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Courtesy of State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia
David Waldo, a Santa Fe Trail trader and Southern Bank of St. Louis branch owner, saved his customers’ assets from both Confederate and Union intentions by hiding the money down wells.
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Courtesy of BJ Alderman
Waldo buildingThe Waldo Grain Company, currently located at 78th and Wornall, has been a thriving business in Waldo since 1916. This obelisk, marking the heart of Waldo Junction at 75th and Wornall, is located next to Kansas City’s newest fountain, dedicated in 2007.
Dr. David Waldo, an inventive Missouri trader and banker
In 1828, seven years after the first traders led by Missourian William Becknell trekked from Howard County along what would become known as the Santa Fe Trail, Dr. David Waldo moseyed that way to see what there was to see. At twenty-six years old, he’d already done more than most men had done in their entire lives. Inspired by what he found, he returned to Gasconade County and took up the life of a trader.
Despite his medical education in Kentucky, he made a vast fortune over the next twenty years from trading with Mexico, shipping freight for the United States Army to their forts in the southwest, and carrying the mail. In 1849 he married a woman twenty years his junior, and they raised five children in Independence. Having amassed a large land holding south of Westport in Jackson County years before, it was early in his married life that he turned his attention to acquiring more property all over the state.
During that same time period, Missouri banking consisted of a few private banks and only one charter bank at St. Louis with eight branches strung along the Missouri River. The banking system was used mainly by planters in Little Dixie, the part of Missouri with large slaveholdings, huge plantations producing hemp and tobacco, and cash from international trade. It wasn’t until the 1857 Missouri banking act was enacted that the rules changed to allow eight new banks to spring into existence. One was the Southern Bank of St. Louis, headquartered at St. Louis. It had only one branch, located at St. Charles, until Waldo decided to open a branch across the state at Independence.
Three years later, the political situation boiled over in the Show-Me State as slavery tensions erupted into civil war. Governor Claiborne Jackson, who’d served as Missouri’s first banking commissioner when the Missouri Banking Act went into effect, held an unyielding conviction that Missouri would come into the fight on the Confederate side. However, Missouri was the only state in the union to hold a secession vote that failed. That didn’t stop Jackson.
Jackson ordered the state’s private and charter banks to deposit their holdings into branch banks from where the funds would eventually end up in Jefferson Davis’s treasury. Because martial law shut down St. Louis before the southern-sympathizing bankers could comply, “the St. Louis banks were too closely watched to do anything underhanded,” according to researcher Mark Geiger in his University of Missouri-Columbia doctoral dissertation, Missouri’s Hidden Civil War: Financial Conspiracy and the Decline of the Planter Elite, 1861-1865. But the branch banks outside of St. Louis remained beyond the control of Federal troops for a time. Their assets disappeared into Confederate coffers irrespective of depositors’ political leanings and without their approval—but not those of Waldo’s Independence branch.
Dave Waldo owned slaves. He was born in Virginia. His bank was a branch of Southern Bank of St. Louis, with emphasis on “Southern.” But Waldo didn’t see the war the same way as other Missouri bankers. He hadn’t made his fortune on a plantation with ties to the Southern economy. Waldo resisted the instructions to fund the Confederates and hatched a plan.
It isn’t known how long it took to bag all of the currency in Waldo’s bank. It is known that he acquired a dress and bonnet that fit him. He tied as many bags of money under that dress as he could carry, and in the dead of night he made several trips from Independence, beyond Westport, to the thousand acres he owned along the Missouri and Kansas border. Who chaperoned this “lady” on such unusual drives in the country is unknown, but Waldo’s escort helped Waldo hang those bags in his wells for safekeeping. There the money hung until it was safe to bring it back to Independence after fighting subsided in Missouri, wrote Waldo Douglas Sloan, Waldo’s grandson, in a Jackson County Historical Society article that came out in 1968.
Waldo signed an oath of loyalty to the Federal government. When Union troops finally arrived at Independence, they set up headquarters at Waldo’s bank. The town changed hands from time to time, but not even William Quantrill, the leader of Quantrill’s Raiders, could get his hands on the bank’s assets, though he tried.
Three years passed and late October 1864 proved to be abnormally hot. The first day of the Battle of Westport took place around what is now Loose Park in Kansas City. The Confederates, led by Missouri’s former governor Sterling Price of Chariton County, fought ferociously but couldn’t break the Union troops.
Because of the relentless fighting and unseasonable heat, troops from both sides fought each other like madmen for the water in the well at the home of Waldo’s friend, William Bent, who had also made his fortune on the Santa Fe Trail. Price ordered a fighting retreat that spilled across the northern section of Waldo’s land—the land with all those wells and all that treasure in them. But fate intervened and saved that treasure for its rightful owners, Sloan said.
General Price, encumbered by five hundred supply wagons, could not continue to drop directly south through Waldo’s land because the Big Blue River cut off his escape. At what is now 63rd Street, the Rebel army turned east in search of a ford across the Big Blue that could accommodate Price’s wagons. Fighting constantly as the retreat took place, the troops dropped south again to cross the Big Blue at Byram’s Ford and eventually made it safely out of the state.
After the battles of Westport and Wilson’s Creek, Waldo felt that the situation was safe enough to retrieve the money from the wells, and it is proudly noted by his descendants that not one of his depositors lost a cent.
Another part of Waldo’s legacy is the town that sprang up on the southern edge of his Jackson County holdings at what is now 75th and Wornall at Kansas City. There he had situated his blacksmith shop, animal pens, and buildings to house as many as 150 wagons for treks to Santa Fe, Mexico, and southwestern forts. Businesses sprang up around Waldo’s buildings. The town of Waldo Junction blossomed in 1841.
Today, Waldo Junction is known as the Kansas City neighborhood of Waldo. The village “is still a unique mix of creative thinkers, mom-and-pop stores, and resident characters, all working together to create a small-town feel against a big-city backdrop,” says Laurie Hines, Waldo’s new honorary mayor. The community gathers near a newly dedicated fountain that ties the neighborhood to the City of Fountains in which it is located.