Written by Chris Dahl
Like many collectors, the Covid-19 pandemic forced me to stay home more than usual. I’ve re-read favorite books, completed nagging home projects, and delved deep into researching letters and documents in my collection. One document that I felt merited a closer look is a routine Patrick Henry document signed awarding land to a Revolutionary War veteran named Abraham Ritchie. The search into this man’s service to our country brought back distant echoes of a similar quest nearly sixty-five years ago, when I was a kid growing up in rural Indiana.
In 1955, our family moved from a walk-up apartment in Chicago to a 1920’s era Sears kit house on a dirt road situated on eleven acres in northern Indiana. My brother, sister and I loved that land, an untamed paradise bordered by meandering Salt Creek, with an old mill pond and overgrown gardens and fields. Our parents were recent immigrants from war-ravaged Europe, and they were eager to claim a slice of the American dream. They sometimes struggled to provide for their growing family, but they had provided a vast wild kingdom for us kids with that land. We all pitched in to plant vegetables, clear brush, and build a barn for a growing menagerie of animals. Our imaginations ran amok every day as we set out to explore, and over the years we became masters of every inch of those eleven acres. One day, my brother and I were Lewis and Clark, the next day we were Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone–our baby sister was Sacagawea, and in our fevered imaginations the rutted dirt road became the Oregon Trail, gentle Salt Creek was the raging Mississippi River, and the slightest rise in the land required a Sherpa guide and an ice axe. That property, our childhood home, was idyllic for us, supplying never-ending adventure, lasting memories, and legendary family stories.
Our father refused to have a television, so we spent our leisure time digging for arrowheads, clearing a field for a baseball diamond, and enjoying winter bonfires while we ice-skated on the pond. There were chores to complete every day, as our parents added more and more animals and gardens to maintain, but we always rushed through them so we could get to the important work of exploring our domain. Our school bus driver once mentioned that he believed there would have been a Native American campground near our creek, which set us off on a fruitless six-week archeological dig. One day in the late ‘50’s, my brother and I expanded our realm by fording the creek and scaling a grassy rise on the other side, heedlessly trespassing on a neighbor’s farm property. Flushed with summer’s heat and out of breath as we crested the hill, we gazed in awe at what we had discovered. We expected to see another corn field or a peaceful cow pasture. Instead, we found a grave.
It was in an abandoned family graveyard enclosed by a rusting iron fence, vine-covered, littered with fallen branches and choked with weeds. There was a swinging iron gate, shrieking for oil in the breeze. It looked like no one had cared for it for decades, and we were spooked but thrilled. The few graves that were identifiable were marked with crazily tilted and weathered stones. But one grave stood out. There was a bronze plaque, pitted with age, that identified it as the resting place of Henry Batton, a soldier of the Revolutionary War. Our amazing discovery became our closely guarded secret, and we vowed never to tell our parents about it, pinkie swearing each other to silence. Mom and Dad found out when two military men knocked on our door one day. They were mystified when the men asked about the location of an old graveyard nearby, but my brother and I knew what they were talking about and we led them there, our childish promise to each other giving way to the influence of their uniforms. Their mission may have been simply to locate veterans’ graves and mark them with flags, and we were happily proud to share our secret. We learned later that we had stumbled upon Gossett Cemetery, also known as Salt Creek Cemetery, and a few years later, in 1966, it was discovered that Henry Batton’s grave had been desecrated by vandals. The bronze plaque we had brushed dirt and debris from was stolen, and his gravestone was dug up and left leaning haphazardly against the iron fence. Batton’s grave (see Figure 1) was not always unknown, and it turns out that my brother and I were not the first intrepid explorers to find it. The William Henry Harrison chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution had staged an elaborate ceremony at the little cemetery in 1929, complete with the installation of the bronze plaque, a benediction, speeches, the laying of a wreath, the singing of America, the firing of a volley, and the playing of taps.1
Figure1 Henry Batton’s grave in Gossett. Cemetery, Porter County, Indiana was marked by the DAR in 1935. The other
side of his family gravestone states he was 95 years old, but misspells his name as “Battan.” Image courtesy of the author.
Sixty years later, history has repeated itself. Once again, I stumbled upon the grave of a forgotten patriot, a veteran of the Revolutionary War. This time, my exploration was not via dirt roads or across creeks, but on the easily followed paths of the internet. The partly-printed document I own was signed by the Governor of Virginia and Revolutionary patriot Patrick Henry in 1785. It states that Abraham Ritchie was entitled to the proportion of land due a Private in the Continental Line for three years’ service (see figure 2). The land granted by Virginia was for 100 acres in present-day Kentucky, and like many soldiers, Ritchie sold or exchanged his land warrant. Ritchie’s warrant was delivered to Josiah Tannehill in 1785, probably to settle a debt, as the existing record of the transaction describes it as to “settle my acct. of Defeaseance.”2 Tannehill had served as a Lieutenant in Ritchie’s Virginia regiment during the Revolutionary War, stationed at Fort Pitt at the same time Abraham Ritchie was there.
