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Topeka's Roots: the Prairie Potato

The word Topeka comes from Indian words meaning a good place to dig potatoes.


by Barbara Burgess, Ph. D.

Part 1. Topeka - a good place to dig potatoes.

Topeka’s roots grow deep in the Kansas soil, and in this case the roots really are roots, known to scientists as Psoralea esculenta and to pioneers and Indians as prairie potatoes or prairie turnips.  The word Topeka comes from Indian words meaning a good place to dig potatoes.

Founded on December 5, 1854, Topeka was officially named on January 2, 1855. Fry W. Giles, one of the city’s founders, wrote that the Rev. S.Y. Lum proposed the name Topeka on January 1, 1855, and Giles said that the founders of the city chose the name because it was “a name not found in the list of post offices of the United States, nor in any lexicon of the English language.  It was novel, of Indian origin and euphonious of sound.” (Giles  27)

Giles said they liked the idea of the name being composed of three consonants alternating with 3 vowels and that it was a good name because it should be easy to pronounce. He said that the name was unanimously adopted by the founders of Topeka on January 2, 1855. (Giles 27) 

While the city’s founders may not have known the meaning of Topeka, they did not invent this word.  They may have found the name on the map drawn by missionary Johnston Lykins who drew the map while he was living at the Potawatomi Baptist Mission in 1849.  His map was published in a book by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in 1853.  On this map, Topeka was the name of the Smoky Hill fork of the Kansas River. Topeka’s founders likely had seen copies of this map. (Howes 106)

Even earlier Major Angus L. Langham, who was surveying the Kaw lands in 1826 for the government, referred to the Kansas River as the Topeka River in his report. (Howes 105-106)

Other people have presented evidence that the name Topeka is similar to the Native American word for the prairie potato. Fry Giles explained that a Col. W. A. Phillip, a scholar of Indian languages, said that Topeka was related to the Potawatomi word “Topheika” which meant “mountain potato.” Giles also said that the half-breed Kansa Indians living in the area said that the Kansas River Valley was called Topeka because it was a good place to gather the little esculenta tuber known to whites as the wild potato. (Giles 28)

“Topeoka” was the Indian name for the Kansas River (Konzes River) according to Thomas Say, who was with the 1819-1820 expedition commanded by Major S. H. Long. Say included the Oto word “to-pe-ok-a” and its meaning “good potato river” in his list of Indian words.  He explained that he recorded each word on the spot as it was pronounced by an Indian or interpreter. (Barry 322)

John Dunbar, Washburn University professor of Greek and Latin in the 1870s, also reported this definition.  Dunbar wrote that the name Topeka is made up of three words common in the languages of the Iowa, Omaha, and Kansa Indians. “To” means potato, “pe” means good, and “okae” means to dig in these languages. He said that the word Topeka literally means a good place to dig potatoes. (King 133, Howes 105-107)

Native Americans also reported that the word Topeka means “good place to dig potatoes.” White Plume, a Kansa leader, said that the river and the adjacent bottom lands were called ‘Topeka’ by Native Americans which meant “a river upon the banks of which wild potatoes grow.”  (King 133)

Joseph James, called Jo Jim, was another Kansa man who reported that Topeka meant “a good place to dig wild potatoes.”  Jo Jim was part French and part Kansa and was married to a Potawatomi woman. He lived in the area of Topeka in the mid 1800s. William Connelley,  secretary of the Kansas State Historical Society,  reported that Jo Jim said this but was skeptical about Jo Jim’s reliability.  (Connelley 591 footnote)

In his history of Shawnee County published in 1905, James King echoed Giles’ version of the naming and quoted the same sources. (King 133)

Connelley disagreed with these theories suggesting that this interpretation of the mean was “claptrap.” In 1927 Connelley pointed out that the word Topeka came from the division of the Pawnee Indians known as the Tapage Pawnee who lived along the Kansas and Smoky Hill Rivers. The word Tapage was a French word meaning noisy.  “And again Tapage may mean Smoky Hill.  Its real meaning has not been established. But whatever the meaning Tapage is the word from the name ‘Topeka is derived.’”  (Connelley 591)

Connelley’s theory about the meaning of Topeka was repeated by later local historians, and his interpretation led others to decide that the meaning of the word can never be ascertained. As recent as 1972, John Rydjord wrote that there has been considerable controversy about the origin and meaning of Topeka in his book Kansas Place Names. He repeated Connelley’s theory about the Pawnee band and the other theory about the “good place to dig potatoes” and never concluded what the meaning of the word Topeka is.

