The Great State of Kansas. . . or Missouri?
By Diane Euston
I grew up one block from State Line Rd. on what I was taught to label as the “good side” of the state line. . . Missouri. Leawood was within reach of my cordless phone signal (barely), and I knew at a young age about the two states and their incessant rivalry.
Some could argue the rivalry is alive and well, even though there hasn’t been a “Border Wars” football or basketball game in ages. On one of the most exciting days of our city’s sports history, the Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl 50 years after their second victory. As the city lit up in fireworks and toasts were clanked in bars, basements and family rooms, there was a new controversy-a-brewing. In the midst of the mayhem, I was alerted to a Tweet from President Trump congratulating the “great state of Kansas” on their Super Bowl victory.
Those somewhat distant feelings cast as a child boiled up and reared their ugly head. Yes, it’s a common mistake to outsiders, but as a historian and resident, I still couldn’t help but set out to clear Kansas City’s name. But this mistake is part of our story. Social media lit up as much as the fireworks had across the city. “We aren’t in Kansas!” people passionately proclaimed in thousands of posts.
Meanwhile, just past the western border, some Kansans chuckled at the common mistake while others passionately posted that they, too, were equally a part of Kansas City. They purchase season tickets and are supporters of our economy.
This event left me humored as I responded to some of the outlash from the Twittergate Trump unintentionally started. The mistake of Kansas City’s name, location, and its history are much deeper than what most would even begin to believe. But anyone along the border- no matter which side- should know the true roots of the controversy between the two states.
The Creation of the Border
Before there was ever a city, there was the establishment of a military post to the east called Fort Osage in 1808. As white settlement seemed to be inevitable, government officials attempted to establish the western line.
In 1820, Missouri was admitted as a slave state and the “midpoint” of the Kaw/Kansas River was selected as the western border. The Osage ceded their lands in Jackson Co., giving room for settlement starting with the French-Canadian fur traders and trappers.
The real change along the border between Missouri and what was known as “Indian Lands” or “Nebraska Territory” to the west was when the government sought to yet again remove Indians from their native lands that fell east of the Mississippi River. 19-year-old John Calvin McCoy (1811-1889) accompanied his father and land surveyor, Isaac McCoy in 1830 on a surveying party. Young John, wearing a buckskin dress and riding on a small, gray horse entered into unknown lands. “The first work we entered upon was to establish accurately the eastern boundary of the Indian Territory from the Missouri River to the southwest corner of the state,” McCoy wrote years later. They passed through Jackson Co., Fort Leavenworth and throughout this new Indian Territory and established about 11 separate sections of lands for the Native American tribes.
Today, the state line is easily marked for quite a long stretch by a road aptly named after its purpose. In 1830, John McCoy and the surveying party noted the boundary was marked “in the timber with blazes and witness trees,” and out on the prairie it was identified “with mounds of earth” that included charcoal and sometimes stone. At the time, the only road that existed in what is now the state of Kansas was a road from Independence, Mo. To Fort Leavenworth. It was known at first as the Delaware Crossing and later served as a fork in the military road and the Santa Fe Trail through Shawnee Indian Mission (established 1839).
Prior to organization as a state, Indian Territory, also referred to as Nebraska Territory, included 20 different relocated Native American tribes. Most of what is now Johnson Co. was settled by the Shawnee. Other neighboring tribes included the Delaware, Pottawatomi, Piankashaws, Peorias, and the Sac and Foxes. In 1843, the Wyandott arrived from Ohio.
As the Native American tribes were relocated, the push out to the west was already beginning. Between the California Gold Rush and the trade with Mexico, it wouldn’t be long before the land on the invisible western boundary of Missouri was a newfound desire of white settlers.
The Creation of Kansas City
After surveying Indian Territory, Rev. Isaac McCoy brought his family to the western border of Missouri in 1831. He built a large log home at the site of today’s St. Luke’s Hospital. Another trailblazer from Tennessee named Daniel Yoacham had set his sights on the area before the McCoys and constructed a log home that became a tavern and hotel at current-day Westport Rd. and Mill St.
McCoy saw promise in this area where Yoacham had settled, and in 1833, he built a two-story building at Westport Rd. and Pennsylvania to trade with those traveling along the Santa Fe Trail. One year later, he used his surveying skills learned from his father and platted the town of Westport at the site.
