(First published in our winter 2013 edition, feature "A Symbolic State." It's been updated to the current date)
In February 1861, Abraham Lincoln stopped in Philadelphia to hoist the nation’s first 34-star flag signifying Kansas’ entry into the union. However, it would take 66 years before the Sunflower State’s legislature would adopt its own flag, in 1927.
Little information exists on why our hearty pioneers saw no need for an official flag; perhaps it was because they felt so honored to be a part of a union of states that would grow by 14 during their first half-century of statehood.
In 1961, as Kansas prepared to celebrate the state’s centennial, the Legislature tweaked the original design, only slightly, by adding the word “Kansas” beneath the seal. Now, just 152 years after Kansas passed from territorial status to statehood, all seem pleased with the flag that is flown across our state’s 82,000 square miles.
The State Seal
Despite the six decades it took to settle on a final design for the official Kansas flag, it took only four months to adopt a state seal. John J. Ingalls, an Atchison newspaper publisher, was a charter member of the Kansas Senate, and he had a vision for the state he loved. Four months into statehood, Ingalls stood on the floor of the Senate to urge adoption of a resolution establishing an official state seal.
In a masterfully written 118-word resolution, Ingalls touched all bases when he described Kansas and its pioneer roots, proposing that a new seal be made a permanent part of the union’s newest state. “The east is represented by a rising sun, in the right-hand corner of the seal; to the left of it, commerce is represented by a river and a steamboat; in the foreground, agriculture is represented as a basis of the future prosperity of the state, by a settler’s cabin and a man plowing with a pair of horses; beyond this is a train of ox-wagons, going west; in the background is seen a herd of buffalo, retreating, pursued by two Indians, on horseback; around the top is the motto, ‘Ad astra per aspera,’ and beneath is a cluster of 34 stars. The circle is surrounded by the words, ‘Great seal of the state of Kansas, January 29, 1861.’” The Latin phrase “ad astra per aspera” translates as “to the stars through difficulty,” a fitting description of the challenges facing Kansans in 1861.
So, as the first session of the Kansas Legislature moved to pass the resolution without opposition, our new state had a state seal and a motto. Both have withstood the test of time and remain unaltered more than a century and a half later.
Historians James Nottage and Floyd Thomas, in a 1985 essay for Kansas History, describe the seal as the state’s oldest official symbol. Today, according to Nottage and Thomas, the seal appears on everything from official documents to army uniforms, badges and buttons, oil paintings, inlaid wood, plastic and cloth, along with books, magazines and promotional materials.
Did you know?
- Kansas was the 48th state in the nation to adopt a state flag.
- The 1925 session of the Kansas Legislature adopted a “State Banner” as a compromise for those supporting the establishment of a flag. Two years later, the proflag group succeeded and claimed victory when Gov. Ben Paulen signed legislation approving the official state flag.
- The first Kansas flag displayed at a public event flew in 1927 at Fort Riley as a part of a 19-gun salute for Gov. Paulen, who was visiting troops at the military installation.
- Kansas also has a governor’s flag, which is identical to the official flag except that it has stars in each of its four corners.