Historical Review of Dauphin County
Transcribed by Robert Demy rdemy@earthlink.net for The Dauphin County, Pennsylvania Genealogy Transcription Project http://maley.net/transcription.
Date of Transcription: 13 Oct 2000
Copyright (c) 2000 All Rights Reserved: Use, duplication or reproduction for profit or presentation by any person or organization is strictly prohibited.


John Harris, Trader and Pioneer -- Early Assessment Lists.

As stated, the settlers began to pour in, and warrants for land were taken up in various townships, as soon as the land office was opened, it having been closed from the time of the death of William Penn until 1732. For a record of these warrantees our readers are referred to the author's History of Dauphin County, published in 1883. Most of these show who were the first settlers in the various townships now forming Dauphin county. It was not for twenty years after the organization of the county of Lancaster that we have any assessment lists, giving the names of the people who inhabited the various townships. Recently the earliest in existence, commencing in 1751 and continuing down to the time of the Revolution, came into our possession and copies made therefrom. For permanent reference these lists are of great value and we include them in this sketch of the history of our county as being of very great import in locating the earliest settlers.

The first English trader we hear of within the limits of the county was John Harris. The fears of the French, who were constantly gaining ground in the northwestern part of the Province, and especially of "Papists," which all at once seems to have filled our Quaker friends with terror, it became absolutely necessary to license only English traders, and they of Protestant proclivities, so as to prevent communication with the French on the Ohio. Among the first was John Harris, who perchance entered this then lucrative field, the Indian trade, at the suggestion of his most intimate friend, Edward Shippen, Provincial Secretary.

Of the John Harris who thus located permanently at Harrisburg, and who gave name to that city, it may not be inappropriate to refer. "He was as honest a man as ever broke bread" was the high eulogium pronounced by Parson Elder, of blessed memory, as he spoke of the pioneer in after years. Born in the county of Yorkshire, England, although of Welsh descent, about the year 1673, he was brought up in the trade of his father, that of a brewer. Leaving his home on reaching his majority, he worked at his calling some time in the city of London, where he joined, a few years afterwards, a company from his native district, who emigrated to Pennsylvania two or three years prior to Penn's second visit to his Province. Watson states that John Harris' "entire capital amounted to only sixteen guineas."

We first hear of him after his arrival in Philadelphia as a contractor for clearing and grading the streets of that ancient village. In 1698 his name is appended to a remonstrance to the Provincial Assembly against the passage of an act disallowing the franchise to all persons owning real estate less in value than fifty pounds. The memorial had its effect, and the objectionable law was repealed. By letters of introduction to Edward Shippen, the first mayor of Philadelphia, that distinguished gentleman became his steadfast friend, and through his influence, no doubt, were secured those favors which induced him eventually to become the first permanent settler in this locality.

In January, 1705, John Harris received his license from the commissioners of property authorizing and allowing him to "seat himself on the Sasquahannah," and "to erect such buildings as are necessary for his trade, and to enclose and improve such quantities of land as he shall think fit." At once he set about building a log house near the Ganawese (Conoy) settlement, but the Indians made complaint to the government that it made them "uneasie," desiring to know if they encouraged it. As in numerous instances when the provincial authorities were taken to task, they disavowed their own acts. Nevertheless, the "trader" continued his avocation, making frequent visits to the Swawanese villages at the Conewago and Swatara. It is doubtful if John Harris came farther west until after the permanent removal of all the French traders.

It was during one of his expeditions that Harris first beheld the beauty and advantages of the location at Paxtang. It was the best fording place on the Susquehanna, and then, as now in these later days, on the great highway between the North and South, the East and West. Annually the chiefs of the Five Nations went to the Carolinas, where were located their vast hunting-grounds, and these, returning with peltries, found need of a trading-post. The eye of that hardy pioneer, looking out over the vast expanse of wood, and plain, and river, saw and knew that it was the place for the realization of that fond dream of the founder of Pennsylvania, the great and good Penn, "a city on the Susquehanna." At the period referred to, the lands lying between the Conewago or Lechay Hills and Kittochtinny or Blue Mountains had not been purchased from the Indians. Of course, neither John Harris nor the Scotch-Irish settlers could locate except by the right of squatter sovereignty or as licensed traders. As a trader, it could only be with the permission of the Indians.

Harris' first move was the erection of a store-house, which he surrounded by a stockade. It was located on the lower bank of the river, at about what is now the foot of Paxtang street. A well dug by him still exists, although covered over about thirty-five years ago, the old pump stock having become useless and the platform dangerous. A mound or hillock about one hundred feet southeast of the graveyard denotes the spot. "For almost a century," in the language of the late David Harris, "this well supplied a large neighborhood with water, which was exceedingly cool and pleasant to the taste." Adjoining his cabin were sheds for the housing of peltries obtained by traffic, which at stated periods were conveyed to Philadelphia on pack-horses.

