By Diane Euston
The heart and soul of the American story begins with immigration from distant lands. Of course, Native Americans were here before an influx of Europeans opted to travel across the sea and set up new lives in the wilderness.
This story isn’t unique to one area of the country; it has built countless cities from coast to coast. In Kansas City, the earliest settlers were French Canadians following Francois Chouteau who traded with Native American tribes, and within less than two decades, settlers from other areas of the country (predominantly from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee) moved to Jackson County to seek out cheap, fertile lands. Their vision built Kansas City.
But they weren’t alone. There were others from distant places who sought out new opportunities. Some were successful; others were not.
This is true of one Belgian-born civil engineer who had the imagination and tenacity to try to form a colony of Belgians in the shadows of the fledgling Town of Kansas. These French-speaking men, women and children left everything behind in their native land, and they were led by Joseph Guinotte.
Early Life in Liège
Guilleaume-Joseph Guinotte was born in 1815 in Liège, Belgium – an established coal mining and steel-making city about 60 miles east of Brussels. His family was quite wealthy – a stark contrast to most emigrants of the era.
But his year of birth was a pivotal point in the history of Belgium. From 1792 to 1815, the area was under the control of the French. In 1815, the area was under the control of the Dutch-speaking Netherlands. This lasted until 1830 when the Belgian Revolution formed a newly-independent country.
After being trained in civil engineering, Joseph Guinotte was commissioned by King Leopold I to assist the Belgian government in building a railroad in Mexico from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. As early as the 1830s, Belgium had negotiated to send their engineers to construct a railroad with Belgian materials, and Guinotte was one of those chosen.
Joseph Guinotte’s time in Mexico was cut short, the job incomplete, when the Mexican-American War from 1846-1848 made it dangerous to continue.
For reasons unknown, Joseph Guinotte didn’t pack up and head back to his native Belgium; instead, he worked with the Belgian government on a new idea to establish a colony of immigrants. The location would be none other than current-day Kansas City.
New Belgium in the East Bottoms
In 1850, 35-year-old Joseph Guinotte developed a partnership with approval from the Belgian government. With Joseph Magis and others in Belgium, he worked establish a colony of Belgians just east of Kansas City. At the time, Kansas City had about 1,500 people.
Although most of the French-speaking original settlers had left the area after the massive flood in 1844, one prominent founding family remained: the Chouteaus.
Under the name of Guinotte, Magis & Co., Joseph Guinotte arranged to purchase approximately 1200 acres in the East Bottoms from Berenice Chouteau and others. The land spanned south from the Missouri River to Independence Ave. and stretched from current-day Troost Ave. to Scarritt Point.
The contract with the Belgian government certainly favored his home country. While most colonist groups recommended spending $400 per person, Guinotte claimed he would only need $60 for each adult and $30 for each child. It called for the emigrants “to be in good health condition and morality” and approved “by either the government [or] by the local authorities.”
Guinotte, Magis & Co. would require the emigrants to be attached to the company for four years. In exchange, the emigrants would be given passage to the United States. Feeding and clothing them fell on Guinotte.
After four years, the emigrants would be given 2.5 acres of land, seeds and supplied food until the first harvest, tools to construct a house and furniture and agricultural tools. After arrival, Joseph Guinotte was to update the government every six months about the community.
Things certainly didn’t go as planned. On March 25, 1850, 50 adults and 14 children, mostly from Guinotte’s native town of Liège, climbed aboard the three-masted George Stevens in the port of Antwerp. With a total of 175 passengers from Belgium and Germany, the ship was headed toward New Orleans.
Later testimony indicates that the conditions aboard the ship were less than adequate, which was, of course, against the arrangements these emigrants had made. One testimony stated that only seven sailors out of nine were aboard the ship. Then, four of the men fell overboard and only one was recovered. The captain asked the Belgian emigrants for help “but they were unskilled, unconscious to maneuvers, cordage and command of the English language.”
The man reporting this was rebuffed by the ship’s captain who stated the man “was seen in a permanent state of intoxication.”
Regardless, testimony from more than one person indicated that the food they were provided was spoiled and the water was undrinkable. When the ship docked nearly three months later in June 1850 in New Orleans, the passengers were not in the best condition.