Part 2. Explorers and Pioneers and Prairie Potatoes

While some controversy over the meaning and origin of the city’s name exists, the fact that wild potatoes grew in the area and were harvested and consumed by the Native American residents in the Kansas River Valley adds supporting evidence for the “good place to dig potatoes” theory of the meaning of the name Topeka.

Explorers, adventurers, soldiers, missionaries and emigrants all document the fact that the Kansa Indians dug the prairie potato in the Kansas River valley, and that prairie potatoes were important in their diets in the 1800s. In historic times, the Kansa people lived in the Kansas River Valley and early Euro-American travelers in the valley described the harvest and consumption of the prairie potato. 

The Kansa People and the Prairie Potato

On May 5, 1837, Indian agent Richard Cummins said that Reverend Thomas Johnson met some 400 or 500 Kansa Indians going to the white settlements to beg for provisions, for they had nothing to eat at home; and those who had not gone to the white settlements to beg were nearly all scattered over the prairies digging wild potatoes. (Barry 322)

Pierson Reading was heading for Oregon in 1843 when he tasted the prairie potato and then described it in his travel journal.  While camped on the Kansas River near Papan’s Ferry, Reading wrote, “May 27, 1843.  Found the (Kansa) squaws engaged in dressing skins.  They gave me to eat a root growing on the prairie which is about the size and shape of a hen’s egg.  It is both palatable and nutritious and serves the Indians as an excellent substitute for bread. It is very white and is called by the French, ‘le pomme blanc’ or white apple.”  (Reading 150)

In the same year, Lt. John Fremont was exploring and mapping the land along the Oregon Trail for the government when he saw Kansa women digging the prairie potatoes along the Kansas River about 20 miles west of Papan’s Ferry. He had scientists in his party who helped him carefully record scientific names for the flora and fauna as well as recording the survey descriptions of the place where the specimen was found.

“June 4, 1843. We met here a small party of Kansas and Delaware Indians, the later returning from a hunting and trapping expedition on the upper waters of the river (Kansas River) and on the heights above were 5 or 6 Kansas women, engaged in digging prairie potatoes (Psoralea esculenta).” Fremont used the scientific names for the plants he mentioned in his journals.  (Fremont 237)

Frontiersman and trail guide James Clyman saw the Kansa Indians digging roots near Papan’s Ferry in 1844. Although he did not name the plant, it seems likely to have been the same plant. Others saw them digging the prairie potato in this same area.

“June 30th 1844. Too lazy to work and too cowardly to go to the buffalo where they frequently met with their enemies, get a few killed and return to dig roots, beg and starve 2 or 3 months.” (Clyman 71 -72)

Kansa Indians gave Oregon emigrant Edwin Bryant prairie potatoes to eat while he was camped near the Kansas River. He described the plant in his journal.

“May 23, 1846.  Several of the Kansa Indians followed us from our last encampment. One of them presented to me a root or tuber of oval shape, about 1 1/2 inches in length and an inch in diameter.  This root is called the Prairie Potato. Its composition is farinaceous (rich in starch) and highly nutritious, and its flavor is more agreeable than that of the finest Irish potato. I have but little doubt if this plant was cultivated in our gardens, it would be an excellent and useful vegetable for ordinary consumption and probably would be so improved as to form a substitute for the potato.” (Bryant 54)

Rufus Sage was another western explorer in the 1840s who ate the potato and described it in his journal. He found the prairie potato along the Platte River in late spring.  “...after camp two or three of us sallied out with our rifles in quest of these wary animals, while others were busily employed in digging for roots to appease the gnawing of appetite, which began to make itself most sensibly felt by all.

