downtown skyline kansas city missouri
Downtown Kansas City Skyline

It’s a question us locals get asked by out of town visitors, “Is Kansas City in Kansas or Missouri?”

The answer is both – there is a Kansas City, Kansas and a Kansas City, Missouri.

It’s important to note, however, that they are distinctive from one another. 

Don’t fret – we’re going to help make sense of it for you.

What State Is Kansas City In?

It can be quite confusing to understand the dynamics between KCK and KCMO. 

If you’re in Kansas City for a visit focused around smoky barbecue, iconic jazz music, vibrant arts scene, and growing craft brewery influence, you’re going to be spending your time on the Missouri side. 

When you hear people referring to “Downtown Kansas City” they’re likely speaking about Missouri. While Kansas City, Kansas does have a downtown, it is much smaller.

Don’t sleep on KCK, though.

Both sides of the state line have great characteristics to offer both locals and visitors alike. 

The downtowns are separated by the Kansas River and Missouri River. Moving south, there is a literal State Line Road that separates the two. 

It should be noted that although the two cities share a name, locals claim a strong difference between the two communities.

So, how did this happen? What happened historically to create one city name in two states?

Why is Kansas City in Two States?

The distinction between the two Kansas Cities is more than just a matter of geography; it’s a tale of history and culture. 

Kansas City, Missouri, is the elder of the two, founded in the 1830s and named after the Kansa Native Americans. 

Its location at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers made it a pivotal point for trade, settlers, and eventually, the jazz and blues music that would define its cultural legacy.

Kansas City, Kansas, officially came into being in 1868, growing from its roots as a settlement at the Kaw River’s mouth.

The story of how Kansas City came to be split between two states is one marked by territorial disputes, economic strategies, and the relentless flow of the Missouri River.

The Early Days and the Missouri River

The founding of Kansas City began in the early 19th century when the area that is now Kansas City was primarily inhabited by Native American tribes. 

The Missouri River, a vital artery for transportation and trade, played a central role in the region’s development, particularly during the days of westward expansion, which passed through this region.

It was along its banks that settlers were drawn, establishing the foundation for what would become Kansas City, Missouri.

At the city’s founding, though, Missouri wasn’t even a state yet.

This newly developed area was known as the “Town of Kansas” after the Kansa Native American tribe that originally inhabited the area. 

This developed into “Kansas City” – a name that was claimed before the region was split between the two states.

The Missouri Compromise and Statehood

A pivotal moment in the history of Kansas City’s geographical division came with the Missouri Compromise of 1820. 

This legislation allowed the new state of Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state while Maine joined as a free state, maintaining the balance of power between North and South. 

However, the compromise also drew a line (the 36°30′ parallel) across the country, which indirectly set the stage for future disputes over slavery in territories west of Missouri, including Kansas.

The Birth of Kansas City, Missouri

Although it has been referred to as “Kansas City” for many years prior, Kansas City, Missouri, was officially incorporated in 1850, flourishing as a key transportation hub due to its strategic location near the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers. 

Its growth was propelled by the burgeoning trade on the Missouri River and the establishment of the Westport Landing, which became a critical point for settlers heading westward along the Santa Fe trail. 

Bleeding Kansas and the Kansas Territory

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 opened the Kansas and Nebraska territories to white settlement and allowed the settlers to decide whether they would be free or slave states, leading to a period known as “Bleeding Kansas.” 

This era was marked by violent clashes between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers in the Kansas territory, directly west of Missouri. 

The turmoil and fervent desire for Kansas to enter the Union as a free state eventually led to its admission in 1861, amidst the dawn of the Civil War.

Although there were strong ideological differences between Kansans and Missourians, the pull of economic growth for the burgeoning town of Kansas City forced businessmen on either side of the state to put their differences aside. 

This interesting dynamic propelled the growth of Kansas City, Missouri as cattle, grain, and the railroad put the city as a major city in the midwest region.

The Establishment of Kansas City, Kansas

Kansas City, Kansas, formally came into existence in 1868 when the city of Wyandotte and several other towns amalgamated under the name Kansas City. 

The choice of name was strategic, aiming to capitalize on the established reputation and economic success of Kansas City, Missouri, across the river. 

This move also reflected the interconnectedness of the two cities, bound by geography, economy, and the shared name.

A City Divided Yet United

Over time, the line dividing Kansas City, Missouri, from Kansas City, Kansas, became more pronounced, with each side developing its own identity and governance. 

However, the cities remained inextricably linked, sharing cultural, economic, and social ties that continue to this day. 

So, that’s the answer to, “Why is Kansas City not in Kansas?”

When we ponder what happened in history to make Kansas City lie in two states, we’re reminded of the powerful forces of politics, geography, and human endeavor that shaped not just a city, but the nation itself. 

Kansas City’s story is a microcosm of America’s broader narrative, marked by division and unity, conflict and cooperation, all contributing to the rich mosaic that is the United States.