• Jan Johnson & Jeff Hansen

When were burials made at Ritchie?


Documented burials at Ritchie Cemetery, by year

The time distribution of the 302 documented burials at Ritchie is discussed, as are some of the reasons why the information is incomplete.


Introduction to the data and its limitations


The chart above presents, by year, the number of burials we have documented for Ritchie Cemetery. It is important to emphasize that we do not know the total number of people who were buried at Ritchie, nor is there a way to prepare a meaningful estimate at this time.


The data we compiled reflects not only burial activity, but just as importantly, the degree to which death-related information is available for any given year. Because there are no Ritchie Cemetery records and very few grave markers, other sources were relied upon. For many of the years between 1859 and 1941—the span between the earliest and latest known burials—there are no formal record series to consult. For some other years, the information is either spotty or not readily accessible.


While a future post will elaborate on information sources, data quality issues, and our approach to resolving inconsistencies, in this post we will touch on some of those topics as they relate to the timing of the burials we have documented.


The breakdown by time period

We have documented 302 burials at Ritchie Cemetery. Of the total, 12 were burials originally made at Ritchie, but later reinterred at a different cemetery. Year of interment is known for 298, and those are the ones shown in the chart. Three of the remaining four were all members of the same family who were subsequently reinterred at Mount Auburn Cemetery. The fact and year of their reinterment from Ritchie is known, but not the year(s) in which they died. The fourth was a reinterment made at Ritchie circa 1860-1861.


As shown in the table below, 85% of all burials were made over the 30-year period 1890-1919. More than two-thirds occurred during the first two decades of the twentieth century. The peak year was 1904, with 20.

The "Before 1880" number includes one burial for which the exact year is unknown.

Not counted are three burials for which the time period of death cannot be attributed.

The first seven burials were members of two early White settler families. Starting in the mid-1880s, the cemetery was used primarily by African Americans. Many of them were migrants, or their descendants, who came to Topeka from Southern states during the Exoduster migration of 1879-80.


Availability of death and burial information


We found death and burial information in numerous places, but two sources—newspaper obituaries and Topeka City Clerk death records—account for most of the primary documentation we reviewed.


For 225 (74.5%) of the 302 burials, we cited at least one newspaper source related to the person’s death, although they did not all necessarily identify burial location. Citation counts for the remaining sources include: City Clerk, 174 (57.4%); funeral homes, 73 (24.1%); grave markers, 14 (4.6%); and other, 15 (4.9%).


Earlier efforts by other researchers to compile Ritchie Cemetery burial data tapped those sources as well, and we were able to build on the work they did. However, recent availability of digitized copies of Topeka newspapers enabled us to do a more thorough search for death notices from 1859 through 1922.


Topeka City Clerk death records run from December 1885 until August 1911. So, for roughly 25 years, there is overlapping availability of both City Clerk records and digitized newspapers. Not surprisingly, that time frame corresponds with 65% of the burials we documented. The period between 1911 and 1922—the subsequent years when Topeka newspapers are more easily searchable—accounts for another 27%.


It is almost certain there are more burials at Ritchie than we have been able to confirm. Here are some of our reasons for thinking so—


  • Other than burials made by two families, we have virtually no information about the extent to which the cemetery may have been used by early White settlers between the late 1850s and the early-to-mid-1880s.

  • There was no legal requirement to record deaths in Kansas until 1885, when the state passed legislation requiring local officials to start recording vital statistics under supervision of the State Board of Health. The law was flawed and difficult for local governments to enforce. In August 1911, a more robust state law took effect, making much needed improvements in the state's vital statistics system. Until 1911, however, an unknown number of deaths went unrecorded.

  • Indeed, one source suggested that, under the 1885 law, the number of unrecorded deaths in the Topeka community could be quite high. The Topeka Improvement Survey report in 1914 claimed that “…prior to 1912 only about half the deaths were registered….”

  • For the deaths that were registered under the 1885 law, inclusion of burial location was sporadic over the years. Even a casual look through the City Clerk volumes reveals that little burial information was recorded between 1890 and 1895.

  • Passage of the 1911 law was prompted by the need for universal reporting, but the vital statistics records created since that time are not in the public domain if they contain personally-identifiable information.

