McCoy was born in Vincennes, Indiana, on September 28, 1811, to Isaac and Christiana Polke McCoy. He was one of six children. In 1826 he studied as a land surveyor at Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky, completing his studies the next year.
In 1830, he accompanied his parents to northwest Missouri to do Baptist missionary work. In 1833, 22-year-old John McCoy built a two-story cabin on the northeast corner of Westport Road and Pennsylvania Avenue. Opening a store for travelers on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails, the building served as a trading post and residence. 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.
McCoy’s store was four miles south of the Missouri River. To shorten his trip, he established a dock at a rocky point on the Missouri River in the spring of 1834. Located between present-day Delaware and Grand Streets, it came to be called Westport Landing. He then cut a primitive path from his store to the rocky ledge and persuaded the captain of the steamboat John Hancock to unload goods at the new site. McCoy soon convinced more riverboats to unload supplies and settlers closer to the trails, and Westport Landing became quite popular.
The same year, McCoy purchased land from Dr. Johnston Lykins and began laying out streets around his store. He called the new town Westport because it was the last settlement before travelers ventured into Kansas Territory. When a post office was established in May 1834, McCoy was appointed postmaster. A town plat was filed in February 1835.
John married Virginia Christiana Chick on January 23, 1838. She was the daughter of William Miles Chick and Ann Eliza Smith. The McCoys would eventually have nine children.
The land surrounding Westport Landing was owned by a farmer named Gabriel Prudhomme. He had been a fur trader associated with the French Chouteau family, who were some of the earliest settlers in the area.
After Prudhomme was murdered in 1831, his property was auctioned on November 14, 1838, to settle the estate. Fourteen men, including John McCoy, William M. Chick, and mountain man William L. Sublette, purchased a 257-acre parcel for $4,220 and formed the Town of Kansas Company. The company soon platted the site into 318 lots for sale. In 1853, the state of Missouri officially charted the Town of Kansas, which would later become known as Kansas City.
When Kansas City had barely emerged from villagehood, McCoy was employed as a surveyor by the United States government, and he fixed the old boundary line at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He also surveyed and fixed the boundary lines of the Cherokee and Creek lands in the Indian Territory. Afterward, he purchased a farm in Kansas and worked the land for several years, after which he returned to Kansas City, where he lived and retired at his old home at No. 711 Olive Street.
He died in his home at 711 Olive Street, Kansas City, Missouri, on September 2, 1889, at the age of 77 and was buried in Union Cemetery.
He is widely regarded as “the father of Kansas City.” Pioneer Park is at Westport and Broadway, in Kansas City features a sculpture by Thomas L. Beard of Alexander Majors, John McCoy, and Jim Bridger.
Westport was annexed to Kansas City in 1899.