This has been an exciting year for Independence Square, and it’s the perfect holiday season to enjoy all there is to offer. Not only are restaurants and boutique shops continuing to thrive, but, Jackson County’s Historic Truman Courthouse was rededicated and opened to the public after a year-and-a-half restoration project. It is also adorned with lights, and holiday music permeates the Square.
The Jackson County Historical Society will be publishing a new book on the history of the Courthouse and Independence Square for sale by late January. Check jchs.org for the latest news and updates.
People often ask why the Square was not located closer to the Missouri River. Pioneers needed fresh water and wood for sustenance, and you couldn’t get either close to the River at Wayne City Landing. So, they came about three miles south of the river on the highest prominent hill, which is where the Square developed and was literally carved out of the timber that stood on the spot.
By the way, Kansas City was similarly settled. Its original town setting was Westport, some three miles from its Missouri River landing, Westport Landing … today the City Market at the foot of Main Street.
When Harry S. Truman dedicated the renovated Jackson County Courthouse on the Square in September 1933, he remarked that the commissioners appointed in December 1826 to locate the county seat for Jackson County were “to fix the future capital within three miles of the center of the county. The designated ‘center’ was, they thought, useless for any agricultural purposes and would remain unsettled to the end of time. So, they followed the established line of settlement (i.e., the Santa Fe Trail) and located their seat of justice on March 29, 1827, and gave it the name ‘Independence.’” George Rhodes plat was approved three months later (copies are available in the society’s bookshop).
But what might have inspired the name? One answer is a legend related in W. L. Webb’s book about the city’s history:
About 1816, Fort Osage at Sibley in eastern Jackson County was besieged for two weeks by hostile Indians. The soldiers made a break for their freedom. They swung open the gates to the fort and dashed out. The Indians, thinking they were being attacked, fled west along the Osage Trace, a trail which went from the fort to the Big Blue River, crossing through what later would become Independence Square (and later became the Santa Fe Trail). The troops pursued the Indians until the soldiers made several camps on high hills covered with trees. A scouting report indicated the Indians had fled across the Kaw River and the fort was out of danger.
General William D. McCray, who led the troops, sent his wife (who had willingly accompanied the regiment) on horseback to another camp to relay the scouting report. When his wife returned she told McCray that she had given the message to the soldiers at the other camp: “We have won our independence!” Amused with his wife’s dramatic statement, McCray said, “Won our independence, we have. Very well, then, this shall be Independence Camp.” And it was there that the town was staked out, Webb said.
The McCrays later lived in Lafayette County. Their second daughter, Flora, met and married David Ward of Wellington, Mo. Ward was selected one of the aforementioned commissioners to locate the county seat. The then-decade-old history of Camp Independence appealed to Ward, and he drove a stake in the ground near the site of the Historic Truman Courthouse and proclaimed it the county seat, giving it the name of Independence.
And, this is where we shop, dine, play, and do business today … historic Independence Square! Spend some time this holiday season on the Square – and don’t forget to tour the three historic homes all decked out for the holidays. Start at the 1859 Jail, Marshal’s Home and Museum, 217 N Main, and continue to the Vaile Mansion and Bingham Waggoner Estate!
David W. Jackson is archives and education director of the Jackson County Historical Society.