Explore Johnson County History

Heritage of Johnson County

In the 19th century our nation grew and matured as it forged westward beyond the great Mississippi River into this Great American Desert. In this period, our country’s resources were being explored; trade and commerce were the engine of our nation’s expansion; and transportation of freight and supplies were an integral part it along the now historic frontier trails.

The heritage of the Johnson County region extends back to the native peoples who occupied this land prior to European exploration and settlement. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 opened the territories of Nebraska and Kansas for settlement and allowed for settlers the decision of popular sovereignty. By the mid-1800s men and women of vision, determination, and fortitude became part of a vast migration westward. In the early to mid-1800s, the Independence Route and Westport Route of the Santa Fe, Oregon, and California emigrant trails traversed through Johnson County. These trails were essentially a single trace along the various routes, with varying widths according to trail traffic, and trail conditions.

Before 1854, along a southern trail route from Independence, Missouri, traders, freighters, and pioneers crossed into Kansas Territory, leaving the State of Missouri (and the United States!) for the great southwest to Santa Fe, NM. This two-way trade route became a major trade-route between Mexico and the United States. Later settlements along this Independence Route through today’s southern Johnson County, KS include the cities of Leawood, Overland Park, Olathe, Gardner, and nearby Edgerton. From what became known as Gardner Junction, the trail divided. Travelers heading to Oregon Territory routed to the northwest, separating from the Trail between Independence and Santa Fe.

The advent of settlements along the north and south branches of the Westport Route reflect the development of our county. The north branch passed north of Rev. Thomas Johnson’s Shawnee Indian Mission, extending southwest through lands of what later became the communities of Fairway, Roeland Park, Mission, Shawnee, Lenexa, Olathe, Gardner, and Edgerton.

The south branch of the Westport Route crossed into Kansas territory from Missouri about 69th Terrace (today’s Nymph Island Park). Its route headed southwest through today’s Mission Hills, Leawood, and Harmon Park in Prairie Village, then intersecting with the North Branch just west of today’s Strang Park (in Overland Park, KS), near 88th and Farley Street.

Communities such as Gardner, Stillwell, Aubry, Springhill, De Soto, were born from the seeds cast from the historic frontier trails or the historic Ft. Leavenworth-Ft. Scott Military road.

Attributes of Johnson County, Kansas

Created in 1855 and organized in 1857, Johnson County, Kansas was one of the first 33 counties in State. Located adjacent to the twin cities of Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri, it contains 477 square miles, or 307,200 acres. Since the establishment by the Rev. Thomas Johnson of the Shawnee Methodist Mission and Indian Manual Labor School in 1839, our region has developed into a complex mixture of urban and rural areas. Today, as a center of diverse commerce, corporate business, with nationally recognized public and private school systems, premier residential communities, quality infrastructure and governance, Johnson County exhibits a proud heritage evident in its many independent preservation societies and museums.  This heritage is exhibited through its many historic resources, including:

  • Area museums and their many independent preservation societies and museums
  • Sites within Johnson County listed on the National Registry of Historic Places or the Kansas Registry of Historic Places.
  • Sites which, although not registered on either the National or State Registry, may be considered distinctive to the history and heritage of Johnson County.
  • Area cemeteries and burial sites which honor those who merely placed their hands upon our past or profoundly influenced the development of the Johnson County.
  • Landmark and champion trees whose profound growth may reflect the timeframe back to our county’s earliest roots.
  • Historic schools representing the highest value placed on personal and community development.
  • Historic maps of Johnson County depicting elements of a people, of its land, the development of its resources, and the formulation of a quality community grounded in faith, purpose, and education.

Our County’s historic names (including the County’s name itself):

  • the names of area municipalities
  • roadways
  • schools
  • postal districts
  • and many private businesses bear the names of a proud heritage nurtured through our county’s past.