Kansas City Historical Sites and Museum Guide

Kansas City and the surrounding area are home to various museums and historic sites. For history buffs, there are many places to explore, from museums to monuments and beyond. Sites dedicated to President Harry Truman; and to Jesse and Frank James are prominent. Whether you’re a local or a visitor to the city, there are plenty of historical sites to discover.

When you mention Kansas City, many people think of cows, wide open spaces, and the Wizard of Oz. How many people associate Kansas City with Lewis & Clark, covered wagons, Jesse James, a President, and steamboats? Kansas City and the surrounding area are rich in history and museums.

Fort Osage

Fort Osage, located in Sibley, Missouri, was built in 1808 under the direction of William Clark, one of the first explorers of the American West, along with his partner Meriwether Lewis. Fort Osage was one of the first military outposts in the Louisiana Purchase. When Lewis and Clark were making their trek to the West, this site high above the Missouri River was first noted as a likely spot for a fort. Four years after first spotting the site, William Clark returned to design and build Fort Osage at the direction of the United States Government. In addition to being a military outpost, Fort Osage served as a government trade house for trade with the Osage Indians and other Indian nations. As a military outpost, Fort Osage was used to house soldiers who protected the newly acquired territory. The US government also used it to establish a relationship with the Osage Indians, and eventually, this site became the starting point for people heading west on the Santa Fe Trail.

Independence Missouri

Independence, Missouri, 14 miles southwest of Sibley and a suburb of Kansas City, is the only place in the nation where the three Westward Expansion trails meet. The Oregon and California trails were one-way trails that early settlers and gold prospectors used to make their way to the West Coast. The third trail, the Santa Fe, was a two-way trail used to establish a commercial route from Independence to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence is open 7 days a week and features interpretive exhibits to guide visitors along the three trails.

Independence was home to Harry S Truman, the 33rd President of the United States. Visitors to Independence can tour the Truman home, where Harry and his wife, Bess, lived both before and after his Presidency. On historic Independence Square, take a walk through the courtroom that Harry presided in when he was a county judge. A must-see is the Truman Presidential Museum and Library, in which you can find a replica of the White House Oval Office, various exhibits, and the grave sites of Harry and Bess Truman. After a day spent visiting the Truman sites in Independence, stop in for a cold drink at Clinton’s Soda Fountain on the Square, where Harry had his first job.

Harry S. Truman Home


Stagecoaches were familiar vehicles along the Santa Fe trail. The Mahaffie Farmstead in Olathe, Kansas, was a stagecoach stop for the Barlow and Sanderson stagecoach line. Six stagecoaches stopped here on an average day in 1867, and meals were served in the basement of the home to the passengers of the stages. The Mahaffie Farmstead is the only known stage stop along the Santa Fe trail that is now open to the public.

Jesse James Bank Museum

The first successful daylight bank robbery in peacetime in the United States was pulled off near Kansas City in the town of Liberty, Missouri. In 1866, two men entered the bank, claiming to need change for a 10-dollar bill. As the teller approached to assist the men, one of the men pulled a gun and demanded all the money in the bank. After the money was stuffed into sacks, the tellers were locked in the vault, and the two men, members of the James gang, rode off on horseback. Visitors can visit the bank office where the robbery occurred, complete with the original vault and a calendar clock that is set to the day and time of the robbery.

Kearney, Missouri, north of Liberty and Kansas City, is the birthplace of Jesse and Frank James. The family home and slave cabin, Jesse’s original grave site, and a museum of James’ artifacts are open year-round. Visitors should also check out Jesse’s grave at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney.

Another Independence museum also boasts a connection to the James gang. The 1859 Jail, Marshal’s Home, and Museum once housed Frank James and other members of the James gang. After Jesse was shot, Frank turned himself in and was kept in this jail until his trial. Visitors to the Jail and Marshal’s Home can see the actual cell that Frank stayed in during his incarceration.

Steamboat Arabia Museum

The Steamboat Arabia Museum, in Kansas City’s River Market area, houses the remnants and contents of Steamboat Arabia. Arabia was traveling along the Missouri River from St. Louis in 1856 when she hit a tree trunk buried below the water’s surface. Within minutes the boat and her cargo lay at the bottom of the river. In 1987, the Hawley family unearthed the steamboat in a field (the river changed course many times between 1856 and 1987); salvaged what they could of its contents, and opened a museum. Visitors to Arabia can see many items used in the 1800s; the steam engine and boilers used to power the boat and a replica paddle wheel. Besides viewing the boat’s cargo, visitors can also view the remains of the only casualty in the disaster: a mule.

Kansas City and the surrounding area have a rich and colorful past. The museums and sites mentioned here are only a small sampling of what is available. With such a diverse history, there’s sure to be something for everyone in Kansas City. 

Kansas City, Missouri, offers a wealth of historical sites that provide a glimpse into the city’s past. Whether you’re interested in military history, steamboats, baseball, or presidential history, there is something for everyone to explore and learn from in this vibrant Midwestern city.

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About the author
Growing up in Detroit, Lindsey is a Michigan State University alumnus. She feels incredibly lucky to live in Detroit, and much more, to spend her days promoting the Detroit area as a travel destination.