Just Call it Kansas City

by Matthew Brent Jackson

You have a right to be confused. The wedding of the word “Kansas” and “City” is problematic, if not downright suspicious. I read some place or heard that “Kansas” is one of those words like “Jesus,” “Elvis,” or “Coca-Cola.” It’s a word that resonates, suggests, connotes, or denotes: it means something. If you are from New York or from Mississippi, Kansas means in many cases, the thing that is not you. Kansas is the Other. One meaning of Kansas is simply open space, or less charitably, emptiness. Whatever is suggests, it rarely hints at the idea of people, or if there are people, there are few of them, and additionally, they are probably strange due to their isolation. Whatever “Kansas” is, it probably has nothing to do with the word “City.”


And yet there is a place called Kansas City. But it’s in Missouri. And in Kansas. And it is also some sort of amorphous geographical concept containing multiple counties and municipalities across two states. But what is Kansas City and why?

Like many issues of confusion, it apparently begins with French fashion. Supposedly in the 1600s in the court of Louis the XIV, the fashion dictated the need for beaver fur hats. I find this odd because it is hard for me to visualize a beaver fur hat on top of a tall, powdered, wig, yet they say the Sun King himself wore one, and as a result, everyone else wanted one too. The need for these hats was real, and soon they began to send young Frenchmen out across North America into the world they called “Nouvelle- France” seeking the fur-bearing, aquatic wood-chewers wherever they might be. From Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, they traipsed about tributary streams making friends and girlfriends among the various Indian nations they encountered, offering the latest in European trade goods. 

From the Mississippi River they went west to the Missouri River, and from the Missouri River they went west to the mouth of the Kaw or Kansas River, thus beginning the idea of Kansas City, at least in European minds. Except it wasn’t called anything that we know of from the initial French visitation. It was just a place without a name, but there were people there. A place where people lived, where two rivers met: where one, the Missouri, was bigger than the other, the Kansas. The people lived on the banks of the Kaw or Kansas because it was smaller and less treacherous than the larger Missouri River. The people are called the Kaw or Kansas, and they now primarily live in Oklahoma, but they used to live in what we now call Kansas City. It was their place, so when the French had lingered in the vicinity sufficiently, they called it “Chez les Canses” or the Place of the Kansas. It is worth noting that the Kaw or Kansas people lived on what would now be considered both Kansas and Missouri. At that time in the 18th century, those designations did not exist, but it is worth noting that “Kansas City” has been in two states from its very beginning.

The Kaw Nation live in Oklahoma because where they used to live, Kansas, was called something like PERMANENT INDIAN TERRITORY. According to John Rydjord, the late author and explainer of all these kinds of issues in his great book Indian Place-Names, there was a belief that the timber line essentially ended at the Missouri line, so white people then wouldn’t ever want to go live in Kansas because how would they ever build log cabins, carve gunstocks, or fabricate butter churns? White people needed wood, and since Kansas seemed to be nothing but miles of grassland, let the Indian nations have it, permanently. It was so desolate that it seemed a good place to dump people who came from apparently nicer places like Ohio, so eventually the Kaw had to share with folks from the East Coast and Great Lakes like the Delaware, Shawnee, Ottawa, Wyandot, etc.

Eventually the white people figured that Kansas might be worth farming, so the PERMANENT INDIAN TERRITORY ended in Kansas, though people from various tribes stayed while some lost their official tribal status. The Kaw, however mostly went to Oklahoma, which had been the territory of various Plains tribes, plus all the tribes that had been kicked out of the southeast like the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, etc. Oklahoma was the Indian Territory then and it stayed that way until white people discovered that they might like it there too, so they decided to make it a state. Of course by that time so many Indian nations had been sent to Oklahoma that the white people had to share, sort of. Regardless, that is why there are so many casinos and bingo halls in Oklahoma due to legal changes in Indian gaming in the 1980s, and this is also why the people known as the Kansas or Kaw, live one state south.

The Kaw Nation have a casino in Newkirk, Oklahoma which their website describes as “one of the finest in North Central Oklahoma,” and apparently, it is one of the luckiest. Again upon the website’s authority, in 2012 “an Oklahoma man won 1.88 million on a Star Wars wide area progressive jackpot.” I didn’t even know there were Star Wars slot machines, but apparently they do exist at the South Wind Casino in Newkirk, Oklahoma. I have never been to a casino, but if I go, I suppose I’ll go to the Southwind Casino because I have lived in Kansas most of my life, and since the State of Kansas was once the designated hunting ground of the Kaw Nation, I owe some rent. I need to play a few rounds of bingo to diminish my debt, but then again, I probably owe too much.

I believe the Kaw Nation calls itself “The People of the South Wind,” and before they had a casino in Oklahoma, they lived in what we call Kansas City on the banks of the Kaw, hunting both deer and turkey on both sides of the non-existent state lines. And the spot where they lived along the banks of the Kaw had been inhabited for at least 2000 years, by a group we call the Kansas City Hopewell who were the farthest branch of the mound building people from farther east. Kansas City used to have multiple mounds, but most were torn down, dug up, or pulled over I suppose. All that is left is fragments and artifacts of the Kansas City Hopewell, but the signs point to a minimum of two millennia of settlement, and on the first Christmas when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there were people hunting deer and turkey, living along the banks of the Kaw. We call them the Kansas City Hopewell because we don’t know what they called themselves.


