In The Beginning: 1826-1850

Jackson County Log Courthouse
The oldest relic of County government is the first courthouse of Jackson County, which is preserved to this day. The log structure, intended to be only a temporary courthouse, was erected on a private lot because the public square was being reserved for a more prestigious building.

The 1827 Jackson County Log Courthouse near Independence Square, Independence, Missouri, is the handiwork of Samuel Shepard, African-American slave of James Shepherd (note the difference in spelling). Shepherd settled with his family near the public spring on the east side of the original plat of Independence.

Building the Courthouse
The contract for the first County courthouse was awarded to Daniel P. Lewis, through competitive bidding, for $150. After nine years, this log courthouse was abandoned by the County Court for more permanent quarters in the center of Independence Square. Lot 59, where the log courthouse stood, was sold to private interests. The lot changed hands several times, and the log courthouse had many different uses over the years.
Jackson County First Courthouse Built in 1827 Still Stands in Independence Missouri
By the time Independence Mayor Christian Ott Jr., became the log courthouse's owner, he offered the structure to the City of Independence for preservation. But after several years, the City had made no arrangements to find another site for its removal. Then, in 1916, Ott offered it to Jackson County. The County Court, with Mayor Ott’s concurrence, offered the building to the Kansas City Board of Parks Commissioners who consented to move it to Swope Park. Within two days of this offer, the City of Independence quickly passed an ordinance on October 24, 1916, authorizing the removal of the building to a vacant lot just west of the Independence City Hall (202 S Main), where the Log Courthouse is today (107 W Kansas).

Jackson County Court

Prior to the adoption of the current County Charter in 1970, the governing body in Jackson County, Missouri, was called the Jackson County Court, our form of County government that dates back to Jackson County’s formation on December 15, 1826.

The County Court consisted of a legislative panel of three individuals popularly elected. Each one had the title of “County Judge,” which is like a county commissioner common in other areas of the country. Some Missouri counties are still governed by county courts.

County Representation
Jackson County was divided into halves for representation purposes with no regard to population. The County Judge for the Western District represented Jackson County interests in the western part of the County, including Kansas City. The County Judge for the Eastern District represented Jackson County citizens in the eastern half of the County.

The third elected position - “Presiding Judge” - led the legislative body and helped make difficult decisions, especially when the other 2 judges were divided and split their votes. This position is similar to the County Executive elected today.

Independence in 1832
Washington Irving and friend Charles Joseph Latrobe, spent a few days in Independence in the Autumn of 1832. Irving wrote:

“We arrived at this place [Independence, September 24, 1832] the day before yesterday, after nine days’ traveling on horseback from Saint Louis. Our journey has been a very interesting one, leading on across fine prairies and through noble forests, dotted here and there by farms and log-houses, at which we find rough but wholesome and abundant fare and very civil treatment. Many parts of these prairies of Missouri are extremely beautiful, resembling cultivated countries, rather than the savage rudeness of the wilderness.

“Yesterday I was out on a deer hunt in the vicinity of this place, which led me through some scenery that only wanted a castle, or a gentleman’s seat here and there interspersed, to have equaled some of the most celebrated park scenery of England.

“The fertile of all this Western country is truly remarkable. The soil is like that of a garden, and the luxuriance and beauty of the forests exceed any I have seen. We have gradually been advancing, however, toward rougher and rougher life, and are now at a straggling little frontier village that has only been five years in existence. From hence, in the course of a day or two, we take our departure southwardly, and shall soon bid adieu to civilization [the edge of the United States was at State Line until 1854] and encamp at night in our tents. My health is good, though I have been much affected by the change in climate, diet and water since my arrival in the West. Horse exercise, however, always agrees with me. I enjoy my journey exceedingly and look for still greater gratification in the part which is now before me, which will present much greater wildness and novelty. The climax will be our expedition with the Osages to their hunting grounds and the sight of a buffalo hunt.”

1836 County Courthouse

In 1836, the first permanent, brick Jackson County Courthouse was erected on Independence Square, the County Seat for Jackson County. Believe it or not, this 1836 structure is entombed in the current building! For specific details about the construction and evolution of Jackson County’s Courthouses, contact the Jackson County Historical Society. Inquire about their journal articles about this fascinating topic.

Adding to the Courthouse

A tall, pointed spire was added to the 1836 Jackson County Courthouse in 1846. It was visible for miles around in those days (given that Independence Square is on high ground and at that time few trees obstructed views and vistas).

The Donner Party
In April 1846, a 250-wagon train outfitted at mercantile stores and blacksmith shops around Independence Square. The Donner party was among the emigration heading west that spring. As the wagon train traveled westward it began to break up into smaller units. Some emigrants wanted to travel at a different pace; others wanted to take different routes (or cut-offs). The Donner party’s fate is a well-documented tragedy. Another family in the wagon train, the Campbells from Saline County, Missouri, and Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, were among those who chose a safer route and travel speed and made it to their destination. Most of the Campbells went the California route, but one family struck out for rich land in Oregon.

Gold Rush
After gold was discovered in 1848 at one former Jackson Countian’s California stake (John Sutter of Westport), a rush for riches ensued. A flood of young men passed through Jackson County on their way to strike it rich in the spring of 1849. The following year, an even larger emigration funneled through our area towards the territory of California (emigrants of 1850 arrived at California’s doorstep just as California was admitted to the Union that September). Nephews of the Campbells, who had left Independence in 1846, were among this migration, which has been called the largest, voluntary, overland migration in United States history.

Find out more about this original American story with tremendous significance to Jackson County in the nonfiction book Direct Your Letters to San Jose available in the Jackson County Historical Society’s archives.

Mexican War veterans returning from the Southwest in 1848 found the Jackson County Courthouse enlarged, its exterior walls refaced and the building garbed in a form of colonial architecture. It was this courthouse that the multitudes of Oregon and California emigrants would see as they outfitted for their long, arduous journey into the West.