In the Middle: Kansas, Cowboys, Crossroads, and an American Mediterranean Sea

Travel log: Kansas

As I post this, I am looking out the window of Amtrak Train #4 at the skyline of Kansas City, Missouri, still across a bend in the Kansas River in the state where logic would wrongly assume the eponymous city is located. We are approaching the last of the American West’s geographer’s borders, those satisfying but arbitrary and unearthly straight slices of sovereignty that characterize the western frontiers. We are currently stumbling through the spaghetti of tracks approaching the city, but this train will soon be hurdling over plains and moraines, skirting south of the driftless region towards the southern lobe of Lake Michigan, where the gravity of Chicago seems to pull most things in the Midwest. But for now, as we cross the border into Missouri, I’m resisting the urge to shout to my companions in the lounge car: “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!”

I spent the last few days at the Kansas Geological Survey at a training event for software used for Multichannel Analysis of Surface Waves (MASW). MASW is a relatively novel way of doing geophysics that uses a specific type of seismic wave called Rayleigh waves that move up-and-down along the surface of the Earth, much like the waves that you commonly see on the sea-surface (or if you happen to live in Illinois, on the surface of Lake Michigan). This way of gathering information about the subsurface is immensely subtle and even a little subversive, using  advanced wave-processing techniques to make sense of the data that most seismic geophysicists discard as “noise.” But this, and other seismic methods are the topic of a another post (Coming soon!). You’re here for Kansas! (spoiler: no tornadoes, witches, or cute dogs in a picnic basket in this post…sorry).

GIF of Rayleigh Wave Movement. Source: Reddit (educationalgifs)


First Impressions

A quick glance at a political map of Kansas belies the interesting contours of the state. Whether derided as flat, scorned as a square, misunderstood in the middle, or reminisced in quaint nostalgia as Dorothy’s “home on the range“, the reputation of this state does not generally match the intriguing history and geology it has to offer.

Kansas and surrounding states: Image Credit: Google Earth

Take a look at the satellite map above. Kansas lies directly in the center of the United States (literally, the direct center), and as such enjoys some geographic trivia. Kansas is the first of the western states whose shape is pretty much defined by a rectangle, and is one of 6 states through which the 100th Meridian runs (see below), a line that generally delineates the wet, eastern United States from the dry western United States. It is one of several states in the Great Plains, and is the beginning of the West. Being so central, it should not surprise anybody that Kansas was the ground on which much of the character of America was formed and forged.

The 100th Meridian, a rough line delineating the wet, eastern United States from the dry, Western United States
The 100th Meridian, a rough line delineating the wet, eastern United States from the dry, Western United States. Image Credit: Google Earth

(Mis)Adventures on the Open Range

Forging Kansas: Fire and Flames

Kansas was not always in the center of things, geologically or geographically. More on the geography, later; the geologic roots of Kansas lie in what is called the Precambrian Eon. In this ancient time, the northern half of what we call Kansas today was being pushed inward and upward, one of the first of a series of complex episodes that would build the Rocky Mountains. The southern half of Kansas was a aflame with magma that would cool and form a sea of granite and granitic lava (rhyolite) that would spill over most of the Midwest. Both of these were part of a larger process of continent building that took place over millions of years. However, this building process was almost put to a halt before it was even halfway over. Just over 1,000,000,000 (1 billion) years ago, when the continent was young and growing, it began to be pulled in different directions. A rift began to form through the middle of the continent, ending in Kansas. This rifting was halted as the extensional stresses on the North American continent stopped; otherwise, Kansas might currently be at the bottom of an American version of the Red Sea.

The Midcontinent Rift System, which–fortunately for Kansas–stopped about 1,000,000,000 (1 billion) years ago. Image Source: Ripley et al.

While the rifting may have stopped, the incoming seas did not. From the Cambrian to the Paleogene–nearly 500,000,000 (500 million) years–several iterations of mid-continent seas (or American Mediterraneans) ebbed and flowed into what would become Kansas, peaking in the Cretaceous Period with a large body of water called the Western Interior Seaway and the Hudson Seaway (see image below). Sea-faring dinosaurs roamed these seas, which extended from the Arctic down to the present-day Gulf of Mexico. The Hudson Seaway would retreat only so far as the present-day Hudson Bay, but the Western Interior Seaway would completely disappear within a relatively short period of < 30,000,000 (30 million) years.

The Western Interior Seaway at its height in the late Cretaceous, about 75,000,000 (75 million) years ago. Source: University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Aside from the seas that flowed in and and out of Kansas, the geology of Kansas has been relatively simple after the continent nearly tore in two in the Precambrian. Most of the geological layers are roughly horizontal. Far enough East enough of the Rockies to avoid deformation, and far enough West of the Appalachians to avoid just about any effects, Kansas is largely unfractured and flat, smack dab in the middle of the Great Plains, rising in the west into the High Plains region: a ramp up to the Rockies.

Diagram view of a Cuesta, common in eastern Kansas. Image Source: Kansas Geological Survey

In the eastern part of the state are cuestas, unique hills formed by the differing erosion rates of slightly tilted shale and limestone beds (see diagram). The formation of these is a direct result of the varying seas that came and went and came and went over time in Kansas, and these, along with the flat plains created from geologic stability, are much of the reason that Kansas stands at the crossroads throughout American history.