“About sundown both parties came in - the hunters quite dispirited, not having seen any things in the shape of elk or other game - but the root diggers had been more lucky and brought with them a small supply of nutritious aliments, which were divided equally among the company - and though scarcely a half dozen mouthfuls were apportioned to each, they answered to some extent, the designed object.

“These roots consisted of two varieties, viz: pomme blanc, and commote.

“The pomme blanc or white apple, is a native of the prairies and mountains, oval shaped and about three and a half inches in circumferences. It is encased in a thin fibrous tegument, which, when removed, exposes an interior of white pulpy substance, much like a turnip in taste. It generally grows at a depth of three or four inches, in the soil of hillsides and plateau, where is found a reddish clay loam abundant in fragmentary rocks and gravel. The stalk attains a height of about three inches...

“The pomme blanc and commote are equally good whether boiled or raw and are uniformly harmless, even with those unaccustomed to their use as an article of food.” (Sage 147)

The Sioux, Mandan, Hidatsa and the Prairie Turnip
Other Indians besides the Kansa harvested and processed this plant. Fremont described how the Sioux prepared and consumed prairie potatoes. “They (Sioux who were with his party) had plenty of good buffalo-meat and the squaws had gathered in a quantity of the “pommes des prairies” or prairie turnips (Psoralea esculenta), which is their chief vegetable food, and abundant on the prairie.”  (Fremont 57)

Fremont described the prairie potato at other places. In 1843, he found it along the Platte River near the La Bonte Camp, and wrote, “I had occasionally remarked among the hills the ‘Psoralea esculenta’ the bread root of the Indians. The Sioux use this root very extensively, and I have frequently met with it among them, cut into thin slices and dried.” (Fremont 237)  

Father DeSmet found the Teton Sioux people harvesting the prairie potato which he called breadroot. “... Among the vegetables and roots we noticed the Psoralea esculenta, or Breadroot, its white apple, and its charming white, oval blossom, nearly three inches in circumference, is universally found in this uncultivated solitude; and would deserve a place in a garden of choice plants; the savages value it highly.”  (DeSmet 655)

Artist and adventurer George Catlin documented the prairie turnip in the diet of the Mandan Indians. “Corn and dried meat are generally laid in the fall, in sufficient quantities to support them through the winter. These are the principal articles of food during that long and inclement season; and in addition to them, they oftentimes have in store great quantities of dried squashes and dried ‘pommes blanches’ a kind of turnip which grows in great abundance in these regions, and of which I have before spoken.  These are dried in great quantities, and pounded into a sort of meal, and cooked with the dried meat and corn.” (Catlin 122)

Catlin ate some prairie turnips at a Mandan banquet and described the meal. “The simple feast which was spread before us consisted of three dishes only, two of which were served in wooden bowls, and the third in an earthen vessel of their own manufacture, somewhat in shape of a bread-tray in our own country. This last contained a quantity of pem-i-can and marrow-fat; and one of the former held a fine brace of buffalo ribs, delightfully roasted; and the other was filled with a kind of paste or pudding made of the flour of the ‘pomme blanche,’ as the French call it, a delicious turnip of the prairie, finely flavored with the buffalo berries...”  (Catlin 114, 115)

John Colter and Prairie Potatoes
Mountainman John Colter reportedly survived on prairie potatoes after escaping from some Blackfeet men who had captured him in on the upper parts of the Missouri. Colter had separated from the Lewis and Clark expedition on their return trip and planned to remain near the headwaters of the river and trap beaver where he was captured and then escaped. “He arrived at the fort in seven days, having subsisted on a root much esteemed by the Indians of the Missouri now known by naturalists as psoralea esculenta.” (Chittendon 174)

