where the Missouri River marks the state line. Its neighbors are Nebraska to the north, Missouri to the east, Oklahoma to the south, and Colorado to the west. Kansas is the center of the 48 contiguous states. Principle rivers include the Missouri, the Kansas, and the Arkansas.

Kansas: A Unit Study

Contrary to popular notion, Kansas is not flat. The eastern third of the state is part of the Central Lowlands. This part of Kansas is rolling overall, with numerous river valleys. The western two thirds belong to the Great Plains, which are more level. However, areas of valleys, buttes, and even sand dunes provide some topographical relief.

Kansas Climate

Being located inland, away from any large bodies of water, the climate of Kansas can fluctuate wildly. Overall, however, annual precipitation steadily decreases from east to west, as the state is influenced by the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains. Precipitation may exceed 40 inches annually in the humid southeastern corner of the state, and it may plummet below 16 inches near the Colorado border.

Temperatures tend toward extremes in all parts of Kansas, with summers being hot and winters being cold. There is another gradient in this case, however, this one ranging from the slightly colder northwest to the slightly hotter southeast.

Because it is an area where hot and cold air intercept each other frequently, Kansas is in the somewhat tumultuous “Tornado Alley” region of the country. Severe thunderstorms are common in the spring, while strong winds blow across the state much of the time. Blizzards can occur in some regions.

Kansas Flora and Fauna

Kansas is a broad transition zone between the humid forests of the East and the sparse vegetation of the West. Most of the forests are located on the extreme eastern edge, creeping out a little farther along rivers and streams. Next comes tallgrass prairie, a region of thick grasses with deep roots to resist droughts. Kansas is home to the Flint Hills, the largest swath of native tallgrass prairie remaining in North America. Farther west, the tall grasses give way to a prairie made up of shorter grasses dotted with cacti and yucca.

Partly because of its diverse array of habitats and partly because of its convenient central location, Kansas is home to an impressive variety of wildlife. A wide diversity of birds migrate through or nest within the state, and many fish can be found, as well. Mammals range from the fox, squirrel, and raccoon familiar to the East to the coyote, jackrabbit, and prairie dog associated with the plains of the West. Some mammals once thought to be extirpated from the state in their wild form have recently reappeared, including the black bear, the gray wolf, and the cougar or mountain lion. The largest mammals, elk and bison, are usually found only in captivity now, although a few of the former still roam free.


Although agriculture is still important to the Kansas economy, it has largely been surpassed by services and manufacturing. Examples of important manufactures in the state are transportation equipment, machinery, computer equipment, milling, meat packing, publishing, and printing.

The beef industry the centerpiece of Kansas agriculture. Hogs and dairy production are also important. Key crops are wheat, sorghum, corn, soybeans, hay, and sunflowers.

Almost every county in Kansas boasts natural resources of some variety. Oil and natural gas are major resources within the state, as is helium. Other mineral products that come from Kansas are salt, gypsum, and limestone.

Interesting Kansas Facts
  • The dominant Indian tribes prior to white settlement were the Osage and Kansa in the east, the Pawnee in the north, and the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche in the west.
  • The name Kansas comes from the Sioux word meaning “people of the south wind,” referring to the Kansa Indians.
  • The Santa Fe Trail crossed the state beginning in 1821.
  • The Pony Express crossed the northeastern corner of the state; in fact, Kansas is still home to the only unaltered Pony Express building in the nation, the Hollenberg Station.
  • Post rock limestone was cut into fence posts by early Kansas settlers due to a lack of timber.
  • Kansas became famous for wheat through the influence of Mennonite settlers who arrived in 1874, bringing with them a new variety of wheat that was ideally suited to the climate.
  • In the 1890s Kansas became a stronghold for the Populist party, which influenced progressive reforms nationwide.
  • The Dust Bowl hit hard in western Kansas in the 1930s.
  • Kansas is in the center of the original 48 states. The geodetic center of the contiguous U.S. is near Osborne.
  • Kansas leads the world in the production of helium.

  • Label the following on a map of Kansas (see Notebooking Pages below):
    • Topeka (state capital)
    • Wichita
    • Dodge City
    • Bordering states

Further Investigation

Quick Facts

Elected Officials
Kansas elected officials.


Kansas Map and Quiz Printout
From Enchanted Learning.

