by Diane Euston
There can be no conversation about the history of Kansas City without mention of John Calvin McCoy, a man whose name is synonymous to the growth and development of the area.
In just shy of 60 years, McCoy founded two towns- Westport and Kansas City – and watched as a sprinkling of settlement grew to over 200,000 people. He is considered the “Father of Kansas City,” and his later writings recalled the earliest days of settlement.
Calvin’s Early Life and Studies as a Surveyor
John Calvin McCoy, known as “Calvin,” was born in 1811 near Vincennes, Ind. to parents Isaac and Christiana. His father, Rev. Issac McCoy (1784-1846), devoted his life as a missionary to Native American tribes, and this translated into a hard, nomadic life for his family.
By the time Calvin reached 10 years old, the family relocated to southwestern Michigan where Isaac built six mission buildings and established a school for the Pottawatomis. Johnston Lykins (1800-1876), who would later marry Calvin’s older sister, Delilah, taught the Pottawatomis and the McCoy children.
Rev. McCoy saw there was no future for Native American tribes in the northeast, and he made it his mission to find a permanent settlement for 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.”
Calvin’s older brothers left to study medicine at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., and Calvin was just a few years behind them. In 1825 at the age of 14, Calvin entered into Transylvania University and began studying mathematics (civil engineering), perhaps with pressure from his father. If his father’s mission to remove Native Americans to lands west of Missouri would come true, he would need experienced, educated surveyors.
In July 1828, Isaac received his orders from William Clark, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, to survey the lands in what is now Kansas. Due to his new assignment, Isaac moved his family to Howard County, Mo.
Shortly after, Congress enacted the infamous Indian Removal Act of 1830 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.”
In 1829, Calvin finished his schooling in Lexington and rejoined his family in Howard County.
The Founding of Westport
Between 1830 and 1834, Calvin assisted his father in 10 different surveys of Native American lands west of Missouri. On his first survey, Calvin assisted on laying out Fort Leavenworth and Native American lands nearby. In 1843, he also platted the town of Leavenworth.
When Isaac and Calvin returned in June 1832, Isaac 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.
Just northwest of this new homestead, Daniel Yoacham purchased land where he built a hostelry and tavern (near the northeast corner of Westport Rd. and Mill St.) on the route of the Santa Fe Trail.
Calvin saw possibilities, and in 1833, he built a two-story log building on the northeast corner of Westport Rd. and Pennsylvania to serve as a trading post and residence. He entered into business with two men to trade with Native Americans and mountain men. He also began selling supplies to wagon trains going west.
With the help of the enslaved, Calvin plowed out “the shortest way home to dinner” to his father’s Locust Hill home. This later became Pennsylvania Ave. and was known then as Shawnee St.
In 1834, Calvin purchased acreage from Johnston Lykins and platted the town of Westport. The road to Independence – also part of the Santa Fe Trail – passed through this newly-platted town in a crooked fashion, and this crooked road system still exists today. The Kansas City Star wrote in 1934, “Merchants and property owners in the district who complain today Westport is one of the crookedest streets in Kansas City may find [the Santa Fe Trail] the source of their annoyance.”
Calvin wrote, “The long intervals between visits of customers we were occupied in clearing away the dense brush and vines for an opening in the forest. I advertised by handbills a great public sale of lots, and it proved one sure enough, the highest bid for any lot, 75×140 feet, being $14. Oh, what a parody was that on booms!” He couldn’t sell most of the lots in town due to its isolation, so Calvin told people he would give them a lot if they promised to build on it.
Getting merchandise out to the wilderness was a problem. Steamboats at the time would dock at Wayne City Landing near Independence where goods were unloaded. Calvin would then have to pick up this merchandise and trek about 14 miles to his business in newly-established Westport.
While planning on picking up another stock of goods from the steamboat John Hancock in 1834, Calvin was able to convince the ship’s captain to travel further down the Missouri River to a flat rock landing Calvin knew existed. It was the site of a ferry crossing, first operated by the Roys and later purchased by James Hyatt McGee in 1829.
The earliest white settlers in this area were Francois and Berenice Chouteau. In the early 1820s, they were driven to the area from St. Louis to engage in trade with Native American tribes, and several dozen French-Catholic families followed them.
This flat rock landing at the foot of current-day Grand Ave. was only four miles north of Westport, thus cutting days of dangerous travel. After a successful docking by the John Hancock, Calvin could see that there could be a future at this rock landing. It became known as “Westport Landing.”
