Platte County still politically divided, even if we don’t talk about it

Fiery speeches, religious differences, mob destruction of property, threats of violence to the press: how could such a thing have happened right here in Platte County? But we’re smart, right? We don’t repeat mistakes, or do we? 

Well not yet I guess. Still we all know America divided is split in our county, too, even if people don’t talk about it much.

Actually we don’t talk about much of anything while conducting the routine business around town. My shopping grounds for groceries, gas, hardware for house repairs or auto parts is Platte City, population around 5,000 counting those just beyond the city limits. 

Yet, I can go to the only grocery store in town for repeated visits and never see anyone I know. Shoppers walk the aisles like weary droids. Conversation is limited to an employee asking, “Do you want that milk in a bag?” 

Most of us don’t even hand checks or cash to an attendant at the gas stations anymore. When drones start delivering groceries, our isolation will be even more complete.

Maybe things are more peaceful that way. 

Because back in the 1850s with cell phones, the internet, television and radio yet to be invented, a person welcomed a bit of conversation about the news of the day when they went to the general store or whittled pegs around the livery stable coffee pot. Strong disagreements might arise in those discussions. 

And for more excitement, there were live speeches designed to rally passion to action.

The Platte County Self Defensive Association met frequently in the spring of 1855 as white Americans poured into Kansas to fight (literally) over whether it would be a free state or a slave state. Platte County had residents on both sides of the issue, but the prospect of being neighbors to a free state — where black people were not kept in forced servitude with whips, chains, nooses and law — mortified many of the leading citizens of the county, according to the historian who witnessed it.

“Senator Atchison, Dr. G. W. Bayless, and B.F. Stringfellow were popular speakers, and their Pro-slavery harangues provoked the people to frenzy and outrage,” W.M. Paxton wrote in the Annals of Platte County. “Those living east and south of Platte City became almost insane.”

Pro-slavery committees of the “Kansas League” met to discuss strategy to influence the political tide in Kansas, which in those frontier days meant people in the state’s eastern tier. They also met to enforce attitudes in Platte County. 

Preachers for the Northern Methodists were advocating against slavery, including one at a church south of Platte City, Paxton said. They were visited by a committee and threatened with tar and feathering, or even being hung, if they did not desist. 

One preacher didn’t stop, and it eventually cost him his life. 

George S. Park, the eventual founder of Park College (now Park University), and W.J. Patterson ran a little newspaper in Parkville called The Luminary. The paper published a story about lawlessness in Kansas, displacement of judges and polling places guarded by men with guns and Bowie knives, with blame on the pro-slavery forces.

“That such sentiments could be published in Platte County under the shadow of the Kansas League was more than could be endured,” Paxton wrote.

On April 14, league members with “hearts fired by flaming speeches” carried the newspaper’s printing press down Main Street and “consigned to the yellow waters of the turbid Missouri.”

After banishment during the Civil War, Park returned to found the college and be one of Park College’s most important business and cultural leaders. Patterson went to Montreal, Canada, and became a wealthy merchant — honored and revered.

Park and Patterson witnessed their antagonists lose the fight over slavery in Kansas and the Civil War that followed. Of course, the battle for civil rights for people of color would continue bitterly for a century and is still playing out. 

America has weathered prejudice against Catholics, Jews, Italians, the Irish, Native Americans, Chinese laborers and Hispanic people. Some among those cultural or ethnic groups are still struggling. 

Immigration anger has a long history in America. Native Americans claim first dibs.

Today, we’re so burnt out with political controversy and being inundated with talk provided via electronics that we can barely muster chat about the weather if we run into someone we know. We fear veering into politics, lest a friendship be lost.

Paxton borrowed from the Bible to sum up Park and Patterson’s outcomes. Maybe he chose wisely.

“How unsearchable are God’s judgments, and his ways are past finding out.”

Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area, may be reached by e-mail at