Political debates come and go. What happens, however, when people live in a place named after a politician they despise? That doesn’t happen very often anymore. Just about every geographic location got its name a long time ago, at least in the United States.
The nation expanded furiously in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, and homesteaders poured into new territories. Surveyors platted towns and delineated townships, counties, and states as fast as politicians could define them. Settlers scrambled to grab the best names including Founding Fathers and popular Presidents. That still left many gaps so they ventured over to Vice Presidents, Secretaries of this-and-that, the local robber baron, and of course all manner of non-political figures, Native American tribes, inanimate objects and whatnot.
Many places were named in honor of Martin Van Buren. There are Van Buren Counties today in Arkansas, Iowa, Michigan and Tennessee. Van Buren served as a U.S. Senator, Governor of New York, Secretary of State, Vice President, and finally President, in a period between 1821 and 1841. His career spanned a period of great expansion and geographic naming almost perfectly. Those four states attained greater definition during that same time so there’s little surprise they adopted Van Buren place names.
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Missouri also got in on the act. The state legislature formed Kinderhook County in 1841, named after Van Buren’s birthplace in New York. The timing was rather odd. The financial Panic of 1837 had taken place during Van Buren’s Presidential administration and voters held him accountable. He lost his reelection bid in November 1840 to the Whig candidate, William Henry Harrison.
Kinderhook Co. formed in January 1841 and Harrison’s inauguration took place in March 1841, so Missouri created their county while Van Buren was a lame duck. It may have been a parting gift or a political stunt. Either way, Van Buren was already heading out the door.
Political winds shift. Two years later the legislature changed Kinderhook to Camden County, after an early leader of the English Whig party, Charles Pratt, 1st Earl Camden. It remains Camden Co. to this day, with its seat in Camdenton.
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That wasn’t Martin Van Buren’s only Missouri indignity. A Van Buren County already existed in Missouri when Kinderhook came into being. That one arose in 1835 while Van Buren was Vice President to Andrew Jackson, a popular figure to people living on the frontier.
Van Buren lost his chance for reelection in 1840 but he tried to mount a comeback in 1848. Slavery was the dominant issue as the United States marched inexorably towards Civil War. The U.S. had just won the Mexican War and gained territory that would define California, Nevada and Utah plus parts of several other western states. Would slavery be allowed in those new territories or not? Similar issues arose in Kansas; if slavery were outlawed in Kansas then slaves from Missouri would gain an easy escape route along the state’s entire western border.
Van Buren ran as the Free Soil candidate, opposed to the expansion of slavery into western territories. Zachary Taylor represented the Whigs. Although a slaveholder himself, Taylor’s views were a bit of an enigma but it was believed he thought expansion was impractical or irrelevant because the west didn’t have a plantation economy. Lewis Cass carried the Democratic party banner. He remained silent on slavery but many voters thought he leaned towards a pro-slavery stance.
Missouri, as a slave state, went for Cass but the election went to Taylor. Van Buren got trounced. Cass might have won had Van Buren not bolted from the Democratic party and siphoned votes away. Van Buren County, Missouri became Cass County almost overnight. According to a 1908 history of the county: "This, which doubtless defeated General Cass, so offended his friends that at the session of the legislature in 1848-9 the name of the county was changed from Van Buren to Cass."
It has been called Cass County ever since, with its seat in Harrisonville.
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Missouri wasn’t a monolith of slavery even though it was a slaveholding state. It wasn’t entrenched ubiquitously although the western portion had been in a de facto guerrilla war over the issue with neighboring Kansas. Like many border states, it provided troops both to the Union and to the Confederacy. Far removed from the former Kinderhook and Van Buren Counties, a town called Van Buren continues to bear the name today. This town, the seat for Carter County in the southeastern part of Missouri, found its name in 1830 when Van Buren was Secretary of State. Apparently the never felt the need to erase it.