Cal McCoy wasn’t finished; he knew he needed to use the power of riverboat traffic three miles to the north to his spot on the Three Trails. In 1834, he cut a “primitive path” from the riverfront near Grand Ave. to his store three miles south in Westport. The rocky ledge used for loading and unloading riverboats became known as Westport Landing.
After the death of Gabriel Prudhomme, a French-Canadian connected to the Chouteaus (the first settlers of Kansas City), his 257 acres of vast wilderness extended south from the Missouri River bluffs to current-day Independence Ave., east from Broadway to Holmes Rd. was up for sale. After one sale being declared illegal, 14 men came together under the leadership of Capt. William Sublette from the wholesale firm Sublette & Campbell out of St. Louis. Sublette was described as 6’2” tall and a “dashing, fine-looking man” who spent years in the Rocky Mountains as a fur trader. The mission was simple: the men wanted to purchase the land in order to develop a town along the river.
Part of the original Town Company, as they became to be known, was also John Calvin McCoy. In 1838, about 30 men gathered at One-Eyed Ellis’s cabin overlooking the Missouri River. One-Eyed Ellis is practically written out of history except for his colorful name and his illusive business trading “firewater” to Native Americans.
When recalling the events that led to the creation of what would become Kansas City, one remarked about One-Eyed Ellis, “It was his only claim to celebrity, too, except that he sold remarkably bad whiskey to the Indians.”
It took about 15 minutes, and none of the men ever thought it would be a monumental occasion celebrated for years to come. After the purchase had been made, names for this “embryo city” were tossed around. “Facetiously suggested” were Possum Trot and Rabbitville. Missouri City was out of the question because a town in northern Clay Co. already held that name. Port Fonda was suggested by none other than Abraham Fonda, but McCoy later wrote, “For the reason that he was unpopular with the others, many did not want to immortalize him.” Kawsmouth was considered but the group settled, without much thought, on the name of the Town of Kansas. “The name of Kansas City was selected merely because of its proximity to the mouth of the Kansas River,” McCoy wrote. “None of the others could think of anything better or more appropriate.”
There was no Kansas Territory at the time- it was simply known as “Indian” or “Nebraska Territory.” There was no rivalry with the land to the west. When reflecting later about the name chosen, McCoy wrote, “I did not like the name then and I have no great admiration for it now.”
The Town of Kansas was incorporated in 1850, and by the mid 1850s, the levee along the river had become a major center of trade and outfitting.
Everything behind the name of Kansas City was about to come to a head.
Kansas Territory Opens for Settlement
When it was proposed to remove the barrier between Missouri and Indian Territory and open up the lands to white settlement, most people of western Missouri were against it. The Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 had people deciding on the issue as to whether it should be admitted as a free or slave state.
The territory then became known officially as Kansas Territory–18 years after the Town of Kansas was platted in Missouri. The danger on the border, which precipitated the Border Wars and Bleeding Kansas, surrounded the issue of slavery. Those living on the western border in Missouri were Southern sympathizers, and the leading politicians were in support of the institution.
Because the fate of Kansas Territory was up to popular sovereignty, voters living in the newly-formed territory would decide whether it would be free or slave. Having the area a spit’s throw to some wealthy, politically powerful slave owners was not about to go unnoticed. In 1855, the first of several propositions to merge Kansas City into Kansas began.
In hindsight, this would have solved many of our minor disputes even today. However, if this plan would have come to fruition, Kansas would have been admitted as a slave state and history would have taken a drastic, deep turn.
It was proposed in Jefferson City that annexing parts of western Jackson Co. with pro-slavery sentiments, which would include Westport and Kansas City, would help turn Kansas Territory into a slave state. Led by newspaper man, Col. Robert T. Van Horn, he worked to convince politicians to move the boundary from the midpoint of the Kansas River to the mouth of the Blue River and follow it until its waters spilled into Kansas Territory to the south of Martin City. The plan died before it was seriously considered by the state government.
Charles Spaulding wrote in the “Annals of the City of Kansas” in 1858, “Many persons, particularly the citizens of Kansas Territory have of late charged the citizens of Kansas City with stealing the name Kansas. No stealing has been done on our part . . . for no such Territory was known in the geography of our country until Kansas City had come to be a place of considerable trade.”
