By Diane Euston
In recent weeks, there has been an effort to rename Troost Ave. Launched by Chris Goode, owner of Ruby Jean’s Juicery and prior member of the Parks Board, wants to rename the 10-plus mile street “Truth Avenue.”
At the heart of the argument is Dr. Benoist Troost, a man who at one time owned slaves. Goode also brings attention to the fact that Troost Ave. has long been a racial dividing line, a topic I have researched and written extensively about in the Telegraph and on my blog.
I also have been involved in the aftermath of streets being renamed without following city charter and community engagement. When The Paseo was renamed for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. without following procedure, I was a committee member of Save The Paseo that collected over 2,800 signatures to bring this issue to a citywide vote.
I talked to thousands of Kansas Citians, repeating the history of The Paseo and the importance of engaging the community. During this time, some thought Troost Ave. was the perfect street for Dr. King’s name.
A section of Swope Parkway, which joins into Volker Blvd and Blue Parkway along Brush Creek was chosen to be renamed for Dr. King last year after three community engagement sessions.
I naturally raised an eyebrow when Troost Ave. was once again brought up for a potential renaming. Ironically, I am working on my thesis for my second masters degree, and Dr. Benoist Troost is a large part of my research.
As the city gears up for a possible community conversation to rename this street, it’s important that there is accurate, historical information about the man behind the name.
Dr. Benoist Troost of Holland
Born Nov. 17, 1786 in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Holland (now known as Den Bosch) and given the name Benedictus, Dr. Benoist Troost was the son of Everardus Josephus Troost and Anna Cornelia van Heeck. He was baptized at St. John’s Cathedral, an impressive church finished in 1340.
He came from an affluent Catholic family with many connections, and thus “received a fine education.” His older brother, Gerard (1776-1850) attended the University of Leiden and the Athenaeum in Amsterdam where he studied chemistry and geology. He worked for some time as a pharmacist in Amsterdam.
Following his brother, Gerard, Benoist studied chemistry and both were “skilled in surgery, medicine and the natural sciences.” Ten years younger than his older brother, Benoist modeled his educational decisions off of Gerard’s.
At the time, Holland was under the control of France and the king was Louis Bonaparte. Gerard was sent to Paris to study mineralogy and was sent all over Europe to collect minerals.
Fr. Bernard Donnelly (c. 1800-1880), resident Catholic priest in Kansas City, wrote about Dr. Troost and his accomplishments. In his reminiscences of early Kansas City, he wrote, “After graduating with the highest honors, both [Gerard and Benoist] were attached as surgeons to French residents in the grand army of Napoleon Bonaparte, who in a few years trampled in the dust the opposing armies of Europe and raised France to the highest pinnacle of military glory.”
In 1810, Drs. Gerard and Benoist Troost were chosen to be sent to the Dutch East Indies as scientists to look into “rare and curious vegetable productions.”
At the time of this journey, France was at war with England, and the seas were well-guarded. “Unable to proceed in any other way,” Fr. Donnelly wrote, “[Gerard and Benoist] got on board an American merchantman which in due time landed them safely in the city of Philadelphia, where they were most kindly welcomed and most hospitably treated.”
They first thought they may return on a ship to the East Indies but no ship was available. Because of this, the brothers decided to stay in Philadelphia where they began new lives.
A Pennsylvania Lead Factory
By 1813, Dr. Gerard Troost was working as a chemist and Benoist as a junior chemist in Philadelphia. While living together, Gerard married Margaret Tage. Within a short amount of time, Benoist married Margaret’s younger sister, Rachel.
As Gerard continued to show his expertise in mineralogy in Philadelphia, Benoist branched out on his own and moved to Pittsburgh. There, Benoist operated a “white & red lead factory” that also manufactured “various acids and chemical preparations.”
Benoist also helped establish the Pittsburgh Chemical and Physiological Society where he lectured on chemistry and became a “well-known early scientist.”. He and his brother donated the first minerals to the Museum of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, founded in 1812.
By 1820, Benoist Troost and his wife Rachel had at least two children – one girl, name unknown, and a boy named Nathaniel.
Dr. Gerard Troost and his brother had followed and worked closely with each other for close to two decades before their lives went in separate directions. In 1828, Gerard moved to Nashville, Tenn. and was appointed professor of geology and mineralogy at the University of Nashville. He also served as state geologist of Tennessee from 1831 to 1839. Loved by his students, Gerard taught until his death in 1850.
