Kansas History On The Highway
From K-7 S, it really doesn’t look like much—just four poles and some kind of stone.
If you take the College Avenue exit though, and turn on Hedges Avenue, you’ll come across a parking area that seems to be designated for the mysterious highway monument.
Once you get out of the car, it’s easy to see that this stone is actually a grave stone. The poles that surround it are wrought iron and adorned with decorative leaves. To the right of the stone are planted flowers that have died with the winter. The grave stone is about two feet tall and shows a hand pointing to the word ‘Rest.’ The stone reads Asa C., Son of F.M. & E.F. Smith, Born Nov. 15 1856, Died August 30 1857.
That means Asa was eight months old when he died.
The grave is technically located in Lenexa, about halfway between Olathe and the old Monticello area. Bertha Cameron is one of the founders of the Monticello Historical Society and a lifelong Johnson County resident. She’s done research on the grave and the family of Asa Smith. Turns out, the story of Asa Smith and his family is very much a story of what was going on in Kansas at that time.
“There were people, immigrants, coming from all different directions to settle this area,” Cameron says. “As you know from Kansas history, Kansas territory was founded in 1854 and there was this slavery issue.”
Cameron is referring to Bleeding Kansas, when people from the North and South were rushing here to determine the territory’s future as either a free state or slave state. In 1865, Fountain and Emily Smith, along with their newborn son Asa, moved from Alabama to Johnson County. Even though the Smiths were from the South, Cameron says that doesn’t mean they were coming here to push for slavery.
“They probably had Southern sympathies. We know there were others that definitely came here for the purpose to make Kansas a slave state,” Cameron says. “That doesn’t mean they [the Smiths] definitely did because some didn’t care or just were looking for the land.”
The government previously promised the Johnson County area to the Shawnee tribe. But, in 1854, the government decided to let others in to claim the land. Just a few years later, people were rushing here to get a piece of it. Cameron says Johnson County was seen as a kind of paradise, with timber, wild fruits and prairie hay.
“The families of the missionaries had written back and said this was a land of milk and honey, that there was everything here you could desire,” Cameron says.
Of course, there were a lot of problems most settlers didn’t know about. Because there was no way to prove you had claimed land, there was a lot of stealing of deeds and fighting over property. Three people were murdered in 1858. Cameron says this was partly because of the politics of the border war, but also because of disputes concerning land claims.
“They were so eager to get their land and make a claim on it,” Cameron says. “There was a lot of lawlessness and a lot of uncertainty at that time period.”
Cameron says that although many of the settlers had no idea what they were getting into, Asa’s father, Fountain Smith, likely did. Smith bought his first 160 acres of Kansas land from his brother, Asa, for whom he probably named his son. Of course, less than a year after they settled, eight-month-old Asa died. Cameron says there’s no way to know how, but it was likely pneumonia or another illness. The Smiths buried their only child on the property, but likely without any frills or excess ceremony.
"I think they understood it was a hard life and that it was hard times,” Cameron says. “There probably had been deaths similar to that in their family before.”
After Asa’s death, Fountain and Emily Smith went on to have more children. In 1863, Fountain Smith, the man with Southern sympathies, seemed to have a change of heart. He signed up for the militia of Kansas, which was a union state by that time.
“Isn’t that interesting? That happened so many times,” Cameron says. “The men who came to found Monticello were all pro-slavery, but then they all ended up in the Union army. I think they could see what was happening—eventually.”
By 1865, the 160 acres Smith originally purchased grew to 400. He sold all of it that year and moved to Leavenworth County, leaving behind Asa’s grave. Fountain spent the rest of his life in Leavenworth County. Cameron says by most accounts, he was successful.
“Just to know he began with 160 acres and ended up in 1865 when it was sold with 400 acres, he did pretty good,” Cameron says. “He did pretty good.”
So, now, more than 150 years after Asa’s death, why do we still care about this grave? Cameron says there are tons of unmarked graves in Johnson County from children who died on the trail west. Why is this one important enough to protect and even restore? It helped that there was a name on the grave, but Cameron says it’s also something more.
“And just think it was some pioneer or some early settler,” Cameron says. “It would be symbol maybe of all those who came early on.”
The grave stone that now sits by the highway isn’t the original. It was replaced by boy scouts. A sign next to the grave reads that the site is maintained by Atmos Energy. The four poles around the grave protect it from lawn mowers.
It seems that for the time being at least, this one child’s story is remembered.
This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents podcast.