By Diane Euston
Situated a little over 100 miles east of Kansas City sits a preserved town with layers of rich history. In some ways, the story of this town intertwines with the eventual founding of our own hometown- Kansas City.
Arrow Rock, Mo. is a perfect day trip for curious travelers and families. A trip there offers many unique opportunities to explore topics such as early Native American tribes, Western Expansion, steamboat traffic, the growth of Missouri and the institution and aftermath of slavery – all while walking the streets of a town frozen in time.
Early Indian Affairs
Before white settlement, Native American tribes freely roamed this land for well over 12,000 years. Native American tribes used a steep bluff on the Missouri River to quarry flint in order to make weapons such as arrows. In addition, the area near the bottoms were at one time towns of the Osages and the Missouria tribes.
As early as 1732, French cartographer Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville sketched a map of Louisiana Territory, and at current-day Saline County, he wrote “Pierre a fleche,” which translates to “rock of arrows.”
In 1808, William Clark, superintendent of Indian affairs, established Fort Osage in Jackson County, Mo. to trade with the Osage. There, George Sibley was put in charge. On his way back to St. Louis in September 1808, Clark passed the Arrow Rock bluff and noted then that the location was ideal for a fort or town.
During the War of 1812, fears that the Native Americans would be enticed by the British to attack, business at Fort Osage was closed. In fall 1813, Clark sent George Sibley to the Arrow Rock to establish a trading post there. The post only operated until 1814 due to mounting tensions.
The location of the Arrow Rock “was a crossing place where [the Osage] trail met another trail on the north side leading both up and down the river.” The region around the Arrow Rock “was neutral territory, visited by many tribes of the upper river and surrounding territory.”
White settlement in the area greatly increased at the conclusion of the War of 1812, and peace treaties with Native American tribes in 1815 made it easier for those from the upper south to relocate to Missouri.
The Santa Fe Trail
In 1815, the first ferry crossing between Saline and Howard Counties was established on the Arrow Rock bluff. A natural spring nearby made the location even more enticing.
In 1821, Mexico won their independence from Spain, and this opened up trade. William Becknell (cir 1787-1865) advertised in June 1821 for 75 men to go west to trade for horses and mules. He left the town of Franklin, Mo. and wrote in his journal, “Our company crossed the Missouri near the Arrow Rock ferry on the first day of September, 1821, and encamped six miles from the ferry.”
In fact, William Becknell’s brother, Henry was the one conducting the ferry at Arrow Rock at the time.
The journey was successful, and by July 1825, the route was surveyed by George Sibley where they “proceeded to Arrow Rock, the place of rendezvous” where “they would meet there the guard, (thirty men) chain carriers, wagons, &c.” The Santa Fe Trail that went through Arrow Rock was part of the Osage Trace that led all the way to Fort Osage in Jackson County, Mo.
As trade on this commercial highway increased, so did the population. The area was was part of the “Boonslick” region, named from the salt works started by Nathan and Daniel Morgan Boone. Another common name for the area was “Little Dixie” due to the cultural norms of these families with Southern origins.
The Santa Fe Trial entered Saline County from Howard County at the Arrow Rock, so this place became “a very important part of the early history of Saline County, many of her citizens being engaged in the trade soon after it commenced.”
The first steamboat, the Independence, launched on the Missouri River heading west left St. Louis May 15, 1819 and arrived at Franklin on May 28. Its success proved that steamboats could navigate the Missouri River. Just two months later, two more steamboats arrived in Franklin from St. Louis.
The Town of Arrow Rock
Towns such as Franklin were swept into the Missouri River due to flooding, so building on higher ground became a primary goal. In June 1829, the founders of the town that would be known as Arrow Rock chose a spot 90 feet above the river in order to avoid flooding. The 60-acre town was to be called Philadelphia.
The founders of Philadelphia advertised in the Missouri Intelligencer and Boon’s Lick Advertiser in July 1829 and convincingly wrote, “This point, as a place of business, possesses as great natural advantages as any other, having around it an extensive country of the best farming land in the State, with a good and rapidly increasing population of wealthy and enterprising citizens, which need fail of furnishing large quantities of surplus produce and articles for exportation, which forms a considerable part of our commerce.”
The advertising worked, and farmers, merchants and traders moved to the new town. In 1833, the town’s name was officially changed to Arrow Rock.
The history of Jackson County tells us that the primary “jumping-off point” of the Santa Fe Trail would move from Franklin, Mo. to the town of Independence, established in 1827. Although this is true in some regard, those pioneers traveling by steamboat to a landing near Independence still had to take the ferry crossing at Arrow Rock.
