The Ritchie Cemetery Origin Story (1859-1888)
In 1862, three Shawnee County settlers bought a land parcel for cemetery purposes at the current location of 27th and Boswell in Topeka. Initially called South Topeka Cemetery, in the 1880s it became known as Ritchie Cemetery in honor of John Ritchie, a prominent Topeka abolitionist and Free Stater. His exact role in the cemetery's early history remains unclear, however.
Excerpt from the deed for the cemetery land
As with other blog posts on the site, the first mention of a person buried at Ritchie appears in red bold italic font. An “(r)” after a name indicates the person was subsequently reinterred at a different cemetery.
John Ritchie, the Cemetery Namesake
Since the late 1880s, the story recounted most often about the founding of Ritchie Cemetery has been this: John Ritchie, the firebrand Free Stater who fills many pages in early Topeka and Kansas history, donated the land as a burial ground available to all and “free to all.”
It would have been a characteristic act for Ritchie, well in line with his other charitable deeds. There’s a problem, though. According to official records kept by the Shawnee County Register of Deeds, John Ritchie never owned the land. He certainly had ties to the cemetery, but his exact role in its establishment and how it came to be named after him remains a matter of speculation.
So who was the man at the center of the enigma? In many respects, John Ritchie was a larger-than-life figure, impossible to capture in a few sentences or paragraphs. He is perhaps most remembered as an “ultra-abolitionist” who fiercely advocated for the Free State cause during the Kansas territorial period—both in his personal actions and as a delegate in the Leavenworth and Wyandotte constitutional conventions. He and his wife Mary Jane Shelledy Ritchie (r) harbored freedom-seeking slaves working their way north through the Underground Railroad. He took up arms in both the Border War with Missouri and the Civil War, where he served as a military officer. Beyond his abolitionist views, he also was a strong proponent of women’s suffrage and the temperance movement.
As important as political activism was to him, John Ritchie also left a mark in building and shaping the young Topeka community. He was a farmer, and real estate investor and developer. He was instrumental in the founding of Lincoln College (which became Washburn University) and the First Congregational Church in Topeka.
Ritchie was at times eccentric and contrarian, but he was also generous in spirit and willing to open his pocketbook. He donated valuable parcels of land, not only for public purposes such as Lincoln College, but also to businesses and individuals in need of a hand, including freed slaves. He was regarded as a friend of Topeka’s African American citizens; with his support, a tract he platted, Ritchie’s Addition, became home to one the city’s Black neighborhoods.
With that in the way of background, we now turn to what we have learned about the cemetery’s early history, and John Ritchie's connection to it.
The South Topeka Cemetery
On August 1, 1860, Orrin Nichols was awarded a land patent from the U.S. Government for the 160 acres in the northwest quarter of Section 12, Township 12S, Range 15E. Less than two years later, on April 19, 1862, he and his wife Lydia sold a five-acre parcel from the tract. The $50 sale was made to Azel H. Slayton, Harvey D. Rice, and William Jordan—all of whom were identified as trustees of South Topeka Cemetery. The South Topeka name never caught on, and the deed refers to the same land parcel we now know as Ritchie Cemetery.
An excerpt from the deed which transferred ownership of the land is shown in the post's cover image. Other than the original land patent, it remains the only transaction recorded for the parcel. Three aspects of the deed are worth noting:
Future ownership rights to the land would pass to "heirs and assigns" of the trustees;
The parcel description referred to two oak trees in defining the boundaries; and,
The deed instrument was dated April 19, 1862, but was not filed with the Register of Deeds until 21 years later, on April 26, 1883. (Note: the deed excerpt in the cover image does not show the 1862 date, only the filing date.)
The first two items prompted ownership and boundary issues nearly a century later, but those are the subject of a future post.
The shape and dimensions of the parcel described in the deed are shown below. The drawing is cropped from a plat of survey prepared by the Shawnee County Surveyor in 1933. It is the earliest document we have found with a precise representation of the location and original dimensions of the tract.
The cemetery's southern boundary is the quarter-section line, which today is also 27th Street. Boundary issues raised in the late 1950s resulted in adjustments which reduced the size of the cemetery parcel from five acres to 3.7 acres.
The first burials at the cemetery site occurred before the three trustees bought the land. Isaac Garrison and his family relocated to Shawnee County from Franklin, Indiana in 1859. Before the year was out, two Garrison children died—13-year-old Caroline in late November 1859, and 10-year-old Hinkley, just two weeks later. Both were buried at the Ritchie site (as were their parents Hephzibah, in 1868, and Isaac, in 1869).
It is with other early burials that Ritchie enters the picture. When John Ritchie and his wife Mary Jane migrated from Franklin, Indiana, and settled in Topeka in early spring 1855, they had their two young children in tow. Mary (r), the baby, died several months later, in October 1855. The first burial ground in the fledgling town was on Ritchie land, south of the current intersection of 10th and Kansas Avenue. It is believed that 10-month-old Mary was buried there.
The year after Topeka Cemetery opened in 1859, the City of Topeka passed an ordinance which required that all bodies interred at the original site must be removed by February 15, 1861. Baby Mary Ritchie was not among those reinterred at Topeka Cemetery. It is most likely that she was taken to the Ritchie Cemetery site instead.
