The first settler in the Towanda area was C. L. Chandler. Having little success in his search for gold, he was returning with a wagon train of other gold prospectors by way of the Santa Fe Trail. Near what is now North Butler County, they encountered a party of Indian traders who told them glowing tales of a place to the south along the Whitewater river. After hearing the tales, Chandler and two others headed south in search of the big spring flowing from under the hill, where Towanda now stands. They found lush bluestem; a clear, flowing stream full of fish; lots of green trees along the banks; and an abundance of elk, deer, antelope, and buffalo feeding nearby. Chandler built a cabin in 1858.
In 1863, Chandler sold his buildings and land for $3 an acre to James R. Mead. Towanda was the last settlement on the way west to (Santa Fe) New Mexico. All territory west of the Whitewater River was Indian Territory.
"Mead's Ranch" became a very active trading post. An Indian agency was established in the building in 1864 and operated until the Indians were moved to the new Indian Territory in 1867. The Indians came to exchange furs for food, staples, blankets, and trinkets. They also came to the trading post to receive their scant rations of provisions and clothing issued by the government. It was here that Colonel Leavenworth made his headquarters and negotiated with Satana, Chief of Kiowas, and "Heap of Bears", the great Medicine Chief of the Arapahos. This resulted in the Treaty of Medicine Lodge.
Mr. Mead made many friends in his seven years at Towanda. He was a trusted friend of many Indian tribes and knew such legendary figures of the old west as: Kit Carson, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, and Jesse Chisholm. In 1870, Mead sold the property and, along with J. S. Munger and William Griffenstein, he moved farther west and laid out a townsite along the Arkansas River. It was called "Wichita."
Isaac Mooney purchased the post and the 200 acres, south of present Main Street, for $2000. Rev. Mooney then filed Homestead papers on the landnorth of Main and platted the original townsite.
The town's name origin is unknown, but records show the post office was called "Towanda" when established in 1860. The most widely believed is that Towanda is an Osage Indian word meaning "many waters" or "rushing waters" stated in writings by Mrs. Dan Cupp, an early settler.
For many years the great spring which flowed from the mouth of a small cave provided the town's water supply. In 1912, the city built a retaining wall above the spring to keep rock and dirt from filling it up. During the oil boom the water became contaminated with oil and high salt content and unfit for use.
Later the State of Kansas took over Main Street for Highway 254. The road that curved around the spring was straightened to run along the side of it. The once clear, flowing stream full of fish and the stone arch bridge over it, were destroyed leaving only an occasional trickling of water. To make the two-lane Highway 254 more safe, the Kansas Department of Transportation constructed a four-lane expressway starting near Kechi to the west and ending at El Dorado on the east. The new expressway will bypass on the north side of town, once again changing the look of Towanda.
The little settlement of Towanda that began with only a trading post and spring in 1870 grew to have a thriving business district. In 1892, Towanda had a livery barn, blacksmith shop, drug store, barbershop, meat market, general store, hardware store, doctor's office, butcher shop, baker, mercantile and drug store, newspaper, and two hotels. Then on March 31, 1892 about 9:30 p.m. a tornado destroyed or severely damaged nearly all of them. Eight of the 300 people living in Towanda were killed and many were injured.
Over the years, the City of Towanda and its residents have faced many perils. They have survived two destructive tornadoes; boomed with the discovery of oil in nearby fields only to shrink as the oil wells diminished; faced flooding conditions and dust storms; and outlasted the depression years. But through it all, the strength of a small rural community of friends and relatives, the city lives on.
Now Towanda's population has grown to over 1500,with several businesses, three churches, and several community organizations, and it stretches approximately one-half mile from east to west.