Discover the Civil War: The Watkins Community Museum of History

Civil War
The Watkins Community Museum
The Watkins Community Museum of History in Lawrence (Photo by Hannah Ballard)

As one of the key sites in the Border War conflict, the city of Lawrence, Kansas is home to several museums and archives that chronicle the city’s storied past.

Standing on the corner of Massachusetts and 11th Street in a three-story brick building constructed in the 1880s, the Watkins Community Museum of History offers history buffs, researchers, and the general public alike the opportunity to explore letters, diaries, and maps (among many other sources) that capture the turmoil and political unrest of the Bleeding Kansas era.

Though the museum houses several exhibits, various educational programs, and numerous research resources, my visit found me working with (and learning from) the letters of Sarah and Edward Fitch, a couple who experienced many of the violent incidents that defined the early years of Kansas. One such letter, written in the wake of a devastating attack, provides an incredibly personal account of a tragic day in 1863.

On September 2, 1863, Sarah Fitch composed a letter to her in-laws in Massachusetts to inform them of the death of their son Edward Fitch:

“I have been trying to summon the strength to write you all the particulars of this sad, sad day which has brought such gloom to this once happy place. What shall I say, there is so much I want to tell you, and my mind is so confused, I have yet hardly strength to perform the task.”1

As Sarah attempted to unfold the events that led to her son’s death, she often understandably digressed into lamentations such as these. Edward, her husband, had died by gunshot less than two weeks earlier; his body burned along with their home and every worldly possession.

For six years, Sarah and Edward had lived, worked, and raised three children in Lawrence. The two experienced and observed the full scope of violence associated with the territorial era including the Wakarusa War, the Sack of Lawrence, the Pottawatomie Massacre, and finally, Quantrill’s Raid, an act of retaliation that took Edward’s life and that of 250 other Lawrence residents in 1863.

The events of Quantrill’s Raid, particularly when viewed through the observations of survivors, offer a glimpse into the types of violence that defined the territory during the Bleeding Kansas and early statehood era.

As Craig Miner points out in Kansas: The History of the Sunflower State, 1854-2000, an attack, sacking, raid, or killing from one side of the ideological divide almost always resulted in a counter reaction from the other.

The letters of Sarah and Edward Fitch provide a human lens through which to filter and consider these Border War events.

The Watkins Community Museum is home to countless stories, similar to that of the Fitches, which illuminate the lives of Kansans and Missourians in one of the region’s most tumultuous periods.

 

1 Sarah Fitch to John and Lucy Fitch (Parents-in-law), Sept. 2, 1863, Edward and Sarah Fitch Letters, Watkins Community Museum of History, Lawrence, KS.

 

About the Author

Hannah Ballard is the Project Coordinator for the Missouri-Kansas Conflict: Civil War on the Western Border. She earned her B.A. degree in American history from the University of Kansas with a special focus on nineteenth-century Kansas. A lover of fiction, film, and history (and any combination thereof), Hannah’s been working for the Kansas City Public Library since July 2011.

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