History & Tourism

Richland Roots: Farmer, State Governor, Alaskan Gold Miner

9 Nov , 2020  

By 1812Blockhouse

Richland County has produced or been the home to a wide variety of individuals that have made important contributions to local, state, or national history. 1812Blockhouse has been sharing their stories in a series called “Richland Roots.” This is a brand new post; for other Richland Roots stories, click here.

Today on 1812Blockhouse we look at the remarkable life of a local man whose life took many twists and turns.

His name was John Whitnah Leedy, and he was born near Bellville on March 8, 1849. His paternal grandfather John Leedy had come to southern Richland County about 1815; his father Samuel Leedy was known as a singer and tavern keeper.

During the Civil War, John tried to enlist in the Union Army at the age of 15 but his mother made the trip to Mansfield to stop the enlistment. Arguments ensued, his mother relented, and he went into the service in 1864.

After the war, Leedy left Richland County, first to Indiana and then Illinois. He finally ended up moving to Kansas about 1880 where he turned to farming as an occupation, with politics as a sideline.

First a Republican, he then became a Democrat, and finally changed affiliation in 1890 to the new Populist Party. He rose through the ranks, being elected in 1892 to the Kansas State Senate and then in 1896 to the position of Governor of the State of Kansas.

His single term as Governor was highlighted by practical improvements to schools, banking, and communication, and also organized regiments for service in the short Spanish-American War. He was critical of private railroads, and the press and public were critical of him. The Topeka Daily Democrat shared in 1898, “To the would-be Dictator, John W. Leedy: You have started to play a great hand, but you have neither the ability nor nerve to make it a winning game.” These feelings led to his defeat for renomination in 1898.

Leedy soon moved to Alaska to try his hand at gold mining, where he found tremendous success and served as mayor of Valdez for two years.

Almost 30 years later, Leedy died in Edmonton, Alberta, completely without means. The Kansas State Legislature contributed $1,000 for his funeral expenses and for a grave marker.

Sources: Kansas Historical Society, Wikipedia, Find-a-Grave, Topeka Daily Democrat

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