Explore Johnson County History

The History and Heritage of Johnson County

The history of the Johnson County region extends back to the native peoples who occupied this land prior to European exploration and settlement.

The first experience Johnson County had with westward expansion was the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821 from Franklin, Missouri to the great southwest in Santa Fe N.M. that passed through Johnson County. Soon, Independence and Westport were founded along those two routes which were the two-way Santa Fe Trail between Mexico and the United States.

In the 19th century our nation grew and matured as its people forged westward beyond the great Mississippi River into the 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 activity along the now historic frontier trails.

By the 1840s men and women of vision, determination, and fortitude became part of a vast migration westward.  The Independence Route and Westport Route of the Santa Fe, Oregon, and California emigrant trails traversed through Johnson County, with the Oregon and California Trails veering to the northwest from Gardner Junction. These trails were essentially a single trace along the various routes, with varying widths according to trail traffic, and trail conditions.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 opened the territories of Kansas and Nebraska for settlement and allowed for settlers the decision of popular sovereignty.

Later settlements along the Independence Route through today’s southern Johnson County, KS included the cities of Leawood, Overland Park, Olathe and Gardner.

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  Roeland Park, Mission, Overland Park, Lenexa, Olathe, and Gardner.

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

Communities such as Gardner, Stillwell, Aubry, Springhill, De Soto, were not necessarily on the trails but 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 Kansas. 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) are preserved by 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.