Eventually, like the KC Hopewell, the Kaw and the French moved on, but the spot that was to be Kansas City was a good spot. There is something about the meeting of two rivers: a confluence always attracts. The problem with rivers, though, is that they flood, and the bottomland that the French settled had a tendency to wash away, leaving room for enterprising Anglo types to take over after Napoleon sold that giant Louisiana Territory of which the future Kansas City was just a dot. With the new Americans, new names started to arrive: Westport because it was a port into the West. Port Fonda because they say there was a man called Fonda. Possum Trot because possums might trot. These names didn’t exactly stick. They tried Kawsmouth because they were by the mouth of the Kaw, but the appeal of the old name could not be shaken: by the early 19th century it would be the Town of Kansas, Missouri.

Except they weren’t done. It would be the Port of Kansas, because it was a port on the river but that became too clunky also. They would just call it Kansas. Kansas, Missouri. 

Again, John Rydjord lays it out and quotes one Missouri resident from 1854 who specifically stated: “My address is Kansas, Missouri.” Kansas, Missouri. As noted in the first sentence, you have a right to be confused.

Of course, 1854 started to confuse everyone, because now the thing to the west became officially “Kansas Territory” according to the federal government. So the place in Missouri started calling itself the City of Kansas soon after. Over time this name became inconvenient, and it just got called Kansas City.

Confusion, confusion, but Rydjord notes that all could have been solved when Missouri was open to selling Kansas City, Missouri, to the State of Kansas for the low, low, price of 250,000 in U.S. dollars. The state capital in Topeka wanted the Jewel of the Kaw/Missouri Rivers for its own and proceeded to seek the intervention of Washington D.C. The man they sent to broker the deal though met a D.C. girl and never came back. Thus Kansas City, Missouri, stayed in Missouri. Oddly enough, Denver, Colorado, was once part of Kansas Territory setting up what might have been the oddest of NFL rivalries: if Kansas had kept Eastern Colorado and had purchased Kansas City, Missouri, then the Western Kansas Broncos would have battled the Eastern Kansas Chiefs for control of the AFC West. This was not to be.

But still, this shouldn’t be such a problem: why does it matter that there is a city in Missouri named after its bordering state? The difficulty seems to be that just across the river in Kansas, they decided to name their city, Kansas City, too.

So now there were two Kansas Cities right next two each other with just the Kaw between them essentially. And then because Midwesterners have a tendency to call themselves the next thing bigger, Kansas City became conceptual.

Let me explain: I knew a guy in college named Bob. Some people called him Omni-Bob because he seemed to appear everywhere. He always told me he was from Rossville, Kansas. I don’t know if I knew where Rossville was, so I asked. He said it was near Topeka. I knew where Topeka was, so it made sense. It was a Kansas thing: orient the stranger via the next biggest town. After knowing Bob for a while, we were once driving down Highway 24 when he remarked that we were near his hometown of Delia. I was shocked: “What do you mean Bob? You are from Rossville.” He said, “I just say I’m from Rossville because no one has ever heard of Delia.” I then said, “No one has ever heard of Rossville either.”

I was just being a Kansas City snob, but Kansas Citians do the same thing. When they travel, they might say they are from Kansas City, though they are from Merriam, KS, or Kearney, MO. Because at least, maybe, someone has heard of Kansas City. And Kansas City, both the one in Kansas and the one in Missouri, often had the inclination to consume smaller communities. And even the municipalities that remained independent still owed allegiance to the larger idea of Kansas City, because it only made sense. There just were not enough people. Even today, Kansas City for all its square mileage still contains loads of space, unlike many other cities that are utterly full. It’s a populated island on the edge of the Plains, and after all, the Plains is a thing like the sea, as the old name Westport implies. 


So it is confusing, but it is not empty, even if it is not fully occupied. And it may not be visible on the surface, but it has been lived in for a very long time. And since we don’t know what they called it, or even what they called themselves as they hunted deer and turkey two thousand years ago, we might as well call it something. We might as well call it after the people who lived here when French fashion came calling, the people who call themselves “The People of the South Wind” with the Star Wars slots down in Oklahoma.

We might as well call it Kansas City because it might make us think, and it might make us remember. The word Kansas is not just the thing that is not you: it is not just the name on a basketball jersey of a team you may or may not like; it is not just a 400-mile highway you must cross in order to get to ski slopes in Colorado. It is the name of a people, a people who live down in Oklahoma who used to live in Kansas who got kicked out because other people wanted to live where they lived. And these people have had a hard time getting to stay a people. The last Kaw Full Blood, William A. Mehojah, died on Easter Sunday in 1999 in Omaha, Nebraska. I remember when it was written up in the New York Times, and a friend of mine told me he cried when he read it. My friend was not Kaw or a member of federally recognized tribe or nation; he was just a white guy from Kansas, but as a Kansan, he knew something had been lost.

mbjThere are no Kaw Full Bloods left, but the language has been saved; there’s a casino, a convenience store, a “stand alone ice machine” outside the tribal headquarters, a health clinic, a gift shop, and according to their website, 3,559 enrolled tribal members. The Kaw Nation have had to work hard to maintain their identity, keep their sovereignty, and just get to be themselves. And if the word Kansas can be recognized as a name of a people, a people who survived, a people who struggled but kept going, then Kansas is a pretty good name. And if you connect that word “Kansas” with “City,” you can be reminded that its ultimately about people, living in a place, trying to make it for 2000 years, on the edge of the Plains, in a place where the summers are hot and the winters are cold. The place really hasn’t changed regardless of who comes and who goes: the two rivers are still here. 

So it’s possible that the name Kansas City might make us consider that the world is very complicated and history very confusing. But by knowing, we might see that a good place seems to stay that way and that a good place remains consistent and that people have made it here for a very long time.

We might as well call it something. Kansas City seems to work. Just call it Kansas City.




Artwork and writing by Matthew Brent Jackson

Categories: Essay