Biography of John Duffy Robertson

John Duffy Robertson. Of the men who have attained commercial prominence, based upon character as well as ability, and made their influence felt not only in one locality but throughout the State of Kansas, there is every reason to give permanent record to the career of the late John Duffy Robertson.

Mr. Robertson was one of the pioneer merchants of Jewell. He helped found and build up that town. In a few years his success was more than local as he possessed the rare faculty of being able to handle many diverse interests, and these interests became rapidly extended until his reputation as a banker and financier was more than state wide. While he was an officer in many banks, perhaps he was best known, especially in the latter years of his life, as president of the Interstate National Bank of Kansas City, Kansas–now in Missouri in the Live Stock Exchange Building.

John D. Robertson was reared in a home of substantial comforts and with every encouragement to make the best of his ability, yet he may be said to have begun life at the very bottom of the ladder. He made a steady and sturdy climb to success. He was born on a farm near Mount Union, Pennsylvania, September 25, 1846. He was the youngest of five children born to John and Mary Ann (Parks) Robertson and survived them. Two of his brothers saw active service in the Civil war as Union soldiers. David was sent home on account of injuries received in battle and died in Pennsylvania. Lemuel, it is thought, was lost in the Battle of the Wilderness but nothing was ever known of his exact fate. This branch of the Robertson family was founded in America by the late Mr. Robertson’s great-grandfather, who came from England and located in Pennsylvania. His son George was the father of nine children, the second of whom was John Robertson. The family as a whole followed farming as an occupation and it is believed that one or more of these early ancestors fought in the Revolutionary war.

When John D. was still an infant his parents moved to Newton Hamilton, Pennsylvania, on the banks of the beautiful Juniata River. There, in 1850, when he was four years old, the baby’s mother died. In order that the children might not suffer from the lack of a mother’s care, the father then married Maria Hamilton, who proved not only an excellent home maker but a splendid mother to her foster children.

These are a few items of the family history and some glimpses of the circumstances in which John D. Robertson spent his early years. He attended the common schools and when a youth qualified as a teacher but, after a brief experience in that work, he found himself ill adapted for its continuance and resigned his place in the school room, determined to make his way in some commercial field. Prior to engaging as a teacher he had attended Shirleysburg Academy for two years and had earned the best part of his education by employment as a mail carrier. This work was done between the ages of twelve and fourteen and he covered his route on horseback with the mail sack in front of him.

J. D. learned merchandising as a clerk in the store conducted by Mr. John Purcell, in Newton Hamilton, Pennsylvania, and under him gained a very thorough knowledge of country merchandising. He also took a course in bookkeeping in the Bryant and Stratton Business College and was graduated from that institution with high honors.

In 1869 Edward B. Purcell, a son of John Purcell, decided to come to Manhattan, Kansas, where he located and founded one of the early stores of that town. With Ed Purcell came young Robertson, who was employed as bookkeeper. The year he spent in that work gave him time to familiarize himself with the wonderful opportunities of the Sunflower State and he was not one to allow opportunity to knock at his door unheeded. He was thrifty and saved from his earnings and his ability was such as to inspire his father with sufficient confidence to advance him $4,000 with which to go into business for himself. In three years J. D. was able to pay back his father’s loan.

Mr. Robertson loaded a stock of goods on wagons and hauled it to what is now the lost Town of Lake Sibley, three miles from the present location of Concordia. Not being satisfied there, a few months later he moved to Jewell City, on what was then the frontier of Kansas. Jewell then had about twenty houses, was without railroad connection and was a distance of 103 miles overland from Manhattan.

Mr. Robertson arrived in Jewell City in April, 1871. The first night he slept under his wagon on the ground. In a day or so he had secured a storeroom, arranged his stock of goods and commenced to enjoy a very promising trade.

Col. Elden Barker and family moved to Manhattan, Kansas, from Maine, during the year J. D. lived there. One of the daughters, Ruth Barker, inspired young Robertson with some of the determination which characterized his early endeavors as a merchant on the western prairies. Seeing his business in Jewell in a fair way to success, J. D. returned to Manhattan and on September 25, 1871, claimed his bride. This happy union was blessed with the birth of five children, none of whom are now living except Mrs. Georgia Robertson Baird, of Kansas City, Missouri, wife of Mr. Charles Baird, president of the Western Exchange Bank of that city. Georgia Oriana Robertson Baird was born January 30, 1875, and is the only child to survive her parents.

Mrs. Robertson was a sister of Mrs. George B. Crandall, whose husband was a pioneer druggist of Jewell City. Mrs. Robertson was directly descended from the Little family of Newbury, Massachusetts, where the name had long been one of distinction and prominence.

To the little Town of Jewell Mr. Robertson brought his bride and for several years they lived on what is known as the Gamble farm. John D. walked to and from the store and carried his lunch. Somewhat later, however, they built a home in town. With all the difficulties that had to be overcome in the early years, Jewell City thrived and grew and the business affairs of Mr. Robertson prospered and developed with the town. He kept increasing his stock, and also his staff of assistants, and in 1887 incorporated the business, bringing into the company his three senior clerks, William H. Cheney, Frank I. Drake and John Otis Laffer. The name of the company was The J. D. Robertson Mercantile Company.

The success of some men is built upon the misfortunes of others. The late Mr. Robertson’s success was not attained under such conditions. When he cast his fortunes in with the community of Jewell it was his resolute ambition to make a success of his enterprise but, at the same time, he took the broad view that the welfare of the community at large was equal in importance to his individual prosperity. In a few years the agricultural community surrounding Jewell had to contend with those calamities brought on by grasshoppers and drought and there were many families who would not have tided over this period had not Mr. Robertson assisted them. From his store he furnished provisions and other necessities and the credit thus extended was practically the only resource which enabled some of the early settlers to stem the tide of adversity and keep on until crop conditions were more favorable.

