The Land Dispute That Led to the Town of Kansas
By Diane Euston
180 years ago on July 7 marks an event that could have completely erased Kansas City, Mo., from the map. Due to the actions on this day, another group of men had the unique opportunity to organize, pool their resources and make the winning bid on the land where Kansas City blossomed into a bustling city.
The earliest beginnings of Kansas City reside with Francois Chouteau (1797-1838), grandson of St. Louis founder Auguste Chouteau, and his wife Berenice. On their honeymoon in 1819 they traveled up the Missouri River from the St. Louis area to survey a place where Chouteau could expand his father’s fur trading business. They returned to the area in 1821 to build a log cabin and set up shop near where the Kaw (Kansas) River and Missouri River meet.
In the following years about two dozen French Catholic families followed the Chouteaus to this new land. The Native Americans called it “Chouteau’s Town.” The small French Canadian settlement began to gain momentum when the uncultivated lands nearby were proving to have fertile soil, thus farming began.
Gabriel Prudhomme (b. cir. 1790), a French Canadian, headed out west to this new settlement with his wife Josephine. Trained as a blacksmith, Prudhomme quickly found work and acquired 257 acres due to the Homestead Rights Act near the heart of the action in early 1831. His land, a vast wilderness, extended south from the Missouri River bluffs to current-day Independence Avenue, and east from Broadway to Holmes Road.
Prudhomme’s location proved to be more than what he possibly predicted. Near current-day Grand Avenue was a perfect location for boats to land. Prudhomme began operating a ferry service on the Missouri River between Clay and Jackson counties, and purchased a license to run a tavern and grocery store on his land.
Although he appears on paper to be well on his way to prosperity, Prudhomme would not live long enough to see what would become of his land. In November 1831, just 10 months after purchasing his farm, Prudhomme was killed in a barroom brawl. According to William Mulkey, it occurred in a “free fight” with locals. He left behind a wife who was four months pregnant and six children.
For five long years the land remained in limbo until finally the courts ordered it to be sold. James Hyatt McGee (1786-1840) was named trustee of the estate. Since his settlement in the area just years earlier, he had already acquired over 1,000 acres of land. Because of the landing on the Missouri River where boats could dock safely, the Prudhomme estate should have fetched a pretty penny at auction.
The courts ordered that advertisements be run in newspapers across Missouri. Curiously, only two small ads were purchased–one in a St. Louis newspaper and another in Liberty. On July 7, 1838, the public sale was set to begin. McGee declared himself auctioneer, supposedly to save the estate money.
There is no doubt that McGee “cried” the sale in what was once the wilderness where Kansas City now stands today. He started the bid at $1,800. Some accounts claim that before anyone could bid, McGee declared the property sold to his friend Abraham Fonda for the opening amount. Because Fonda couldn’t afford the sale in cash, he was conveniently underwritten by Fry McGee, the auctioneer’s son.
Anger spread like wildfire on the bluffs of the Missouri River and one group of men marched to the courthouse in Independence to file a complaint about the sale of the Prudhomme estate. They protested that McGee’s interest in the land made him “unfit for a crier” of the sale. It was speculated that he, whether directly or indirectly, was set to profit from the sale. Plus, $1,800 for prime real estate was a steal.
McGee, Fonda and Fonda’s agent claimed through depositions that McGee “cried the sale for four to six hours” before claiming the land sold. Nonetheless, people present and supposedly ready to bid on the property claimed McGee only waited one and a half minutes before he declared the land sold after the opening bid was met by Fonda.
The uproar over the sale of the Prudhomme estate led the courts to declare the sale null and void. A new sale, to be cried by the sheriff, was ordered to be held on November 14, 1838. The fate of Kansas City rested upon the demand of a second sale of the Prudhomme land and gave 14 men the chance to organize the Town Company. Included among the men were John C. McCoy, founder of Westport, Fonda and James McGee’s son. The result was that seven years after Prudhomme’s death on the edge of the frontier, the land was purchased for $4,220.
Names such as Possum Trot and Rabbitville were tossed around, and to no one’s surprise, Fonda figured the name Port Fonda was perfect. Rather casually, the men opted for the Town of Kansas as a name, and within a year McCoy divided up the first lots. Meanwhile, riverboats began to dock regularly at Prudhomme’s ferry crossing that became known as Westport Landing.
Today, no statue, road or restaurant bears the name of Prudhomme to pay homage to the man behind the very beginning of our metropolis. Without fate, a voided sale and the organization of 14 men, the city may have never sprung from the bluffs on the Missouri River.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.