Town of Kansas, Missouri – Before Kansas City

Westport Landing, Missouri 1853.

Westport Landing, Missouri 1853.

The old Town of Kansas in northwest Missouri, the predecessor of Kansas City, started in 1838, when John McCoy, who had founded Westport, and 13 other men laid out a new town along the Missouri River.

The first documented European visitor to this site was French military officer Étienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont, who was also the first white man to explore the lower Missouri River. Though he wasn’t the first Frenchman here, his journal entry, July 11, 1713, provides the earliest written description of the area.

“… on the west side a range of hills – towards the west-northwest … one finds the River of the Canzes, which mouth comes from the south…”

In 1763, the Spanish took over the region but did not play a major role other than licensing trade. The French continued their fur trade under a Spanish license, and the Chouteau fur-trading family began to trade as early as 1765.

The first known white man who came into the territory of Jackson County was Colonel Daniel Morgan Boone, a son of old Daniel Boone. He arrived in the St. Charles district of present-day eastern Missouri in 1797 and spent many years trapping and trading. When he first arrived at the conjunction of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers, he came upon a deserted Indian camp. After trapping along the Blue River during winter, the Indians returned and welcomed him. He would spend 12 winters trapping on the Blue River and moved to Westport, Missouri, in 1825.

Lewis and Clark on the Upper Missouri River.

Lewis and Clark on the Missouri River.

After the Louisiana Purchase, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked on their legendary voyage to the Pacific West in May of 1804, traveling up the Missouri River and arriving in this vicinity on June 26. They camped for three nights at Kaw Point at the mouth of the Kansas River, one mile west of what would later become Westport Landing. Noting that the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers was a good place to build a fort, they stopped again on their return on September 15, 1806.

In 1819, François Chouteau and his cousin Gabriel S. Sères, from St. Louis, Missouri, set up a temporary trading post for John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company on the Randolph Bluffs along the Missouri River in Clay County, in western Missouri. They sought an ideal place for a permanent post and investigated several other locations. Chouteau, with his wife Bérénice and his brother Cyprien, finally chose a site on the Missouri River, west of the Randolph Bluffs post and a few miles east of the mouth of the Kansas River. The new place, Chouteau’s Landing, was located near the north end of Grand Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1821, it became the area’s first permanent European-American settlement.

François Chouteau

François Chouteau

Following Francois and his wife in 1825 were Francois’ brothers, 21-year-old Cyprian and 16-year-old Frederick. Their mission was to expand their fur trading business further to the West. At first, Cyprian settled on the south bank of the Kansas River about six miles from the mouth, while Frederick moved about eight miles above Topeka, Kansas, and traded with the Kanza Indians at Horseshoe Lake. In the winter of that year, mountain man James Beckwourth worked at Francois Chouteau’s trading post.

Chouteau traveled widely throughout the new Kansas Territory, trading manufactured goods for animal pelts from the Shawnee, Kickapoo, and other tribes with whom he had established long-standing good relations. His inventory came from his licensed trade with several tribes and his employees trapping and hunting in the Rocky Mountains.

Osage Indians by George Catlin

Osage Indians by George Catlin

On June 2, 1825, in a treaty with the Osage Indians, the tribe ceded their remaining lands in western Missouri, which opened the way for increased settlement. Several trappers soon joined the Chouteaus, including Gabriel Prud’homme and his family, who were returning from an expedition in the Snake River region. Chouteau partnered with Prud’homme and his brother Cyprien to create the fur company with a warehouse as headquarters. The company concentrated on the western trading routes and engaged other family members. His American Fur Company warehouse supplied the intense demand for furs and beaver hats in the eastern United States and Europe.

The eastern part of the county was rapidly settled, but very few people settled west of the Blue River. Soon, Jesuit Fathers penetrated all parts of the wilderness surrounding Kansas City. The first white settlers built a small log house in the neighborhood of the northern part of Troost Avenue. It was as much a church as a dwelling, where they ministered to the Indians. Before long, other French Catholic families uprooted their lives in the St. Louis area and followed the Cheutou brothers across the newly established state of Missouri.

