Dr. David Waldo – Part 1: The Early Years

(originally published 4/30/20)

The one thousand acres that Dr. David Waldo purchased in 1841 might have been any one other thousand acres in the area. Had anyone else bought it, the area obviously would not be known today as “Waldo,” a unique corner of Kansas City’s urban landscape. But location was central to Waldo’s objectives. He wanted property he could use in his new Santa Fe Trail freighting operation, both close to the trail system that ran through the area, and to the border Missouri shared with Indian Territory in modern-day Kansas. When he purchased the property – north and east of the current intersection of 75th Street and Wornall Road – he had no plan to start a community that would bear his name. But in the space of one generation, Waldo’s instinct about the property would prove true.

I shared the story of David Waldo in The Waldo Story not just because his was the enterprise that fostered that area. I have read a great deal about the American west, and one would be hard pressed to find a more fascinating character of remarkable talents who played a part in many events of his day. Yet outside the Kansas City area, he remains virtually unknown. Perhaps if I share this story often enough, that might change. So in the next two posts I’m reprinting the story as it was originally published (with minor modifications), and maybe Dr. Waldo’s story will be shared a little wider.

The only known photograph of Dr. David Waldo, likely from the late 1860s or early 1870s. Courtesy of the Jackson County Historical Society.

David Waldo was born April 3, 1802, in Clarksburg, West Virginia, on authority of an article written by his grandson, Waldo Douglas Sloan, for the Jackson County Historical Society in 1968.

Other sources have attributed Waldo’s birthplace to Virginia. Whatever his birthplace, Waldo only spent his first eighteen years outside Missouri. In 1820, he moved to Gasconade County. Why he chose Gasconade isn’t known, but in hindsight, it is easy to see what may have attracted him to the place. Still, Waldo displayed remarkable insight, particularly for his young years. Insight would be a distinguishing characteristic for him throughout his life.

“Scene on the Missouri River” taken from an unknown geography book published in 1872 showing a raft of logs in the lower right hand corner with sleeping and supply quarters and small boat riding along. The Big Piney and Gasconade River rafts would have been smaller. Courtesy of Mike Dickey, Missouri Dept. of Natural Resources, Arrow Rock Historic Site.

Missouri was about to be designated a state then, and Gasconade was one of the first counties established when that happened. The Missouri River, with all its riverboat traffic moving goods to and from St. Louis, was the county’s northern border. Its interior was filled with woodlands ripe for the cutting, and the Gasconade River made it easy to move the wood to trade. Young David Waldo made what some considered later a small fortune off the timber, helped in part by his brothers who had joined him in Missouri. [Note: Post-publication research reports the Waldo Brothers were one of several groups that also operated a distillery along the Big Piney River just south of Gasconade.] The money he made was certainly sufficient to invest in his future, to position himself for more and better opportunities. This, too, would be a lifelong trait.

In 1821, Waldo took his earnings and traveled to Lexington, Kentucky, to attend medical school at Transylvania College. Academic requirements being considerably less than present-day, Waldo earned his medical degree in one year and returned to Gasconade as Dr. David Waldo. Now he had a profession. He also had an instinct for civic interests, another recurring attribute. As a man of education now, he quickly became involved in the local business and political communities. In a short time, he held a number of influential and strategic positions—postmaster, county assessor, county treasurer, circuit court clerk, justice of the peace and deputy sheriff, among them. In his spare time, he practiced medicine. One account of this period recounts that Waldo became known locally as “governor of Gasconade.” He accomplished all this by the age of twenty-six.

Daguerreotype of Samuel Owens, Waldo’s mentor

He could have easily and successfully lived out the rest of his life in Gasconade. But he wouldn’t have been content. The same instinct for budding opportunity that had first drawn him to Missouri drew his attention farther and farther west, as the years went by. In 1828, at the invitation of a friend and business acquaintance, Waldo traveled up river to Independence, Missouri. David Waldo’s host, Samuel C. Owens, was himself already making a fortune in the Santa Fe trade, but Owens’s view of the world was larger than Missouri. He shipped merchandise not just between Mexico and Missouri, but also all the way to the industrial east. He is considered by some to be the “first citizen” of Independence. He believed that Independence would be the next, and perhaps last, great eastern trail station. Owens was in the business of convincing others that this was so. His success was dependent on it, as he was heavily invested in the area. He recognized that a man of David Waldo’s ingenuity and enterprise would be a welcome asset to the area.

