Kansas Immigration and Diversity

African American church in Nicodemus, KS

African Americans from Kentucky founded such early black communities as Nicodemus and developed many black churches.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 politically defined Kansas territory, nullified the Missouri Compromise, and opened the area to settlement. Many immigrants flocked to the new land, bringing diverse viewpoints and beliefs.

Slave Owners and Abolitionists

Kansas became a battleground over the issue of slavery. Many southern slave owners moved to Kansas to help establish it as a slave state. In response, groups such as the New England Emigrant Aid Company sent communities of abolitionist settlers to Kansas to push for the creation of a free state.

African Americans

After 1865 and continuing through 1879-80, African Americans came to Kansas in increasing numbers. The rise of the railroad was a major contributing factor in immigration. A group of African Americans from Kentucky utilized the railroad to send immigrants deep into Western Kansas where they founded Nicodemus and other black communities. 

The Great Exodus had religious undertones. Migrants became known as Exodusters, as their migration out of the south reflected the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt in the Bible. Black Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches were established in Topeka, and went on to become leaders in the campaign to end local discrimination. Many of these settlers, the majority newly freed slaves, saw Kansas as a "promised land." Historian Nell Irvin Painter described the Great Exodus as a mass millenarian movement, a new utopian age of freedom after years of oppression.

Volga German Immigrants

A group of Volga Germans, most likely from the Russian empire, working on a farm in Kansas.

Christian Europeans

At first, European immigrants looked to Kansas to establish missions to evangelize communities in Native American territory. Religious settlements to convert Native American communities were established throughout the state in its early history. Reflecting the need for large groups of workers in a new territory, many Catholic German and Irish immigrant laborers were hired in 1853 to construct Fort Riley. By 1874, immigration motivations had changed again, and the largest religious immigration into Kansas began with the first wave of Volga Germans in a chain migration from Russia.

Jewish Europeans

In the 1880s, the "Back to the Soil" movement in many European Jewish communities attempted to restructure Jewish life on farming settlements in the United States. Groups of Jewish immigrants came to Kansas and created their own towns on the plains. While these experiments in farming ultimately failed due to harsh weather and land conditions, many Jewish people chose to remain in Kansas, often moving to larger cities such as Topeka. In these more urban cities in Kansas, they would establish successful communities that flourished.

Consequences of Immigration

Tightly knit immigrant communities throughout the state provided stability. Religious groups in these communities often were the sole providers of social services, addressing the needs of populations far from their countries of origin. Communities established by various immigrant and religious groups served to attract further immigrants to the state. By the 1890’s, immigration outpaced the availability of work in Topeka.

Kansas at the Turn of the Century
Kansas Immigration and Diversity