Museum, scholars research creek
Research into the origins of the name of Negro Creek was a collaborative effort that began with a research request for the Johnson County Museum.
Historians at the museum researched several explanations identified by community members and historical context, including connections to Native American languages, the Santa Fe Trail and the Spanish word for black (“negro”), the Underground Railroad, and Black families living in the area.
Museum staff uncovered an 1856 map with the creek name listed, as well as other maps with the creek listed, but little evidence to corroborate any of the explanations explored.
After reviewing the museum’s archives, the museum staff and county partners turned to experts on the topic of slavery in the region to help further research the origins of the creek name. Dr. Diane Mutti-Burke, Chair of the University of Missouri—Kansas City’s History Department, and doctoral candidate Deborah Keating took on the task.
Last spring, the scholars shared their findings about the small creek flowing through parts of Overland Park and Leawood in a 21-page research report.
“The scholars found no evidence linking Negro Creek to the Underground Railroad,” said Mary McMurray, director of Johnson County Museum. “Dr. Mutti-Burke shared that it was possible, however, that the creek served as a route to freedom for some. Enslaved Missourians were quite mobile, had extensive knowledge of the environment, likely knew that the Blue River led to Kansas, and were politically astute enough to know they might find opportunities to bring about their freedom in Kansas.”
The scholars also discounted theories that Negro Creek was associated with Black families who settled near the creek in Oxford Township and with Spanish settlers, who used the word “negro” for black.
The leading theory and the likely origin for the creek name was linked to the story of freedom seeker who killed himself at the creek to avoid being recaptured and returned to slavery. A short article published in the Weekly Progress, a local press out of Spring Hill, on Feb. 20, 1879 linked the name of the creek to the suicide of a Black man who had “run off.” According to the newspaper, the freedom seeker was followed by James Chile and surrounded “on the stream to Stanley to Blue (River).”
The freedom seeker killed himself with a knife cut across his throat. The article did not indicate exactly when the death occurred, just sometime in the 1850s.
According to the researchers, the freedom seeker was probably enslaved by the Chiles family, which included Colonel James Chiles and his son James “Jim Crow” Chiles whose nickname reflected a dance of the time. The family had a large farm in eastern Jackson County, Missouri.
Colonel Chiles recorded 14 enslaved people in the 1850 census. In 1860, 12 enslaved people were recorded. Researchers deemed it possible that one of the adult or teenage men listed in the 1850 census and not in the 1860 census could have been the freedom seeker referenced in the 1879 Weekly Progress story.
The “History and the Origins of the Name of Negro Creek, Johnson County, Kansas” report is accessible online at jocogov.org/creek.