History of Liberty

In the early 1800s, American settlers began to arrive in the Liberty area.

By 1822 the settlement had grown to become the County seat for Clay County. Incorporated in 1829, Liberty is the second oldest incorporated town west of the Mississippi River.
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The Liberty Landing was located along the Missouri River. During the 1830s, the Liberty Landing was one of several steamboat docks located along the Missouri River. As Liberty was the “jumping off” point for the frontier and westward expansionists, the Liberty Landing was a disembarking location for merchandise and early settlers for those coming from St. Louis and other points from the east. The steamboats would fire a cannon when they were several miles away from Liberty in order to give merchants and the town’s people time to reach the dock before the boat arrived. During this decade, as many as 5 “steamers” would move up the river daily and at least one would dock at the Liberty Landing. 

The Liberty Jail, built in 1833, is known for its most famous prisoner, Joseph Smith, first president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Later Day Saints. Mr. Smith and 6 of his followers were housed in the jail during the winter of 1839. From the late 1840s through the one860s, an exodus of more than 70,000 Mormons passed through on their way to their “New Zion” in Salt Lake City, Utah. 


William Jewell College, one of the oldest private colleges in Missouri, was founded in 1849 with a $10,000 donation from Dr. William Jewell of Columbia, Missouri. There was also the Liberty Female Institute (also known as the Liberty Ladies College) on the opposite side of town that provided a comparable education for women. 

The Clay County Savings Bank was the site of the first successful daylight bank robbery on February 13, 1866 - allegedly committed by the James-Younger Gang. 

The Interurban Railroad ran through Liberty, from Excelsior Springs to Kansas City, beginning in 1913 to 1933. Several trains stopped each day at the depot located on Mill Street. 

From 1943 to 1945 during World War II, a German prisoner of war camp was set up at a turkey farm. The prisoners stayed in turkey laying houses that were adapted for living quarters. Approximately 600 prisoners were housed in this location. The prisoners were transported to areas farms to work and produce crops for the local economy and war effort. 

In 2007, Liberty was designated a Preserve America community.The Preserve America program is a White House effort to encourage and support communities that preserve and promote America’s cultural and natural heritage.

Liberty today is home to 5 local historic districts, 7 districts and 7 individual properties on the National Register of Historic Places, a thriving downtown historic Square and surrounding area, 3 museums and many notable sites of interest.