Weston's Historic Past
The land upon which Weston was established was part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Members of the Lewis & Clark expedition, called The Corps of Discovery, visited the Weston Area as they explored the Louisiana Territory in 1804. A marker located at the end of Main Street, near the Weston Depot, commemorates their campsite. The Depot, built in 1922, is now home to Weston City Hall and is located in what was once the Missouri River channel.
Lewis and Clark reported that the area was beautiful with fertile soil and a diverse landscape full of plant and animal life. Their glowing reports of the area prompted fur-trading companies to send traders and trappers.
After the Platte Purchase of 1836, 2 million acres were opened for settlement by pioneers. The call went out... "Land in Northwest Missouri, access to river traffic, fertile soil and beautiful landscape." In 1837 Joseph Moore, a discharged Dragoon soldier from Fort Leavenworth, ferried across the Mighty Missouri and took up claim, building a cabin on land that became the city of Weston. It was rumored Moore traded a barrel of whiskey to a trapper named McPherson for the parcel of land.
Unable to successfully carry out his plan for the town, Moore sold a half interest of his claim to Bela Hughes, a young lawyer from Kentucky. Hughes used his influence to attract the most promising settlers, including a significant number of German and French decent, who came by wagons and steamboats from Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and Virginia. He surveyed the town to divide into lots, providing quitclaim deeds to be held until the plat filing. The town was built in the valley created by hills on the bluffs of the Missouri River and as the first city founded in the six county Platte Purchase area, became know as "Queen of the Platte."
Word of Weston's success spread quickly. From all directions came doctors, lawyers, and zealous land speculators. A prominent German influence turned the downtown area into a profitable retail outlet supplying the surrounding countryside. During the early days at Fort Leavenworth, the United States government relied on Weston to accommodate the needs of the Fort. Officers, enlisted men, and their families also ferried across the river for their personal trading and entertainment.
The Southern hemp and tobacco growers poured into the newly acquired land to farm the fertile soil. Many were wealthy slave holding families, others poor farmers seeking a better life in a new territory. Hemp, the main cash crop, was very difficult work, profitable only with slave labor; so by 1875 hemp was no longer produced in Platte County.
Though not as important as hemp in the early days, through the years tobacco has become a very important cash crop for Weston and Platte County. The annual tobacco yield in Platte County prior to 1861 was 25 million pounds and Weston developed the only tobacco market west of the Mississippi until 2001. It's annual auction from November to January brought in millions of dollars. Today about 2.8 million pounds of tobacco is grown annually in Platte County, however it is now contracted to tobacco companies, or shipped to markets in the South. When you visit Weston in the fall, you still see the familiar large tobacco barns amidst the leafy fields.
The farthest "West Town" in the United States, Weston's heyday was between its founding in 1837 and 1860. A bustling town for people heading west, it was the last place wagon trains could stock up before they crossed the Missouri River and entered wilderness. The steamboats unloaded supplies for Fort Leavenworth and supplies for Westward travelers, and then loaded back up with Weston products of tobacco, hemp ropes, hides, and later lumber, whiskey, and fruit as they headed home. A chain of destructive events would bring change and devastation to the Weston area. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 made Missouri a slave state and led to years of strife between the abolitionists from Kansas just across the river and the Weston planters, who came from the South. By the 1850's the slavery issue had brought increased tension and unrest to the Missouri-Kansas border and the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 sparked even further unrest between the residents. It actually served to repeal the Missouri comprise of 1820. Demonstration and conflict on the streets of Weston were frequent.
In 1855, fire nearly destroyed the downtown business district. A deadly cholera epidemic took the lives of hundreds of residents. The flood of 1858 crippled the steamboat trade for months and destroyed the port to Weston. The Civil War tore Weston apart, dividing its residents and ending its slaved-based economy. By 1870 the population was only 900 people. In 1881 the fickle river dealt what many believed would be a deathblow when it flooded and slipped into an old channel 2 miles west, leaving Weston behind.
But Weston persevered and some say Weston is better off. Certainly continued growth would have doomed its collection of antebellum and Victorian buildings. In the late 1950's, an appreciation of the rich heritage of Weston surfaced. The Weston Historical Museum was founded in 1960 and many of the more than 100 antebellum homes began to be restored to their original condition. In 1972, given Weston's history as a significant mid-nineteenth century Missouri River port community, along with the preservation of a substantial portion of its early residences and commercial structures, 22 blocks within the city, with more than100 buildings qualifying, it was designated as an historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1982 the Weston Development Company, a non-for-profit association, was formed to spearhead the redevelopment of the downtown business district.
Today family traditions left behind by Weston's early pioneers have remained a common thread among the residents of this romantic hamlet in Northwest Missouri. New houses are being built and old ones lovingly restored. The downtown and uptown business areas are thriving. The town and region look forward to sustained, orderly growth that makes it possible to retain the feel of a small town.
Photographs Courtesy of Weston Historical Museum. Excerpts from the book Memories of Weston, Volume 11, available at the Weston Historical Museum.