In 1838, the town of Westport stood near the western edge of the American frontier and served as a disembarking point for traders following the Santa Fe Trail to present-day New Mexico, then a part of Mexico. To reach Westport from the east, traders traveled by river to a natural rock landing near the junction of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers and then trekked four miles south to Westport. The river landing was a promising location for a town of its own, which prompted 14 investors to form the Town of Kansas Company and purchase the land from the Gabriel Prudhomme estate for $4,220 on November 14, 1838. Prudhomme had been a fur trader associated with the French Chouteau family, who were some of the earliest settlers in the area.
John Calvin McCoy, son of Baptist missionary Isaac McCoy, was the primary organizer of the group of 14. When the McCoy family first moved to the area in 1830, Isaac focused on his ministry to the Shawnee Indians who had been forced into the area after the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Meanwhile, John, a trained surveyor, opened a general store, marked roadways nearby, and cleared a trail to the river landing. The subsequent growth of trade, businesses, and settlers in what he called “West Port” spurred the incorporation of Westport in 1833.
Already the recognized founder of Westport, McCoy seized the opportunity to found another town at the riverfront in 1838 and encouraged the other 13 investors. They chose the name “Kansas” because of the nearby Kansa Indians and Kansas River. Today, Kansas City’s location in Missouri causes confusion, but in 1838 it was not a foreseeable problem because the land that would become the territory and then the state of Kansas was then simply known as “Indian Territory.”
With land and a name in place, the town still needed businesses, roads, and a population. For two decades, visitors frequently derided the slowly-developing Town of Kansas as “Westport’s Landing,” but its geographic advantages as a trading port and eventual railroad and cattle trade hub allowed it to outstrip Westport in size and significance. Renamed the “City of Kansas” in 1853 and “Kansas City” in 1889, the city annexed Westport itself in 1899. John McCoy, the heralded “father” of the Town of Kansas, died in 1889 in the bona fide city.
Read full biographical sketches of some early founders of Kansas City, prepared by the Missouri Valley Special Collections, The Kansas City Public Library:
- Biography of John Calvin McCoy (1811-1889), city founder, by Susan Jezak Ford.
- Biography of Gabriel Prudhomme (17??-1831), early settler, by Daniel Coleman.
- Biography of Bérénice and François Chouteau, French fur traders who established the first trading post at Kawsmouth, or at present-day Kansas City, by Barbara Magerl.
- Biography of William Chick (1794-1847), pioneer and one of the 14 founders of the Town of Kansas, by Daniel Coleman.
View images of early Kansas City and its founders that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
- Reprint of the Spalding Westport Map, 1855
- Original Spalding Westport Map, 1855
- Original Plat of the Town of Kansas, 1839
- Early Kansas City Riverfront, 1853
- City of Kansas, 1855, postcard
- City of Kansas Riverfront, 1855, drawing
- Early Kansas City Riverfront, 1871
- Birds’-Eye-View of the City of Kansas, 1870
- John C. McCoy
- Pioneer Park Sculpture, including John C. McCoy
- Painted Portrait of Pierre Chouteau
Check out the following books on early Kansas City history:
- Early History of Greater Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas: The Prophetic City at the Mouth of the Kaw, by Charles P. Deatherage; a very detailed history of the earliest years of development.
- Kansas City: An American Story, by Rick Montgomery and Shirl Kasper; contains an excellent synopsis of early Kansas City history, pp. 2-39.
- City of the Future: A Narrative History of Kansas City, 1850-1950, by Henry C. Haskell, Jr. and Richard B. Fowler; contains a brief history of the Town of Kansas, pp. 25-29.
- The Story of Kansas City, by Emma Serl, Virginia Sheaff, and Alice Lanterman Hammond;, multiple volumes about Kansas City history targeted for younger readers, published by the Kansas City Board of Education.
Continue researching early Kansas City history using archival material:
- Vertical File, Kansas City—Chronology; Missouri Valley Special Collections
- Treaty with the Kansa; selected government documents
Continue researching the 14 founders using archival material from the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
- Oliver Caldwell
- William M. Chick
- William M. Chick Post Office Branch
- Vertical File: Chick, Mr. and Mrs. William
- William Collins
- Abraham Fonda
- William Gillis (1797-1868)
- Vertical File: Gillis, William
- Russell Hicks (1799-1876)
- John C. McCoy (1811-1889) Collection
- Index to Articles on John C. McCoy
- McCoy Family Papers
- Genealogy File: McCoy Family
- Folio Vertical File: McCoy, John C.
- Vertical File: McCoy, Isaac (1784-1846)
- Fry P. McGee (1816-1861)
- Samuel C. Owens (1800-1847)
- Jacob Ragan (1792-1870)
- James Smart (????-1859)
- William Sublette (1799-1845)
- George W. Tate (1790-1868)
- Moses Green Wilson
Research three additional members of the Town of Kansas Company who joined after the original 14:
A. Theodore Brown and Lyle W. Dorsett, K.C.: A History of Kansas City, Missouri (Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1978), 5-10.
Daniel Coleman, Biography of Gabriel Prudhomme, early settler, Missouri Valley Special Collections.
Roy Ellis, A Civic History of Kansas City, Missouri, (Springfield, MO: Press of Elkins-Swyers Co., 1930), 5.
Susan Jezak Ford, Biography of John Calvin McCoy, city founder, Missouri Valley Special Collections.
Henry C. Haskell, Jr. and Richard B. Fowler, City of the Future: A Narrative History of Kansas City, 1850-1950 (Kansas City, MO: Frank Glenn Publishing, 1950), 25-29.
Barbara Magerl, Biography of Bérénice and François Chouteau, fur traders, Missouri Valley Special Collections.
Rick Montgomery & Shirl Kasper, Kansas City: An American Story (Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 1999), 34-36, 38.