City Spotlight: Exploring the history of Liberty, Missouri

Dan Weinbaum
February 13, 2019 - 6:06 am

Liberty, MO - This city of around 30,000 residents on the Northeast edge of the KC Metro was settled around 1820, about a generation before the founding of Kansas City.

At the time it was the farthest town west, on the edge of the American frontier.

"There was a push for law and order, we had a lot of lawyers early on, a focus on education, we were far enough from the river not to have problems with vermin and disease that closer towns had," said Chery Carr Holtman, curator of the Clay County Museum. 

Liberty was the first town in the KC Metro that has lasted to the present day.

"A lot of towns didn't survive past being maybe a gas station stop on the road, so I think Liberty is unique in that and I hope it continues to be unique," Carr Holtman said.

Downtown Liberty still echos much of its 19th century history.

Liberty and Clay County were once part of a region known as Little Dixie, because it was settled by landowners from Kentucky, Tennessee and other areas of the South. The county was settled to replicate the Southern plantation economy.

At the time of the Civil War, slaves made up a third of Clay County's population.  

Carr Holtman says the landowners, and other groups who didn't own slaves, were southern sympathizers.

That sympathy among the people in Clay County fed into the Border War between Missouri and Kansas, which then played out during the Civil War.

Liberty was occupied numerous times by Union troops.

Jesse James and his brother Frank were born not too far from Liberty in Clay County, near Kearney. 

The James brothers were bushwackers - pro-confederate guerrillas who rode with Quantrill and Bloody Bill.  After the Civil War they turned to revenge in the form of crime.  

So the story goes that Jesse and his brother Frank and their gang robbed a bank in broad daylight right on the Liberty Square in 1866.

"That's the story. Can't really prove it. Was it his gang? yes. Was he there, was Frank? Don't know," says Carr Holtman. "A local was shot, the first daylight bank robbery... but we really don't know. However they had a big impact on every town in this county."

Earlier in the 19th Century, Latter Day Saints Church founder Joseph Smith was incarcerated in the town jail following the first Mormon War that erupted nearby in the late 1830's. 

Liberty native - Alexander Doniphan - was the one who fought, and then saved Joseph Smith's life.

"And a bunch of militias were sent up under the governor's orders and fought them and they gave up," says Carr Holtman. "Major Doniphan was ordered to shoot the leaders including Joseph Smith. He refused, saying 'that's murder', and he demanded a trial.  He was a lawyer."

Doniphan was a defense attorney working in Liberty and in the surrounding counties.

He went on to great fame during the Mexican-American War, leading his troops on a campaign of 5,500 miles during the war. It's considered the longest military campaign since the times of Alexander the Great.

More recently, Liberty lived through the floods of 1951 and has recovered from tornadoes in 2003 and 2008.



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