Figure 2 Patrick Henry DS, entitled Abraham Ritchie the land allowed a Private of the Continental line, dated January 19, 1785. Image from the author’s collection.
Since the pandemic afforded me plenty of time, I decided to find out what I could about the life and service of Abraham Ritchie. Amazingly, it turned out that Ritchie is buried not four miles from my house, at Hiland Presbyterian Church cemetery in Perrysville, Pennsylvania. Hiland’s congregation was organized in the 1790’s. The first members met in the open air seated on logs, with the men facing the adjacent woods to guard against Indian attacks.3 Hiland’s cemetery houses graves of many of Pittsburgh’s early leading families, including a few graves purported to be of native Americans. My wife and I went to the cemetery one day to locate Abraham Ritchie’s grave, and the coincidence of finding Henry Batton’s resting place sixty years earlier was not lost on me. The cemetery is not large, so finding an old stone among all the modern ones was easy. Ritchie’s tombstone and the one next to it of one of his sons, Isaac, spells the family name “Richey.” I located a pension application deposition online from the 1820’s in which he used this phonetic spelling of his last name.4 The deposition was written in his dotage, when he was destitute and in need of government support. While we were walking through the cemetery reading gravestones, we noticed that many graves were marked with plaques and flag holders detailing veterans’ services to our country in our country’s wars. Ritchie’s grave bore no such commemoration of his Revolutionary War service, an omission that I thought should be corrected.
Abraham Ritchie was born in 1746 to Swiss-German parents who spelled the family name “Rutschly.” They settled in Bedford County, Pennsylvania, at the time a dangerous and sparsely settled frontier. Their home was near present-day Washington, Pennsylvania, about forty miles from Pittsburgh. Abraham and his wife Jane raised five children. Abraham probably first served in the militia, beginning in May 1776, and in early 1777 he enlisted in the Continental forces. Both Virginia and Pennsylvania sparred over the territory in the 1770’s, so his enlistment was in the 5th Company of the 13th Virginia Regiment, commanded first by Colonel William Russell, and later by Colonel John Gibson. Ritchie was honorably discharged in 1780. His deposition in support of his pension application is signed twice, in 1825 and 1827, shaky old-age signatures as “Abram Richy”5 (see figure 3).
Figure 3 Two shaky old-age signatures on Abraham Ritchie’s deposition applying for a pension due him for his Revolutionary War service. Also signed by Pittsburgh attorney and future Secretary of War William Wilkins. The top signature is from 1825, the bottom one from 1827 when he finally started drawing his pension. Ritchie spelled his name phonetically as “Richey.” Images courtesy of Fold3 by Ancestry.
It is also signed by Pittsburgh lawyer and future Secretary of War William Wilkins. Abraham stated in the deposition that he was shot through the leg at the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776. Every school kid knows that George Washington crossed the Delaware in miserable conditions, battling ice floes and stinging sleet on a cold December night to surprise the Hessians and win a decisive victory for the fledgling and inexperienced Continentals. Abraham Ritchey was there, a forgotten soldier with a heroic story, buried in a local Pittsburgh cemetery. Anyone could walk by his grave and not be aware that a true American patriot was interred there. Knowing he was in that pivotal battle of the Revolutionary War made me even more anxious to arrange to mark his grave in recognition for his service to our country.
A veteran of the Revolution had to prove indigence to receive a pension. Many were too proud to do that, choosing to live in poverty rather than debase themselves by such an admission. Others filed depositions such as Abraham Ritchie’s in 1825, admitting that they were destitute and in need of their country’s thanks in terms of financial support. In 1828 the pension law was changed, and it was no longer required to prove abject poverty, but by then there were not many of the aged patriots left alive. When Ritchie filed his deposition, he was 80 years old, although his statement for some reason embellishes that a bit, stating he was 88. He attested that the only proof of his service was his word and the word of others. Witnesses, friends, and fellow soldiers added to his testimony to lend credence to his claims and to confirm his recollections of his service. Ritchie was living with his son Abraham in Pittsburgh at the time, and stated that he had no property other than the clothes on his back and had no means of support. He says in the deposition that his discharge papers were burned in a house fire, which sounds a bit like the 19th century equivalent of “the dog ate my homework,” but it is a statement that is impossible to dispute 200 years later. One forlorn line in the deposition caught my eye, that Ritchie once had a horse but had to sell it to support himself. Sadly, his pension was not granted until April 1827, and then at the rate of eight dollars a month. He must have been supported in his dotage by his family, and he only drew his pension for a little over a year, passing away at the age of 83 on August 15, 1828.
