According to sources that were once believed but now may be of questionable reliability, on March 27, 1836, George Shepherd Park narrowly escaped death at the hands of a Mexican firing squad in a mass-execution that later became known as the Goliad Massacre. A few months earlier, Park had joined the Texan (then known as "Texian") Army to fight for Texas' independence from Mexico. While it is entirely possible that he was present at the massacre, no definitive proof exists. Still, popular perception at the time granted Park a degree of celebrity for having escaped the massacre alive, and after the Texas Revolution ended, he moved to Jackson County, Missouri, where he went on to found the town of Parkville, Missouri and Park College (later Park University).
George Park was born into a farming family at Grafton, Vermont, on October 28, 1811. His youthful experiences as a teacher sparked an interest in education that would last a lifetime. Beginning at the age of 14 in 1825, he spent several years as a school teacher in Ohio and Illinois. He then attended Illinois College in 1832, but did not graduate due to health issues. In 1834, he moved to Callaway County, Missouri to teach school again.
Park emigrated to Texas in the fall of 1835 and joined the Texian Army on December 9, 1835. Some 30,000 Americans, mostly Southerners, had settled in Texas since the 1820s, when Mexico loosened immigration restrictions in an attempt to populate the region. Many of the American settlers evaded Mexican laws, including its prohibition of slavery. When Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna attempted to consolidate power and force the Texians to comply with the Mexican laws, the Texians revolted.
George Park joined this struggle for Texas independence, serving in a force of more than 400 soldiers under the command of Col. James Fannin. In the early weeks of March, 1836, a Mexican force led by General José Urrea approached the town of Goliad, which had a fort that Fannin used a his headquarters. Urrea's assault was meant to complement the larger advance led by Santa Anna. On March 6, Santa Anna's army won the infamous Battle of the Alamo, and Texian general Sam Houston subsequently ordered Fannin to retreat from his position. Fannin began to retreat on March 19, but was attacked by Urrea's Mexican cavalry before his army could escape.
Fannin's forces fared well on the first day of what became known as the Battle of Coleto, losing only about 10 men while killing in excess of 100 Mexican soldiers. Unfortunately the battle halted the Texian retreat and allowed time for Mexican reinforcements to arrive. Outnumbered, Fannin surrendered on March 20, and the soldiers under his command were now prisoners of war. The Texian prisoners expected to be treated amicably and released to the United States, but instead Santa Anna ordered their execution. On the morning of March 27, 1836, the Mexican soldiers marched approximately 400 Texian soldiers out of Goliad and opened fire on them. The vast majority of the Texians, including Col. Fannin, were killed, but in the chaos and under the cover of thick musket smoke a few managed to escape.
According to Park University Archivist Carolyn Elwess, no definitive proof exists that George Park was among Fannin's soldiers at the Goliad Massacre. His discharge documents do suggest that he may have been there, but there were no first-hand accounts, and Park himself never wrote about the incident in detail. On the other hand, his daughter, Ella Park Lawrence, perpetuated the story of George Park feigning death to escape his executioners, and it became an important element of the Park biography.
Regardless of this historical confusion, it is clear that Park remained in the ranks of Texian Army after the Goliad Massacre as a teamster and wagon master. He served until after the Texas Revolution ended on April 21, 1836. Mexico tentatively acknowledged Texas independence, but it would not fully recognize Texas until the United States annexed it as a state and won the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. By then, Park had lived in northwestern Missouri for nearly 10 years. He left the Texian Army on December 9, 1836 and became a school teacher in Jackson County, Missouri.
Park had more ambitious goals than teaching in mind, however. He purchased land and a steamboat landing in present-day Platte County. In 1844 he filed his plat for the town of Parkville. He encouraged the town's growth by founding the Parkville Presbyterian Church and constructing a hotel near the riverfront. In 1853 he launched the Industrial Luminary newspaper. During the 1850s, he invested in land in Illinois and Manhattan, Kansas. In 1858 he was one of the early proponents of Bluemont College, which eventually became Kansas State University. Park also developed plans for a railroad line from Cameron, Missouri to Parkville. The Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad later adopted Park's proposed railroad route. Building on the influence that Park had acquired in these endeavors, he was elected to the Missouri State Senate in 1866.
In 1874, George Park moved back to Illinois, but his interest in developing educational and religious institutions in Parkville had not ended. He consulted with Elisha B. Sherwood, a Presbyterian minister who introduced Park to John A. McAfee, the president of Highland College, in Highland, Kansas. Park donated his hotel building for the establishment of Park College, which initially consisted of McAfee, a few other faculty members, and 17 students. In May 1875, Park College opened. It followed Park's vision of a Christian-oriented institution that encouraged students to become missionaries. It also fulfilled McAfee's vision of a "Park College Family." McAfee believed the college had a religious duty to provide free educations to students who were willing to give back to the college. Accordingly, he started the Family Work Program, under which the students would assist in the operation of the college's agricultural and printing facilities, and in the construction or maintenance of buildings in exchange for free tuition. George Park actually resisted McAfee's program, and the two feuded about the program until their deaths, which both came in 1890. McAfee remained in charge of the college until that time.
Park continued to donate land and money to the college until his death on June 6, 1890. After the deaths of Park and McAfee, Park College continued its mission of offering an affordable and accessible education to its students. Beginning in 1996 the college offered online courses that greatly expanded its total enrollment. Today Park University has a total enrollment in excess of 12,000 students, spread across 43 campuses in 21 states. Along with the town of Parkville, the university has become George Park's most enduring legacy.
View images relating to George S. Park that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
- Postcard of Woodward Hall at Park College; accompanied by a brief historical article
- Woodcut depicting the Last Supper at the Park University Chapel
Check out the following books and articles about George S. Park, held by the Kansas City Public Library:
- "Missouri Miniatures: George S. Park," by Floyd C. Shoemaker, in The Missouri Historical Review, April 1943, pp. 330-336.
- The Dictionary of Missouri Biography, by Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn; contains a biography of George S. Park, pp. 594-595.
- "Colonel George S. Park," by George A. Lawrence, in the Bulletin of Park College, January 1926, pp. 5, 24-31.
- "Parkville—Progressive City in Southern Part of County: Neighbor to Kansas City," in the Platte County Missouri Historical & Genealogical Society Bulletin, January-April 2002, pp. 1-22; provides a brief history of Parkville, Missouri, originally published in 1929.
- "Old Number One and Woodward Hall: A True Story of Recycling,"; by Carolyn McHenry Elwess, in the Platte County Missouri Historical & Genealogical Society Bulletin, May-August 2009, pp. 11-12; discusses the recycling of building materials from the Missouri Valley Hotel built by George Park in 1850.
- "Parkville Sesquicentennial Reaches its Peak," by Bill Graham, in The Kansas City Star, October 6, 1999.
Continue researching George S. Park using archival materials from the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
- Vertical File: Park, George S.
- Vertical File: Museums--Park House; contains information about the former residence of George Park
- Vertical File: Park College
- SC63, Park College
- Vertical File: Libraries--Missouri--Park College
- Vertical File: Parkville, Missouri
- "Kansas City's Unique College," by E. M. Clendening and R. D. Sangster, in the Kansas Citian, December 19, 1916, pp. 6-13; about Park College
Jami Parkison, Path to Glory: A Pictorial Celebration of the Santa Fe Trail (Kansas City, MO: Highwater Editions, 1996), 68.
Mildred Ray, “Park College, Woodward Hall,” The Kansas City Times, August 1, 1980.
Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, The Dictionary of Missouri Biography (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 594-595.
"About Park," Park University Website, March 2010.