What he did in those early years was merely characteristic of his entire life. He was generous yet was an exceptionally keen judge of human nature and ordered his affairs so wisely that only occasionally was advantage taken of him.

Soon after Mr. Robertson moved to Jewell his father-in-law, Colonel Barker, also identified himself with that section and became a very prominent man. He was a surveyor and did much of the surveying in the northern part of the state. In 1870 Colonel Barker served as a member of the State Legislature.

Mr. Robertson was one of the organizers of the First National Bank of Jewell, capitalized at $50,000, and in 1887 became its president–a position he filled until his death. In 1896 he became president of the Inter-State National Bank of Kansas City, Kansas, now in Missouri, with Mr. Lee Clark of Parsons as vice president. For many years Mr. Robertson was considered one of the foremost financiers of Kansas. Among his extensive financial interests should be mentioned the following:

President of the Inter-State National Bank of Kansas City, Kansas., president of the First National Bank of Jewell City, Kansas, president of the Jewell Lumber Company, president of the Formosa Mercantile Company of Formosa, Kansas, president of the Formosa Lumber Company, president of the Mankato Lumber Company at Mankato, Kansas, and a stockholder and director in the First National Bank of Leavenworth, Kansas, Marion State Bank of Marion, Kansas, Citizens State Bank of Highlands, Kansas, First National Bank of Hoxie, Kansas, First National Bank of Wewoka, Oklahoma, First National Bank of Chickasha, Oklahoma, Ada State Bank of Ada, Kansas, Farmers National Bank of Hobart, Oklahoma, Farmers and Merchants National Bank of Plainville, Kansas, First National Bank of Phillipsburg, Kansas, Farmers National Bank of Oberlin, Kansas, and other banks.

Early in his mercantile career, J. D. became a large land owner in Jewell County and, in this way, became interested in the buying and feeding of cattle. It was his ability in this line and as a merchant and banker that led to his selection as president of the Inter-State National Bank and assisted greatly in the success of that institution. In the field of banking, based on cattle loans, he attained such a high degree of efficiency that at the time of his death he was probably the foremost banker in this field in the Southwest. He was acquainted with all the leading ranch men, cattle feeders and bankers in the states lying west of the Missouri River.

With all these interests so wisely directed, it was not strange that capable business men throughout the state often came to Mr. Robertson for advice. He was primarily a merchant and the habit of pleasing customers undoubtedly had much to do with his success. One principle on which he acted, and which he insisted a subordinate should follow, was that a customer who bought a spool of thread should have as much courteous attention as the one who bought a large order. He never outgrew a habit thus early formed and this is one of the fundamentals of successful business dealings of every kind. He was a business man of the strictest integrity, exercised rare tact in all transactions and his poise was seldom disturbed by any emergency. He was remarkably even tempered and in the tone of voice used in casual conversation he could address some reprimand or reproof, when necessary, and it is said he never lost a man’s friendship because of such criticism.

Mr. Robertson was a typical pioneer, possessed a splendid physique, tireless energy, optimism, and an indomitable will. He knew no such word as failure. He was gifted by nature with a wonderful memory, loved the companionship of his fellowmen, was courteous and affable in manner and made a host of friends among all classes of people. By his strong personality he rose from a clerk in a country store to the head of one of the greatest banks of the Southwest. He was a wide reader and traveler, hunter and angler and followed sport in the West from the Gulf to Canada and in the Rocky Mountains in the United States and Canada.

While Mr. Robertson had had a limited school education, he made the most of his advantages. By reading current literature, he informed himself upon vital topics of the day and utilized his exceptional powers of observation to a high degree.

Throughout his life, Mr. Robertson’s family was the burden of his thought and care. He was an exemplary husband and father. His first wife died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, September 24, 1904, while on a visit to her daughter. Later Mr. Robertson married Mrs. Minnie (Caldwell) Taylor, daughter of Alexander Caldwell, a prominent Kansan. Mr. and Mrs. Robertson then made their home in Leavenworth with Mrs. Robertson’s parents.

Mr. Robertson was a Mason and presided over the first convention held in Jewell City preparatory to the organization of Lodge No. 11, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, of which he became a charter member. He was exalted to the sublime degree of a Royal Arch Mason in Beloit Chapter No. 47, Royal Arch Masons, and also became a Knight Templar. On moving to Kansas City his other duties occupied so much of his time that he gave up active Masonic connections.

Mr. Robertson was a staunch republican, served as county commissioner of Jewell County, and for years was a member of the school board. He was always ready to support those public movements which meant better schools and churches and a better community as a whole. Mr. and Mrs. Robertson attended the Methodist Church in Jewell.

During his residence in Kansas City, Missouri, Mr. Robertson was elected president of the Commercial Club and served from October, 1905, to October, 1906.

The death of this honored figure in Kansas commercial life occurred at Leavenworth, Kansas, January 7, 1908. His body now rests in the beautiful cemetery at Jewell City beside his first wife and his children. The funeral was attended by bankers, merchants, stockmen and farmers from many points in the state all anxious to convey by their presence evidence of the very deep regret they felt at the death of Mr. Robertson and earnest consolation to the bereaved. His methods, axioms, integrity, industry, his devotion to trusts reposed in him; all survive him and serve as an inspiration to his friends and acquaintances.



Connelley, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Chicago : Lewis, 1918. 5v. Biographies can be accessed from this page: Kansas and Kansans Biographies.

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