Due to a flood in 1826, Chouteau moved his trading post to higher ground near what is now Troost Avenue. After acquiring several hundred acres in the East Bottoms, including a working farm, Francois moved his trading post a final time to higher ground about two miles east of the mouth of the Kansas River. However, a major cholera outbreak in 1827 slowed Chouteau’s progress. The steamboat landing spot was known as Chouteau’s Landing, and the couple raised eight children at the new location.

For a few years, all went well. Many canoes and rafts came down the river, and many traders came on horseback or on foot over the rocky trails, all bearing the much-prized furs, which they gladly traded for flour, sugar, or tobacco. The only way to cross the Missouri River was by means of canoes. A ferry was established to encourage trade, which made regular trips bringing over the traders with their furs and taking back loads of provisions. The warehouse was often filled, and the cargo was packed and sent downriver to the big firm in St. Louis.

In 1828, a ferry was operated here by the outlaw Younger Brothers’ grandfather.

“…one of the largest and best farms in the county, with a steamboat landing, warehouses, and costly dwellings, and out-houses…”
John McCoy speaking of Chouteau’s Landing in 1879
French fur traders on the Missouri River.

French fur traders on the Missouri River.

Chouteau’s was the main landing for Westport through much of the 1830s. By that time, at least 100 French Catholic families had settled in the area, many of whom were of mixed Native American descent from the continued relationships between the French and various Indian tribes. Chouteau’s trading post was the center of activity.

These families were involved in the fur trade, and most lived in the West Bottoms near the mouth of the Kansas River. The West Bottoms became known as the “French Bottoms,” and the Native Americans called it “Chouteau’s Town.”

In 1830, James H. McGee built a log cabin for a residence near the corner of 20th and Central Streets. He made the first kiln of brick west of Independence, built the first brick residence in Kansas City, and furnished the bricks for Father Donnelly’s chapel chimney. In 1831, the Santa Fe trade began in Independence.

In 1831, a group of Mormons from New York settled in what would become the city. They purchased about 2,000 acres of land in the Paseo and Troost Lake areas. However, a conflict between the Saints and other Missouri residents led to the eviction of the Latter-Day Saints from Jackson County in 1833. Afterward, their settlement remained vacant.

In 1833, a bright young surveyor named John Calvin McCoy built a two-story log trading post in the hills four miles south of the Missouri River. McCoy’s business became a lively trading and outfitting stop for traders, fur trappers, Indians, and emigrants heading west on the CaliforniaOregon, and Santa Fe Trails. Merchandise for his store came up the Missouri River on steamboats which docked at the Wayne City Landing near Independence, Missouri, requiring McCoy to make a three-day round-trip to get supplies for his store.


John Calvin McCoy

John Calvin McCoy, the founder of Westport, Missouri.

McCoy soon founded the town of Westport. To shorten his trip for supplies, McCoy found a rocky ledge outcropping on the Missouri River near Chouteau’s trading post and soon cut a primitive path from his store to the ledge between what is now Delaware and Grand Streets. He then persuaded the steamboat’s captain John Hancock to unload the goods at the new site. This new delivery point was an eight-mile round-trip, which McCoy’s’ wagons could traverse in one day. This new landing site became known as Westport Landing, and McCoy convinced more riverboats to unload supplies and settlers closer to the trails. Thomas A. Smart opened the first trading house at the landing.

It was the only trading point in the state for the various Indian tribes west of the border, consisting of the Shawnee, Delaware, Kickapoo, Ottawa, Chippewa, Peoria, Kaskaskia, Wea, Kanza, Osage, and various other plains tribes.

“We worked our way down the small valley… cut a wagonway through the dense brush to reach the goods, and loaded the first consignment of merchandise ever landed at the port of Kansas City.”