The 74 immigrants under Guinotte, Magis & Co.’s care arrived June 16, 1850 in St. Louis and were transported to a smaller steamboat for their final six-day trip up the Missouri River to the Town of Kansas. It was reported they arrived “in good condition.”
What happened next has been reported with conflicting accounts. What is clear is that just one month later, many of the colonists died possibly from cholera and were buried in a mass grave in the East Bottoms.
Early Kansas City historian Theodore Case explained the event quite differently. He wrote, “Having just landed from a long sea and river voyage by the way of New Orleans and being hungry for vegetables, they gathered the green leaves of the buckeye, a tree which grows luxuriantly on the lowlands of the Missouri River, and is the first to make its appearance in the spring, and cooked and ate them for greens. The leaves of the buckeye are very poisonous, and many of them died in consequence.”
The events which led to the death of many of them sealed the fate of Joseph Guinotte’s vision of a new Belgium. Some of the colonists stuck it out for a few years. One named Albert Flossie (Flacy) worked plowing corn at 9th and Main. After two years, he had received his passage, room and board, two work shirts and two pairs of socks.
They didn’t stick around the East Bottoms for long; most moved to other areas, including Clay Co. and a few chose to head east to St. Louis.
Many have said that some of the earliest produce farmers selling goods at the City Market from their small farms in the East Bottoms were Belgian immigrants. If this is true, it would not be the same colonists who came under the invitation of Joseph Guinotte.
The Guinotte Homestead
Even though his colony of Belgians didn’t pan out, Joseph Guinotte along with one of his brothers decided to stay in Jackson County. A visionary, he was convinced that there would be a prosperous future for the small town along the bluffs. Joseph set his sights on building a large home to hopefully woo a lovely young woman he had met back in his homeland.
Born in 1823 in Brussels, Aimée Brichaut’s family was connected to the Belgian mint and came from wealthy stock. Their status afforded her an exclusive education, and the beautiful Aimée met Joseph Guinotte when she was just a child. When he asked for her hand in marriage, Aimée, accompanied by relatives, boarded a ship to New York in 1852 so she could start her new life.
On the river bluff at current-day 3rd and Troost east of the city limits, Joseph Guinotte set out to prepare a proper home for his fiancé. Built of native hand-hewn logs, Joseph built a two-story home overlooking the East Bottoms and Missouri River. Bricks for the chimneys were brought in by steamboat from St. Louis. The Kansas City Star later reported of the home, “The house has four rooms which are 22-feet long and 21-feet wide, and four others 16×14 in size. There are two ‘L’s’ in the rear, joined by a double porch.”
A house of this size at the time was a mansion – no comparison to the one-room log cabin many started with on the frontier. At this home, “doors were always open to the traveler” and was known for “bounteous and generous hospitality.”
A path from the homestead led through the dense forest and prairie to the town of Westport, and the gardens around it were known far and wide. Joseph was fond of flowers and surrounded the home with large garden beds. The first dahlias ever planted in the area came from Belgium and were on the Guinotte farm.
In 1852, Joseph traveled to New York to fetch his fiancé. There, the couple was married with the Belgian consul as a witness. Her bridal trousseau from Europe later became “a marvel” to Kansas Citians.
The newlyweds quickly left New York City and headed to the home he had painstakingly built for Aimée. She couldn’t speak English and was “illy prepared for frontier life.”
“She had been reared in a large city,” the Kansas City Star reported, “and had not the slightest idea of the existence in the country where almost every comfort and convenience of civilization was lacking.”
Aimée Guinotte would later tell a friend, “When we came to Kansas City, O, what a surprise! I looked about for the city but I could not find it. All I saw was the woods.” Joseph reassured her that he knew that someday “it will be a beautiful city.”
Adjusting to frontier life wasn’t easy for her. She came from Brussels, one of the most prominent and dignified cities in Europe. She had been afforded all the comforts and fashions in her homeland, and here she had to wait for goods from St. Louis to arrive by steamboat.
She later recalled a time when all the women in town wore sunbonnets, and Joseph wanted her to wear one. “Never will I wear one of those horrid things,” she proclaimed.
