The rolling hills dotted with free-flowing springs attracted Indians who gathered here and called the place the Big Spring. But in the 1820s these same hills and springs also attracted American settlers.
Through the Treaties of 1825 with the Osage and Kansa Indians the U.S. government took control of the Big Spring and opened up the land of the newly proclaimed Jackson County for settlement. Later, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 moved all Indians west of the Missouri River and the settlers claim on the land was made permanent.
Missouri's General Assembly was searching for a county seat and the Big Spring seemed the perfect location so on March 29, 1827 authorities approved the 160-acre site which became Independence. Trade soon flourished because of the accessibility of the Missouri River which was only three miles to the north and provided supply transportation. Independence immediately became a jumping off point for merchants beginning the long trek westward on the Santa Fe Trail. The new town seemed to be a logical place to start the voyage since it was close to the Missouri River. The trading strength was reinforced by Mexican merchants who came northeast on the Santa Fe Trail. In the 1840s Independence became a thriving trading post where pioneers of the Oregon Trail stocked their wagons with final supplies before hitting the trail.
The winter of 1830-31 brought a new kind of settler to Independence; the missionaries. They were sent by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to convert the Indians living in western Missouri and eastern Kansas. This group of five elders from church headquarters in Ohio, chose the up-and-coming trading town as the base for their missionary work. Founder and prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. visited Independence the following summer and declared it to be the location of Zion, God's city on earth. To establish the prophet's vision of an earthly paradise, the church purchased more land and other Mormon church members soon migrated to Independence.
Locals had trouble accepting the new missionaries because the Mormons brought with them a strong evangelistic tradition of religious and social norms. Mormons built homes, schools, churches and stores, began the first newspapers, and worked hard to spread their religious philosophy which included an anti-slavery belief. Joseph Smith chose the location of the temple of the Latter Day Saints in Zion but his plans for construction were halted. Some of their neighbors, fearing economic domination and loss of political control, joined together and by 1833 drove the missionaries out of Jackson County.
Independence saw great prosperity from the late 1830s through the mid-1840s while the business of outfitting pioneers boomed. In 1848 many of the 12,000 settlers who reached Oregon had started their trek in Independence and the 1849 gold rush prospectors poured through the town. The population and economic power of Independence grew so rapidly that on March 8, 1849 the Missouri General Assembly granted a home-rule charter and on July 18, 1849 William McCoy, the first mayor, was elected. But by the late 1840s the town of West Port, not surprisingly located a little west, brought the Independence monopoly on the wagon trail trade industry to an end by taking away the town's claim to the "last stop on the western frontier."
The population expansion was not only stunted by the development of West Port, but also by a bloody slavery feud in 1855. Missouri had been admitted to the Union as a slave holding state in 1821. In the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854, residents of the Kansas territory were given the choice of joining the Union as a free or a slave state and the controversy began. The Bushwhackers, Missourians in favor of slavery, waged a battle against the anti-slavery Kansas Jayhawkers all along the western border of Jackson County. The feuds had a serious impact on the outfitting trade in Independence since the area became dangerous and soon the stream of pioneers had declined to a trickle.
The border war over slavery was a prelude to coming events. Independence citizens had split sentiments and although Missouri remained a border state, many people fled to the south to join rebel troops. Independence saw two important battles during the Civil War, the first on August 11, 1862 when confederate troops captured the town, and the second in October 1864 which lasted two days. The war took its toll on Independence and the town was never able to regain its previous prosperity although a flurry of building activity took place soon after the war. This endeavor to rebuild Independence resulted mainly in the construction of spacious homes including the Vaile Mansion in 1881.
A faction of the Latter Day Saints missionaries who had been evicted from the town in the 1830s won a quiet victory by returning to Independence after the Civil War. While expelled from the state, leader Joseph Smith, Jr. was killed and the church split into factions one led by his son Joseph Smith III was called the Reorganized Church of the Latter Day Saints. The RLDS members returned to the area and their headquarters were established in Independence in the early 1900s. (The RLDS church is now known as the Community of Christ with International Headquarters in Independence).
Independence has been home to many famous people including Ginger Rogers, born here in 1911, but Harry S. Truman truly put Independence on the map. Truman grew up in the area, held his first job at Clinton's Drugstore, and in 1922 he was elected presiding judge of the county court. In 1934 he was elected to U.S. Senate and by 1944 he was elected as Roosevelt's vice-president. On the death of Roosevelt in 1945, Truman became President and was reelected in 1948. During his eight years in office, Truman used his Independence home as a summer White House and when he returned home at the end of his term, 10,000 people met him at the train station. His library and home are now two of the biggest tourist attractions in Independence.
Today the rich heritage of Independence is featured at many attractions throughout the city. Visitors can find out more about the Santa Fe, Oregon, and many other trails at the National Frontier Trails Center. The Truman legacy is carried on at the Truman Library, The Truman Home, the courthouse and other city sites. More can be learned about the Latter Day Saints by visiting the Mormon Visitors Center and the exhibits at the RLDS world headquarters (now known as the Community of Christ International Headquarters). There is much to see and do in Independence, the historical heart of the Kansas City metropolitan area.
City of Independence Department of Tourism