The Founding of Kansas City
Gazing out at today’s sizable metropolitan area, it’s difficult to believe that Kansas City started as two mere trading posts in the early 1800s, one on the Missouri River (the Town of Kansas) and one located several miles away, known as Westport. Enterprising fur trader Francois Chouteau and entrepreneur John Calvin McCoy worked in the towns of Kansas and Westport, respectively, to provide goods to those passing through on various trails headed for points west like Santa Fe and Oregon. Upon its incorporation by Missouri on February 22, 1853, the town became known as the City of Kansas, a name shortened in 1889 to Kansas City.
Looking back on Kansas City’s early history, it’s almost as if a perfect storm formed over the flourishing city in order to give it an advantage over regional neighbors (such as Omaha, Chicago, and St. Louis)—and those cities close by, such as St. Joseph and Leavenworth. Historian W. H. Miller attributes Kansas City’s explosive early development to several characteristics: “In the first place, it was the junction of the Missouri and Kansas rivers at this point that induced the early French traders and trappers to locate here.
The junction of the Missouri and Kansas rivers, therefore, afforded them this facility in a much more extended area of country than any other point in the west. Steamboat navigation on the Missouri being begun almost simultaneously with that trade, afforded cheaper transportation than by wagons; hence it was employed to this, the nearest point to Santa Fe.”
In the mid-1850s, Kansas City vied with Leavenworth, Kansas, and St. Joseph, Missouri, for the role of metropolis of the West, a struggle for regional dominance that became more difficult following the economic devastation of the Civil War, a national conflict that hit close to home thanks to vicious fighting among pro- and anti-slavery supporters that culminated in the Battle of Westport.
In Kansas City: An American Story, authors Rick Montgomery and Shirl Kasper published an account from William Sidney Shepherd, a participant in the battle, as he recalled the day’s events in later years: “The day of the battle ‘was warm, warm from the sun, the burning grass and haycocks and the excitement of roaring cannon and rifle fire. The church bells did not ring, although it was Sunday. People of Westport were too busy serving Union soldiers and worrying whether the Confederates would win and sack the town. On that day Kansas City was besieged. What now is the Country Club Plaza was peppered with cannon balls.’”
After the gruesome battle, known as the “Gettysburg of the West,” peace settled over the area, bringing with it “a new and strangely altered west, and for Kansas City, the beginning of a period of uninterrupted growth,” according to Frank H. Gille’s The Encyclopedia of Missouri.
The first stockyards were built in 1870, a move that would forever shape Kansas City’s future economic growth. In just two decades, Kansas City usurped Texas as the largest cattle handler in the region. And in 1874, agriculture arrived as Kansas City growers began shipping corn to the west and wheat to the east.
The late 1800s found Kansas City prosperous but filthy, an unsightly conglomeration of roads, buildings, and an increasing number of automobiles. Influential city residents including Col. Thomas H. Swope and newspaper editor William Rockhill Nelson identified the need for a parks and boulevard reform system and enlisted the help of talented German architect George Kessler. His first creation, Hyde Park, “converted an ugly shantytown into a beauty spot,” according to Wilda Sandy’s Here Lies Kansas City. After just a few years, Kansas City housed several lush parks and wide, tree-lined boulevards that not only improved the flow of traffic, but also created a picturesque drive for travelers.
Even during difficult times like World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, Kansas City prospered thanks to its immense stockyards and agricultural output, as well as railroads that criss-crossed the city in order to transport cattle, goods, and people.
Kansas City’s jazz culture blossomed in the period from the 1920s through the 1940s, when the city’s musically significant 18th and Vine District helped earn Kansas City the title Paris of the Plains, a testament to the city’s rollicking atmosphere, created by a plethora of saloons and music clubs.
© Katy Ryan from Moon Kansas City, 1st Edition