A road led south from Chouteau’s trading post and hooked into the Santa Fe Trail. Calvin later wrote, “I reasoned it out that eventually steamboats would be coming up the mouth of the Kaw, and the intersection where my store stood would be an outfitting place for people across the plains.”
Calvin was right.
Eventually, the original McCoy store was purchased by William Miles Chick who would become Westport’s postmaster. By the late 1850s, the population of Westport peaked at about 2,000 people and had successfully replaced Independence as the outfitting capital of western Missouri.
In 1837, Calvin married 17-year-old Virginia Chick, daughter of William Miles Chick. The couple had five children, three living to adulthood: Eleanor “Nelly” (b. 1840), Juliet (b. 1842) and Spencer (b. 1844).
Founding the Town of Kansas
When Calvin first saw the future site of Kansas City, he didn’t first see any promise of a great city. He noted a high ridge between current-day Main and Wyandotte between 2nd and 5th Streets. There was a deep ravine that led to the foot of Grand Ave. which became Westport Landing, but the path was almost impassable.
Calvin wrote, “[There were] two or three small dwellings and cabins in the Kaw Bottoms. . . which were houses of French trappers, engaged principally in raising young halfbreeds. The rest of the surroundings were the still solitude of the native forest, broken only by the snort of the startled deer, the bark of the squirrel, the howl of the roof, the settler’s cowbell and mayhap the distant baying of a hunter’s dog or the sharp report of his rifle.”
Regardless, a group of men saw promise in this wilderness. The original portion of the land where Kansas City would come to be was owned by Gabrielle Prudhomme, and when he, according to Calvin, was “killed in a full fight,” his 263 acres of land bordering the Missouri River to the north and situated at a natural rock landing was for sale.
On November 14, 1838, about 30 people gathered at the foot of current-day Grand Ave. Fourteen of them congregated together, and within short order, created what became known as the Town Company. They were William Sublette, Moses G. Wilson, William Gilliss, William Collins, William M. Chick, Fry P. McGee, Abraham Fonda, George W. Tate, Samuel C. Owens, Russell Hicks, Jacob Regan, William B. Evans, Oliver Caldwell and John C. McCoy. They purchased the land for $4,220.
Calvin wrote, “Town-making was in those primitive days almost an unknown art, and the occasion drew together a large assemblage of stalwart yeomanry of the back-woods, with a fair sprinkling of the mercantile and trading classes. . . As the day advanced everybody got lively and many of them pretty rich; so much so as to become wholly indifferent to, or unconscious of, the topographical features of the town site.”
At the cabin of “One-Eyed Ellis,” who Calvin described as “a lank, cadaverous, specimen of humanity with one blind eye and the other on a sharp lookout for stray horses, straggling Indians and squatters,” the 14 men conferred over what to call the town. The first suggestion of a name for the town was “Port Fonda” and the suggester was none other than Abraham Fonda himself. This was quickly rejected, and another man “facetiously suggested Rabbitsville or Possum-trot but was treated in silent contempt.” They settled on the “Town of Kansas.”
There was a delay in the sale of lots platted out in the Town of Kansas, and it would take seven long years for this to sort out in court. In that time, five of the original 14 founders (including Calvin) remained, and they were joined by two additional investors.
In 1847, the company began clearing land and selling lots. The accounting in the original Town Company book indicates that 127 lots were sold, totaling $8,643.62. A month later, the company disbanded and divided the unsold land and acreage outside the platted town into equal shares. After a delay of over seven years, the Town Company functioned together for only 16 months.
The Dangers of Natural Disasters
In 1838, the ferry crossing at the foot of Grand Ave. was purchased by Isaac McCoy, and in 1843, Calvin purchased his father’s interest. For a time, he lived in a log cabin near the Wornall residence (61st and Wornall). He sold the land to John B. Wornall in 1845 for only $5 per acre.
When the great flood in June 1844 struck the area, Calvin went out in his ferry boat to try to rescue people and property. He arrived at noon at Col. William Chick’s home, and the structure was waist-deep in water. After securing a party of 10 men, Calvin returned four hours later and water had risen to the top floor.
The roar of the water “was almost deafening,” and in the distance they could hear the cries of people. He found and rescued several people perched in trees, trying to escape the high waters that had taken their homes.
As the town of Kansas began to grow from the landing and into the impassable hills that blocked the journey to the south, the elite rose to the occasion and built their beautiful homes above the action on one of the largest bluffs. This street – First Street- was called Pearl Hill.