The Corps of Discovery and Prairie Turnips 
In his journal, Meriwether Lewis wrote a detailed description of prairie turnips that he found along the Milk River in Valley County, Montana.  “May 8, 1805.  ... The white apple is found in great abundance in this neighborhood; it is confined to the highlands principally. The white apple, so called by the French engages, is a plant which rises to the height of 6 or 9 inches rarely exceeding a foot; it puts forth from one to four and sometimes more stalks from the same root, but is most generally found with one only, which is branched but not defusely, is cylindric and villose;  the leafstalks, cylindric, villose and very long compared with the height of the plant, tho gradually diminish in length as they ascend and are irregular in point of position; the leaf digitate, from three to five in number, oval one inch long, absolutely entire and cottony: the whole plant of pale green, except the under disk of the leaf which is a white color from the cottony substance with which it is covered. The radix a tuberous bulb, generally oval formed (oviformed), sometimes longer and more rarely partially divided or branching; always attended with one or more radicles at its lower extremity which sink from 4 to 6 inches deep; the bulb covered with a rough black, tough thin rind which easily separates from the bulb which is a fine white substance, somewhat porus, spongy and moist, and rather tough before it is dressed; the center of the bulb is penetrated with a small tough string or lingament which passing from the bottom of the stem terminates in the extremity of the radicle which last is also covered by a prolongation of the rind which envelopes the bulb. The bulb is usually found at the depth of four inches and frequently much deeper. This root forms a considerable article of food with the Indians of the Missouri, who for this purpose prepare them in several ways.

“They are esteemed good at all seasons of the year, but are best from the middle of July to the latter end of Autumn when they are sought and gathered by the provident part of the natives for their winter store, when collected they are stripped of the rind and strung on small throngs or chords and exposed to the sun or placed in the smoke of their fires to dry; when well dried they will keep for several years, provided they are not permitted to become moist or damp; in this situation they usually pound them between two stones placed on a piece of parchment until they reduce it to a fine powder, thus prepared they thicken their soup with it; sometimes they also boil these dried roots with their meat without breaking them; when green they are generally boiled with their meat, sometimes mashing them or otherwise as they think proper.They also prepare an agreeable dish with them by boiling and mashing them and adding the marrow grease of the buffalo and some berries until the whole be of the consistency of a haisty pudding. They also eat their root roasted and frequently make hearty meals of it raw without sustaining any inconvenience or injury therefrom.

“The White or brown bear feed very much on this root, which their talons assist them to procure very readily, the white apple appears to me to be a tasteless insipid food of itself thought I have no doubt but it is a very healthy and moderately nutritious food. I have no doubt but our epicures would admire this root very much, it would serve them in their ragouts and gravies instead of the truffles morella.” (Lewis 125, 126)

If the prairie potato was to be stored, it was dried. The Sioux cut the tubers into thin slices for drying, according to Meriwether Lewis and Lt. John Fremont. Other Indians braided them and dried them on racks. The Cheyenne are reported to have pulverized them into flour. The flour and dried slices were later boiled to used in soups and stews.

Digging the Prairie Potato
Few of the writers described the method of digging the prairie turnip, but artist George Catlin recorded both the method of harvest and the digging instrument in his journal. He described women digging the prairie turnip with a decorated digging stick, and he sketched a picture of an Assinneboin woman holding a stick that was used to dig prairie turnips.  He described his sketch. “ the side of him will be seen the portrait of his wife, Chin-cha-pee, a fine looking squaw, in a handsome dress of the mountainsheep skin, holding in her hand a stick curiously carved, with which every woman in this country is supplied; for the purpose of digging up the ‘Pomme Blanche,’ or prairie turnip, which is found in great quantities in these northern prairies, and furnishes the Indians with an abundant and nourishing food. The women collect these turnips by striking the end of the stick into the ground, and prying them out; after which they are dried and preserved in their wigwams for use during the season.”  (Catlin 56, Plate 29)

A few archaeologists and anthropologists have written articles describing the use of the prairie potato by prehistoric and early historic peoples. Museums in South Dakota and North Dakota display dried braids of Psoralea esculenta that were stored and used by the Sioux, Mandan, Hidatsa peoples.  The scientists have found few remains of the Psoralea esculenta in archeological excavations probably because the fleshy tubers do not preserve well.

