Independence, Missouri

The queen city of the trails

Few towns its size can claim such a rich history.

Independence, Missouri, lies on the south bank of the Missouri River, near the western edge of the state and a few miles east of Kansas City. Few towns its size can claim such a rich history: the Missouri and Osage Indians originally claimed the area, followed by the Spanish and a brief French tenure. It became American territory with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Lewis and Clark recorded in their journals that they stopped in 1804 to pick plums, raspberries, and wild apples at a site later identified as the location of Independence.

William Clark returned to the area late in 1808 and established Fort Osage. George Sibley became Indian agent for the Osage Indian tribe and the first factor of the tribal fur trading post. The story is told that Indians would gather outside his window to hear his 15 year old bride play the piano. The Sibleys also entertained such notable visitors as John James Audubon, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, Daniel Boone, Sacajawea, the Choteau brothers, and in 1819 the first steamboat to ply the Missouri, the Western Engineer.

As the population grew, Missouri became a separate Territory in 1812. By 1820, there were enough settlers to warrant statehood, but because of Missouri’s stance in favor of slavery it took the Missouri Compromise of 1821 to attain it. The growing communities in the west were grouped together into Jackson County, named in honor of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the War of 1812 and future president. The community of Independence was named county seat over neighboring Westport and Kansas City.

Independence grew up around the building used for court sessions. In 1827, the town was platted and a log courthouse was constructed by slaves. The courthouse was used as a pig pen in the evenings and became thoroughly infested with fleas. The judge was forced to resort to bringing sheep into the courtroom before a session to clear out the fleas. A permanent solution to the flea problem came in 1829 with the construction of a brick courthouse in the town square. The City of Independence was incorporated in 1849, four years after Oregon City’s incorporation under the Provisional Government.

Growth in western Missouri increased rapidly because of trade with Santa Fe. Before 1821, trade with the Mexican outpost was illegal. After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, trade became legal and was actively encouraged by the authorities. William Becknell led the first legal trading expedition and thus won a place in history as the “Father of the Santa Fe Trail.”

Originally, cloth and tools were obtained in St. Louis to trade in Santa Fe for furs, salt, and silver and hauled overland in Conestoga wagons. Within a few years, traders were paying to transport their wares to Independence by steamboat, where they were loaded onto wagons for the journey over the Santa Fe Trail. Like the emigrants of later years, the traders recognized that the riverboats could shave several days off their journey by allowing them to jump off farther west.

A brief but significant chapter in the history of Independence began in 1831 when Joseph Smith moved his Latter Day Saints to the city. They prospered on their large farms, started the first local newspaper, and opened their own schools. Townspeople were afraid the Saints would take over and disliked their anti-slavery views. A mob wrecked the newspaper and tarred and feathered the printers. The Saints departed rapidly for nearby Clay County, but the local citizenry still considered them a problem and the governor eventually ordered them out of the state. They moved to Commerce, Illinois, and rechristened it Nauvoo.

The outfitters who had set up shop to cater to traders on the Santa Fe Trail made Independence a natural jumping-off spot for the Oregon Trail. There was a riverboat landing at Wayne City and a mule-drawn railroad link to Independence. Robert Weston — blacksmith, wagonmaker, and future mayor — went so far as to specialize in wagons for the Oregon Trail. Although he insisted that a “Weston Wagon Never Wears Out,” few survived the trip to Oregon. Hiram Young, a slave who had purchased his own freedom by making ax handles and ox yokes, also made covered wagons for the overlanders.

From 1841 to 1849, wagon trains headed to Oregon and California left from Independence Town Square and followed the Santa Fe Trail into Kansas. However, sandbars building up at the steamboat landing and a cholera epidemic in 1849 prompted emigrants to bypass Independence for Westport. Doing so also shaved 18 miles off the Trail — a good days’ travel — and eliminated a river crossing, as well.

Famous residents of Independence include Jim Bridger, hunter, trapper, trader, and guide; William Quantrill, leader of a Confederate band of raiders during the Civil War; Frank and Jesse James, outlaws, bank and train robbers, and local heroes; and Harry S Truman, destined to become President of the United States and end World War II with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Finally, it is interesting to note that it was predicted in the 1840s that the cities of Independence, Westport, and Kansas City would eventually merge into the great city of Centropolis, envisioned as the dominant metropolis of the area, much like Chicago or St. Louis. Today, Westport is part of Kansas City and Independence is its largest suburb.