Forging Kansas: An American Crucible

A few days into their two-year long journey, Lewis and Clark camped in Atchison, Kansas along the Missouri River, and began to see in this place and its surroundings what they probably understood as progress, but what was maybe better understood as the dark side of  Euroamerican exploration: the leaders of the newly-formed United States in the East pushed the Native Americans into relocating in Kansas, and many different tribes were tossled together near Atchison. Lewis and Clark themselves would push further along the Missouri River–which bites into the northeastern corner of the Kansas–to its furthest reaches in a quest to map an infant America. Their journey would trace the azimuth of new frontiers for decades, and the river and many other routes starting near the eastern boundary of Kansas would become the greatest conduits of early Euroamerican exploration and settlement: the Oregon Trail would wind its way south of the great river through the northeast of what would become Kansas, the Sante Fe trail would wend across the length of the state, and the Pony Express would use the flat footing to jet across the plains.

Beyond a portal to the West, though, the Missouri River is a remnant of sorts of another invasion. The River more or less traces the natural glacial boundary line, pushed by continental glaciers to its present course as they advanced southward, to be stopped by the stalwart resolve of Kansas. Most of the state avoided even the farthest reach of the most recent glacial maximum, but almost no part of North American completely avoided its effects. Besides moving and greatly augmenting the Missouri River, other great, glacial rivers swollen with the meltwater of a thousand winters ran through Kansas to the Arkansas river and deposited sand in what is now known as the Wellington-McPherson lowlands and the Sand hills, essentially paving the route of one of the most iconic migrations of the American West: the cattle drive.

The embodiment of American grit and greed, the cowboys of the Old West had Kansas on their mind, driving their Cattle along the Chisholm Trail west of the cuestas and far enough East for there still to be enough grass to graze. The were headed to the rail depots in Abilene, or later in Wichita or Dodge City. Kansas turned the Texas Longhorn into the Chicago Bull, and neither place would have the prominence they enjoy today without the open range of Kansas.But the flatlands of Kansas carried another iconic migration as well: the Kansas Sand Hills, as the name suggests, is a dusty, dry area that runs throughout the southwest part of the state. This area of Kansas, along with Oklahoma and northern Texas, would be battered by the whipping winds of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, causing a net loss of nearly 80,000 people in the state over that decade–by far the greatest loss of any state between 1930-1940. Though the “Okies” who migrated out of Oklahoma–made famous by John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, among other American tales–came to embody the time, Kansans equally carried the burden of environmental degradation, though many of them remained in their homeland.

Dust Storm in Dodge City, Kansas near the Sand Hills region. Image Source:

Forging Kansas: Clearing the Scale

Kansas helped form the character of United States in more ways than through its central location, flat footing, and grit. The history of slavery, abolition, and Native American sovereignty are wrapped up in the history of Kansas. A decade or two before the large cattle drives would flow through the state and well before the dust storms, the territory of Kansas was part of Indian territory before it was annexed into the United States in 1854 with the infamous Kansas-Nebraska Act. The act itself was portent of things to come, as it was drafted by Stephen Douglas, the Illinois Senator who would later defeat Abraham Lincoln in one of the most famous state elections of American history, but lose to him in the race for president. The Kansas-Nebraska Act annexed the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, but allowed the two states to decide on their own whether slavery would be legal. In Kansas in particular, the conflict that emerged would be characterized by years of instability. Due in part to its proximity to slave-holding Missouri, this era gave rise to the Jayhawkers, election fraud, to John Brown and his militant abolitionism, to battles, a congressional “caning“, retributive murders as a result of pro-slavery and anti-slavery massacres, and other incidents that would directly presage the Civil War. Kansas was eventually admitted to the United States as a free state in January 1861, fresh off the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in November 1860 and in the days leading up to the secession of the South in April 1861.

The most significant event in the fight towards freedom in Kansas would not be during the Civil War or Antebellum era, however. In 1954, a schoolhouse in northeastern  Kansas would not allow a black elementary student to attend the segregated school for white students a few blocks from her home. Her father, an assistant pastor and welder for the railroad, was recruited to join a court case against this practice of segregation, which eventually would make it all the way to the Supreme Court. Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, et al. would become a landmark case in United States history, ending the (legality of the) practice of segregation.

Kansas in Conclusion

Kansas is a state in the middle of so many events and movements in geologic and human history. It remains a unique place whose character is central to who we are as Americans. Whether a crossroads or at the botom of the sea, the crucible of Kansas has been the melding pot that has made the country we know today. Central in the nation, one cannot easily avoid it when tracing the paths of human or geologic history.

Traveling is a great way to learn about things you would not otherwise be exposed to, and a geologist traveling for work has the added benefit of often being forced to learn about the Earth over which they are traversing. Previously I posted about a few interesting geological and geographical tidbits I caught while at a conference in Tennessee. This trip is no exception, and even just looking at a map can teach you a lot, even if being in Kansas requires looking a little harder than most places.

Academic Sources:

Ripley, E.M., Dong, S., Li, C., Wasylenki, L.E., 2015. Cu isotope variations between conduit and sheet-style Ni–Cu–PGE sulfide mineralization in the Midcontinent Rift System, North America. Chemical Geology 414, 59–68.

Sims, P.K., Petermar, Z.E., 1986. Early Proterozoic Central Plains orogen: A major buried structure in the north-central United States. Geology 14, 488.;2



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