Kansas City: History

River Site Aids Westward Expansion

The area along the Missouri River now occupied by Kansas City was originally territory within the domain of the Kansa (Kaw) Native Americans. The first persons of European descent to enter the region were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who camped at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers in 1804 during their Louisiana Purchase expedition. Several years later, in 1821, Francois Chouteau opened a depot for the American Fur Company on the site; after a flood destroyed his warehouse in 1826, he relocated to the site of a ferry boat service, where the town of Kansas soon developed.

In 1832 John Calvin McCoy settled nearby and built a store; the following year he platted the town of Westport in Missouri, offering lots for new business development. Westport was soon competing with neighboring Independence, the seat of Jackson County, to be chosen as the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail. Meanwhile Chouteau's settlement, Kansas, developed more slowly; in 1838 the Kansas Town Company was formed to sell property near Chouteau's warehouse. Both Westport and Kansas Town prospered under westward migration until the height of the Gold Rush in 1849, when an epidemic of Asiatic cholera reduced the local population by one-half and drove business elsewhere.

The Kansas Town settlement remained substantial enough, however, to be incorporated in 1850 as the Town of Kansas and then as the City of Kansas in 1853. By 1855 overland trade had returned and the city began to prosper once again, just in time to be disrupted by the nation's conflict over the issue of slavery, during which Southern and Northern forces vied for dominance in the Kansas Territory. Kansas border ruffians invaded Wyandotte County, Kansas, creating havoc in the City of Kansas, which fell into disrepair and economic difficulty with the outbreak of the Civil War. In a pivotal conflict, the Union Army resisted a Confederate Army attack at the Battle of Westport (Missouri) in October of 1864.

Rail Center Develops Architectural Refinement

When the Missouri Pacific Railroad arrived in 1865, the City of Kansas at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers was found to be the perfect location for a railroad distributing center. The first stockyards opened in 1870 and, after weathering the grasshopper plagues of 1874, the City of Kansas emerged as a wheat and grain exchange center. The economy was further stimulated when the Kansas River was bridged in 1866, followed by the construction of the Hannibal Bridge across the Missouri River in 1869. Kansas City adopted its current name in 1889 and annexed Westport in 1897.

The figure who exercised the greatest impact in transforming Kansas City into a beautiful metropolis was William Rockhill Nelson, an Indiana native who settled in Kansas City in 1880 to become owner and editor of the Kansas City Star. Nelson persuaded the community's elite to commit themselves to civic betterment. Through Nelson's constant nudging, a residential development project was begun, turning a rundown neighborhood into the exclusive Country Club district that contained the internationally acclaimed business section, Country Club Plaza. Carefully landscaped with parks, fountains, and European statuary, this enclave remains Kansas City's most popular tourist attraction. At Nelson's encouragement, George E. Kessler planned Kansas City's much-admired boulevard system, which helps define its distinctive character. The city still contains a number of architecturally significant buildings, especially in the Art Deco style, which credit their existence to Nelson's ability to convince people to express their civic pride through architecture, landscaping, and city planning.

In the 1920s Democrat Thomas J. Pendergast introduced machine politics to Kansas City, with mixed blessings. Although civic improvements were initiated, Kansas City developed a reputation for a corrupt government that functioned under "boss rule," a reputation that continued until 1940 when reformers were voted into office. Since then, Kansas City has prospered through urban redevelopment projects. Crown Center, Hallmark Cards' "city within a city," is credited by some with halting the drain of business into the suburbs. As of 2005, $4 billion in major infrastructure improvements are planned or in progress. The development touches nearly all areas of Kansas City life—business, entertainment, arts and culture, residential housing, and transportation. The local life sciences industry is also growing and garnering Kansas City international respect.

Kansas City is a sophisticated community offering many attractions, from a lyric opera company to five professional sports teams, and from world-class shopping to its famous Kansas City barbeque. Famous natives include pioneering pilot Amelia Earhart; director Robert Altman; actors Edward Asner, Noah and Wallace Beery, and Jean Harlow; composers Virgil Thompson and Burt Bacharach; rocker Melissa Etheridge; professional golfer Tom Watson; and baseball player Casey Stengel.

Historical Information: Kansas City Museum, 3218 Gladstone Boulevard, Kansas City, MO 64123; telephone (816)483-8300. University of Missouri, Western Historical Manuscript Collection, 302 Newcomb Hall, 5100 Rockhill Road, Kansas City, MO 64110; telephone (816)235-1543