A Brief History of Kansas City

August 23, 2021

If you’ve ever watched The Wizard of Oz, then you’ve certainly heard about Kansas. After all, the main character (Dorothy) told a nice witch (Glinda) that her greatest wish was to “get back to Kansas.”

Dorothy may have had her reasons to go back to Kansas, but anyone certainly has multiple motives (personal or not) to visit the city.

If, like Dorothy, you want to go back to Kansas, or move there for the first time (or visit the city), here are some fun facts about the history of Kansas City you have to know.

Early Days: 19th Century Name Changes

This city certainly evolved. Initially, in the 1830s, John McCoy established Westport Landing (known now as Westport Road and Pennsylvania). Back then, the town was pretty much a boat dock.

In the 1850s, things started to change. Fourteen investors settled in the area. They were so powerful that together, they swapped the name to the Town of Kansas.

As a result, McCoy was pushed to move miles up the Missouri River and established a new settlement.

A few decades later, the last change occurred. In 1889 (to differentiate from the territory), it became Kansas City for good.

History of Kansas City: 19th Century

Before and during the American Civil War, the city was severely divided due to its location. On the edges, it was between a slave state, Missouri, and a free state, Kansas.

This area was the target of many conflicts, such as the raids by the Confederate guerilla William C. Quantrill.

In addition, this site also “hosted” a decisive battle on October 23, 1824. On this date, a Union army commanded by General Samuel Curtis forced the Confederate army ruled by General Sterling Price to withdraw.

This battle was the last major one on the west of the Mississippi River.

Kansas City History of Economic Growth: 19th and 20th Century

After the war and the Union’s victory, Kansas City found its time to shine, financially growing due to its cattle trade.

How did this happen? In 1870, a stockyard opened, which helped Kansas City to become a key cattle market and a center of the meatpacking industry.

Railroads also had an impact. When Kansas City could finally be reached in 1865 by a railroad from St. Louis, a new beginning for the financial growth of the area was just starting.

In fact, in 1869, Hannibal Bridge opened. 40,000 people (a fantastic turnout for a town which four years before only had 4,000 inhabitants) looked from the shores, curious about the new construction.

Unquestionably, Hannibal Bridge would turn out to be one of the main contributors to Kansas City’s development, as it helped the city evolve from a small frontier town into a full-blown city (one that even outgrew the others in the region).

Still, it’s essential to keep in mind that there wouldn’t happen such progress without railroads, a key transport during that time.

Fast forward to the 20th century, and it’s safe to say that Kansas’s supportive policies saved the city from the Depression. For instance, public work projects were highly beneficial to locals, as they provided jobs and prosperity, keeping the dance-oriented nightlife in town unchangeable throughout this restrictive time.

Let’s Talk About Music: 20th and 21st Century

Saxophonist Lester Young and pianist-bandleader Count Basie helped make the Kansas City style of jazz music popular when this genre appeared in the 1920s and 1930s.

Yet, that wasn’t the only popular genre at that time. Blues singers and ragtime also influenced the local music scene.

Initially, jazz groups consisted of smaller dance bands with three to six pieces.

Interestingly, places such as dance halls, cabarets, and speakeasies promoted Kansas’s unique jazz style. Then, halfway through 1920, big bands became more common.

The enormous popularity of jazz in the 1920s didn’t fade away. It continued in the next decade as a result of political boss Tom Pendergast. Instead of censoring alcohol during prohibition, he allowed it to flow in Kansas City.

Nowadays, Kansas City is world-famous for its jazz and blues legacy. Luckily, visitors and locals can easily find clubs (over 40 of them feature jazz regularly) and events held in the city (when there aren’t any pandemic restrictions).

If you’re a jazz lover, but you’re clueless about where to go, then head to establishments such as The Blue Room, The Mutual Musicians Foundation, or the Green Lady Lounge. They’re good places to start your jazz journey.

Demographic Variations: 20th and 21st Century

While ruled by the political boss, Thomas J. Pendergast, both the economy and population grew at the beginning of the 20th century.

Unquestionably, Kansas City was a major entertainment center during this dry era. KC was even labeled “The Paris of the Plains” after one journalist wrote, “If you want to see some sin, forget Paris and head to Kansas City.”

This “uncensored” town image had a strong appeal to musicians from anywhere in mid-America. As a result, many moved to Kansas to be able to continue to work.

Wars may be highly destructive. However, both world wars provided significant boosts to the Kansas City economy.

Kansas City grew more rapidly after World War II because it annexed adjacent land, expanding its area five times more.

A few decades later, in 1970, the city population surpassed a half million and so peaked. After this period, it slowly decreased until stabilizing in the 1990s.

Kansas City Facts: Nowadays

Kansas City had a population of approximately 495,327 in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (latest data).

The ethnicity of the population is predominantly white (60.9%), followed by Black or African-American (28.2%) and Hispanic or Latino (10.6%). Yet, things are likely to change: a report from the Kansas Health Institute shows that the state is quickly becoming more diverse.

Similarly, an older and urban population is expected to grow in years to come.

Also, for those interested in moving to pursue a degree in this area, the largest universities in Kansas City, MO are Metropolitan Community College-Kansas City (3,805 degrees awarded in 2019), University of Missouri-Kansas City (3,424 degrees), and Rockhurst University (828 degrees).

Kansas City Gastronomy

When it comes to food, fear not: you’re in the right place. The Kansas City area has over 100 barbecue restaurants.

Dishes such as smoked ribs, pulled pork, and burnt ends are popular. Are you not convinced?

Well, at least four U.S. presidents have dined at the original Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque. As an example, Harry S. Truman was a frequent visitor.

If you’re a vegetarian, don’t worry. There are various places to go. However, if you’re trying to have a healthier diet and you’re in the mood for organic food, then give Canihaveabite (restaurant) a shot.

If you prefer something even more unusual, consider ordering food from the Jerusalem Cafe. Their dish, “vegetarian combination,” is highly recommended by a food critic from Feast Magazine.

No matter what you’re in the mood for, Kansas City will have a suitable option for your taste.

Fun Facts About Kansas

If you’re a linguistic enthusiast, then here’s a fun fact: the name Kansas means “people of the sound wind” in the Native American dialect of the Kaw Tribe. In fact, the city was named after them.

For all the history aficionados, the National WWI Museum and Memorial has the world’s second-largest collection of World War I artifacts (only behind Britain’s Imperial War Museum).

In addition, the Liberty Memorial was funded in 1919. Impressively, over 83,000 people raised $2.5 million in just 10 days to support the construction financially.

Here’s another interesting fact, especially if you’re into horror movies or Halloween: Kansas City labels itself as the Haunted House Capital of the World. That might be due to its pioneering of the “open format,” allowing visitors to roam freely without following a specific path.

If you’re a Disney lover, then you have to know this: Walt Disney opened his first animation company (Laugh-O-Gram Studio) in Kansas City. There, he fed a small rodent. This experience inspired him to create Mickey Mouse.

Even if you’re not into historical places, museums, gastronomy, or spooky stuff, rest assured: there’s still something for you in Kansas City. Also, don’t worry if you have kids to entertain, there are places suitable for children (such as Legoland Discovery Center, Sea Life Aquarium, and Science City).

Enjoy Kansas City: It’s Worth Your Time

Kansas is undoubtedly an exciting city to explore. The history of Kansas City is rich, just like this city’s gastronomy and music.

Kansas makes anyone keen to visit, even those who prefer staying at home.

If you’re planning to move to Kansas City, then request a free moving quote. Let us make your life easier!