In July 1830 Chief Fish, leader of the Missouri Shawnees, requested a missionary through their Indian agent George Vashon. A missionary society was formed in September 1830. Reverend Thomas Johnson (pictured at right), a Methodist minister, was appointed missionary to the Shawnees and his brother William, missionary to the Kansa tribe. The Reverend Thomas Johnson was born in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and later moved to Missouri. He married Sarah Davis (pictured below right) at Clarksville, Missouri, in 1830, and that same year he arrived with his new bride in present-day Turner, Wyandotte County, Kansas.
Johnson proposed to the missionary society that a central school be built to serve many tribes. A site was chosen where a branch of the Santa Fe Trail passed through the Shawnee lands. Building began, and the school opened at the present Johnson County location in October 1839. Indian children of many tribes were sent to this school to learn basic academics, manual arts, and agriculture. Some of the tribes represented were the Kaw (Kansa), Munsee, Delaware, Ottawa, Chippewa, Otoe, Osage, Cherokee, Peoria, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Wea, Gros Ventres, Omaha, and Wyandot. At the height of its activity, the mission was an establishment of more than 2,000 acres with 16 buildings, including the three large brick structures, which still stand, and an enrollment of nearly 200 Indian boys and girls from the ages of five to 23.
Classes were held six hours each day except Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday teaching was limited to three hours. The boys worked in the shop or on the farm, usually for five hours a day. The girls helped with the sewing, washing, and cooking. The students, as a rule, went to bed at 8 p.m. and rose at 4 a.m.