On this street overlooking the Missouri River, McCoy purchased a log cabin in 1845 with a brand-new roof. He didn’t want to waste a perfectly good roof, so Calvin hoisted the roof up on props while the walls were laid, brick-by-brick, below it. It became the first brick house in Kansas City.
Calvin’s daughter, Nelly, recalled that Cynthia, one of his enslaved women, would go outside in front of the brick home and blow into a conch shell. The roar of the whistle from the conch shell would echo through the bluffs and alert Calvin that supper was ready.
The cholera epidemic in 1849 did not spare Calvin’s family. Due to the dangers of the disease, Calvin opted to move his family to the Pottawatomi Mission in Indian Territory. It was too late. His beloved wife, Virginia, fell ill three days after their arrival and died in seven hours.
One year later, Calvin married widow Elizabeth Woodson Lee (1819-1896). They had four children.
Farm Life Interrupted by Civil War
Surprisingly, the Father of Westport and Kansas City rarely lived within the city limits nor did he spend a large amount of time in “city business.” By the early 1850s, Calvin opted to live on a 160-acre farm east of the city, the farm spanning 31st St. to the north, 38th St. to the south, from Troost Ave. to Prospect Ave. Linwood Blvd. at the time was a state road and part of the Santa Fe Trail. The Kansas City Star wrote, “Here he placed improvements which were much in advance of his surroundings.”
The farm centered around 31st and Olive where huge elms and lindens were planted on each side of the house. The beautiful residence included a double portico supported by tall pillars; it was called “Woodside” and was recalled fondly by his children.
Calvin planted a row of elm trees at current-day 31st St. between Wabash and Prospect Ave. that were still a part of the landscape in the 1940s. Cabins for the enslaved lined an area near the original St. Joseph Hospital.
Like so many of Kansas City’s founders, Calvin sided with the South during the Civil War, and eventually the enslaved and his horses were taken from Woodside. His son, Spencer enlisted in the Confederate Army. In August 1862 after the Battle of Lone Jack, Calvin, accompanied by his daughter, Juliet, traveled to Lone Jack to see if they could find Spencer.
Spencer wasn’t there, but in their travels they found three soldiers, one of them a Union man, injured. “They placed them on a mattress in the wagon and brough them home, nursing them to recovery,” the Kansas City Star wrote in 1928. His son, Spencer, was killed near Springfield in June 1863.
Due to his Southern tendencies, Calvin and his family were banished during Order No. 11; he traveled to Glasgow, Mo. and lived there for one year.
Upon his return, he sold his beloved farm, Woodside, and moved to another farm closer to the city. From 1878 to 1884, he moved to a farm in Johnson County, Kan.
It wasn’t until 1884 that Calvin returned to life inside Kansas City’s boundaries – over 35 years since he had last resided there. He bought land at 711 Olive St. and built a two-story brick home.
On September 2, 1889, John Calvin McCoy died inside his home after an illness of three months. It was reported he hadn’t seen a doctor in 58 years! He was the last surviving member of the original Town Company that took a gamble building a town along the bluffs. He lived long enough to see Kansas City grow to over 200,000 people.
Calvin was one of the founders of the Old Settlers’ Historical Society, founded in 1871. In his first address to them, he noted, “Not inappropriately might we compare a few venerable survivors to a few scattered trees of an old primeval forest, shaken by storms and covered by the snows of many winters. One after another their companions have lost their foliage, have withered and fallen.” In 1889, the last of the founders who saw Kansas City when its bluffs were covered in a thick forest, fell silent.
McCoy, the Father of Kansas City
John Calvin McCoy was a simple, mild-mannered man who was liked by all. “His happy disposition and easygoing nature were noticeable in his dress, which was always plain and indifferent to style,” the Kansas City Times reported.
Despite his successes in spotting land that would be profitable, Calvin, unlike other founders of Kansas City, never made a fortune. He was lax on writing up agreements and contracts, and he rarely held onto land for long periods of time. He thought the time to act on land wasn’t at its first boom, so he disposed of lands at nominal process “which in a few years’ time would have made him a millionaire several times over.”
Eleven years after his death, Westport was annexed to Kansas City, binding together his two creations into one large metropolis.
Calvin’s daughter, Nelly McCoy Harris inherited her father’s gift of words, and she became known as one of Kansas City’s first historians. In a poem she wrote about her childhood home, Woodside, she dedicated a few lines to her father.
“My father/ Ever kind, ever loving/ There was never another / So good so unselfish / So tried and so true/ With his sweet kindly smile/ Ever old, ever new.”