— John C. McCoy

The American Fur Company rendezvoused here in 1837 and 1839 before their trapping expeditions to the Rocky Mountains.

In 1835, another missionary, Father Roux, established the first church in the area. For the next 20 years, a congregation of French Canadian families worshipped together in the small village called Chez les Canses, meaning “Town of Kansas.” Chouteau, his wife, and their family continued to expand. They established a home on the bluffs above the Missouri River and were active in the early French community. It was not long until a few small houses were built on the Missouri bank where the steamers left goods for the Westport merchants; soon, two or three stores were opened to furnish supplies for nearby settlers and travelers who passed that way. There was a village with merchants, mechanics, and tradesmen in a short time.

In 1838, Francois Chouteau, later coined “The Father of Kansas City,” died of heart trouble. He left his trading post and 1,200 acres to his sons to take over the business. However, Pierre Menard Chouteau was just 15 years old and too young to take over, so Francois’ brother, Cyprian, and Francois’ widow, Berenice began running the operation. That year, 14 men, including John McCoy, William M. Chick, and mountain man William L. Sublette, purchased a 257-acre parcel for $4,220, including Westport Landing, organized a town company, and established a municipality named Kansas, the precursor of Kansas City. The Indian word “Kansas,” meaning smoky, came from the Kanza tribe, who occupied what would later become the state of Kansas.

In 1839, McCoy platted a 15-acre townsite for the “Town of Kansas.” It included the land bordering the Missouri River some distance south and east of the mouth of the Kansas River and bounded by the river, the present-day Second Street, Delaware Street, and Grand Avenue. Members of the town company members included H.M. Northrup, Jacob Ragan, Henry Jobe, William Gillis, Robert Campbell, Fry P. McGee, W. B. Evans, W.M. Chick, and J.C. McCoy. About 150 lots were then sold at an average price of $55.65 per lot.

In the next years, McCoy laboriously improved the rough road from Westport to the river, and by the 1840s, Santa Fe traders began to favor Westport Landing over those farther east.  Several years later, commercial buildings were popping up along the river bluffs.

John Fremont launched his first exploring expedition to the west from here in 1842.

William Chick's home was the first built at the town of Kansas, Missouri.

William Chick’s home was the first built in the Town of Kansas, Missouri.

In 1843, William Miles Chick, one of the founders of the Town of Kansas, built the first framed house and warehouse at about 1st and Main on the bluffs at the riverfront. Chick had built a brick house in Westport before 1836 and was among the first settlers in Westport. When a post office was established in the Town of Kansas, he became the first postmaster, and his building was the site of the first post office. That year another house and a tavern were also built, but further expansion was delayed due to a legal question on the original sale of the property.

The same year, Mexican trade from this point was suspended by Mexico’s President Santa Anna, who closed the northern port of entry. However, when the embargo was removed, trade revived and greatly increased. At this time, Atchison and Leavenworth, Kansas; St. Joseph, Missouri; and Omaha, Nebraska, entered into the same business, but the Town of Kansas retained most of the trade. Travelers and traders along the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails arrived in Concord Coaches, and ox and mule wagons called “Prairie Schooners.” The coaches carried from 10 to 15 passengers, carrying two to twelve weapons to defend against the Indian attacks. At one time, the fare per passenger from Westport to Santa Fe, New Mexico, was $175 in gold, and the scheduled time was 13 days and six hours.

The trip involved traveling night and day, asleep and awake, without stopping except for meals. The Overland Mail Express Company maintained an office for years on the Levee and, for carrying mail, received $172,000 a year. Mail, passengers, and express matter usually yielded from $5000 to $6000 a trip.

In June 1844, another tragic flood destroyed much of what was left of the French traders in the area. Berenice was forced to move the warehouses, her homestead, and the large farm to even higher ground. She would become a leading lady of the Kansas City Society until 1888 when she died at the age of 87. William Miles Chick’s structures were the only ones to survive the flood. Cyprian and Frederick Chouteau also stayed.

