By Diane Euston
Seventeen miles south of Kansas City in the northern portion of Cass County stands a town that has rapidly spread into the Kansas City metro area. Platted in 1871 and incorporated a year later, Belton is celebrating their 150th anniversary this year.
The history of the town’s name and its founders tells a unique story of the early pioneers who settled on fertile farmlands and later eagerly welcomed the railroad across the prairie.
Mount Pleasant Township
In 1835, Van Buren County, named after the nation’s eighth president, Martin Van Buren, was organized from the southern land of Jackson County. Van Buren was originally a Democrat and held the same political beliefs of most of the original settlers of the county which largely came from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
When Van Buren openly declared that he was against annexation of Texas (which would expand slavery and possibly lead to war with Mexico), his opposition cost him the support of pro-slavery Democrats and “displeased his former political adherents” in the county named after him. Thus, in 1849, Van Buren County was renamed to Cass County after then-Michigan senator Lewis Cass.
Mount Pleasant Township where Belton now stands was first settled by pioneers such as Jacob Keeney (1818-1883). Coming to the area prior to 1843 from Tennessee, Keeney settled on the northern boundary near the Cass County-Jackson County line. His father, Michael settled on land just south of 150 Highway in current-day Jackson County where he died in 1849.
Another settler, Nathaniel Yocum, came with his brother and their families in 1833 and settled in the northeastern portion of Mount Pleasant Township. Yocum “was accidentally shot before the war, by the discharge of a gun in his own hands.”
Harrisonville, founded in 1837, was named the county seat. The population of Cass County by 1850 was 9,794 of which just over 1,000 of this number were enslaved. Some small hamlets popped up in the county, and in Mount Pleasant Township, High Blue was the name of a small cluster of businesses, a post office and a church. It was two miles west of current-day Belton.
The future site of Belton was the vision of two men who saw the potential of a town in an area which had exponential growth after the Civil War.
The Alleged Namesake of Belton
Marcus Lindsey Belt, known as Mark, was born in 1837 in Marion Co., Ky to parents Dr. William Madison Belt and Mildred Johnston. The Belts moved to Independence in 1845 where his father, a doctor, practiced.
In 1856, Belt married Mary S. Burton. In 1859, Belt relocated to Denver to prospect until the war broke out. His father had also relocated to Denver, and like many of the families of this tumultuous time in American history, father and son took two very different paths.
His father enlisted in the Union Army in Colorado, serving as a surgeon. He died in 1862 in New Mexico while in the service.
In 1863, the younger Belt took an entirely different stance and enlisted under Gen. Sterling Price in Company E, 12 Missouri Cavalry. He served under Confederate Gen. Jo Shelby and became a well respected captain. While serving in the Confederate Army, he met George Washington Scott.
By the end of the war, Belt had risen to the rank of Quartermaster Sergeant. When he arrived in Lexington, Mo. in August 1865, he was with Bill and Dave Poole, “notorious bushwhackers” who were led by William Quantrill. Even though all the men supposedly had indictments against them, “they publicly declared that they would not be arrested; that no one dared to arrest them,” the Kansas City Journal reported.
The reason given for no arrest was that “the citizens of Lexington gave their countenance and moral support to the outlaws. To have arrested the bushwhackers would have required more blood.”
Belt had a different story, stating he “remained with the Confederate army until the close of the war, surrendering at Lexington.”
After the war, Belt opened a general store in Dover, Mo. and then began working as a railroad contractor. Belt was known as the primary reason Lafayette County was able to secure the Missouri Pacific Railroad in the area.
Eventually, Captain Belt would be honored with a town name by his old army friend, George Scott.
The Founders of Belton: Scott and Colbern
George Washington Scott was born in 1835 in Virginia to parents Johnathan Scott and Frances Stanfield Scott. When Scott was just a small child, the family moved via five covered wagons from their native Virginia to Monroe Co., Mo. near the town of Florida.
When Scott was just 11 years old, he was an orphan, losing his father in 1841 and his mother in 1844. He, along with two siblings, were taken in by neighbors Sebastian Percell Clapper and Rachel Clapper. Along with their nine children, the Clappers ensured the children received an education. Sebastian was a wagon maker and likely taught Scott the trade.
In 1852 when Scott was just 17 years old, he left home and ventured southwest to Jackson Co., Mo. where he worked for three years in the wagon business. He landed in the town of New Santa Fe, the southernmost town in Jackson County by 1856. Established on the Santa Fe Trail in 1851, the town was just east of State Line Rd. on current-day Santa Fe Trail. There, he worked in the mercantile business for two years.
He met his wife, Susan March (1838-1901) and they married in January 1858. By 1860, the couple was living on a farm north of current-day Belton in Mount Pleasant Township. Shortly thereafter, the family moved near current-day Lee’s Summit where he met banker and farmer William H. Colbern.
Colbern was born in 1829 in Logan Co., Ky. and moved with his family to Johnson Co., Mo. where he opened a bank in Warrensburg in 1858. He always had a knack for banking and the lumber industry, and he took his talents to the future site of Lee’s Summit.
