The Wyandot tribe called it “big water.”
Middle of June 1844. Six years before the Town of Kansas was chartered, a flood at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers created a raging inland lake 14 feet deep, washing away a smattering of dwellings.
Now one could argue that Kansas City owes its commercial existence to this natural disaster. At the larger town of Independence, the flood heaved sandbars over a port where travelers docked. So riverboat pilots ventured upstream to the big bend below the bluffs of present-day Kansas City.
There they unloaded goods and passengers at a rocky landing that held up to the waters’ wrath, a few miles north of Westport.
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While the flood proved fortunate for white settlers who saw a trading center in their future, it decimated the Wyandot tribe — a community of 700 recent arrivals from Sandusky, Ohio.
They had ventured 800 miles the previous summer under terms of a “removal” agreement with the federal government. Upon arriving here, only the most prominent of the tribe were able to settle on high ground in Westport. The others were relegated to a narrow, government-owned strip of West Bottoms flood plain.
Little was recorded at the time of the Wyandots’ encounter with the big rain. But big rain it was. Twenty inches fell at Fort Leavenworth in the weeks leading up to the flood.
Where the Kansas River deposited into the Missouri, water climbed to astronomical levels — three feet higher than the flood that inundated Union Depot in 1903. Only the Great Flood of 1993 brought levels at Kansas City higher, and that was after levees and channeling work had narrowed the Missouri’s width by as much as two thirds.
Perhaps W.H. Miller embellished a bit in his 1881 account, recalling rescuers in a boat paddling to a refugee Miller called “poor old Tromley, who they found perched in a tree.”
“…Soon afterwards, the hundreds gathered on the hillsides saw old Tromley’s house, with his favorite dog perched upon its top, passing rapidly down in mid current.”
Floodwaters carried disease, too.
Cholera and typhoid fever spread as the rivers receded. One Kansas chronicler, A.T. Andreas, wrote almost two decades after the disaster that “overflowed vegetable matter decomposing caused much sickness among the Wyandots, and by the 1st of November, one-hundred of them were dead. …
“The species of sickness which prevailed the most and made the most havoc in the (tribal) nation were chills and fever, and bloody flux,” a term for dysentery.
The dead are thought to be resting in mostly unmarked graves on the crest of a hill in present-day Kansas City, Kan. The Wyandot tribe had just purchased parts of the burial ground when the flood hit.
Strolling now through the Huron Indian Cemetery at Ann and Seventh streets, a visitor doesn’t learn much about the disaster. But headstones speak to something horrific claiming the tribe in their early years in the area, as identified by surveyors decades later.
“200 unmarked graves in this area,” one marker reads.
Nearby two side-by-side markers identify Mary A. and Martha Driver. They survived the 1844 flood but perished later that summer, two weeks apart.
They were 13 and 11.