John Ritchie, 1817-1887
John Ritchie (also Ritchey) was born on July 17, 1817, in Uniontown, Muskingum County, Ohio. His father was a physician and practiced medicine in Franklin, Johnson County, Indiana. The younger Ritchie first came to Kansas Territory in the autumn of 1854 to look over cheap land for sale on the frontier. His trip took him to Leavenworth, Lawrence, and Kansas City. On March 12, 1855, he returned to Kansas bringing with him his wife and two children. After some initial surveying of the countryside, he elected to settle on the Kansas River at Topeka, which had been established the previous December. Topeka was a free-state community committed to the prohibition of slavery in Kansas. In April Ritchie purchased a quarter section of land for $300 that eventually became the southeast part of the city. Later this tract of land became known as the Ritchie Addition.
For about a year Ritchie lived in a log cabin in Topeka. In 1856 he and two other businessmen built the first block of brick structures in the city, which later became known as the Ritchie Block. The following year he built a two-story stone home for his family. At this residence he became actively engaged in the underground railroad, which aided fugitive slaves in their flight of freedom to the north. Ritchie was known in the community as an antislavery man dedicated to keeping Kansas free of the “peculiar institution.”
Ritchie joined other free-state men to capture goods from proslavery towns, once the opposing forces captured their own supply wagons. Following an attack on Hickory Point, the governor of the territory sent a U.S. Marshal and federal troops to Topeka to arrest free-state men. On September 18, 1856, Ritchie was among those arrested and sent to Lecompton. On November 19, 1856, he successfully escaped from jail and made his way back to Indiana where he found refuge with family members. For about a year he remained in Indiana, until Governor John W. Geary finally pardoned him in March of 1857. Ritchie then returned to Topeka.
As Kansas Territory struggled with the issue of slavery, a series of constitutional conventions were held to determine the future makeup of state government. As a political leader in his community, Ritchie was selected to represent his locale in both the Leavenworth (1858) and Wyandotte (1859) constitutional conventions. In the later convention, he sought to eliminate the word “white” from the article that established a militia and fought to restrict the sale of liquor in Kansas. However, both of these measures failed to pass the convention.
In January 1859, Ritchie’s free-state beliefs led him to assist John Brown and a party of eleven slaves fleeing capture from U.S. troops at the Battle of the Spurs. The free-state forces used the favorable terrain around the city of Holton to out run the mounted federal troops and make their safe escape into Nebraska.
On April 20, 1860, Ritchie found himself once more a hunted man. U.S. Deputy Marshal Leonard Arms came to his Topeka home to arrest him under a warrant issued in 1856. In the struggle that ensued, Ritchie shot and killed the marshal. A trial followed in which he was quickly acquitted of the crime of murder.
At the onset of the Civil War, Ritchie enlisted in the Union Army. He served first as colonel of the Fifth Kansas Cavalry Regiment and later as colonel of the Second Indian Home Guards Regiment. Then on February 21, 1865, he was brevetted a brigadier-general.
In later years, Ritchie involved himself in philanthropic pursuits. He donated land for the establishment of Washburn College in Topeka. He also gave away land to incoming blacks, who agreed to improve the property. He even established a “free” cemetery in the Knollwood section of the city. On August 31, 1887, Ritchie died leaving behind a well-developed and prosperous community.
Fitzgerald, Daniel C., ed. “John Ritchie: Portrait of an Uncommon Man.” Shawnee County Historical Society Bulletin Number 68. Topeka, KS: Shawnee County Historical Society, 1991.
Hunt, Roger D. and Jack R. Brown. Brevet Brigadier Generals In Blue. Gaithersburg, MD: Old Military Books, 1990.
Jarboe, Mary E. Ritchie/Shelledy Family History. Des Moines, IA: Author, 1984.