By the time the Civil War broke out, Scott moved his family near Independence where he enlisted in the Confederate Army. He served in battles including Pea Ridge and Westport and befriended Capt. Marcus Belt.
After the war, Scott, his wife and three children settled again near the town of Strother, platted in 1865 and renamed Lee’s Summit in 1868. He reconnected with Colbern and asked him to partner in creating a new town in Cass County. At the time, the population of Cass County had more than doubled from ten years earlier.
Scott saw the possibilities in the area. The construction for the Pleasant Hill & Lawrence Railway in 1870 allowed for easy access and potential growth. About a mile west of current-day Belton, a town called Rankin was set to be built. At the time, only a small building was erected there and “served as a base of supplies for the construction gang.” Scott told Colbern about his idea to plat a town near this new construction.
Colbern was intrigued, and the men purchased land from Manzy Q. Ashby in 1869. In December 1871, 80 acres was platted and the town was named “Belton.” One story suggests that the town was named after an early railway blacksmith named Belt, but the commonly accepted story lands with the relationship between Scott and his friend, Capt. Marcus Lindsey Belt of Lafayette Co., Mo. Some stories even suggest Capt. Belt helped survey the land for the town.
The town was platted parallel to the railroad in a diagonal pattern, a unique design that can still be noticed in the old town area of Belton today.
When the town was incorporated 150 years ago, Scott built a family home at the corner of Scott and Spring Streets, now where N. Scott (named after the founder of the town) and 58 Highway cross.
Located on the Pleasant Hill and Lawrence Railroad “in midst of one of the finest countries to be seen anywhere,” Belton quickly became the main townsite in northern Cass County. The old hamlet of High Blue quickly shut down and the businesses located there moved to Belton.
The townsite was said to have been “admirably chosen, being high, healthful and roomy, and presenting to the eye of the stranger all the attractions with which the most beautiful of prairie towns are environed.”
Belton quickly attracted new businesses and “was filled with enterprising and thrifty farmers” who contributed “to the permanent prosperity and sustenance of the town.” Some of the first businesses included a frame business house, Frederick Buddy, a local blacksmith, two physicians, a shoemaker, hotel and a druggist.
The Belton School Board was organized in 1875 with Belton founder Scott serving on the first board. The first school was built in 1878 on the corner of 2nd St. and Cedar on land still utilized by the school district today. The second school was a six-room brick school built in 1884.
The Christian Church had been organized in 1865 at the residence of John G. Holloway. They then built a frame house for church services in High Blue in 1868, but when Belton became the hub of activity, they moved to Belton in 1872.
The first newspaper in the town, named the Belton Mirror, was started in 1880.
By 1899, Belton’s population grew to well over 1,000 people, had six churches and at least 50 businesses concentrated on Main St. in what is now known as “Old Town.” Businesses at the time included saloons, a hotel, blacksmiths, lumbermen and a grocery store.
The Later Lives of the Founders
Colbern settled with his four daughters and two sons on a farm about one and a half miles northeast of Lee’s Summit in 1865. In addition to being involved in the platting of Belton in 1871, he started a grocery store in Lee’s Summit before opening a bank there that would become the Bank of Lee’s Summit.
Colbern eventually moved from Lee’s Summit to Belton, Mo. in 1885. He died in 1892 and is buried in Lee’s Summit Historical Cemetery. Both Colbern Rd. in Belton and Lee’s Summit are named after him.
Capt. Marcus Belt lived in Lafayette Co., Mo. before relocating for a time to work as superintendent for the Brazoria Land and Cattle Company. Headquartered in Missouri, the company held extensive lands in Texas where Capt. Belt settled near Pearland, a suburb of Houston. There, he “fenced 75,000 acres of land, 48 miles in circumference.”
In fact, a post office called “Mark Belt” in present-day Pearland, Texas was founded in 1893 and, obviously, was named after Mark Belt.
Capt. Belt returned to Lafayette Co. in 1888 and settled in Higginsville. There, he helped establish the Confederate Home for Veterans and served as its first superintendent. He served as mayor of Higginsville and died in 1921 at the age of 83. His obituary aptly noted, “He was a man of remarkable activity and a vigorous constitution” who, through his railroad career, “had contracts with the Frisco when that road was built and the town of Belton, in Cass County, was named in his honor.”
Considered the “father of Belton,” Scott continued to live in Belton for the remainder of his life. He started a bank in Belton, and in 1880, he established a grain business with his brother-in-law. He even invented a corn planter that was sold to John Deere. He died at the age of 87 and is buried in Belton Cemetery.
Today, the history of Belton is embraced at the City Hall Museum, housed inside the old City Hall building erected in 1906 at 512 Main St. It is operated by the Belton Historical Society. It’s open March through December on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The history of Belton brings to the forefront the story of this area – a story linked to pioneers who were willing to take risks and invest in opportunities not easily seen by just glancing at the rolling hills of Missouri. But tenacity, vision and a little bit of luck are all words that clearly define these three men. Their stories are forever interlinked to the founding of the town that looks quite different from when it first was platted in 1871, and their legacy lives on in the pages of Belton’s history.
Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.