Some Native Americans are still digging and eating the tubers. A Lakota woman at Chamberlain, South Dakota said she digs the tubers, peels off the covering and cooks the remaining white bulb with a buffalo roast to make a stew. Some contemporary Indian cookbooks contain recipes that include the prairie turnip as an ingredient in soups and stews.

All of these descriptions of the plant contain accurate information that is corroborated by modern biologists. In his book, Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie, Kelly Kindscher says that the roots of the Psoralea esculenta are harvested from late May to July after the flowers blossom but before the leaves and stem dry and then break off.  In all of the eyewitness accounts, harvest occurred in May or June, so the journal descriptions are in harmony with modern botanical descriptions. (Kindscher 184)

The evidence is overwhelming in favor of Topeka meaning “a good place to dig potatoes.” These potatoes however are not the Irish potatoes or sweet potatoes found in our gardens and grocery stores.  Instead, the potatoes are the species native to the Kansas prairies, the Psoralea esculenta. Explorers, military surveyors, missionaries, travelers on the trail to Oregon and California all described this plant and its importance in the diets of the Native peoples living on the Prairie. The presence of these native plants growing on the prairies add support to this theory about the meaning of the word Topeka.

Part 3. The Prairie Potato in the 21st Century

Topeka’s roots are still growing in the Kansas prairie. Psoralea esculenta can be found in undisturbed native grasslands throughout the Great Plains region.

In Kansas as in other locations, the elusive prairie potato only appears above ground for a few weeks.  The plant appears sometime in late April or more often in May, depending on the date of the last frost, blooms in June and then forms seeds and dries up and blows away.  While the root remains in the soil, the dried and stiff plant breaks off, blows away and spreads the seeds.  People who are looking for this plant must do so sometime between early May and late July before the tops are gone.

Lifecycle of the Psoralea esculenta
Psoralea esculenta is a member of the bean family.  Psoralea means scabby and indicates a plant covered with glandular dots. Esculenta means edible and refers to the root. (Kindscher 184) 

Psoalea esculenta is known by several names, prairie potato, prairie turnip, prairie potato, breadroot, pomme blanche, white apple, wild turnip and tipsin.  (Kindscher 184)

The Psoralea esculenta grows  from shiny brown seeds. The hard covering of the seed must be scarified by filing a notch through the outer hull of the seed before the seed will sprout.  The sprouting seed sends down a powerful root that drills its way deep into the ground.  It is difficult to successfully transplant a seed that has been sprouted in a container without disturbing this root and killing the seedling.

The Psoralea esculenta does not produce a large number of seeds per plant. (Kindscher 189)

Within a few days of being scored and then exposed to moisture, two leaves appear on a slender stem. In several more days the distinctive leaves with five leaflets appear. The plant continues to grow slowly the first year, adding more leaves and growing to a height of a few inches. The seedlings must grow for two to four years before they produce seeds. (Kindscher 187)
The perennial plant grows up to a foot tall.  The stem grows out of a thick brown root, and the leaves are divided into five leaflets that are  a light green. The stem and leaves are covered with hairs. (Owenesby 44)

Eight to 10 weeks after sprouting in April or May, the plant dries up and separates from the brown root.  The dried brown plant remains stiff or rigid but intact. It is blown by the wind  like a tumbleweed, dropping its seeds as it goes. All of the seeds do not separate from the dried seed pods at the same time.

One to five light blue flowers appear at the top of the plant usually in early Spring. Each flower is composed of 20 or more flowerets, which bloom in succession. 

In Kansas the prairie potatoes begin blooming in late May or early June. This is the stage of growth during which the plants are easiest to find among the prairie grasses. The blue flowers are distinctive and the hairy appearance of the stem and leaves make the plant easier to recognize at this stage. In the next two or three weeks, the flowerets fade to a pale yellow. As the surrounding grasses grow taller and tower over the potato plants, it becomes difficult to spot the prairie potato during the last weeks before the plant separates from the root. 