In 1861, Kansas was admitted as a free state after six years of intense Border Wars fighting with its neighbor to the east.
A Nail in the Side- Kansas City, Kansas
When Kansas Territory was in the works, town leaders in Kansas City were ready. In 1853, they legally incorporated as the City of Kansas. If there was already a Kansas City, why would Kansas City, Ks. dare to “steal” the name? The question on their choice of name likely resides within commerce and development.
In 1872, shortly after the railroad had brought booming business to the area, several small towns in Wyandotte Co. incorporated as Kansas City, Ks. Their hope was to “capitalize on the success of Kansas City, Mo.” The town offered cheap land and proximity to the railroads. Their success can be seen in the West Bottoms where the Stockyards took shape. Most of the land in the prosperous Stockyards fell on the Kansas side of the state line.
Kansas City’s growing business ventures wanted to be in on the action of any growth and expansion in this new area. Moving the border of Missouri once again came to be a topic of discussion in the mid-1870s due to commercial interests. Surprisingly, moving Kansas City, Mo. boundaries had support from both sides of the state line. However, Jefferson City couldn’t see the point of giving Kansas a bulk of the tax dollars raised for the state and killed the plan. A few years later, there was another attempt by Kansas to take over the city. Kansas offered to purchase the city and have the boundaries moved, but this idea became too complicated when federal officials would have to be involved.
A final attempt to annex Kansas City, Mo. into Kansas was made by officials and supported by the newspapers. In 1878, the Kansas City Times reported that “Kansas City, Mo. should set over to the state of Kansas” and “Wyandotte and Kansas City, Ks. should be incorporated with Kansas City under one municipal government.”
Those in support believed that Kansas City in Missouri rightfully belonged to Kansas because of the location of the “mouth of the Kansas River.” Flooding had changed this location over time, so the question of where the boundary truly was led people to speculate that there was a case for annexation.
Affidavits from three men swore to the proper location of the state line, but the Olathe Mirror reported they were destroyed by Quantrill’s sacking of Olathe in 1862. They reported, “Kansas City belongs to Kansas and we want it.”
This plan seemed to be partially supported by John C. McCoy who had not been fond of the town’s name in the first place. John McEwen wrote in 1879, “Happily, it makes very little practical difference to which great state [Kansas City, Mo.] belongs in the grand homogeneous union of states.”
This final idea was buried.
Two States, One Story
When you’re outside of the area, no matter what suburb you are from, you likely proudly proclaim you are from Kansas City. At that point, conjecture begins when outsiders may ask what it’s like to live in Kansas. Before the fist fight begins, we calmly explain with Midwestern friendliness a brief explanation of our two states.
Geography professor William R. Shortridge explains how we living in the area also come to battle when it comes to a new attraction opening on either side of the state line. Who pays for it? Does it fall upon both states?
“Petty jealousies arising from such concerns occasionally prompt calls from newspaper columnists to move the entire urban area into one state or the other,” Shortridge explained.
I used to wince when the rivalry between Missouri and Kansas was brought up, but today, I find it to be such a unique backdrop of how our city grew. We are two states with one common story- interlinked not just by the confusing name of a city. This is why 610 morning radio personality Bob Fescoe and I called our podcast “Kansas City: 2 States, 1 Story.” He’s a Jayhawk fan, and I came from the land of the Tiger.
“We have spent so much time talking about how the state line divides this town in two, but when both sides work together, we are unstoppable,” Fescoe said.
Kansas City’s origin started on the Missouri side and has spilled into being part of two states. This common history is something discussed (with banter, of course!). The end result is the same: without one state, we wouldn’t have the history for the other. Jennifer Laughlin, site director at Shawnee Indian Mission in Johnson Co. said, “The border wars that were started in the 1800s still exist today but tend to translate now into a Jayhawk and a Tiger. Yet both claim the Chiefs and Royals–and Kansas City barbecue.”
The battle of annexation has ended, and the historical fact shows that Kansas City, Mo. predates Kansas Territory altogether. Regardless, we are all part of this metropolitan area. “Honestly, I don’t care what side of the state line you are on,” Fescoe laughed. “We are all Kansas Citians and should work together to make this place better every day.”
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com. She also co-hosts a podcast called “Kansas City: 2 States, 1 Story” that can be searched and downloaded for free.