The Spirit of Independence

By Barth, Linda | American Heritage, May 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Spirit of Independence

Barth, Linda, American Heritage

It was a town where the trails started and the buck stopped. Home to a President and an outlaw, it made room for both.

AS YOU DRIVE IN FROM KANSAS CITY, INDEPENDENCE doesn't look as if it has much to offer. The two-lane highway rolls away from the interstate in gentle waves, but the landscape is littered with fast-food restaurants and discount stores. It isn't until you've reached downtown Independence that you notice the change. The neat blocks of glass-fronted two-story buildings, the streets that seem to trail off into the Missouri prairie, and the orderly calmness bring on a sudden sense of nostalgia. It's as if you've returned to a time when life revolved around the town square, which, as it happens, is the case with Independence.

The center of town looks much as it did around the turn of the century, when Harry S. Truman worked at the local drugstore. Back before the Civil War this was the spot where wagon trains would line up for their westward departure; it was also the site of the area's slave auctions. The square is dominated by the Jackson County Courthouse, built in 1836, and there you can visit the office where Truman made the transition from bankrupt haberdasher to public servant when he was elected county judge in 1922. According to legend, it was at the courthouse that he picked up from another local politician what later became his famous catchphrase about heat and kitchens.

Independence has a surprisingly rich history for a place with such a small-town feel. Founded in 1827, it soon became known as the Queen City of the Trails because of the throngs of people who arrived to join westward wagon trains. The National Frontier Trails Center, about a mile from downtown, stands on the site of the trailhead for three of the overland routes most vital to the settlement of the West: the Santa Fe, the Oregon, and the California. A short film gives a good overview of the history of the overland trails, and a comprehensive collection of period artifacts makes it all the more immediate. The exhibits quote extensively from trail diaries, offering modern visitors a chance to relive the arduous journey west through the words of those who made the trip.

Not everyone who went to Independence intended to keep moving. The founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith, arrived in 1831 while proselytizing in the Midwest. He declared the town the new promised land and selected a spot that is today known as the Temple Lot as the site of a new church. His followers began migrating to the area in such numbers that by 1833 the local residents were beginning to resent their presence, forcing them to relocate just north of Independence and then burning their homes. In 1838 Missouri's governor, Lilburn Boggs, issued his "Extermination Order" mandating that Mormons be driven from the state or killed.

Today a small memorial on the Temple Lot commemorates the moment when Smith declared this patch of Independence promised land. In fact, some followers of the church still believe that at the moment of the Apocalypse, Jesus Christ will appear simultaneously in Jerusalem and Independence. The church headquarters are certainly worth a visit. Helpful tour guides give you a quick history lesson, but the real interest lies in the building itself. It sits on the edge of town, rising three hundred feet above the lush Missouri plains, a polished silver-colored spiraling dome that looks almost like the top of a soft ice-cream cone.

Mormons were not the only source of controversy in Independence. The battle over slavery hit here with particular force. Under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Missouri was a slave state, but when Congress in 1854 decided to let Kansans vote on whether their state would be free or slave, many Missourians felt threatened. Pro-slavery forces rushed into Kansas from border towns like Independence to menace abolitionists and to elect a pro-slavery legislature. The 1859 Jail, Marshal's Home and Museum, just off Independence Square, examines this grim chapter of Independence history.

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