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Mar. 28—Mention the town Newtonia and often the first things an area resident may mention are the Ritchey Mansion, the First and Second Battles of Newtonia or perhaps Belle Starr. All revolve around the home of Mathew Ritchey. But who was Mathew Ritchey?
Mathew H. Ritchey was born just east of Nashville, Tennessee, in Overton County to Abel and Mary Ritchey in 1813. His father was a farmer who died when Mathew was 4 years old. The family lived in Tennessee until 1829, when Ritchey and his mother moved to Illinois, where they lived for two years. They moved again to Missouri, crossing the Mississippi at St. Louis in a wagon drawn by a yoke of oxen. They traveled south eventually, arriving in Southwest Missouri in 1832 near the present location of Ritchey along Shoal Creek.
In 1835, he married Mary King, and the couple lived in a log cabin in the area near Ritchey. The next year, he became a constable of Barry County. (Newton County was not established until 1838.) His jurisdiction stretched over an area of 30 square miles. He became well known because of his office. He farmed and purchased land, eventually acquiring 1,000 acres. He and his wife had 10 children.
Move to Newtonia
The family moved 5 miles south, where he founded the town of Newtonia in 1854. He set up a grist mill there. He took part in establishing Newton College, housed in a two-story brick building. The nondenominational school was chartered in 1856.
While a staunch Unionist, Ritchey owned slaves. In 1851 his slaves, brought from Tennessee, worked for two years building his Newtonia home of sun-dried and kiln-fired brick. The cost was $400, an impressive sum for that time.
According to its Historic Place application, the slaves "molded the bricks and hand-whittled the lathe. The doors are sturdy pine slabs and the floors, five brick thick in places, rest upon hewn logs, supported by great slabs of limestone deep underground. The house has five great fireplaces and that it might have been built to please a woman seems evident in the no less than two great storage closets that are a part of every room. Each room is built to stand as proud and independently as the man who ordered its building. Each room would stand unharmed if all the adjacent rooms were destroyed."
Ritchey was elected as a county judge prior to his election to the state Legislature in 1854, representing Newton County. He served for one term before the Civil War.
He was an active Democrat and Unionist. When the state convention was convened to decide whether to secede from the Union, he was chosen as a delegate.
Despite much opposition, he voted to remain in the Union.
Once the war began, he enrolled in the Missouri militia. He served as a paymaster with the rank of major, though that meant he was not often in Newtonia during the war. His oldest son, James, served as a secret service agent for the Union Army until September 1862, when he enlisted in the 76th Cavalry Regiment of the Enrolled Missouri Militia, which he commanded.
It was in September 1862 that the Ritchey Mansion became the eye in the storm in the First Battle of Newtonia. Union troops numbering about 4,000 men under Col. Frederick Saloman and Col. William Weer faced Col. Douglas Cooper's Confederate Missouri, Texas, Choctaw, Chickasaw and guerrilla troops, numbering 7,000. The town was held by Confederates, and several units took positions near Ritchey's farmstead. The battle raged all around the house on Sept. 30 until the Union troops' retreat became a rout. When the smoke cleared, the house had withstood the gun and cannon fire. It was used as a field hospital, treating so many that the floors were said to have been bloodstained.
In the midst of the war, in the 1862 election, Ritchey was elected to the state Senate. Through the war, the rest of the family resided in Newtonia. As they were Unionists, they hosted Union troops and sympathizers when they could.
The story is told of the time in 1863 when Union troops were camped around Newtonia and had arrested Confederate sympathizer Belle Shirley Starr, whom they suspected of reconnoitering for her brother, the leader of a band of bushwackers. They detained her at the Ritchey home in February 1863. Starr was beside herself for being detained, alternately giving the officers a profane tongue-lashing and furiously playing the Ritcheys' piano. When the officer decided his troops had an unbeatable head start to Carthage to arrest her brother, he let Starr go. She proved him wrong by going cross country in time to warn her brother.
In 1864, the house was again in the center of armed conflict as Brig. Gen. James Blunt forced Maj. Gen. Sterling Price out of western Missouri. On Oct. 28, troops filled the area around Newtonia. The battle started south of Newtonia, but Union forces were pushed north. They reformed lines around the Ritchey farmstead and held their ground. By nightfall, the Confederates were retreating south into Arkansas. The Union troops won the field and pursued the Confederates two days later. Once more, the house was used as a hospital.
Upon the war's end, Ritchey freed his slaves and gave them each 40 acres from his holdings. He went back to his commercial interests. In 1868, he was wealthy enough to be one of the organizers of the Greene County National Bank in Springfield. In 1871, he went back to his old homestead on Shoal Creek, where he built a dam and water-powered mill. He founded the town of Ritchey the same year.
He was a member of the Missouri Constitutional Convention of 1865. He continued to be a Democrat until 1876 when he joined the Greenback Party, which favored paper currency not backed by gold. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1878 under that banner but was elected as a state representative in 1880.
Ritchey died in 1889 at age 76. In his day, he was one of the best-known residents of Southwest Missouri. He was renowned for his "iron constitution," solid just like the house that bears his name.
Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you'd like him to research, send an email to email@example.com or leave a message at 417-627-7261.