A document included in the Civil War widow's pension application filed by John Ritchie's second wife, Hannah, confirms the fact that Mary Jane Shelledy Ritchie was buried at the Ritchie Cemetery site when she died in 1880. It was not yet being called that, however. Her death notice identified it as "Union burial ground." The death notice also reported that "others of her family [were] buried" there, almost certainly referring to baby Mary and another child, Elizabeth "Lizzie" (r), who died in 1864.
Family lore has it that John Ritchie wanted to be buried at the site as well, but his sons Hale and John decided otherwise. Upon his death in 1887, the sons made arrangements to have him interred at Topeka Cemetery. The following year, Mary Jane, Mary, and Elizabeth "Lizzie" were reinterred alongside him.
This burial record shows that baby Mary Ritchie was reinterred at Topeka Cemetery on November 27, 1888—33 years after her death, and approximately 27 years after the first reinterment of her remains circa 1861. Similar records exist for her mother and sister, both of whom were reinterred at Topeka Cemetery on the same day she was. The burial records are on file at Topeka Cemetery.
If baby Mary’s first reinterment was, in fact, at Ritchie Cemetery in 1861, that would make her the third-earliest known burial at the site, after the two Garrison children. It also would mean that John Ritchie’s connection to the cemetery was established quite early, pre-dating the sale of the land to the three trustees.
Why the South Topeka Cemetery/Ritchie site?
Throughout their lives in Topeka, John and Mary Jane Ritchie lived in close proximity to the town’s center. During that period, and for years to come, the Ritchie Cemetery site was in a rural setting that was not convenient to access. So why, after 1859, did the Ritchies choose a country cemetery rather than Topeka Cemetery, which was closer and much easier to reach? If the answer is ever found, it may lie in some combination of Ritchie’s civic and real estate investment activities, and his personal relationships with the Garrison family and the cemetery trustees.
Below is a map showing some of the landowners near the cemetery at the time 1861 property taxes were paid. Orrin Nichols, Isaac Garrison, Azel Slayton, and William Jordan all lived on properties shown in the map; John Ritchie and Harvey Rice did not. Given his real estate holdings, John Ritchie was obviously familiar with this part of the county, and especially so because of his role in the founding of Washburn University. He donated the land for the campus, located in the quarter-section immediately north of the one where the cemetery is. Ritchie's vision for that parcel as a future college site reportedly dated to at least 1856.
The map shows nearby land holdings in 1861 of key figures in the cemetery's early history.
John Ritchie's brother Andrew also owned land in the cemetery vicinity (in S2-T12S-R15E).
The main characters in the early Ritchie Cemetery story were all Free Staters. They all knew one another. As settlers in a newly-opened territory, they were all involved, to varying degrees, in community building. Harvey Rice was a friend of Ritchie’s, and they worked together on the college and church projects. Less is known about Ritchie’s relationships with the others, but he may also have been a friend of William Jordan, another strident abolitionist. Further, Ritchie probably discussed serious matters with members of Jordan’s extended family. Jordan’s in-laws, Cyrus and Sarah Packard, were deeply involved in Underground Railroad activities, as was his brother-in-law, William Owen.
One wonders, too, about the particulars of the relationship between the Ritchie and Garrison families. They both migrated from Franklin, Indiana, although at different times. Both families chose to bury children at the Ritchie Cemetery site within 15 months of one another. A young Garrison woman, probably Isaac’s daughter, was at the Ritchie home in 1860 when one of the most shocking of the John Ritchie episodes occurred—his fatal shooting of a U.S. deputy marshal.
What’s in a Name?
When the Radges’ Topeka City Directory came out in the spring of 1888, Ritchie Cemetery was included among the list of local cemeteries, and the description explicitly credited John Ritchie with donating the land for it. Two years earlier, in 1886, the City Clerk had just started recording deaths in the community. One of the March 1886 death entries (for George Manier) used the name “Ritchie Cemetery,” which is the earliest instance of the name’s use we have seen.
Yet, just a few years earlier, in 1883, someone—presumably one or more of the parties to the land sale—had filed the 1862 warranty deed with the Register of Deeds. During the intervening years, the trustees had taken no steps to form a cemetery association, or to file a cemetery plat with the Register of Deeds. If there had been a change in circumstance, i.e. if John Ritchie had purchased the land, why was there was no subsequent filing to reflect it? Had there been another, later transaction that didn’t get recorded? Alternatively, had members of the community started referring to the site as Ritchie Cemetery simply because Ritchie family members were buried there, especially after Mary Jane died in 1880?
Or, had John Ritchie taken some specific action, other than direct purchase of the land, that caused his name to be associated with the cemetery? There a few more facts and possibilities that might be relevant.
