History and Historical Links

The Land of Quivira,
Rice County, Kansas


During the summer of 1541, almost 80 years before the Pilgrims landed, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his party of Spanish Conquistadors crossed the present Arkansas River near the site of Ford, Kansas and proceeded northeast. For over a year, Coronado had been seeking the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola where "the streets were made of gold".

What he found instead was Quivira, a trade, religious and cultural center based in what is today, Rice County. Archeologists and anthropologists believe Rice County may have been a population center as well, with possibly over 30,000 Quiviran Indians settled throughout the surrounding area.

But gold there was not although evidence indicates trade was abundant with such distant areas of North America as the Great Lakes and the pueblos of New Mexico. Coronado soon returned to Mexico, his two-year expedition pronounced a failure at home.

At least one member of Coronado's group discovered gold of a different sort in Quivira. Fray Juan de Padilla, a Franciscan friar who had accompanied Coronado to Quivira, found the natives a fertile ground for the "Mother Church". He returned the following year with a small group of 'oblates' or novices to minister to the Quivirans. Later that year, on a trip to another tribe, his small party was attacked and Padilla died, becoming the first christian martyr in the new world. A large monument has been erected to Padilla along US-56 west of Lyons.

There are a number of reminders of this distant past still seen in Rice County. Archeologists and anthropologists, primarily from the Smithsonian Institution, have been exploring the area since the 1930's. A religious center appears to have been located in the northeast portion of the county, between Lyons and Little River. One hilltop contains a 150 foot long "intaglio" of a serpent while petroglyphs can be found at several sites, most notably around springs.

Much of this material, along with a reconstruction of Quiviran dwellings and lifestyles, can be found on display in the Rice County Historical Society's Coronado-Quivira Museum.in Lyons.

Fast forward 200 years and Europeans are again passing across the Great Plains, bound for the Rocky Mountains and the fur trade along a route known to native Americans and wildlife for centuries. In 1821, a Missouri merchant named William Becknell passes over that same route with the announced purpose to 'trade with the Indians' and, perhaps accidentally, perhaps not, winds up in a Santa Fe newly independent of Spain and ready for trade with the young United States. The old trade route becomes a new one, the Santa Fe Trail, and over the next 60 years, thousands of wagons and millions of tons of freight will pass both ways along the trail, most of which lies within the boundaries of present day Kansas and directly across Rice County and its neighbors to the east and west.

In 1871, the AT&SF Railroad came to ancient Quivira and the ten-year-old State of Kansas organized Rice County. The railroad replaced the old Santa Fe Trail, moving its eastern terminus further and further westward. Settlers and "civilization" came with it, claiming the land along either side of the AT&SF right-of-way which the railroad had been given to build it's line westward. In Rice and counties to the west, little land was available to the south because lands south of the Arkansas River were still Indian lands by treaty. While many of the settlers were second and third generation Americans, many came, indeed were recruited, from the Old World, especially Scandinavia, Germany and the Volga area of Russia which had been settled by Germans at the invitation of Catherine the Great.

Today, Rice County's economy is based primarily on agriculture and, to a lesser degree, on oil and manufacturing. There are two main towns, Lyons, the county seat, and Sterling, home of Sterling College, an over 100 year-old Christian liberal arts college which attracts students from all 50 states and many foreign countries.  

For almost 50 years, from 1821 to 1871, wagons passed along the Old Santa Fe Trail almost through the exact middle of Rice County bearing tons of trade goods worth millions from eastern terminals like Westport near Kansas City to Santa Fe and back again. To a lesser extent, many immigrants passed along the trail although the Santa Fe Trail was not a major emigrant road like the Oregon Trail to the north.

In 1996, the Old Santa Fe Trail celebrated its 175th anniversary and Rice County joined with other counties in Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and New Mexico through which the trail passed to mark the route and the historic locations along the Trail. The Trail is well-marked and the original track still exists in some places, including Rice County. Publications are available to guide you in following the original route. If you can't come to Kansas, however, you may take the trip in cyberspace by clicking on the Highway Marker and setting out on the INTERACTIVE SANTA FE TRAIL.

(Click the Sign and head for Santa Fe)