Rev. Isaac McCoy supported Native American tribes.

Rev. Isaac McCoy and His Mission Helping Native Americans

Isaac McCoy’s true leadership and vision ensured that Native American tribes had land they could call their home.

By Diane Euston

  It’s hard to imagine what would have driven settlers to Jackson County, Mo. prior to the founding of towns such as Westport and Kansas City.  In the 1820s, the first settlers were the Chouteaus, driven to the area from St. Louis to engage in trade with Native American tribes.

  Others followed the Chouteaus, and many of them chose the area because of its cheap land and promise of a better life than what they had in Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. This land had been “given” to the Native American tribes in treaty negotiations, but as time ticked on, the government slowly shoved these tribes further west. 

  At the helm hoping to help was Rev. Isaac McCoy – a man who had given his life to his faith and to the Native American tribes. His decision to follow these tribes and settle in Jackson County, Mo. drastically impacted the future of this place. Without Rev. McCoy, there would likely not be a Westport or a Kansas City.

Early Life 

  Born June 13, 1784 to Scotch-Irish parents in Pennsylvania, Isaac McCoy was the son of William and Elizabeth Royce McCoy. After his father served in the American Revolution, he was given 200 acres of land in Jefferson County, Ky. for his service. So, the family relocated there in 1789.

  Isaac’s father was a well-known maker of spinning wheels, and when a young child, Isaac was trained in this craft. When he was nine years old, he lost three of his fingers on his left hand in an accident while splitting wood. Regardless of this handicap, Isaac was able to assist his father on the farm and in his wood shop.

  Isaac and his siblings were taught to read and write, but Isaac was especially drawn to the written word and was known as a bit of a bookworm. Although he never received any formal schooling, he was extremely intelligent and was more religious than his Baptist family. 

  At 19, Isaac’s path changed when he was surrounded by light and was given a prophecy by God. “I arose from my knees satisfied that God had not only called me to preach, but that this light directed me to Vincennes, which was in the same direction,” he later wrote.

Isaac McCoy kept a journal from 1814 to 1841. This is a page from his journal from 1836. The journals are preserved at Kansas Historical Society.

A Move to Indiana

  Before leaving on this journey to Vincennes, Indiana, Isaac married 16-year-old Christiana Polke in 1803. A year later, the young couple traveled to their new home. Although Isaac wanted to become a preacher, taking care of his wife – now pregnant- was his priority. Thus, Isaac began making spinning wheels to earn a living.

  The road to ministry was a rocky one. Isaac was struck down with malaria and almost died. For over a year, he struggled to recover and picked up work (even as a jailor in Vincennes) where he could. 

  In 1807 at the age of 23, Isaac McCoy finally became a Baptist minister and preached for the first time. He wasn’t the best preacher, but the Baptist congregation acknowledged that he was an excellent man of good character.

  His health was always an issue, but it wouldn’t stop Rev. McCoy from what he considered God’s plan for him. Even though he and Christiana were the parents to seven children by 1817, Isaac proclaimed to his wife that he wished to become a missionary – a grueling lifestyle that would require his family to be willing to move quite often and interact with Native American tribes.

  Christiana could have put her foot down, but this was not the case. Christiana’s mother and siblings prior to her birth had been kidnapped by Ottawa Indians and held for over a year before her father was able to locate them and bring them home. Despite this tragic event, Christiana, called “Kittie” by her loved ones, was willing to follow her husband and his dreams.

  In 1817, Isaac joined the Baptist Board of Missions and began serving the Wabash Indians. He built a missionary school next to his log cabin on Raccoon Creek near the Wea Reservation. Isaac diligently worked to convince the tribes that sending their children to school was beneficial, and it worked. Two years later, the school was so successful that Isaac had to hire a teacher to take over the work. The man hired was 19-year-old Johnston Lykins – a man who would later serve important roles in Kansas City’s early history.

    The Board of Missions was impressed with Isaac’s work, and he received permission to move 200 miles away to Fort Wayne where he was appointed teacher to the Miami and Potawatomi tribes. In December 1822, Isaac and his family left Fort Wayne and set out for southwestern Michigan. By the following year, they had built six mission houses at what was known as the Carey Mission.

  While 700 miles away in Washington D.C. in 1822, Isaac’s eight-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was brutally attacked by a Potawatomi and was almost choked to death. Isaac later wrote, “Her neck was gashed with the monster’s nails, and her lungs were injured by violent exertion of breath.”  Just months later, Elizabeth died.

This map represents all the surveys of Indian lands completed by missionary Isaac McCoy between the years 1830 and 1836. Courtesy of Kansas Historical Society.

Exploration of Kansas

  Despite the attack on his own family, Isaac was not deterred from helping Native American tribes. In June 1823, he wrote, “I formed a resolution that I would . . . promote a plan for colonizing the natives in a country to be made forever theirs, west of the state of Missouri, etc. . . And from that time until the present I have considered the promotion of this design as the most important business of my life.”

  Isaac hoped his words would work to help improve the condition of the Native American tribes. He wrote 28,000 words pleading for better treatment and permanent settlements for the tribes, and the Board of Missions supported his ideas. Isaac was sent to Washington to plead for money to explore the lands west of Missouri; Congress narrowly voted to give $15,000 for the task. 

  In July 1828, Isaac received his orders from William Clark, Superintendent of Indian Affairs of the western district and enlisted three Potawatomi and three Ottawa Indians to go with him to survey the lands in what is now Kansas.

  Because the land lacked timber, the government inaccurately believed that the land was worthless – another reason that they were willing to hand the lands over to the tribes. Isaac was extremely accurate in his reporting, noting how fertile the soil was in this undisturbed territory. 