The original families living in the French Bottoms also suffered; the flood swept away their cabins. Many young men never rebuilt and opted to move further west.

“… the flood left not a vestige of the entire homestead (dwellings, warehouses), and (when the water receded) the surface of the entire farm was a wide expanse of sand in many places five feet deep.”
— John Calvin McCoy

In 1845 Father Bernard Donnelly was made pastor of all Western Missouri and ministered to the Indians and whites alike. Originally called St. Francis Regis, the first wooden church was demolished in 1857 to make way for a new brick church on the corner of what is now 11th Street and Broadway. The church was deemed a cathedral in 1880, and additions were completed in 1883, including the iconic gold dome. This brick church continues to operate today as the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

William Miles Chick

William Miles Chick

After the flood, the Town of Kansas was rebuilt, and by 1846 was a strong rival to the Independence Landings. In April 1846, after the legal title had been perfected, lots were sold, and many buildings were erected. The town limits extended from Broadway on the west to Troost Avenue on the east and south to Missouri Avenue. The location was rough and unsightly. The town company in the prospectus summarized its advantages as follows:

“Located on a rock-bound shore, it could never be disturbed by the river’s current. Located just below the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers, the current could not be diverted from the town site. It was located at the great south bend of the Missouri River and the most westerly town in the United States, with an easy grade and only a few miles to the open plains where the great Santa Fe Trail led out directly west to New Mexico. The Oregon and California Trail, branching off from the Santa Fe a short distance west of the town, extended in a northwesterly direction to the Pacific coast; while the military road from Ft. Leavenworth to Ft. Scott and Ft. Gibson in the Indian Territory furnished an outlet to the South. The best ferry across the Missouri River was at Kansas City, opening an important trade on the north side of the river, and made it the crossing between the north and the established roads from Kansas City to the South and West.”

In 1846, Chick was a co-owner of the Evans Hotel, built at the riverfront, the first decent hotel in the Town of Kansas before the Gillis House Hotel was built in 1849.

Commerce prospered during the Mexican-American War (1846 to 1848) with increased Santa Fe, Oregon, and California trade. The California gold rush of 1848 brought thousands of emigrants pushing west to the Pacific coast via Westport Landing and the Town of Kansas.

“This is going to be quite a flourishing town. Within a few months, it has been gaining fast, both in trade and population. Some of the heaviest Santa Fe traders start now from this point. The landing is one of the best, if not the very best, on the Missouri River; there is a good road to the prairie, a good ferry, and a clever ferryman-namely Mr. (John) Calvin McCoy.”
— Liberty, Missouri Tribune, April 7, 1848 

By 1849 the town included eight or ten stores, several blacksmith’s shops, a gunsmith’s shop, a wagon maker’s shop, three hotels, and more. That year, upwards of 20,000 to 30,000 people headed westward on the Oregon-California Trail, which created an enormous boom for the Town of Kansas and Westport Landing. However, perhaps not all of it was good because Father Bernard Donnelly, an early religious and civic leader, blamed the ’49ers for introducing to his flock “cholera, fevers, whiskey, bad habits, and disreputable women.” When cholera hit the town that year, Eleanor McGee and Berenice Chouteau brought the sick into their homes and cared for them until they were well. This tender touch and willingness to advocate for more than just her family gave her the nickname amongst the earliest pioneers, “Mother McGee.”

In 1850, the “Town of Kansas” was incorporated by the Jackson County Court in Independence, Missouri. That year, 600 wagons began westward overland trips to Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and California. They came to this point in boats and went westward by the old Santa Fe Trail and the California-Oregon Trail. From about 1850 to the coming of the railroads, from six to ten boats daily came to this landing.

The Gillis House Hotel in the City of Kansas was the finest hotel in town.

The Gillis House Hotel in the City of Kansas was the finest in town.