The first of these relates to the timing of the land sale. John Ritchie's military service during the Civil War began in July 1861, with the Fifth Kansas Cavalry, a unit in the Kansas Volunteers. Then, in June 1862, he became Colonel in the Second Regiment of the Indian Home Guards, of the federal Union Army, where he served until May 1865. At the time Nichols sold the land to the three cemetery trustees in April 1862, Ritchie would have been very much preoccupied with other matters. If, as we believe, he had just buried a child at the site in early 1861, however, he would have had a keen interest in what happened to the land. Could it be that the trustees were in some way acting at Ritchie's behest? It seems unlikely that his friend Harvey Rice would be party to the purchase without discussing it with Ritchie.
Moreover, there is nothing to indicate that the three cemetery trustees ever buried any of their own family members at the site. Harvey Rice did not live nearby; since at least 1865, his farmstead had been in Tecumseh township. The Azel Slayton and William Jordan families buried their dead at Foster Cemetery, which also was in the vicinity (and is shown on the land ownership map earlier in the post). Initially, Foster was a private family cemetery, and Azel Slayton’s wife, Lovina, was a Foster. The Jordans' relationship with the Slaytons and Fosters must have been such that they were welcome to use the cemetery as well. A number of Jordans are buried at Foster, including several children who died between 1860 and 1870.
Because the trustees weren’t using Ritchie Cemetery themselves, and had not followed through to organize a cemetery association, it would not be surprising if their interest in it waned over time. If that were the case, John Ritchie—very familiar with the cemetery, and always sensitive to issues affecting African Americans—might have easily persuaded the trustees to make the cemetery available to meet an emergent need in the early 1880s. It would be an even stronger possibility if he had been involved in the 1862 decision to buy the land.
Topeka’s Black population grew significantly after the Exodusters arrived in 1879-1880. Most of the new arrivals were poor, and struggled for years to gain an economic footing. Topeka’s two major cemeteries at the time—Topeka Cemetery and Rochester Cemetery—served Black Topekans, and both were available for pauper burials. However, some among the recent Black migrants looked for another option.
In January 1884, an organizational charter was filed for the Mount Olive Cemetery Association, which probably was an initiative of the Mount Olive Methodist Episcopal Church. Among the names in the charter application were Martin Oglesvie and Andrew Ferguson. To our knowledge, the Mount Olive Cemetery was never established. Perhaps, through the efforts of John Ritchie, the organizers were presented with an alternative. It may be coincidence, but Andrew Ferguson’s infant child (d 1887) and Martin Oglesvie’s mother Anna (d 1888) were among the earliest known African American burials at Ritchie Cemetery.
In the end, though, we are missing too many of the pieces needed to solve the Ritchie riddle. The hunt is still on, so heads up, Shawnee County researchers and genealogists: please let us know if you’ve seen a helpful clue in some obscure manuscript, diary, or family history!
1. Other than the name, there is no known relationship between "South Topeka Cemetery" and "South Topeka," the short-lived third-class city founded under John Ritchie's leadership. The 1862 date of the cemetery deed instrument is much earlier than the 1885 incorporation date of the municipality.
2. In addition to South Topeka Cemetery and Ritchie Cemetery, we have seen the cemetery referred to as Union Burial Ground, Howard Cemetery, and City Memorial Park.
3. At least nine members of the Oglesvie/Oglesby family are buried at Ritchie. Also, we have documented one other Andrew Ferguson child at the cemetery. Another of the Mount Olive Cemetery Association incorporators was Newton Baker. At least five of his family members are at Ritchie; Newton may be buried there, too, but we cannot confirm it.
4. An article published in Kansas History in 1986 provides a glimpse into the early Kansas settlement years of William Jordan and his extended family, based on recollections of his sister-in-law, Georgiana Packard.
5. Two historic sites can be found today in Ritchie's Addition, the downtown Topeka area originally platted by John Ritchie. The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site is located at 1515 SE Monroe in the former Monroe Elementary School building. Linda Brown was a student at the segregated Monroe School, and her lawsuit was the lead case in the Brown v. Board decision. At 1116 SE Madison is the Historic Ritchie House, built by John and Mary Jane Ritchie in 1857. The Ritchie House, and the adjacent one, currently are home to the Shawnee County Historical Society.
1. For more biographical information about John Ritchie, see: John Ritchie: Portrait of An Uncommon Man, Shawnee County Historical Society Bulletin No. 68, November 1991; and, Ritchie/Shelledy Family History, by Mary Evelyn Ritchie, 1984.
2. The deed record for the sale transaction is found in Shawnee County Deeds and Mortgages, Volume 86, page 633. The source of the scan used in the post is FamilySearch, a free genealogical resource website. Although free, access to the FamilySearch databases requires an account. Researchers may also access the deeds on microfilm in the Kansas Historical Society archives.
3. The document included in Hannah Ritchie's Civil War widow's pension application is a certification by the Topeka Board of Health dated July 2, 1897. In it, the board secretary, Dr. M.R. Mitchell, attested to Mary Jane Ritchie's death in 1880, and also her burial at Ritchie Cemetery. Burial location was based on records kept by George Palmer, Undertaker.
4. Land ownership information in the map is based on Shawnee County tax rolls available on microfilm at the Kansas Historical Society. However, ownership information can also be found in the scanned deed records posted on the FamilySearch website mentioned in Source Note 2 above.