The name “Kansas” was derived from the name of this tribe. The name of Topeka, capital city of Kansas, is said to be the Kaw word Tó Ppí Kˀé meaning “a good place to grow potatoes. The Kaw are closely related to the Osage Nation, with whom members often intermarried.
From 1780 to 1830 the Kaw lived at Blue Earth Village on the Kansas River, at the site of present-day Manhattan, Kansas. The Kaw probably moved to the Kansas River Valley to be closer to the buffalo herds on the Great Plains. The tribe increasingly depended upon buffalo hunting for its subsistence and less on agriculture. Also, living on the Kansas River gave them access to a rich territory of fur bearing animals to trade to the French for guns and other commodities. Unfortunately, this movement west also made them more vulnerable to attack from powerful enemies such as the Pawnees. Lewis and Clark noted that they were “reduced by war with their neighbors.” They estimated the Kaw to number 300 men—about 1,500 persons in all.
A disastrous flood in 1844 destroyed most of the land the Kaw had planted and left the tribe destitute. In 1846, the Kaw sold most of their remaining 2,000,000 acres (8,100 km2) of land for $202,000 plus a 256,000 acres (1,040 km2) reservation centered on Council Grove, Kansas. Council Grove is a beautiful area of forests, water, and tall grass prairie, but it was probably the worst location that could have been selected for the already weakened and demoralized tribe. It was a favorite stopping place for the rough-hewn teamsters and traders and voracious merchants on the Santa Fe Trail. The first Kaw arriving there were beaten up by traders. The flourishing whiskey trade in Council Grove also proved to be deleterious. Whites invaded Indian lands and sporadic efforts by soldiers to force them off the reservation were ineffective. In 1860, the Kaw reservation, overrun by White settlers, was reduced to 80,000 acres (320 km2).
White pressure finally forced the Kaw out of Kansas. On June 4, 1873, they packed up their meager possessions in wagons and headed south to Indian Territory to a new reservation. Two weeks later, 533 men, women, and children arrived at the junction of the Arkansas River and Beaver Creek in what would become Kay County, Oklahoma. The Kaw made their last successful buffalo hunt that winter, journeying on horseback to the Great Salt Plains. They preserved the buffalo meat by jerking it and sold the buffalo robes for five thousand dollars.
The Kaw continued their decline in Oklahoma. In 1879, their agent reported that nearly half of their number had died of contagious diseases in the previous seven years. In the 1880s and 1890s, the Kaw derived much of their income from leasing their land to White ranchers for grazing.
This old Reservation School house is still in use today.