The stem, leaves and flowers begin to turn brown during fruiting or seed production.This occurs in Kansas during  June or early July. Seeds are produced in the flowerets and are nearly invisible until they are released and separated from the dried flower.

Taproot and tuber
The tuber grows four to eight inches below ground.The tuber can be round or oval and is larger in some plants.It has a dark and tough rind or covering, which can be pealed off to reveal the edible white bulb.Roots emerge from the tuber; one is a taproot growing into the ground up to eight inches below the tuber. 

I have observed Psoralea esculenta growing in a native grass meadow southwest of Topeka and in a undistributed meadow northwest of Wamego.    

Ross Johnson, professor of biology at Washburn University, showed me a prairie potato in 1992. I had read about the Psoralea esculenta when I was studying the founding of Topeka and was doing research about the Oregon Trail in Kansas. I asked him to show me some prairie potatoes. In May we went to a meadow southwest of Topeka where  he showed me plants that were beginning to bloom. We dug a sample for his class and took photographs for my research.

Each week I continued to observe and photograph the prairie potatoes in this meadow. I marked a small number of the plants with flags and then gathered seeds from a few when the plants were brown and dried.

The next spring (1993) I conducted some experiments with the seeds. I tried to sprout these seeds that I had gathered the previous summer. I scored some seeds with a fingernail file, others with a knife and left some unscored and placed them in a moistened paper towel inside a clear plastic bag.  Most of the scored seeds sprouted but none of the unscored seeds sprouted. I did not successfully transplant any of these seeds that I sprouted, but I planted about four scored seeds in a flower bed, and two of these sprouted and grew. They came up for two more years until the garden spot where they were planted was trenched to install a new television cable, and the tubers accidentally destroyed.

In the Fall of 1992, I transplanted a plant that I had marked before the meadow was mowed. Late in the Fall, I dug up about a one foot square of prairie sod where I had marked a prairie potato growing in May and transplanted the sod in a flower bed in my yard. The prairie potato sprouted the next spring and has continued to reappear each year in the flower bed where I first planted it. This prairie potato continues to be marked by a half-dozen spikes of Big Blue Stem that were part of the transplanted prairie.

In the meadow located southwest of Topeka, the prairie potato appear to be growing in a circular patch about 200 yards in diameter on the south side of thicket of tall bushes. The number of prairie potatoes growing here does not seem to increase from year to year. In this meadow, the prairie potatoes produce one to three flowers, and many of these plants do not produce blooms every year. In recent years, this meadow has been mowed for hay in late June or early July, often before the seeds are ripe and before the plants have dried and disbursed the seeds.

The second meadow where I found prairie potatoes growing is located northwest of Wamego and is owned by Joyce and Doug Elcock.   Native grasses and plants grow in this undisturbed prairie.  This meadow is usually mowed for hay in the middle of July after most of the seeds of the prairie potato are ripe and the tops of these plants have dried up and been blown away. The seeds have a chance to be distributed in other locations.

Here prairie potatoes grow in strips about 25 feet wide that run south to north. We speculate that the prevailing south wind blows the dried plants, distributing the seeds in this strip pattern. The stems of many of these plants are thicker, and the plants have more blooms per plant than the prairie potatoes in the meadow southwest of Topeka.

During the growing season, Joyce, the landowner of this meadow northwest of Wamego, regularly observed the prairie potatoes that are growing in her meadow. She and I marked some specimen plants and photographed them to record their growth.  She spray painted the ground around a few of the large prairie potatoes so we can locate them after the meadow is mowed and find them early when they come up in the spring.

This summer Joyce and I transplanted prairie potatoes to our gardens and gathered dried seeds from the larger plants for planting next spring. We dug a few prairie potatoes and cooked them with a buffalo roast.

Many other experiments with the prairie potatoes and observations of their growing habits are planned for the future, but right now our research is dormant like the potato tubers that we are studying. Our interest, however, in the prairie potatoes continues to grow as we learn more about this important plant that has almost been forgotten in the last 150 years.

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