The folks who created Independence got almost everything right – proper positioning for trade routes, a strong foundation and Jacksonian inclusive politics.
The one thing they got wrong was the name.
The name “independence” speaks little to the network of international business and social organizing the city's earliest settlers negotiated among themselves, according to scholar William O'Brien, an Independence native.
His is new book, “Merchants of Independence: International Trade on the Santa Fe Trail, 1827-1860,” chronicles the rise of the frontier city at the edge of a nation but very much at the center of an emerging international trade market.
“A typical shipment, say one involving manufactured cloth (one of the foremost trade items), might begin in Manchester, England,” O'Brien writes in his book, following the textile through customs, through canals overland to Independence where it would go the way of much of manufacturing to Santa Fe and Chihuahua, Mexico. So went the trendy European dresses in demand at the time. So went the Mexican silver.
Historians typically describe the U.S.'s international trading posts as post-railroad phenomena, but O'Brien argues against this insisting there were exceptions, market centers that drew commerce across national borders before the locomotive. And Independence was a key example.
“It became clear to me even when I first started out going to school that the standard history book didn't really seem to cover everything that we had,” O'Brien said. “Large narratives of other people that were left out.”
O'Brien argues the standard history book's discussion of Independence has been over looking the businessmen from London and Mexico who forged relations in Jackson County, the city's free blacks employing whites to build wagons and the Jewish merchants there haggling for slaves.
O'Brien, a former Independence historic preservation officer, said there were old settler's meetings in Jackson County right after the Civil War, and those in attendance “were mostly businessmen, politicians and religious types that were putting that (historical) narrative together,” he said. “There were few women present, almost no one from the black community.”
“I think I'm being charitable in saying that it was pretty one sided.”
As surprising as it may be to some to learn Independence was once a key point of American commerce, the natural question is what changed.
O'Brien has two answers: the railroad and the Civil War.
The first part of this answer works like this: the locomotive removed much the cooperation and self-governance the city had enjoyed and made the population subject to one group of masters who, for their own political reasons, saw fit to wrest nearly all economic and governmental entities from Independence. “You ever thought about why, for example, Kansas City has a courthouse? Isn't Independence the county seat?” O'Brien asked rhetorically.
The second part of his answer is simpler: Independence was nearly destroyed in the Civil War. In the spring of 1861, city businessmen whose establishments had been ravaged by confederate guerrillas relayed to the U.S. government that, “We now live in a state of anarchy and lawless violence.”
The note appears in O'Brien's discussion of prominent Kansas Jayhawker Col. William Jennison. What the section does not include -- whether for scholarly reasons or because there is enough bloodshed in this book already -- is a story of one of the town's darkest moments he heard from granddaughters of Independence's first mayor William McCoy. O'Brien said they used to revisit the family story of Jennison rounding up all the citizens in the town square, holding them at bayonet point and being kept up through the night by McCoy who pleaded for the colonel not to burn the city down.
“If people want to know why I wrote this book this is what I want you to tell them: I wrote it to not to only explain this area but to promote some sort of healing, to be able to look at it for what it was, the diversity of what made it such a vibrant story and to put all that stuff behind them,” O'Brien said.
MORE INFO • “Merchants of Independence: International Trade on the Santa Fe Trail, 1827-1860” • By William Patrick O’Brien • Truman State University Press, ISBN-10: 161248090X | ISBN-13: 978-1612480909. Pub date: Feb. 24, 2014 • Available from the publisher ($34.95 paperback; $27.99 e-book) , Amazon ($34.82 paperback)