Six decades ago, as construction crews began developing swaths of a Kansas City meadow near the Blue River, a man concerned about the impact on history began showing up with a metal detector.
Beginning in 1952 and continuing sporadically over the next 11 years, John Adams Jr. dug up dozens of items that Union and Confederate soldiers had deposited during the October 1864 Battle of Westport.
He found belt buckles, revolvers, bayonets, unexploded artillery shells — even a carved bullet that may have been used as a chess piece. Often he arrived after big rains, in case rushing water had revealed something previously hidden. And whenever new construction commenced, he asked permission to look around.
Today, many national battlefield preservationists frown mightily on such artifact hunting.
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But local Civil War students are thankful for the work of Adams, whose relatives had farmed the battlefield area before and after the war. Because of Adams, a collection of authentic debris from arguably Kansas City’s most significant Civil War moment survives.
Visitors to the Battle of Westport Visitors Center and Museum in Swope Park during the battle’s 150th anniversary commemoration, which begins Thursday, can see what Adams saved. About 75 artifacts that he culled from the area now known as the Byram’s Ford Big Blue Battlefield will be on exhibit.
The collection, which commemoration organizers learned about only recently, represents a quantum leap in the known universe of Battle of Westport relics. And because some of the pieces are distinctive, they can be matched to units that fought in the battle.
And for perspective on the collection’s size, consider that a two-day archaeological survey of a section of the site in 1996 yielded only two artifacts: a button from a Union coat and a fired .57 caliber Enfield bullet often associated with Confederate soldiers.
Adams, a Missouri Department of Conservation agent, held onto his Civil War finds for decades. When his health soured a couple of years ago, he sought a way to preserve the collection. He talked Mike George, a northwest Missouri farmer and collector of historical artifacts, into buying it for $400 not long before Adams’ death in 2012.
“To me it was just a bunch of rusted things,” George recalled recently. “He said, ‘I want somebody who will appreciate it and not sell it.’
“He was a good friend and finally I said, ‘John, I’ll do it, but only because it is you.’”
Although George wasn’t an expert on the conflict, he knew its basics.
A sprawling action, the battle occurred over three days. It started east of Independence and progressed along the Blue River and into what is now Loose Park, near Brush Creek, before turning south. The approximately 29,000 soldiers involved made it the biggest Civil War battle west of the Mississippi River. When the Union prevailed, any hope of a significant Confederate presence in Missouri ended.
Earlier this year, with the battle’s anniversary approaching, George decided to exhibit some of Adams’ artifacts at the Remington Nature Center in St. Joseph, a wildlife and history museum where his daughter Andrea George serves as manager.
Seeking reliable information about the battle that he could display, George tracked down Daniel Smith, a Kansas City area trial lawyer who serves as chairman of the Monnett Battle of Westport Fund, a nonprofit group devoted to preserving Kansas City’s Civil War legacy. The fund has preserved and conveyed many of the approximately 40 acres of the Byram’s Ford Big Blue Battlefield district to the public domain. The area stands just north of East 63rd Street Trafficway and just west of the Blue River.
When George and Smith’s phone discussion on the battle transitioned to George’s artifacts, Smith felt skeptical but intrigued. The Monnett Fund had obtained only a modest collection of Battle of Westport artifacts.
Smith drove up to the nature center, where George had the artifacts arranged on tables.
George mentioned his friend, John Adams.
“Adams?” Smith repeated, suddenly very interested.
Smith had researched the Adams family for years.
William Adams and his family had come from Virginia to Jackson County in 1853 and purchased 276 acres from brothers named Byram. The property stood near a crossing, or ford, of the Big Blue River. Byram’s Ford.
Then the war arrived. The Adams family had to flee Jackson County because of an evacuation order, General Order No. 11, that Union Brig. Gen. Thomas Ewing Jr. issued in 1863 in an effort to remove local support for guerrillas who sympathized with the Confederacy. The Adams family would not return to the Byram’s Ford property until 1870.
When George started talking about Adams, Smith’s skepticism of his collection vanished.
George showed Smith a bullet used in a firearm manufactured by the Maynard Arms Co. Not many Maynard weapons were used west of the Mississippi River during the Civil War.
“But the 7th Indiana Cavalry, which was at Byram’s Ford on Oct. 23, carried them,” Smith said.
George showed Smith two Hotchkiss shells, the type fired by guns used by the 2nd Missouri Light Artillery, a Union outfit.
“The shells would have been fired from the east bluff above Byram’s Ford across the flood plain and onto the west side,” Smith said.
The Monnett Fund only owns a reproduction of such a shell. But here were two authentic examples, both still intact because neither had exploded.
“It was a eureka moment for me,” Smith said. “I was absolutely floored.”
George also showed Smith perhaps his most evocative artifact — a French-made revolver that had been found not in the ground but in an interior wall of an Adams family barn in the late 19th century.
As Adams had told George the story, family members discovered it wrapped in a gray jacket. Rodents had shredded the coat and chewed away the gun’s grips.
Family members handed the gun down through the decades, with John Adams Jr. receiving it last. As the gun is of French manufacture, George believes it belonged to a Confederate soldier. Rebel troops often used equipment supplied by European arms companies.
Adams family members stumbled across many artifacts over the years and repurposed some of them. They turned an old cannon ball into a door stop, for example.
But the French gun became a prized family heirloom.
“If the gun had been hidden, why had it been hidden?” George asked. “Did a wounded infantryman remove his coat and wrap up his revolver in there for later?”
Another item in particular — a cavalry horse bridle bit — suggests the enmity between the opposing sides, George said.
George handed it to Smith and asked: “Do you know what you have?”
Union horse bridle bits had small rosettes, one on each side, George explained. But someone had pried the rosettes off this bridle.
“A Confederate cavalry soldier had needed a bridle and had picked that up off the battlefield, but he was not going to put a U.S. bridle bit in his Confederate horse’s mouth,” George said.
Adams searched his family’s old homestead for artifacts well into the 1960s. But as the industrial park’s asphalt and concrete covered more of its old acreage, he found fewer.
Today, due to the preservation work pursued by Monnett Fund members and others, the Byram’s Ford Big Blue Battlefield is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Anniversary activities scheduled for the district include bus tours, a skirmish among re-enactors and a barbecue dinner during which patrons can mingle with civilian and military re-enactors. That will be held on a portion of the same meadow poked and prodded by Adams at least 50 years ago.
“I know John would be thrilled, absolutely ecstatic, knowing that his materials were being displayed at the same location where he found them originally,” George said.
The artifacts collected by John Adams Jr. from the Byram’s Ford Big Blue Battlefield will be on display at the Battle of Westport Visitor Center and Museum at 6601 Swope Parkway during the 150th anniversary commemoration that begins Thursday and runs through Sunday. Tours, lectures and living history presentations are scheduled at Loose Park, Swope Park and other sites. For a full schedule, visit battleofwestport150.org.