  Isaac could see that he needed to move his family closer to his new assignment, so he relocated them to Fayette, Mo., 100 miles east of the Missouri state line. Johnston Lykins had married Isaac’s oldest daughter, Delilah, and they, too, moved. 

  Isaac went on several more expeditions, and in January 1829, he submitted 18 pages of detailed notes on the land. For seven months, Isaac remained in Washington so he could help negotiate the terms and suggest where tribes should live in this new country. This would become the infamous Indian Removal Act of 1830 where Congress specified “an exchange of lands with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi.” 

   Issac was employed by the Department of War in June 1831 “to adjust the boundaries of tribes in some instances, and to cause actual surveys to be made in others.” He brought his family along with him, and his son, John Calvin McCoy – a trained civil engineer – accompanied him as a surveyor.

John Calvin McCoy (1811-1889), son of Isaac and Christiana, is considered to be the “father of Kansas City.” He founded both Westport and Kansas City.

To Jackson County

  Lykins continued his missionary work by establishing a Baptist mission among the Shawnee tribe in present-day Johnson County, Kan.

   Isaac’s calling to aid the Native American tribes was not without tremendous sacrifice. He was oftentimes away from his family, and his wife and children were left behind at Lykins’ Baptist Mission. Over the years of his absence, he had lost seven children to illness, and he wasn’t there for five of their deaths. 

  When he returned to his family in June 1832 after another commission to explore Indian Country, he made the decision to buy 50 acres of land in Jackson County, Mo. a half mile from the state line. There, he built a two-story log cabin with two rooms below and above with a central chimney that heated each room. He planted locust trees and a rose garden, and the homestead became known as “Locust Hill.” The house sat at current-day 43rd and Wornall where St. Luke’s Hospital is today.

  Throughout the 1830s, 20 tribes relocated to what was labeled Indian Territory and is now the state of Kansas. In total, 50,000 Native Americans made their home there – and Isaac was responsible for where they would live.

  Very rarely at home, Isaac wasn’t slowing down. He constantly battled malaria, had an injury to his body when a horse rolled on top of him, and his ribs and shoulders caused him constant pain from a stagecoach accident. 

  In 1833, Isaac’s son, John took a piece of his father’s land and built a two-story trading post at what is today the corner of Westport and Pennsylvania. There, he sold to travelers on the Santa Fe and Oregon trails. A year later, he platted the land around it and called it “Westport.” 

  When work for Isaac dried up in 1835, he operated a ferry over the Missouri River, worked at a small store, took in boarders and farmed his land to feed his family. Slowly, he purchased tracts of land totaling 1200 acres in Jackson County.

  While many of the settlers of Jackson County were proslavery, Isaac was vehemently against it. In 1835, he wrote to his wife, “I have ever been averse to holding a slave as property.” Interestingly, in July 1835, he purchased an enslaved woman named Chainy. “She had been sold by her late owner and appeared consigned for the New Orleans Slave Market,” Issac explained. “She and her husband entreated me with many tears to remember her and prevent her from being torn from her husband and many children.” 

  Thus, Isaac purchased her and expected her to buy her freedom over time.

  In 1840, Isaac wrote a 600-page autobiographical account of his life as a 27-year missionary called “History of Baptist Indian Missions.” In his manuscript, he wrote how Native Americans were nothing like so many people thought. His words were contrary to what the government would have the country believe, and he called the 50 million acres of land allocated to tribes “inadequate.” 

  The autobiography had adverse effects on Isaac’s career. The Board of Missions terminated their relationship with him, and in 1842, the Secretary of War said his duties were no longer needed. 

Christiana Polke McCoy (1778-1831). Courtesy of Kansas Historical Society

Isaac McCoy’s Lasting Impact

  Isaac  wasn’t ready to step away from his missionary work. He drummed up support at different Baptist conventions to look at what could be done to support the Native Americans. From that, Isaac formed a new mission society called American Indian Mission Association that would focus on the Wea, Potawatomi, Creek and Choctaw tribes. Christiana and Isaac moved to Louisville, Ky. to set up their new mission.

  Daughter Delilah and her husband, Johnston Lykins remained in Kansas Territory where he was appointed in the 1840s as doctor to the Potawatomi in Franklin County, Kan. There, Delilah died in 1844. This marked the 11th death of one of Isaac and Christiana’s children – all before Isaac’s 60th birthday.

  His age and injuries were catching up to him. Even when he stood, he was stooped over and limped badly as he walked. Eight days after his 62nd birthday, Rev. Isaac McCoy passed away in Louisville on June 21, 1846. Only four of his children survived him.

  In his incredible lifetime, he advised President Andrew Jackson and other prominent politicians for over 20 years. He had ghostwritten multiple speeches on Indian affairs delivered by congressmen. Isaac traveled at least a dozen times to Washington D.C. to advocate for Native American tribes. 

  His wife, Christiana, moved back to Jackson County where her son, John Calvin McCoy, continued his successful business ventures and is widely recognized as the “father of Kansas City.” She passed away in 1850.

An 1831 portrait of missionary Reverend Isaac McCoy at age 47, copied from a painting. Courtesy Kansas Historical Society

  Rev. Isaac McCoy never stopped supporting Native American tribes. Starting in Indiana, staying for a short time in Michigan and landing in Missouri, McCoy’s true leadership and vision ensured that Native American tribes had land they could call their home. It was his wish that this settlement in Kansas was permanent.

  This was not to be so. Just eight years after his death, Indian removal began yet again.

  In the heart of downtown Louisville today, the gravestone that originally marked Rev. McCoy’s final resting place has been lost. However, the inscription that once was carved at this site read, in part: 

   The Indians’ friend – for them he toiled through life;

    For them in death he breathed his final prayer.

  Now from his toil he rests – the care, the strife.

   He waits in heaven, his works to follow there.


Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to 

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