One of the most imposing brick structures in the Town of Kansas was the 46-room American Hotel. Benoist Troost and William Gillis built the hotel in 1849 on Front Street between Delaware and Wyandotte Streets. Over the years, it was known by various names, including the Union, Eldridge, Troost, and the Gilliss House Hotel. General George Custer and Kit Carson were guests at Gillis House, as was almost every notable person to pass through the Town of Kansas during this period.

The lively riverfront hotel was described in 1851:

“I write you from a point which is getting to be more and more a favorite resort for those engaged in the Santa Fe trade… It has the advantage of an excellent landing, accessible at all stages of the river, and is only four or five miles from the Plains, with which it is connected by a road that, already good, is constantly improving. The Traders seem well pleased with the treatment they receive here.”

A guest of the hotel, Kansas Public Ledger, 1851

In the early days, the bluffs along the Missouri River were much higher, and they began to be cut down in the 1850s. Expansion then began up the steep bluffs south of the river, with many settlers building homes around Grand and Walnut, between 2nd and 3rd Streets. The Main Street Cut was built in the early 1850s and quickly became the preferred route of the trail. A similar cut was built one block west on Delaware Street in the late 1850s. These cuts would continue in the next years, and the levee was widened.

In 1851, the town was described as:

“Kansas town is quite picturesquely settled on some hills along the Kansas River near its junction with the much bigger Missouri. The main street is about thirty feet above the water level. The houses are of both baked brick and boards, the latter called frame houses. It is a lively little place. Here most travelers bound for the west purchase what they require for their long overland journey.”
— Paul Wilhelm, Duke of Wuerttemburg
Town of Kansas by Frederick Emanuel Shane

Town of Kansas by Frederick Emanuel Shane

On February 23, 1853, the Town of Kansas officially became the City of Kansas based on a charter received by the Missouri Legislature. At that time, it had a population of 2,500, and its boundary lines extended from the middle of the Missouri River south to what is now 9th Street and from Bluff Street on the west to a point between Holmes Road and Charlotte Street on the east.

By May of 1854, the air was electrified by the sizzling-hot debate of pro-slavery versus anti-slavery when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Now, the western territory was open and available, and whoever settled Kansas Territory first would determine its status as a free state or slave state. A new, frenzied wave of migration began, and the City of Kansas residents were acutely affected as Missouri was a slave state and most residents held pro-Southern views.

Though adding another free state on the Missouri border posed a threat, the City of Kansas, with its popular steamboat landing and unsurpassed access to the new territory, held an economic advantage for a while.

During the Border War era, the Ellis Hotel was a hotbed of intrigue as it changed hands between pro-slavery and abolitionist proprietors.

Though there was turmoil in the area, the City of Kansas remained the primary jumping-off point for trade and emigration until the outbreak of the Civil War, when trail traffic moved north to Leavenworth, Kansas. Between 1850 and 1860, steamboating was at its best on the Missouri River, and in 1857, 729 boats arrived at Kansas City.

When the Civil War began in April 1861, things would change for the City of Kansas. It had seen the trouble to come in the Border War before Kansas became a Free State. Now, however, there was to be no more neutrality. The citizens were equally divided for and against the Union, and neighbors, friends, and relatives took sides which was a blow to the city.

In preparation for war, newspapers were suspended, business houses were closed, and many citizens left the city for more quiet places, reducing the population. Immediately on the commencement of hostilities, bands of Missouri bushwhackers began to plunder under the guise of partisanship. Likewise, Jayhawkers and Redlegs from Kansas took advantage of these opportunities and strove to crush out the town at the mouth of the Kansas River.

Notwithstanding the disloyalty of the surrounding country in Missouri, the city had a strong and influential Union element that asserted itself. However, the tide of trade and travel no longer came to the City of Kansas and passed on to Leavenworth, Atchison, and other Kansas towns.