Arrow Rock in the 19th century included mostly residential buildings, and people would buy multiple lots for their needs. These lots “included a garden, various animals, a cistern or well, an outhouse, a separate kitchen, a smokehouse, and, in a few instances, a slave house.”
Because these settlers bought multiple lots, the appearance of the town even today is impacted; the oversized yards spanning sometimes a city block lend to the park-like setting.
Even before the town was formed, Saline County’s residents came from slaveholding states and “had brought with them their servants. There was a considerable slave population, which was constantly being increased, and it became necessary to appoint patrollers.”
A patroller’s responsibility was to ensure that enslaved people were being watched closely. In Arrow Rock Township in 1824, one of three patrollers appointed was William Chick (1794-1847). He lived in the area until a flood destroyed his cabin in 1826 when he moved to Howard County. In 1836, he headed to Jackson County, Mo. where he bought a two-story building in Westport from John McCoy. Two years later, he invested in the future site of Kansas City, thus becoming one of the 14 original founders.
By the 1830s, hemp and tobacco made up the primary farming in the area, and Arrow Rock’s landing shipped these products to other markets. Because it was hard to produce, the residents relied heavily on slavery.
Prior to the Civil War, the population of Arrow Rock grew to around 1,000 people. Due to their southern tendencies, most residents sided with the Confederacy during the war. By 1868, the town was still the busiest river port between St. Louis and Kansas City and had around 100 homes and 14 stores. In 1872, a fire destroyed a large portion of the business district. Arrow Rock was determined to rebuild.
When the railroad bypassed Arrow Rock, the town’s population greatly decreased. By 1900, the population struggled to reach 300. Another fire in 1901 seemed to cast a shadow on any hopes of the town’s long-term survival.
Buildings in Arrow Rock Seen Today
Despite the fires, a flagship building on Main St. has been standing for just shy of 200 years.
Judge Joseph Huston (1784-1865), an original commissioner of the town who arrived in 1819, built a hotel and tavern on four lots in Arrow Rock in 1834. Built in Federal style and two and a half stories tall, Huston’s “slaves made the bricks and they sawed the lumber on the building site and Joseph and his brother Benjamin did the finish carpentry work.”
Around 1840, Huston added a store and a second-floor ballroom. He became “widely known as a hotelkeeper,” and he later operated the post office out of this location.
The first story functioned as a mercantile store, and the ballroom was used as a meeting hall. During cholera epidemics, the ballroom was used as a makeshift hospital. The walls in the ballroom were hand-stenciled near the ceiling, and the original design was uncovered through renovations and is now reproduced on the walls.
Between 1850 and 1870, additions were added to the building. The original detached slave kitchen was incorporated into the main building. A bell on top of the hotel was originally a bell from a steamboat and was used to announce meal times as well as alert the town to emergencies.
Joseph Huston sold the building in 1858 for $2500 but continued to operate the store on the first floor. This building was the hub of activity for both the local community and wayward travelers.
The heart of the Arrow Rock preservation efforts resides within the Old Tavern started by Huston. In 1912, a street fair was held to dedicate a Santa Fe Trail historic marker placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the ladies visiting noted the significance of an old tavern which was still in operation.
In 1923, the Daughters of the American Revolution sponsored a bill that gave $5,000 to purchase the old Huston tavern in Arrow Rock. The bill passed with the agreement that the DAR would manage over the operation. This became one of the first documented restoration projects in all of Missouri.
In 1926, the ladies began restoration of the building, and just two years later, other locations within Arrow Rock were added to the list of projects. Today, the tavern welcomes diners on weekends and serves traditional cuisine. It is said to be the oldest operating restaurant west of the Mississippi River.
One of the most significant properties in Arrow Rock still standing is the George Caleb Bingham house where he lived with his family from 1837 to 1845. Born in 1811 in Virginia, Bingham arrived with parents Henry and Mary in Franklin, Mo. in 1819. A chance encounter with artist Chester Harding in Franklin led him to love art and wish to produce his own portraits.
When his father died of malaria in 1823, his mother operated a school. By 1830, Bingham was painting portraits of some of the most prominent Saline and Howard County residents for $20 a piece. Even though he traveled extensively, his primary residence was Arrow Rock until 1845 when he moved to St. Louis and later Kansas City.
Many of the characters depicted in his early scenes of life in Missouri were modeled after Arrow Rock citizens. For example, his 1852 painting “Canvassing for a Vote” is set outside of the landmark J. Huston Tavern.
