Dr. David Waldo – Part 2: The Later Years

(originally published 5/7/20)

Last week introduced us to the colorful figure that is Dr. David Waldo, original owner of the property around 75th and Wornall, and the man whose name was adopted for the community in that area. Having established himself financially and professionally in the eastern part of Missouri in his twenties, he moved to Jackson County and started learning the freighting business accompanying his mentor, Samuel Owens, on trips to Santa Fe.

The center of modern day Waldo is noted by a star. Waldo’s land was ideally suited for its proximity to Independence and the edge of the frontier. When Westport rose to prominence some ten years later, the Waldo homestead was well located to that as well.

In the mid-1830s, about midway into the preeminent years of David Waldo’s career, internal conflicts between the Mexican government and its provinces began to make freighting along the Santa Fe Trail increasingly dangerous. The uncertainty along the trail caused David Waldo to focus his attentions on other aspects of his growing business, in particular on his Jackson County land holdings. In 1841, David Waldo purchased the land that is today part of the Waldo community. The greatest contiguous acreage constitutes much of what today lies between Wornall Road and Troost Avenue, north of 75th Street. At one thousand acres, it was the largest of Waldo’s holdings throughout Jackson County. He built a house and barn and convinced another brother, Lawrence, to manage his Mexican mules on the farm. Waldo also planted a grove of walnut trees that were for many years the only cluster of trees on the open prairie. It was no doubt a nice little farm, but David Waldo was no farmer, and his interests in it were purely to support his other operations. As it turned out, his brother Lawrence shared David’s disdain for farming and his love of adventure. Shortly after taking over the mule operation, Lawrence Waldo turned it over to his wife so that he could join brothers David and William in the freight operation business.

This engraving of Bent’s Fort is taken from an 1850 account of “Doniphan’s Expedition,” of which Waldo was a member as was the book’s author, John T. Hughes.

His brothers proved more than capable as freighters, so when the United States went to war with Mexico in 1846, David Waldo was able to be a part of the fight. By this time, he was forty-four years old and no longer a young man, but he felt compelled to join in. After all, he was a patriot with strong business interests at both ends of the conflict. The United States Army recognized the value of Waldo’s personal experiences in Mexico. He was made a captain in the Missouri Mounted Volunteers. On June 22, 1846, Waldo’s regiment departed from Fort Leavenworth under the command of Colonel Alexander Doniphan as part of the famed “Kearney’s Army of the West.” The soldiers reached Santa Fe unscathed. Upon arrival in Santa Fe, the U.S. Army declared New Mexico to be a territory, and Waldo was on hand to witness his old friend Charlie Bent sworn in as the territory’s first governor. In the two years of the war, David Waldo saw only one major conflict, in which his reputation as a fearless fighter was reaffirmed. The writer and historian Rudolph Umland attributed Waldo with this famous quote made during that battle, which seems to sum up both Waldo’s fearlessness and pragmatism: “Shoot low! Shoot low, boys! If you break one man’s leg, it will take two men to carry him off!”

When the war with Mexico ended in 1848, David Waldo moved dramatically away from the life he had lived for so long. He kept his trade business but favored a less speculative government contract, under the name Waldo & Company, to ship supplies for the army. The world was changing, and adventure had taken its toll. Only four months after his appointment as governor, Waldo’s friend Charlie Bent was ambushed in his home in New Mexico and murdered by rebels. Tragically, a few days later, Waldo’s brother Lawrence was killed in a fight with Mexican revolutionists over the caravan he was leading. Now Waldo had Lawrence’s young family who needed his financial support.

Shortly thereafter, Waldo had his own family to support. On March 27, 1849, at the age of forty-seven, David Waldo married for the first time in his life. The bride was Eliza Norris of Independence, twenty years his junior, and the daughter of a prominent local family. In a few short years, the Waldos were the parents of five children. The change seems to have domesticated David Waldo. Visitors to their house recount the elegant decorations in their home at what is today 1018 West Waldo Avenue in Independence, Missouri. In those years, Waldo led a gentrified life. He read and translated Spanish, Greek and Latin (all self-taught). He remained current on all events and politics of the day and was a favorite of Independence society, always with something to offer any conversation. He was well known to drive about town in a fine carriage pulled by two black mules, and Waldo proudly declared himself a “mule man” after all his days on the Santa Fe Trail. He remained active in business, mostly managing his assets and dabbling in a little trade, and he expanded his government contract work the same year as his marriage. Through a partnership that included Kansas City founding father William McCoy, the stagecoaches of Waldo, Hall & Company carried passengers and mail deliveries across the Indian territories between 1850 and 1854.

In this only known photo of Dr. David Waldo, taken near the end of his life, it’s not hard to guess the rough frontier life and the hardships of age. Waldo died in 1878. Courtesy Jackson Co. Historical Society

The Civil War years took their toll on David Waldo. Like many of his Missouri contemporaries, he was that curious combination of a slaveholder who seemed to have Unionist sympathies. As a result, he was neither side’s friend, and the conflicts associated with both the guerrilla actions of the “border war” and the subsequent Battle of Westport left much of his property decimated. In his account of the life of David Waldo, Rudolph Umland notes that the doctor’s enterprises suffered heavily during the war years and that “marauding bands of guerillas drove off his horses, destroyed his fences, burned his buildings” to such an extent that the war is considered by some historians to be one of the major contributors to David Waldo’s later mental decline. After the war, his behavior was variously described as “eccentric” and “depressed.” He was inclined to fits of insomnia, of disorientation and memory loss, and he may have suffered from dementia. In the late 1860s, he was admitted to an asylum. After years of taking morphine to help him sleep, he died of an overdose of the opiate in 1878, at the age of seventy-six.

His unfortunate end did not diminish David Waldo’s reputation in the community, nor did it lessen the unending affections of his family. Years later, writing for the Jackson County Historical Society, his grandson Waldo Douglas Sloan recounted how his mother, Lula Waldo Sloan, remembered her father.

“His mental faculties were marked by great strength, breadth and quickness; his heart, like his intellect, was large, vivid and keenly sensitive; his imagination far-reaching and brilliant. Over these splendid powers there reigned a will so strong that he could command his strongest emotions to remain unseen in the secret recesses of his soul and allow himself to execute his business enterprises without their interferences. He was a constant reader, genial and social, and of sunny nature. A grand, noble man; an earnest Christian.”

(Feature Photo: 1855 illustration of the Independence Courthouse by artist Charles Dana.)

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