When I make my shopping run to Wal-Mart, I head west on I-70 then pick up I-435 south and cross the Kansas River. Visible from the bridge as I cross the river Mill creek flows into the river from the southwest. Somewhere through the years I've read that was the site of one of the Chouteau brothers original trading posts back in the days when beaver hats were "king".
As the road climbs from the river and I get to Shawnee Mission Parkway, I'm traveling beautiful rolling hills that once held a township named Monticello. It was there that a young man first wore a constable's badge and first tried his hand at law enforcement. He voted in the 1856 presidential election there. To know I'm sharing the same country that James Butler Hickok once rode always induces awe in me. You might have heard him called by another name; "Wild Bill".
It wasn't long after those experiences he met up with a kid muleskinner from a few miles to the north of here; one who would probably become one of the most famous "Westerners" of all time; William Frederick Cody. At 11 Cody lost his father to the "Border Wars" that consumed Kansas through her territorial days and continued through the Civil War, culminating in the 2nd burning of Lawrence, KS by William Quantrill. Cody and Hickok rode together in the Kansas Militia, leading both of them into scouting for the military and their other pursuits.
A few blocks north of me is the old Fort Leavenworth Military Road from what was then Westport to the Federal outpost that still exists. As he traveled to Leavenworth not long before the Civil War, William Tecumseh Sherman in his memoir wrote of spending the night at the Shawnee Indian School (now called the Shawnee Indian Mission), then rode west and crossed the Kansas River at a ferry owned by a white man and his Indian wife. That would be Moses Grinter; I've written of "The Grinter House" before, the first permanent house in my county. The house still standing replaced the cabin he and his wife had lived in for the 20 plus years before it was built. During the battle of Westport someone aboard the afternoon steamboat headed for Lawrence cut the cable on Grinter's Ferry, killing one of his hired hands; it was thought to be the work of one of the James boys trying to slow the troops from Fort Leavenworth reinforcing the Union troops. Later, after the railroad tracks that still parallel the river there were built, they were also said to have stopped a train or two.
The family of one of Hickok and Cody's friends from the militia days owned a tavern/rooming house called the "Six-Mile House" given its being six miles from the river on the Fort Leavenworth road. In a local history written by a school teacher she wrote of the shooting demonstrations that Hickok and his friend Theodore Bartels would put on after the war. Usually won by Hickok, she wrote of seeing him trot his horse down the lane, his revolvers pointing across his body, knocking bricks off the rail fence on either side...never actually taking aim.
Next to the downtown public library is the Huron Indian Cemetery; when the Wyandotte Indians were forced to relocate to Oklahoma Territory, they deeded over their land and buildings on the condition that the graves there would never be disturbed. In that same history I spoke of above, there is the story of what happened when the City Council decided they could take that land as there weren't any Indians left here to object. The aunt of Zane Grey, the writer, moved into the cemetery, with a shotgun and held off the sheriff while the City Council tried to evict her and legal proceedings were brought against them to enforce the original agreements. I've been told that my great-grandmother has a relative buried there...
A few blocks past the library, though the building is long gone, is where the "Free State" constitution for the state of Kansas was written (as opposed to the "slave state" constitution written earlier and never adopted). A couple of miles to the north lie the ruins of Quindaro, a settlement that had much to do with the transport of slaves to freedom via the Underground Railway. The high bluff they sit on was conducive for marksman to sit with their rifles, waiting to drive away the bounty-hunters trying to cross the river to recover those lives someone else considered their property.
The guerrilla Quantrill I mentioned earlier was a schoolteacher before the war, in a little town south of here named Maryville. What was left of Maryville was flooded by Hillsdale Lake as it filled, one of the lakes we fish.
My sister and her family live in Lawrence; burnt twice through the "Border Wars", the last time with much loss of life. When Quantrill and his raiders arrived they sent lookouts up Mount Oread to watch for dust clouds in case the military from Fort Leavenworth should come to the town's aid. 183 men and boys were executed; anyone old enough to carry a rifle up to the age of 90 lost their lives. The logos on the doors of the Lawrence police cruisers show burning buildings.
Mount Oread was where the University of Kansas was founded two years later, in 1865. It's where my oldest son and his wife both graduated from...
Those are only the ghosts from "my" side of the river...many more walk the Missouri side in the echoes of the music of the 20's and 30's...the echoes of the Pendergast political machine...the Union Station massacre...
I often wonder as all these ghosts gather 'round how many of those in the cars about me even know they existed? People always think "history" is somewhere else...that you have to "go somewhere" to find it...
But the ghosts wait everywhere, only waiting a chance to speak!
May the week be kind to each of you!