By 1830, Dr. Benoist Troost’s only son, Nathaniel followed in his father’s footsteps and chose a field in medicine. Nathaniel became a druggist in Pittsburgh while Benoist continued in his “drug and chemical warehouse.”
The Long Road to Future Kansas City
Dr. Troost may have been successful in Pennsylvania, but fate would have him on the move. By 1832, his son, Nathaniel had settled in Louisville, Ky. where he met and married Irish-born Ellen Jackson. They had three children: Margaret (b. 1836), Mary (b. 1837), and Nathaniel, Jr. (b. 1843).
Likely following his only surviving child, Benoist moved to Louisville where he worked as a “gas distiller” – likely continuing his chemical enterprises.
Around 1838, a chance encounter forever altered Dr. Benoist Troost’s life. The event, likely embellished by early Kansas City historians, happened in St. Louis.
Fr. Donnelly claimed that Benoist was visiting St. Louis and stayed at the City Hotel. There, two merchants, John Aull of Lexington and Samuel C. Owens of Independence, were staying with their wives. Mr. Aull had opened a successful outfitting store in Lexington in 1825. Owens was a business partner of the Aull’s and was a well-known Independence-based trader on the Santa Fe Trail.
In the middle of the night, Mrs. Aull became deathly ill. Mr. Aull asked the hotel urgently for a trained doctor to tend to his wife. One person suggested the call on Dr. Troost. Under his care, Mrs. Aull “recovered speedily.”
Both Aull and Owens were so impressed that they tried to convince him to settle in their respective towns. While both men talked of the fineness of their places of residence, Mr. Owens added that there was a “French-speaking colony already settled at Westport Landing.”
Mr. Owens won, and the doctor, with his wife, packed his bags and moved to Jackson County, first settling in Independence on the square. In 1840, he is recorded in the census as having two slaves.
Fr. Donnelly wrote, “The newly arrived doctor soon gained great popularity in Jackson County and vicinity by his skill, politeness and many social accomplishments.”
In 1841, Benoist’s wife, Rachel passed away in Independence from consumption and was buried in the old Catholic cemetery in the future site of Kansas City. Just a few years later, Benoist’s only son, Nathaniel passed away leaving a wife and three children.
From Doctor to Town Builder
William Gilliss, one of the founders of Kansas City, became acquainted with Troost. Dr. Troost was a frequent visitor to William Gilliss’ home on Turkey Creek and met Mary Ann Kennerly, Gilliss’s niece.
Fr. Donnelly wrote that Mary Ann Kennerly and her husband, George moved to Gilliss’ house. Around 1835, her husband “went down to New Orleans to visit some relatives, but was unfortunately drowned by accident in the Mississippi River near that city.”
Even early historians made mistakes, because this story that was told to Fr. Donnelly wasn’t true. Born in 1812 and married in 1830 in Maryland, Mary Ann’s husband abandoned her. In 1838, Mary Ann successfully divorced her first husband, claiming he was a “habitual drunkard.”
In 1846, Mary Ann married Dr. Troost and “the happy couple lived happily and prosperously together” despite their age gap of 26 years.
Although the Town of Kansas was established in 1838, the founders were unable to legally sell lots until 1847.
One of the purchasers of five prime lots in the Town of Kansas, three of them surrounding the town square, was Dr. Troost. Two years after his marriage to Mary Ann, the couple left Independence and moved into William Gilliss’s home and became Kansas City’s first resident physician.
C.C. Spalding wrote in 1858, “[Troost] practiced here alone for years, gaining for himself a high reputation as a physician, and enlisting the affections and good opinion of the people in all the relations of life.”
Discovery of gold in California in 1848 encouraged Gilliss and Troost to invest in Kansas City’s first hostelry on the levee at the foot of Delaware St. The first portion of the hotel, then called “Troost House,” was a “two story brick building of very modest dimensions.”
The construction and finances came from Gilliss while Dr. Troost ran the daily operations for the first few years. It was the finest building at the time, and “the fame of the cuisine and the good cheer of the bar traveled up and down the river.” Troost acted as landlord until his popularity as a physician compelled him to focus on his medicine.
