Today, Guinotte Avenue winds modestly through the industrial expanse of Kansas City’s East Bottoms. Yet two centuries ago, this street stood as the tangible realization of a visionary’s ambition. The vision of Belgian engineer Joseph Guinotte was to elevate Kansas City into a bustling global hub and the heart of Belgian immigrant influence and culture across North America. An American Brussels, or Little Belgium, no less!
A Belgian engineer’s ambition
Joseph Guinotte was born in the French-speaking Belgian city of Liège in 1815. He had a passion for engineering and soon earned a reputation as a skilled and respected professional. In the early 1840s, he received a prestigious assignment from the King of the Belgians, Leopold I. His mission was to oversee the construction of a railroad from Mexico City to Veracruz. This was part of the Belgian government’s agreement with Mexico to send engineers to build railways in Mexico using Belgian materials.
Guinotte was eager to embark on this adventure, although he was reticent about leaving behind his childhood sweetheart and fiancée, Aimée Brichaut. He proposed to her before departing, and she promised to join him once he had settled in North America.
A war and a new home
Guinotte’s work in Mexico was quickly cut short though. The reason was the outbreak of the Mexican American War. In 1846 he had to abandon the railroad project and flee Mexico. He decided to move to America, and specifically a young settlement at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers, which would later become Kansas City. At the time, it was a mostly French community, where Guinotte felt at home. He established a farm in the fertile lands known today as the East Bottoms. However, Guinotte was not content with being a farmer. He had a vision for the future of the riverside town. He saw its potential as a hub of agriculture, mining, trade, and transportation.
“Mr. Guinotte has for years been sanguine that agricultural and mineral wealth, railroads, and river commerce would build a large city where Kansas is now being built.”Historian C. C. Spalding
A plan for Belgian immigration
Guinotte wanted to make his vision a reality. He knew that the town needed more people to grow and prosper. He came up with a bold plan. He would bring Belgians over to the States. He believed these immigrants would be the ideal settlers for the future metropolis. In other words, he hoped to create a Belgian colony in Kansas City.
In 1850, he and two partners formed Guinotte, Magis & Co. and approached the Belgian consulate in St. Louis with an ambitious plan. The company would pay for the transport, room, and board of 50 Belgian immigrants if they agreed to work for four years on land owned by the firm. At the end of this term of service, the Belgians would be awarded 2.5 acres of land, as well as seeds, tools, food, and supplies to help them establish themselves as farmers. To house these immigrants, the company purchased 1,200 acres in the East Bottoms, mainly from the Chouteaus, one of Kansas City’s founding families.
A perilous journey
On March 25, 1850, 50 men and women, along with 14 children, left Antwerp bound for St. Louis. These settlers had been hand-picked by the Belgian government for Guinotte’s project. They were deemed to be people of good character and physically fit.
The trip was not without its problems. According to a complaint filed by a Mr. D’Ans, one of Guinotte’s indentured settlers, the journey was marred by bad weather, which led to the drowning of three of the ship’s nine crew members. Several Belgian settlers were forced by the captain to work as sailors despite their inexperience and inability to communicate in English. In addition, D’Ans maintained that the food and water were inadequate and often spoiled. Interestingly, the Belgian government later dismissed the objections when they learned from other passengers that D’Ans was often drunk during the trans-Atlantic crossing.
The Belgian dream ends
The settlers arrived in Kansas City on June 22, 1850, desperately hoping that the worst of their misfortunes were behind them. They weren’t. Within a month, two-thirds of the new arrivals were dead, apparently from an outbreak of cholera. Their bodies were interred in a mass grave somewhere in the East Bottoms. The few remaining Belgian settlers gradually abandoned the project, settling elsewhere in the region. Guinotte’s grand scheme had failed.
Another day, another vision
But Guinotte did not consider himself a failure. In 1852 he travelled to New York, finally to be reunited with his sweetheart, Aimée Brichaut. They tied the knot in New York, with the blessing of the archbishop and the Belgian consul, and then headed west to Kansas City.
Aimée, who came from a wealthy and refined Belgian family, did not speak a word of English and was not prepared for the harsh and wild life of the frontier. She did, however, bring with her a taste of Parisian fashion, which enchanted the local women who eagerly copied her dresses.
A farming family
The Guinottes settled on a fertile farm in the East Bottoms, overlooking the Missouri River. Joseph built a spacious log house with timber from the nearby woods. The house soon became a popular gathering place for the diverse and growing community of Kansas City. Neighbors, dignitaries, and Native Americans would visit the Guinottes for social events and business deals.
The couple had four children: Jules Edgar, Lydia, Emma, and Joseph Karl. They also owned three enslaved people: a young woman and two children. This was a common practice in western Missouri at the time, and the enslaved people likely performed various domestic and agricultural tasks for the Guinottes.
A developer and entrepreneur
Joseph Guinotte had not given up on his vision of making Kansas City a Belgian colony. He began to sell parts of his land in the East Bottoms for industrial, agricultural, and commercial purposes. He planned the layout of the streets and named them after himself and his children.
He foresaw the importance of the railroad and designated one of the main roads as Railroad Avenue. Soon, the East Bottoms became a bustling area of economic activity, with brick yards, sawmills, quarries, and other enterprises. Joseph Guinotte was a prominent and influential figure in the development of Kansas City’s infrastructure and industry.
An early mysterious death
Joseph Guinotte’s life came to an abrupt and tragic end on September 5, 1867, when he was only 45 years old. The circumstances of his death are unclear and disputed. Some newspapers reported that he committed suicide, while others claimed that he accidentally shot himself with a pistol that belonged to his deceased brother.
Whatever the cause, his death shocked and saddened the community.
A controversial legacy
Joseph Guinotte’s widow and children moved away from Kansas City in 1889. They went on to have successful careers in law, architecture, and education. Aimée Guinotte died in 1907, at the age of 84.
That same year, the city decided to demolish the old log house that Joseph Guinotte had built. Many citizens protested and argued that the house should be preserved as a historical landmark.
They failed to convince the city leaders, who replaced the house with a playground.
Joseph Guinotte’s legacy is complex and controversial. He was a visionary and a pioneer who contributed to the growth and prosperity of Kansas City. He was also a slaveholder who exploited the people he owned. He failed to create a Belgian community in Kansas City, but he left a lasting mark on its landscape and history.