David Waldo, interested as he was in new opportunities, was easily persuaded by Owens. He moved to Independence and began buying property around Jackson County. He made his home in Independence, but there was scarcely a township in Jackson County where David Waldo did not own land. Over the course of his life, there would be many purchases and sales of property. But the property some four miles south of Westport would be among his largest contiguous holdings and where he put the most effort.

Samuel Owens also enticed Waldo into traveling with him on a trade expedition to Santa Fe, then still a part of Mexico. For a man of Waldo’s inquisitive nature and entrepreneurial leanings, the invitation would have seemed the chance of his young life. The trip proved as much adventure as opportunity. Their first journey south introduced Waldo to some of the most important and colorful characters of the early days of the frontier. Some are lesser known but critical in their influence, such as Ceran St. Vrain, one of the leading fur traders of the day, based in St. Louis. On that first trip, Waldo and St. Vrain formed a partnership for a freighting expedition. That partnership made St. Vrain and Waldo a nice profit.

By the next year, Waldo had enlisted brother William to leave Gasconade County and join him again, this time shipping goods in from St. Louis. The Waldo brothers would lead the train to Santa Fe themselves. They took seventy men and thirty-seven wagons. Their captain was Charles Bent, who, with Bent’s brother William and St. Vrain, had established Bent’s Fort in modern-day southeast Colorado. Bent was another major figure of the west in those days. In his future, Charles Bent would be named the first governor of territorial New Mexico.

Basic Santa Fe Trail routes – the Cimarron (southern) and the Mountain.

In these and various other partnerships, Waldo and his partners would hire trappers, teamsters and guides, among them the legendary Kit Carson and his brother Moses. Also during this period, Waldo became friends with Josiah Gregg, whose 1844 publication on the Santa Fe Trail, The Commerce of the Prairies, was so widely circulated that it became the most influential resource for promoting westward expansion. In the book, Gregg attributes David Waldo as a primary source of true and critical information on trade with Mexico.

From his late twenties to his mid-forties, David Waldo led an exhilarating life. When at home in Independence, he was an active and prominent citizen, thoroughly well-respected and sought-after as a business partner. With his professional degree and the reputation of his considerable civic history in Gasconade, the citizenry of Independence considered him among its most important and educated residents.

On the trail, he had another persona altogether. There, Waldo was part teamster, part fighter. By doing the work himself, Waldo learned what sold and what didn’t, and he learned how to organize a successful convoy of men and goods. He trucked household goods to Mexico and brought back Mexico’s resources in the form of furs, minerals and livestock, particularly mules. He encountered trouble with Indians almost from the start. On its first trip with Bent, the Waldo party was attacked shortly after crossing into government territory. One of the teamsters was killed, though the goods had been what they were after. For the next month on the trail, the harassment continued, and Waldo and Bent repeatedly had to fight off their attackers. Through the years, they are said to have both earned reputations as fearless men who never backed down from a fight.

In Mexico, Waldo had yet another reputation. There, in his dealings with other traders, he was clever and strategic. Bargains were struck at the Mexican end of the trail, as well as up north. Here, too, his reputation as a fair man made him a popular business partner. But there was a political climate to consider in Mexico. So David Waldo became a Mexican citizen, on paper at least. It afforded him a few advantages, not the least of which was his apparent commitment to both ends of the trail. He also practiced medicine a bit in Mexico and is considered to have been the first doctor to practice in Taos. In Santa Fe, he opened stores and banks. He was a solid member of the Santa Fe and Taos communities.


Next time we’ll follow Dr. Waldo as he purchases the property which will one day bear his name, and “settles in” to life off the trail, even as he becomes one of the trail’s most prosperous freighters.

(Featured Photo: Engraving from the original 1844 edition of Josiah Gregg’s Commerce of the Prairies, the first published account of life on the Santa Fe Trail. Gregg acknowledge David Waldo’s contributions to his work.)

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