There are three oddities in the records I have been able to find concerning Abraham Ritchie’s service and pension. First, a muster roll for his company in 1777 appears to list him as “deserted August 18th 1776” (see figure 4).
Figure 4 A muster roll from 1777 appears to say that Abraham Ritchie “deserted” on “August 18th 1776”, but a closer look at the entry shows the word as “desorted,” a shortened colloquialism of the French phrase “date de sortie” meaning “release date”. Image courtesy of Fold3 by Ancestry.
A few other soldiers on the same roll have the same designation, with varying dates. On closer examination, the word on the roll that looks like “deserted” is actually “desorted.” The word is probably a local colloquialism, a shortening of the French phrase “date de sortie,” which translates to “release date.”6 The men so listed may have been at the end of a three-month enlistment, and certainly in Ritchie’s case, given a May 1776 enlistment date, the August date for being “desorted” makes sense. Nineteenth century records summarizing his service definitively list him as “Deserted August 18, 1776.” Obviously, this is wrong, the result of a bureaucrat’s misunderstanding of the terminology used by a scribe who used a sort of portmanteau French term when writing out the muster roll in 1777. The evidence of my 1785 document giving Ritchie land for his service of three years, and the evidence presented in his pension petition speak definitively to the fact that Abraham Ritchie did not desert. He served his country for nearly four years and was honorably discharged. The second oddity is the assertion in his pension application that he was injured in the Battle of Trenton. He does not specify which battle he means, the famous December 25th crossing of the Delaware and the ensuing December 26th battle, or the lesser-known January 2, 1777 battle. It is unclear which unit Ritchie could have been serving with at the time. Ritchie’s 13th Virginia Regiment (later in the war, the 9th) did not participate in either Trenton engagement. The regiment was not officially formed until a few months after the Trenton battles. There were however units of Pennsylvania and Virginia militia involved in both battles. Ritchie may have joined a militia unit such as Colonel Edward Hand’s Pennsylvania Rifles after he was “desorted” in August 1776, and that could explain his stated presence and wound at either Battle of Trenton. Militia records and rosters are spotty at best, and enlistments were for short periods. Padding one’s resumé for the sake of a soldier’s pension application was not unheard of but claiming injury in a famed historic battle would be a stretch! It’s best, and easiest, to take Ritchie’s honest assertion about his service at face value. The third oddity in the records is the date of Ritchie’s death. His tombstone puts it on August 15, 1828. The pension records state that he died on August 15, 1830. It could just be a clerical error, but it could also be that his family kept raking in the pension money for a couple of years after his actual death.
The local Daughters of the American Revolution representative put me in touch with a woman who is related to Abraham Ritchie. She stated that family lore places Ritchie at Valley Forge with his regiment during that storied winter of deprivation for the struggling Continental forces. Some men of the 13th Virginia Regiment spent the harsh winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge and some at Fort Pitt. There is extant a February 1778 letter from the 13th’s Colonel Russell to George Washington lamenting the split of the regiment.7 Ritchie was at Fort Pitt that winter according to a muster roll dated March 17, 17788, so he was part of the contingent of the 13th that was not at Valley Forge. There is an online muster roll of soldiers who are known to have spent that winter at Valley Forge, searchable by regiment or name, and although some soldiers and officers of the 13th Regiment appear on it, Abraham Ritchie does not.9
I contacted my Congressman, Representative Conor Lamb, to find out how to commemorate Ritchie’s grave, and his office suggested I get in touch with the Allegheny County Veterans Services to ask if they could provide some sort of marker at the cemetery. It turns out that was a good idea, and the representative from the Veterans Services was excited about locating the resting place of a previously unknown local Revolutionary War soldier. After a few exchanged emails about Ritchie’s service and my submission of a copy of my Patrick Henry document and a copy of Ritchie’s pension application, the Veterans Services agreed that his grave should be marked with a flag holder. We agreed to meet at the cemetery. The Veterans Services looked in vain in their warehouse for a flag holder that designated Revolutionary War service and settled on providing a generic one. On the appointed day, the representative from the Veterans Services and her photographer suggested that I be the one to install the flag holder since I had initiated the whole process. It was an honor to provide that service for the old soldier, a long-overdue recognition (see figure 5).
Figure 5 The author installing a flag holder to commemorate Abraham Ritchie’s Revolutionary War service at the Hiland Presbyterian Church cemetery in Perrysville, Pennsylvania. Image courtesy of the author.
On Veterans Day 2020, the Allegheny County Veterans Services published a short piece and posted pictures of the event on their social media page. The local DAR is also interested in placing a plaque of recognition at Ritchie’s resting place.
