Founded in 1822 and named for the principle that Americans hold most dear, Historic Downtown Liberty, Missouri exudes an ambiance of yesteryear balanced on the edge of an exciting, vibrant future. The first settlers arrived in the Liberty area in 1819, attracted by an excellent water supply, well-timbered hills and proximity to the Missouri River, the early transportation route of U.S. westward expansion. The town was chosen as the seat of Clay County in 1822. Liberty incorporated as a city in 1829 and is the second oldest incorporated town west of the Mississippi River.
In October 1838, Governor Lilburn Boggs ordered the arrest of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith Jr. at the far west settlement in Caldwell County. Immediately after the conclusion of the Mormon War, Smith and other Mormon leaders were incarcerated at the Liberty jail for the winter as Doniphan labored for a quicker trial date. Although Doniphan led a force of Missouri volunteers ordered to capture the leaders, he defended Joseph Smith in trial and won him a change in venue. While en route to their new venue, Smith and his followers escaped and left Missouri for the new Mormon settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois.
Atchison relocated to Plattsburg in Clinton County, as Doniphan continued to make his name in Liberty. Doniphan would join a company of Clay County men and command the 1st Missouri Mounted Volunteers Regiment during the Mexican-American War. The wartime fervor was covered by the Liberty Tribune, founded in April 1846. In 1849, Liberty became the home of William Jewell College. During the Civil War, sympathies for the Confederacy were prevalent in Liberty. In the 1860 presidential election, no votes in Clay County went to Abraham Lincoln.
A few days after the firing on Fort Sumter, a Confederate mob seized the Liberty arsenal disrupting Missouri’s plans to remain with the Union but neutral. The seizure, which was the first skirmish in the state during the war, eventually led to the eviction of Missouri’s elected governor and has sometimes been called “Missouri’s Fort Sumter.”
In September 1861, in the Battle of Liberty, Union troops unsuccessfully attempted to stop Confederate sympathizers led by Atchison from crossing the Missouri River to reinforce Confederate position in the First Battle of Lexington. There were 126 casualties. The Union army used William Jewell College as a hospital and buried their dead on campus.
Liberty was to also see action in the August 1862 siege of Independence. Southern sentiment remained in the city long after the Civil War -city hall reportedly refused to fly the United States flag until the start of World War I. Liberty was the site of the first daytime bank robbery in the United States during peacetime, on February 13, 1866 at the Clay County Savings Association. Former Confederate guerrillas were responsible. Consensus is that Arch Clement was the leader of the gang.
Education opportunities grew in the latter half of the 19th century. Liberty High School was chartered in 1890. That same year, Liberty Ladies College opened on a hill due west of Jewell. The school burned down in 1913, resulting in its merger with Jewell. Liberty also housed many privately owned boarding schools.
Also in 1913, Liberty was connected to Kansas City by way of the Interurban Rail system. Transportation links between the growing metropolis and Liberty increased with the addition of State Route 10 in 1922 and its conversion to U.S. Route 69 in 1926. The electric railway ceased operations in 1933. The addition of Interstate 35 in the 1960s along portions of US 69 brought new expansion to Liberty, creating car-filled suburban neighborhoods oriented toward Kansas City. In 1943, German and Italian prisoners of World War II were brought to Missouri and other Midwest states as a means of solving the labor shortage caused by American men serving in the war effort. Camp Funston at Fort Riley established 12 smaller branch camps, including Liberty.
William Jewell College was the NFL Training Camp for the Kansas City Chiefs until 1991.