From 1821 until the 1870s thousands of emigrants and traders trod the ground of Lawrence and Douglas County along the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail which passed through what is now Lawrence, Kansas. The city of Lawrence was founded in 1854 by abolitionists from the New England Emigrant Aid Company in an effort to keep the territory from becoming pro-slavery. It is said that Lawrence is one of the few cities founded purely for political reason.
The city’s origins were steeped in the great national debate over slavery, and in many respects Lawrence’s early history is a microcosm of that struggle culminating in the Civil War. The late 1850s in Lawrence were plagued by violence – there were kidnappings, homes and businesses were burned, and armed battles frequently broke out between the free-staters and the border, pro-slavery forces. Lawrence rose in defiance of Missouri’s pro-slavery Bushwhackers. Their ongoing border war with Kansas’ anti-slavery Jayhawks reached a fever pitch on August 21, 1863 when the town was burned to the ground and 200 of its men and boys were murdered at the hands of William Quantrill and his band of pro-slavery raiders.
Since those violent days, Lawrence has grown peacefully and has prospered greatly. The University of Kansas held its first classes in 1866 and now has over 28,000 students. Haskell Indian Nations University was founded in 1884 and has also steadily grown.
The population of Lawrence has grown to about 80,000 people, yet Lawrence maintains much of its historical integrity and charm. Most of the buildings along Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont Streets in downtown Lawrence, built between 1866 and 1910, are still in active use today. A large and thriving arts community adds an edge of sophistication to the natural warmth and appeal of this town which has been described as “the most enlightened community in the country.”
As you embark upon a trip down Massachusetts Street, a leisurely stroll can quickly turn into an exploration of the hidden treasures that made Downtown Lawrence a one-of-a-kind destination. Downtown is a treasure chest of opportunities for visitors, offering an eclectic assortment of shops, galleries, eateries, and historic architecture. Although cutting-edge merchandise and innovative ideas will greet you at every storefront, a key to Downtown’s appeal lies in the friendly Midwestern service behind the counter. That’s where you’ll find business owners with captivating stories, years of expertise and a genuine interest in the art of customer service.
By the way, they play basketball in Lawrence. In fact, the man who invented basketball, Dr. James Naismith, Kansas University’s only coach with a losing record, is buried in Lawrence. He lived here and coached for most of his adult life. Today’s Jayhawks, always nationally ranked, owe him a great debt of gratitude.