Other than my involvement with the “discovery” of both Henry Batton’s and Abraham Ritchie’s resting places, is it possible that the two soldiers knew each other? I feel it is more than probable. Batton enlisted as a volunteer in August 1776 in Captain William Harrod’s Company of Colonel Thomas Gaddis’ Monongalia County Militia Regiment. Thomas Gaddis had enlisted as a Private in the 1st Company of the 13th Virginia at the same time Abraham Ritchie was a Private in the 5th Company. Given that a Regiment consisted of 640 men, it could be that Gaddis and Ritchie were acquainted. The 13th Virginia eventually became the 9th Virginia and was led by Colonel John Gibson, a common commander for both Batton and Ritchie. Henry Batton was from near Uniontown in modern-day Fayette County, and Abraham Ritchie lived in what is now Washington County, neighboring counties in today’s Southwestern Pennsylvania. Both areas were sparsely settled in 1776 when each man enlisted. The biggest population center in the area was Pittsburgh, and even fourteen years later in 1790 Pittsburgh boasted a population of only 376.10 Batton and Ritchie did not serve in the same places though. Batton’s service, according to his pension deposition, was in the Monongalia County Militia, primarily on duty at local forts, in present-day Washington County and at Fort Pitt in Pittsburgh. He served for short periods of time, typical for militia men, and was discharged and reenlisted repeatedly. Both men appear periodically on muster rolls at Fort Pitt, but in different organizations and at different times. Ritchie’s 13th Virginia Regiment was authorized in the Continental Army in 1776 and was officially organized in 1777 at Fort Pitt. Batton was at Fort Pitt in April of 1777, and Ritchie appears on muster rolls at Fort Pitt in March and December 1778. Ritchie stated that he was at the Battle of Trenton and the 13th also saw action in September and October 1777 at Brandywine and Germantown.11 It is impossible to say for sure that the two men were acquainted but given the commonality of their residences in 1776 in two sparsely populated neighboring counties and their military service in the same years, it is possible to say that they were at least aware of each other’s existence. There is no doubt that both Henry Batton and Abraham Ritchie were American patriots who served their country and ended up needing the financial support of their country in their old age.
I was too young to begin to understand the service and sacrifice of Henry Batton when my brother and I stumbled upon his grave in that abandoned cemetery in rural Indiana. I can appreciate it more fully now, after sixty years of interest in American history. Locating the final resting place of Abraham Ritchie, thanks to a document in my collection, was an odd coincidental echo of my childhood explorations. Both men’s burial sites are now known and properly commemorated, and these two brave patriots are honored as true American heroes.
About the Author
Christian K. Dahl is a collector. He started by collecting letters of American Cabinet Officers, and moved on to Presidents, Vice-Presidents, First Ladies, and Civil War luminaries. He particularly enjoys the research into his finds. Now retired, he was employed as a free-lance television cameraman, and worked the World Series, Stanley Cup playoffs, major golf tournaments, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, David Frost interviews, and the Olympics. He is a previous contributor to Manuscripts, writing about Thomas Jefferson’s polygraph machine, First Lady’s autographs, his parents’ post-World War II letters, a mysterious Arabic document in the Thomas Jefferson Papers, and most recently Lafayette’s triumphal 1824-25 return visit to the United States. He can be contacted by e-mail at: email@example.com.
- http://www.porterhistory.org/2018/01/revolutionary-war-soldiers-of-porter.html?m=1, accessed November 14, 2020.
- http://image.lva.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/drawer?retrieve_image=Revolution&type=rw&reel=22&start=541&end=541, accessed April 30, 2021.
- https://sites.rootsweb.om/~njm1/.Hiland1.htm, accessed November 16, 2020.
- http://revwarapps.org/s40347.pdf, accessed November 16, 2020.
- https://www.fold3.com/image/16176687 and https://www.fold3.com/image/16176696, accessed November 17, 2020.
- Thanks to fellow Manuscript Society member Carrie Stanny, who brainstormed with me as to the possible meaning of “desorted”.
- https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Correspondent%3A%22Washington%2C%20George%22%20Correspondent%3A%22Russell%2C%20William%20Sr.%22&s=1111311111&r=1, accessed November 14, 2020.
- https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-99WB-881T?i=378&cc=2068326&personaUrl=%2Fark%3A%2F61903%2F1%3A1%3AQGXT-3FKV, accessed November 18, 2020.
- http://valleyforgemusterroll.org/mustr.asp, accessed March 10, 2021.
- http://www.brooklineonnection.com/history/Facts/Growth.html, accessed November 17, 2020.
- https://revolutionarywar.us/continental-army/virginia/#va-13, accessed November 17, 2020.