Settlement in the area had grown exponentially as Dr. Troost arrived on the scene. Most who chose the area as their home came from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, and unfortunately, with them they brought the institution of slavery. The slave population in Jackson County grew from 1,361 in 1840 to 2,969 by 1850. In 1850, Troost enslaved six people.
In June 1850, the Town of Kansas “was given the right to local government” and Dr. Benoist Troost was named as one of the five trustees. In order to qualify as a trustee, you had to be a white male over 21 years old, must have resided in the town for at least one year and own property.
The trustees, including Dr. Troost, were authorized to appoint a constable, assessor and a collector, among other duties. These men prioritized improving the levee and the roads leading to it where businesses, including the first hotel opened by Gilliss and Troost, sat.
Troost served as a trustee, governing the new city until the city charter was granted by the state legislature in February 1853.
In 1851, Troost became a stockholder along with other pioneer Kansas Citians in the city’s first newspaper, the Kansas City Enterprise. There was no regular editor, so it fell on some of these stockholders to test their grammatical skills. The group finally hired a publisher named Robert Van Horn who eventually took over and renamed the paper the Kansas City Journal.
The first general election at the town of Kansas in April 1853 included an election for mayor where William S. Gregory, a Whig, and Dr. Benoist Troost, a Democrat, ran for office. Gregory won with 36 votes over Troost’s 27. Just months later, Gregory was ousted from office when it was found he was ineligible to be mayor as he lived on a farm just east of the city limits. Ironically, it was the same city charter which Gregory helped write that removed him from his position, and Johnston Lykins took over as mayor.
As early as 1854, there was a push to bring the railroad through Kansas City. In August 1854, Troost, president of the councilman along with the mayor, Lykins, “were appointed to offer right-of-way privileges to the management of the Pacific Railroad of Missouri.” These plans eventually led to the railroad being placed in Kansas City and these early efforts were pioneered by Troost.
In 1857, the Chamber of Commerce was established and Troost was one of the 16 organizers. This organization was “an important part in the commercial development of Kansas City prior to the Civil War.”
Dr. Troost’s Death and Legacy
Dr. Benoist Troost died at William Gilliss’s mansion at current-day 2727 Holly on Feb. 8, 1859 at the age of 72. He gave the bulk of his estate to Mary Ann but did give grandchildren Margaret, Mary and Nathaniel $2 each. This may seem like a small amount of money, but Troost was likely financially taking care of his grandchildren for many years after the death of his son.
In fact, in 1858, Benoist Troost’s grandson, Nathaniel, attended St. Louis University. In 1864, his 22-year-old grandson enlisted as a private in the Union Army and served in Company A, 138th Indiana Infantry.
No photo exists of Dr. Benoist Troost, but before his death, he sat for a portrait to be painted by none other than George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879). A robust, aging man is depicted, sitting in his library with a large book in his hand. This work “is marked as one of the best that Bingham ever painted” as he is “particularly animated and full of spirit.”
His portrait, along with his second wife, Mary Ann’s, is on display today at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
When his second wife passed in 1872, she ensured that her husband and his first wife’s remains were moved to the new Catholic cemetery, St. Mary’s. She left Fr. Bernard Donnelly $500 for this task and for “beautifying the grounds.”
Today, the largest memorial of this man is the street which bears his name, and it became a racial dividing line that has scarred our city. This happened well after Troost’s death, and unlike many other streets which bear our founder’s names, Benoist never lived on the street itself. Regardless, the city’s founders and the government for generations continued to stretch this street south through our city.
Memorials, statues and streets bearing the names of slave owners are a hot button in cities across the nation. Should Kansas City consider renaming this street because Troost had held enslaved people? This question isn’t unique to Kansas City, and even historians can’t agree on what should be done.
What I can say with confidence is that if this is something that is tangible and supported by the city, then it must be done legally and not mirror the past mistakes made with The Paseo.
Gather legal petition signatures to put this to a citywide vote. Educate the community on the reasons Troost should stay or why it should go. Hold community meetings to engage with residents and business owners directly affected.
Troost is a name that travels over 10 miles throughout our city, and it was named for a man who was a leader in our community over 160 years ago. Whether this name is relevant today is a question I hope will be addressed with beneficial community conversation.
Diane writes a blog on the history of Kansas City. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com