In 1926, Bingham’s house was added to the list of buildings to be restored in Arrow Rock. In 1934, the house was restored along with the one-room jail and a boarding house used for a female academy.
During restoration, they removed the second story of Bingham’s house and the frame ell in the back because it was thought they were added after his ownership. In 1963, another survey revealed that the detached kitchen that was destroyed was actually part of the original structure, so it was rebuilt.
Another famous resident of Arrow Rock was Dr. John Sappington (1776-1856). After studying medicine under his father, Sappington moved with his family to Missouri. By 1823, he had “a busy medical practice.” He developed a quinine pill. Although quinine had been around for a century, he was “the first physician that really worked in breaking down the bark of the cinchona tree from Peru and [got the] quinine substance out of it.”
From Arrow Rock, Dr. Sappington marketed his pills through national newspapers as early as 1832. The pills were proven to curb the symptoms of malaria and far surpassed more archaic treatments such as bloodletting.
A Bingham painting of Dr. Sappington, painted around 1844, is displayed at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. His son, William B. Sappington (1811-1888), built a two-and-a-half story Greek Revival mansion three miles southwest of Arrow Rock on County Road TT in 1845 which still stands today. He helped his father sell “anti-fever pills” and was a leader of the Arrow Rock community.
In 1963, Arrow Rock became a National Historic Landmark and has been run by the Friends of Arrow Rock since 1959. The group expanded restoration to include 14 other residences and added them to a walking tour of the town. Included in these locations is the John P. Sites gunsmith shop. From 1844 to 1900, Sites made, repaired and sold guns to locals and travelers.
Starting in 1961, the Lyceum Theatre has operated inside the old Arrow Rock Baptist Church, built in 1872. The eight to nine productions are attended by 30,000 people per year.
The Arrow Rock landing where travelers ferried across the river and steamboats docked is far from the river today; the Missouri River has moved further east from its original location. However, a marker of the location is accessible along with several hiking trails.
Saline County’s Story of Slavery is Told
The story of Arrow Rock isn’t complete without acknowledging the institution of slavery which built the community. Over one third of the population of this area was comprised of enslaved people. In 1850, the average slaveholder in the county held 5.4 enslaved people.
“I’m actually convinced that when you come to Arrow Rock today and you look around and see the 19thcentury building and houses, most of what you’re looking at was built by African American craftsmen,” Michael Dickey, site administrator of Arrow Rock stated. “And, that was a significant part of our history.”
The hand-laid stone gutters still present in the town of Arrow Rock were built around 1857 by enslaved people.
The original focus of preservation of the town was of well-known citizens and their properties, but by 1996, the African American heritage project was started to examine “how African Americans struggled to establish their own lives and community post-Civil War in Arrow Rock.”
Dickey relayed that nearly 50 percent of the population of Arrow Rock from the end of the Civil War to the early 1950s were Black. These people were “an integral part of the economic and social structure of Arrow Rock.”
Situated on the north side of town, the homes, two churches, school and businesses catered to a growing Black population. Brown’s Chapel, now open to the public, was built in 1869 and served as the first school for Black children. A Black History Museum is open inside the Brown Lodge, built in 1881.
Legend states that Dr. Sappington deeded his “highly-regarded servant” named Emanuel Banks two acres for the Sappington African American Cemetery at his death in 1856. Banks was one of Sappington’s 24 enslaved people. Today, the cemetery contains around 350 burials, but many rest with no headstone prior to emancipation.
Located southwest of Arrow Rock on County Road AA, this peaceful and well-maintained addition to Missouri State Parks is a must-see. The cemetery serves as a dedication to the contribution of African Americans to the history of the area.
Arrow Rock Lives On
I’ve been to Arrow Rock several times, because it’s the perfect quick day-trip getaway from Kansas City. The town stands due to the tenacity of many organizations and the financial support of Missouri State Parks.
Unlike Kansas City, Arrow Rock has carefully preserved buildings and remnants of the past that tell us the story of Western Expansion and the role of slavery in the state of Missouri. Whether you want to catch a show at the Lyceum Theatre or leisurely travel to each carefully preserved site on your own, Arrow Rock has something to offer everyone. They have preserved every aspect of the past in a thoughtful and realistic way, and this should be the model for every area with a past that includes complicated topics.
Arrow Rock is a village that in some ways served as the blueprint for early Missouri towns built on the bluffs of the Missouri River. Despite modern development, Arrow Rock has continued telling their history through preservation.