Interactive Writing Tool {Free}
Create a state brochure using this interactive printing press.

Interactive Map Maker
Make and label your own map of Kansas.

The U.S.: 50 States Map Quiz
Locate each state at Seterra.com.

Kansas Symbols Bingo
Really an entire 8-page activity pack around that theme from the Kansas Historical Society.

Food in Kansas
A 50-page “cookbook for young Kansans” from the Kansas Historical Society that includes everything from jerky and hardtack of the early Indians and settlers, to … hamburgers!  (The first fast food hamburgers were sold in Kansas in 1921.)

A History of Kansas ~ Free eBook

A History of Kansas ~ Free eBook
Public domain work published in 1915 that will need some updating, but covers the beginning history of the state.

“Pierce — The Story of ‘Bleeding Kansas'”
Chapter from This Country of Ours by H.E. Marshall covering Kansas’s rocky start and admission to the Union as a free state.

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Beloved book telling the adventures of Laura and her family as they set out from the Big Woods and settle in Kansas.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Classic Kansas tale.  Available free in the public domain.

The Tree in the Trail by Holling C. Holling
The tree begins as a lone cottonwood sapling on the Kansas plain near Cow Creek. And what history it sees. Highly recommended! Read our full review with suggested activities.

Big Brother by Annie Fellows Johnston
Free title in the public domain that tells of two young orphans who make their way to Kansas on the orphan trains. Read our full review with go-along resources.

Johnny Kaw

Johnny Kaw: A Tall Tale by Devin Scillain
Kansas has its own tall tale to rival Paul Bunyan: warm-hearted Johnny Kaw!

My State Notebook

My State Notebook
From A Beka. “A basic guide to help students collect and learn the facts that are unique to their state as well as beginning research skills.”

Civics Activity Book

Civics Activity Book
Also from A Beka, but written for a higher level than the above title, this activity book guides state research “in a study of national, state, and local government with a brief overview of the Constitution and a variety of interesting activity sheets. In addition to government, students also study the history, geography, and other characteristics of their state and local areas.” We have enjoyed many of the activities in this book, which include writing letters to state officials, researching the state history and other activities.

State Birds and Flowers Coloring Book

State Birds and Flowers Coloring Book
Inexpensive option from Dover Publishing. Also check out their United States Coloring Book that has a state outline, symbols, and facts on one page.

Unit Studies & Lesson Plans

State Seal and Flag
5-page lesson plan from the Kansas Historical Society.

Bleeding Kansas: Sparks of War
Research-oriented lesson plan from the Fort Scott National Historic Site.

The Louisiana Purchase: A Unit Study

The Louisiana Purchase: A Unit Study
More about the land deal of which Kansas was a part.

Free History Studies: Lewis and Clark
The first explorers of the new land.

Pike’s Peak: A Unit Study
More about the explorer who termed Kansas, “The Great American Desert.”

Hail: A Unit Study
The largest hailstone of the 20th century fell on Coffeyville, Kansas, in 1970. It weighed 1.67 pounds and had a circumference of 17.5 inches. That record has now been broken, although the Coffeyville hailstone still ranks among the world’s largest.

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Unit Study
Our unit her life and books — Little House on the Prairie telling of her family’s move to Indian territory in Kansas.

The Pony Express: A Unit Study
The pony express route ran through the northeastern corner of Kansas, home of the only pony express station still standing in its original location.

Free Nature Studies: Our Daily Bread (Wheat)
Still the “bread basket of the world.” Our free nature studies includes a look at the wheat harvest in Kansas.

My State {Free Unit Study}
A recommended state study unit that covers civics, history, geography, language arts, applied math, science, and art, culminating in a personalized state notebook. We have also included additional go-along resources.

State History Outline & Projects
A wealth of original ideas and projects for making any state study a work of art!

Studying the 50 United States
Suggestions for a unit on any state from LearningTreasures.com.

Printables & Notebooking Pages

Kansas State Maps for Notebook

Kansas State Facts Coloring Pages for Notebook

U.S. States and Capitals Map
Color Kansas and write in the capital on this printable at PrintableMaps.net.

Kansas Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, recording state facts, or wrapping up.

View all of our state unit studies:
Free State Unit Studies
Free State Unit Studies