The last issue of the Daily Journal of Commerce, until revived in the spring of 1862, was on Sunday morning, June 16, 1861, and was a small, folded sheet about 12 by 16 inches, of five narrow columns to the page, showing very plainly the sudden collapse of the business. Besides a few standing advertisements and some war news, a week old — its telegraph dispatches having been cut off — it contained a proclamation of Governor C. F. Jackson of Missouri, calling for 50,000 men to repel invasion of the State by Federal forces.

“In front of the town, the broad-bouldered landing sloping down to the water’s edge presented a confusing picture of immense piles of freight, horse, ox, and mule teams receiving merchandise from the steamer, scores of immigrants wagons, and a busy crowd of whites, Indians, half-breeds… Carts and horses wallowed in the deep excavations, and the houses stood trembling on the verge as if in fear of tumbling down.”
Albert Richardson, spring 1857

Early in April 1861, party spirit ran high, and the adherents of both parties began to hold meetings and raise their respective flags. The Union party raised an American flag on the public square, while the secessionists determined to offset it with one of their kind. They invited their friends and sympathizers from the surrounding country to celebrate the occasion. Independence, Westport, and Clay County responded liberally. On April 3, the day set for the occasion, a large procession marched through the streets, following a  rebel flag and bands playing rebel songs. At the same time, numerous Southern flags were displayed from private residences and business houses. The procession moved to the top of a hill at the northeast corner of Second and Main Streets and, on this conspicuous position, raised their flags to the sounds of martial music and the firing of guns. Inflammatory speeches were made, which were loudly applauded. Meetings were held, and resolutions passed denouncing’ the government for its efforts to “coerce” the Southern States to remain in the Union and warning the officials appointed by President Abraham Lincoln not to thrust themselves upon a people who did not want them.

Liberty, Missouri Arsenal

Liberty, Missouri Arsenal

The United States arsenal at Liberty, Missouri, having been seized by companies of secessionists from the surrounding towns of St. Joseph, Lexington, Weston, Independence, and the City of Kansas, openly met for drill in the streets of those several cities. But as it became apparent that the government was in earnest, and its strong-arm began to be felt, they began to recognize that it was dangerous to indulge in such demonstrations and that they were liable to be punished for such treasonable language and acts; many of them secretly left the city and joined the Confederate army, while the others stayed at home and quietly accepted the situation. At the election of President Lincoln, 180 votes were cast for him in Jackson County, most of which were in the City of Kansas.

City of Kansas Mayor Robert Van Horn was also a lieutenant colonel in the Union Army during the Civil War.

City of Kansas Mayor Robert Van Horn was also a lieutenant colonel in the Union Army during the Civil War.

While Governor Claiborne Jackson was assembling his forces at Camp Jackson, near St. Louis, matters became unsettled, and many of the Union men left, alarmed by the secessionists’ threats.

However, the Legislature, having passed an act creating a metropolitan police system for the City of Kansas, vested control of the force in police commissioners appointed by the City of Kansas Mayor Robert Van Horn. Soon, authority was given to recruit a battalion of United States volunteers for the city’s defense. An order for United States regular troops was also procured to be sent from Fort Leavenworth to protect Union men while the battalion was enlisted and armed. In pursuance of this order, Captain W. E. Prince occupied the city with two infantry companies and three cavalry.

Upon the muster of Mayor Van Horn’s Battalion, Captain Prince turned over the command of the place to him and withdrew. Until the close of the war, the city continued to be occupied as a military post, and no rebel force ever entered it. A fortified camp, named Fort Union, was erected on the southwest corner of 10th and Central Streets, where the troops were quartered and where the citizens could meet for drill and defense. During the war, the battalion was often sent to assist other Union forces throughout the area. The battalion later became known as the Twenty-fifth Missouri Infantry and distinguished itself in several battles in the South. It was with General Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee, and remained in the United States service until the close of the war.

Fort Union in the City of Kansas during the Civil War.

Fort Union in the City of Kansas during the Civil War.