Alas, Joseph bought her a fashionable bonnet from St. Louis and asked her to wear it to Mass. She humored her husband and did so, but not without crying herself to sleep that night.
The couple welcomed four children who lived to adulthood: Jules Edgar (b. 1855), Lydia (b.1856) Emma (b. 1859), and Joseph Karl (b.1860). French was the language of the home; the children didn’t learn how to speak English until they went to school.
Because Little Belgium in the East Bottoms didn’t come to fruition, Joseph Guinotte used his civil engineering skills and set his sights on town building. In 1858, he platted Guinotte’s Addition in the East Bottoms with a specific purpose in mind – he wanted to entice the railroads.
C.C. Spalding wrote in 1858 about the newly-platted Guinotte’s Addition, noting, “Mr. Guinotte has for years been sanguine that agricultural and mineral wealth, railroads and river commerce would build a large city where Kansas is now being built. His expectations are now being realized, and knowing as well as we do the public spirit and enterprise of Mr. Guinotte, we are satisfied that he will use his best efforts to help build up this great entrepôt of commerce.”
This area was seen by Guinotte to be a perfect location for manufacturing. And within a few short years, the East Bottoms would house brickyards, sawmills and quarries.
In the center of his vision of Guinotte’s Addition was a street he called Railroad Avenue. “Mr. Guinotte’s Railroad Avenue looks very much to us as it does to him – to be the very place for the track of the Pacific Railroad.”
He named the main thoroughfare running parallel to Railroad Ave. “Guinotte Avenue” and named streets Edgar and Lydia after his children.
His vision for the railroads was to be so; the first passenger train of the Union Pacific to St. Louis ran along “Railroad Avenue” and ran for the first time in September 1865.
The Tragic Ending
Unfortunately, Joseph Guinotte didn’t live long enough to see the East Bottoms and his namesake street become a hub of commerce.
In July 1867, Joseph’s 50-year-old brother, Eduard, died inside the homestead. He left behind a loaded pistol, and Joseph’s family was afraid of it. So, on Sept. 4, 1867, Joseph went to his stable, gun in hand, to retrieve his horse and ride into the woods to fire it off.
While mounting his horse, the 52-year-old slipped and the hammer of the gun struck the saddle. Without warning, “one barrel exploded, shooting him in the left breast in the region of his heart.”
He was carried inside of his home where he died three hours later.
Newspapers in the area incorrectly reported that he committed suicide.
The Daily Journal of Commerce wrote, “An old and worthy citizen, known to almost every resident of the place, suddenly struck down in the midst of health and prosperity.” Joseph Guinotte never was involved in politics but “lived a quiet life, improving his lands and watching the growth of his adopted home.”
Joseph Guinotte was laid to rest in the old Catholic cemetery and was removed later to Mount St. Mary’s.
Guinotte: A Namesake Today
Joseph Guinotte’s life was cut short, but his legacy continued for generations to come. His wife continued to live in the old homestead as the city began to encroach on their once-isolated land. She finally sold the house in the late 1880s. There was talk of saving it as a landmark, but the Park Board opted to make the land a park, an idea that pleased the aging widow.
In 1907, Aimée Guinotte passed away and was buried next to her husband.
In 1922, the house was torn down despite its sturdy construction. It didn’t stay a park forever; in 1952, it was platted as Guinotte Manor and became the third of three low-rent public housing projects.
The legacy did continue in Guinotte’s four children. Jules, the oldest, was educated in Kansas City and later attended St. Louis University. He became a long-standing probate judge. Daughter Lydia still has a street which bears her name. Emma taught French at Central High School for more than 40 years. The youngest, Joseph, became an architect.
Surrounding us today in Kansas City are many descendants of this impressive pioneer family whose name remains on a long thoroughfare through the East Bottoms. Joseph Guinotte wasn’t your average immigrant of this time period, but he held much in common with so many who settled in the region. He wished to build something out of nothing and to give this gift to more than just his family – he envisioned this for all immigrants from his homeland of Belgium.
As the great-granddaughter of a Belgian immigrant, this hits home for me.
As George Washington once said, “I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.”
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.