What binds us as a people defines
us as a people. For Americans the bond is a set of values associated with opportunity, freedom
and liberty, where the rights of individuals are balanced by the welfare
of the community. These values have triumphed over forces which would divide
Americans and have guided the nation's development. Celebrating those values
as a critical part of its heritage helps successive generations identify
with the nation.
Midway through the 19th century, Americans confronted division of
monumental proportions. Creating the Kansas Territory in 1854 started a
chain reaction that led straight to the tragic American Civil War. All over the country men and women emigrated to Kansas either to assure slavery's expansion in the new territory or to block its spread and ultimately end its practice.
If the nation was born along the east coast, it was reborn in Kansas. Just as the Minutemen stood against royal tyranny at Lexington and Concord, so the "Topeka Boys" stood against the spread of slavery into the new Kansas territory eight decades later. Their opposition represented the opening struggle of what Lincoln would call "a new birth of freedom", realized with the Civil War's emancipation proclamation and the Union's preservation.
When John and Mary Ritchie arrived at Topeka in early spring, 1855, only three months after the town's founding, the rough village was mostly a place to wait for a ferry to cross the Kaw; but when John Ritchie died there in 1887, it was a thriving city of 30,000, among the largest in the state. The city's story in the intervening years is emblematic of those forces which moved the nation and gave it new direction. The hundreds who attended his funeral agreed with the stirring eulogy, which identified John Ritchie as a principal in producing this results.
The Ritchie couple had been intimately involved in every aspect of the free state movement and the development of Topeka as a major political and commercial force in the region. Their commitment to building a moral,
learned and inclusive community won them friends as well as adversaries.
Undaunted by controversy, John Ritchie actively influenced the character of the community and region. Their story reveals much about what then bound Americans together and continues to do so today.
The stone house at 1116 SE Madison, built by the Ritchies shortly after they arrived in Topeka, is tangible evidence of their story.
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John and Mary Ritchie of
Franklin, Indiana, were
among those who migrated to Kansas to oppose slavery and its apologists.
Their commitment to the cause and to the development of their community were
crucial in shaping the area and events associated with its success.
When they came to Topeka in 1855, life with two small children was fraught with trial and tragedy. Less than a year after their arrival, their baby Mary died in their cold, drafty dugout on the Shunganunga Creek a pathetic home where the snow was often as deep inside as out. By the next winter, the Ritchies had moved into the stone house that still stands at 1116 SE Madison. Despite all the obstacles they faced, the Ritchies set about building a community. John was an astute businessman and he began a lime quarry and kiln operation, constructing commercial buildings, and reserving land for a college which would ultimately become Washburn University.
The Ritchies were passionate abolitionists, befriending John Brown who visited this home early in 1859 with a group of escaped slaves. The Ritchie stone house was known as a haven for those seeking freedom. After the Civil War, Ritchie made housing lots available to freed slaves and a neighborhood of African Americans sprang up near his home the same neighborhood where Monroe School National Historic Site stands today.
In the late 1860s, much to the ridicule of his fellow businessmen, John Ritchie introduced Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to Topeka. As a member of the Wyandotte Convention, Ritchie had been responsible for writing limited suffrage for women into the Kansas Constitution.
His collaboration with
John Brown in militia resistance to the "border
ruffians", his association with the "Topeka Boys" in operating a branch of the "underground railroad", and his military service during the Civil War defined the Ritchies' patriotism. His investments in commercial structures, land, bridges and railroads, together with his construction operations, built a capital base for a flourishing community. Their mutual embrace of equal rights of freedmen and suffrage for women spoke volumes about their desires for an inclusive community. Their vigorous temperance stands and securing a campus for Washburn University and a school for the children of former slaves made them champions of a moral and learned community.
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Links to Topeka Capital-Journal articles:
Underground Railroad trip recalled 7-24-2008
Descendants preserving settler's heritage 10-2-2004
Ritchie family plants tree 10-3-2004
Workers prepare visitors center 10-3-2004
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Topeka & Shawnee County, Kansas