In the meantime, nearly all legitimate businesses except those connected with military operations had been suspended. Bands of armed men marching through the streets had replaced peaceful emigrants; instead of the long, heavily-freighted train of the Western trader, United States military wagons loaded with the supplies and munitions of war were passing through the streets. Strains of martial music, flying flags, and the rumble of artillery had replaced the busy hum of commerce, painfully reminding the citizens of how the times had changed.

Roving bands of bushwhackers, Jayhawkers, and Red Legs were always watching for an opportunity to pounce upon and plunder the city. It was unsafe to pass beyond the city limits, even as far as Westport, without an escort. The guerrillas waylaid all the roads to cut off travelers. Consequently, there was no trade from the country. The only safe road to and from the city into Kansas was along the north side of the Kansas River.

Steamboats on the Missouri River were fired on, trains were stopped and robbed, both parties committed military executions and murders, the air was heavy with the smoke of burning farmhouses, and the country was involved in all the horrors of civil war. There was no demand for real estate and no sales. The taxes were unpaid, and the city was without revenues. Unavoidable expenses incurred by the city were paid in warrants worth about fifty cents on the dollar. As no repairs could be made on the streets and no improvements made, the town soon took on a very shabby and dilapidated appearance.

Guerilla Warfare in the Civil War

Guerilla Warfare in the Civil War

During the whole of 1861, the ordinary results of a state of war were seen in the city — deserted stores, idle men, angry discussions of principles and events, outrage and violence from untrained and prejudiced soldiery in avenging previous wrongs, retaliation by rebels and bushwhackers — and at its close, nearly everyone who had the means to get away had gone elsewhere, and those who remained were compelled to depend for support mainly upon the business of one kind or another growing out of the military occupation of the city.

Missouri Border Ruffians, also called Bushwhackers

Missouri Border Ruffians, also called Bushwhackers.

At the beginning of 1862, matters revived very little. However, public schools were reorganized, and the publication of the Journal was resumed. But mail was frequently not received for ten days at a time. Marauders of all classes and titles were at work on all sides. The Mexican trains, stagecoaches, steamers on the river, and travelers on foot and horseback, were fired upon and robbed indiscriminately.

During all this time, the town grew increasingly shabby and dilapidated. The streets were not repaired, the taxes were unpaid, and the revenue was uncollected. The day’s news constantly repeated something like this: “Major on yesterday killed six bushwhackers and burned three houses,” and “captured three Union soldiers, cut off their ears and hung them to a tree between here and Independence.”

In 1863 things began to get better as far as business was concerned. Some of the Santa Fe traders, who had been scared away, returned to the city and were protected by escorts of soldiers as far out as Fort Larned, about 150 miles to the southwest. The Chamber of Commerce was reorganized in June. Work commenced on the Kansas Pacific Railroad to Lawrence, Kansas, and the Missouri Pacific Company laid track between Independence and Kansas City.

In June 1863, General Thomas Ewing, Jr., was ordered to the City of Kansas to take command of the “District of the Border,” which included several tiers of counties on both sides of the state line between Missouri and Kansas. This had become necessary due to the depredations committed by roving bands of guerrillas and other lawless parties. It even became necessary to declare martial law because of lawlessness and depredations.

The year 1864 opened with brighter prospects with some real estate sales, and preparations for building were quite active.

Battle of Westport by Newell Convers.

Battle of Westport by Newell Convers.

In the latter part of September 1864, Confederate General Sterling Price started on his memorable raid through the State of Missouri. His design was to sweep through the rich counties along the south side of the Missouri River, gather recruits and supplies, up to the Kansas City border, then take on the eastern tier of counties in Kansas, from Lawrence south, and pass out into Arkansas with his booty.

General Sterling Price advanced, fighting his way and driving all before him until he reached the crossing of the Big Blue River, where General Curtis opposed him in command of the Kansas and Colorado troops. A severe battle was fought, on October 22, known as the Battle of Westport, ending in the disastrous defeat of the Confederates, who fled southward, leaving their dead and wounded behind them. Kansas City escaped the great danger that had threatened her.