  • Not all deaths were reported in local newspapers during the period of interest; when death notices were published, they did not always identify burial place.

  • As of January 2021, digitized newspaper searches were incomplete for the 1890s. Digital copies of the Topeka Daily Capital were not available to search for numerous months during that decade. Also not available for digital searching was the daily edition of the Topeka State Journal for the entire year of 1893 (although the weekly edition is online).

  • There are specific family members of people buried at Ritchie whom we suspect may also be at the cemetery. These individuals lived in Topeka, are believed to have died during the relevant time period, and their burials were not recorded at any other local cemetery.


These examples of completed forms were pasted onto pages of the Topeka City Clerk's Register of Deaths volumes. Pasting forms in the ledgers was not the normal practice, but the forms give a glimpse into where the register information originally came from. The forms were designed by the State Board of Health, and were used to report information to the appropriate city or county official. The 1892 death certificate shown for "Mrs. Johnson" hardly provided sufficient identification of her, nor was a burial location given.

The Stonestreet undertaker records

While the Ritchie burial undercounts may be relatively significant in some years, especially before the mid-1890s, the differential between known and actual burials is likely much less in the final decades of the cemetery’s 80-year burial history. We base this conclusion on another dataset that helps shed light on the later burial trends at Ritchie.


A review of Stonestreet undertaker records between 1915 and 1930 suggests that Topeka’s Black citizens had all but abandoned Ritchie as a burial option by the early 1920s. Stonestreet’s customers were primarily Black, so the undertaker’s records provide insight into cemetery choices being made during that 16-year period.


The surviving Stonestreet records include information for 1,522 funerals between 1915 and the end of 1930. Some of the burials were made outside of the immediate Topeka area. However, 1,302 (85.5%) of the burials were made in six Topeka cemeteries—Mount Auburn (970), Topeka (173), Rochester (60), Ritchie (38), Mount Hope (37), and Mount Calvary (24).

Summary table of Stonestreet burials, 1915-1930

Mount Auburn—which was founded in 1909 to serve Black Topekans—had clearly become the leading cemetery choice among African Americans, with Topeka Cemetery coming in a distant second. Only 6 of the 38 Stonestreet burials at Ritchie were made after 1921.


Stonestreet was not the only Topeka funeral home handling Black burials, but they did serve a large segment of the African American market during those years. Their records indicate that the few Ritchie burials we documented after 1920 reflect an actual reduction in activity, and not just a lack of available information.


Source Notes


1. In the future, we will post reports that itemize and provide citations for the specific sources we used for each individual we reviewed to determine whether or not they were buried at Ritchie.


2. The daily editions of the Topeka Daily Capital and the Topeka State Journal published before 1923 are available, with some exceptions, at the Kansas Historical Open Content website (which also has digitized copies of many other early Kansas newspapers). Access is available free to the public through a partnership between the Kansas Historical Society and newspapers.com. As of January 2021, content is still being added to the site.


3. Topeka City Clerk records are available in the microfilm archives at the Kansas Historical Society. Digital scans of the volumes also were made available to us by the Topeka Genealogical Society. A state-level perspective on vital statistics and other public health functions is recorded in various State Board of Health annual and biennial reports. Both the 1885 law and the 1911 law related to vital statistics in Kansas are also online. The state's Uniform Vital Statistics Act, initially passed in 1951 and still in effect, prohibits general public access to death records created after the implementation date of the 1911 law.


4. These vital statistics clippings on the Kansas Historical Open Content website provide a sampling of Topeka news coverage related to vital statistics, including death reporting.


5. Analysis of the Stonestreet records is based on a database transcription of them done by Jill Herzog. A printed version of the data, "Stonestreet Funeral Home records index," is available at the Kansas Historical Society, as is a microfilm copy of the original Stonestreet records. Jill is a longtime Shawnee County researcher who has done digital transcriptions of many local death-related datasets through the years, several of which she shared with us.


6. The Topeka Genealogical Society (TGS) has compiled comprehensive databases of named individuals in Shawnee County's history. The TGS surname index is publicly available, and includes death and burial information compiled by TGS researchers over the years. TGS also maintains a cemetery records database available for use by its members.