From Campsite to County Seat
Though the first known westbound wagon train led by William Sublette passed this way in 1827 following an old Kanza hunting trail, the Oregon Trail would not be well defined until 1842 when the report of John C. Fremont's expedition became the chief guidebook for the 300,000 emmigrants [sic] who followed. Travel on foot or by wagon was exhausting. The abundant water and rich prairie grass found in this area were essential fuels for the journey. Following the discovery of gold in California in 1849, single wagon trains were known to carry 2,500 persons and 3,000 head of mules and oxen and several trains would camp here at a time. For as far as the eye could see, the prairie was full of weary travelers, who would stay upwards of two weeks before moving on.
With the specter of civil war and the completion of the railroad, traffic on the Oregon Trail soon vanished, yet the rich grass and the abundance of water enticed some to come, and some to stay.
John McKimens came to Kansas in 1856, during the waning years of the Great Migration. He met and married a widow, Elizabeth Wright Hazen, whose late husband had purchased a claim on Rock Creek the year before. After their marriage, the McKimens moved to the claim. In 1858, he established a post office and was named the postmaster. He named Westmoreland after his home county in Pennsylvania.
"We crossed the prairie as [in days] of old the Pilgrims crossed the sea..."
John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), The Kansas Emigrants
In the mid-1860s the last of the wagons was fording Rock Creek and the community was becoming a commercial center. In 1871, Westmoreland was officially platted by Volney Baker who had settled here in 1860. A. C. and Mary Cochran were the first actual settlers on the present site of Westmoreland, having moved here from Jackson County in September 1869. Cochran built a general merchandise store, the first of its kind in town. An early town builder, he served as postmaster for two terms. Later, he purchased 80 acres of land adjoining the town limits and laid out the Cochran's first and second additions. In 1876, he built the first stone house in Westmoreland on the corner of State and Fourth Streets.
"In the early days of this nation, before railroads and highways were constructed, people traveled on foot, on horseback, by boat, or by wagon. Some of these trails remain in existence today as reminders of this diverse historic past. Stories of the Oregon Trail...and others bring to mind exciting and sometimes tragic chapters in our national heritage."
National Trails System Map and Guide, GPO - Reprint 1998
In an open election, Westmoreland was named Pottawatomie County seat on September 22, 1882. The Methodist church was used as a temporary courthouse. Two years later Westmoreland was incorporated as a city of the third class, and a new stone courthouse was erected.
"We are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits to our onward march? Providence is with us, and no earthly power can."
John L. O'Sullivan, 1839
Opportunities abounded for the hard working, industrious citizen. In 1890, Leonora Van Brunt was the proprietor of a large dry goods and general mercantile store in Westmoreland. She was a stockholder in the First National Bank of Westmoreland and owned property on Main and State Streets. According to a contemporary booster publication, her success illustrated "what can be accomplished by a woman who has the requisite nerve and pluck to enable her to succeed in a business enterprise." She was described as a pioneer and foremost resident of Pottawatomie County, eventually prospering on a 160-acre farm. After separating from Jacob in 1872, she moved to Westmoreland and received her commission as postmistress, serving six years in the post. She opened a general mercantile in 1874 and built a flourishing trade for many years. In 1891, at the age of 79 she wrote her autobiography.
"....I, like every other pioneer, love to live over again, in memory those romantic months, and revisit, in fancy, the scenes of the journey."
Catherine Haun, California emigration of 1849
The promised "boom" was evidenced by merchants and leading citizens building "substantial buildings" of one story with the prospect of adding a second story when necessary. The buildings were reported to be "well built and nicely furnished and add much to the appearance of the main street."