Within a very few weeks, business had resumed its former activity. Men of all shades of opinion returned to civil pursuits. They worked side by side and shoulder to shoulder in smoothing over and effacing the scars left by the war and in forming and executing plans for the future advancement and advantage of the city.

Peace was practically restored in the country surrounding the City of Kansas at the opening of the year 1865. Most of the bushwhackers, who had impeded the progress of every kind for a time, had gone south with Price or were lying low through the winter awaiting developments.

Westport Landing by William Henry Jackson.

Westport Landing by William Henry Jackson.

But the streets were out of repair, buildings were dilapidated, trade was practically gone, and the population had decreased to 3,500. During the war, Leavenworth had been the base of army operations, and while Kansas City had been losing ground, her population had grown to about 8,000. It had become the center of the trade of southern Kansas, with a large trade in Colorado and New Mexico.

The bolder-hearted, more enterprising citizens had faith in the City of Kansas, recognized natural advantages, and hoped the railroads would provide a comeback.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, and the same is true of cities. We are now approaching the flood. If taken advantage of, we shall be carried on to fortune. If we do not act at the tide of our opportunities, our future history will be a record of failure and humiliation.

The present is bright; we can, if we wish to be, the architects of our own fortune. To be so, we must be earnest, industrious, and enterprising. Visions of the future show half a dozen railroads converging at this point; it shows the river port for the plains; a point of trans-shipment for the minerals, the wool, and other products of the south… Providence never assisted a lazy man, fortune never smiled on an indolent community. The price paid for prosperity is labor, energy, and enterprise.

With a live policy, by throwing old fogy notions to the winds, by placing our mark high, and working up to it, we shall become in two or three years all that we have described.”

— Journal of Commerce, August 3, 1865

The city’s growth during 1867 was rapid, and at the close of 1868, the population was estimated at 28,000. That year, 2,000 houses were built.

McGee Street Rail Yard in Kansas City, Missouri.

McGee Street Rail Yard in Kansas City, Missouri.

Between the close of the war and 1870, the percentage increase during the intervening five years was the largest ever made by any city in the country. At the close of 1870, the City of Kansas had eight railroads, seven banks, and 32,260 people, and during the year, 927 houses had been built at an aggregate cost of $3,454,500.

In 1871, the Kansas City Stockyards boomed in the West Bottoms area because of its central location and proximity to trains. The stockyards soon became second only to Chicago’s in size, and the city itself was identified with its famous Kansas City steak.

By 1880 the bluffs had been cut into streets, the city ran several miles south of the river, the population was over 50,000, and the city was on its way to becoming a metropolis. Throughout this decade, the Ellis Hotel was the main, and eventually the only, hotel on the Missouri Riverfront.

In the next years, the City of Kansas continued to boom with more railroads, factories, businesses, and people. In 1889, the city limits were extended south and east, prompting a name change to Kansas City. Westport became part of Kansas City on December 2, 1897.

In the meantime, as Kansas City’s businesses and growing population spread south of the river and the riverfront became less desirable, Westport Landing, which had borne the weight of freight and emigrant dreams, became obsolete.

The junction of Main and Delaware Streets in Kansas City, Missouri, 1900.

The junction of Main and Delaware Streets in Kansas City, Missouri, 1900.

In 1900, Kansas City was the 22nd largest city in the country, with a population of 163,752 residents.

©Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated July 2023.

Also See:

Independence – Queen City of the Trails

Kansas City Photo Gallery

Missouri – The Show Me State

Westport, Missouri


Case, Theodore S.; History of Kansas City, Missouri; D. Mason & Co.; Syracuse, New York, 1888
Historic Kansas City
National Park Service
New Santa Fe Trailer
Santa Fe Trail Research (website no longer active)
Westport Historical