Some years prior to 1718 an incident took place in the life of John Harris which has received all sorts of versions, and even doubts of truthfulness. We shall give it as we believe it, and as traditionary and other facts in our possession supply the material therefor. All the French traders having "gone over Sasquahannah," John Harris monopolized the business at Paxtang. In glancing over the records of the Province of Pennsylvania, frequent allusions are made to the excursions of the northern Indians, either to hunting-grounds in the South or to a conflict with a deadly foe. At one time the Onondagoes, on a predatory excursion against the Talapoosas, in Virginia, descending the Susquehanna, left their canoes at Harris', proceeding thence to the scene of strife. Situated as he was, at the best ford on the river, he commanded an extensive trade. His Indian neighbors (Shawanese) were very friendly, and of course would not allow any strange or predatory bands to molest him. The deadly foe of the red race is rum, and although the selling of it was expressly forbidden by the provincial authorities, yet there was scarcely a treaty or conference without this potion being a part of the presents made by the refined white man to his ignorant red brother. Of a consequence liquor was sold, and we are told by Conrad Weiser that on one occasion "on the Sasquahannah," the Indians whom he was conducting to Philadelphia became so drunk that he was fearful of them and left them. At the first period referred to, it seems a predatory band of Indians, on returning from the Carolinas, or the " Patowmack," naturally halted at John Harris'. In exchanging part of their goods, probably rum -- for this seems to have been the principal beverage drunk at that period -- was one of the articles in barter. At least we have it by tradition that the Indians became riotous in their drunken revelry, and demanding more rum were refused by Mr. Harris, who began to fear harm from his visitors. Not to be denied, they again demanded liquor, and seizing him, they took him to a tree near by, binding him thereto. After helping themselves to whatever they wanted of his stores, they danced around the unhappy captive, who no doubt thought his death was nigh.

Prior to this the Indian village of Paxtang had been deserted, and the inhabitants removed to the west side of the Susquehanna. On the bluff opposite John Harris', as also at the mouth of the Yellow Breeches, there were lodges of Shawanese, and these held our Indian trader in high esteem. Information was taken them by Mr. Harris' negro servant, when at once were summoned the warriors, who crossed the river, where after a slight struggle with the drunken Indians they rescued from a death of torture their white friend.

Esther, a daughter of the first John Harris, left three daughters: Elizabeth, married to Samuel Maclay; Isabella, married to William Bell, of New York, and Margaret, married to Isaac Richardson, of Pennsylvania, and then or subsequently living in York county. All of these granddaughters made statements in relation to the occurrence in question.

In the year 1840 G. W. Harris had a conversation with Mrs. Bell on this subject. She stated that she was born in 1760. That in 1766 she was coming from Carlisle, where she lived, to Harrisburg with her father and some of her sisters. When they came to the river opposite to Harrisburg, where William Harris was then living, some of the children pointed to an old man fishing in the river, and they mentioned that he had saved the life of his master, John Harris, from the Indians. She said that she understood it to be when he was tied to the mulberry tree.

Robert Maclay, of Kishacoquillas Valley, Mifflin county, wrote some years ago a statement as to this matter, from information obtained from his mother and her sisters, Mrs. Bell and Mrs. Richardson. His statement is to the effect that a party of Indians came to trade, and after obtaining what Mr. Harris had given to them, or traded for, they demanded rum, which he refused. They then determined to burn him, and bound him with hickory withes to a mulberry tree on the bank of the river, and commenced gathering and piling wood around him. While they were gathering wood his negro man, Hercules, slipped off and informed friendly Indians on the opposite side of the river, who at once came in sufficient force to rescue and save his master. He added, as the statement of these ladies, that Mr. Harris set Hercules free, and that afterwards he directed that he should be buried under the mulberry tree. Hercules died a considerable time after the death of John Harris, and is buried there.

Mr. Maclay also furnished a statement, which he had heard front his mother, to the effect that some friends endeavored to dissuade the old gentleman, Mr. Harris, from his determination to be buried under the mulberry tree, alleging that the river bank was being washed away and the grave might be exposed and perhaps wasted away, and that he ought to be buried in the Paxtang church graveyard, but that he silenced all argument by saying that if you bury me out in Paxtang I'll get up and come back. One of his daughters, Mrs. Elizabeth Finley, is also buried under the mulberry tree.

Here, then, is the statement, of Robert Harris, a grandson of John Harris, and of three of his granddaughters to the alleged occurrence at the mulberry tree, and Mr. Harris adds that Mrs. Bell and Mrs. Richardson were known to him, and were persons of superior intellect.

Robert Maclay also mentioned an incident, as derived from the same source, that an Indian in a distressed condition, on a cold night, came to the house of John Harris and sought admission. He was received and lay by the fire during the night. When the Indians came to the relief of John Harris it is said that this Indian was with them.

As to whether the alarm was given by Hercules, in a conversation with Robert Harris, about the year 1840, in which he said that the alarm on the occasion in question was not given by Hercules, but in some other way, how he did not know; but that Hercules had saved the life of his master on another occasion, I think he said when he was endangered from a steer in the flat on the river. But Mr. Samuel Breck, of Philadelphia, previous to October, 1827, wrote an account relative to Harrisburg, in which, in reference to this alleged occurrence at the mulberry tree, he states that the Indians who came to the relief of John Harris were led by Hercules, and he adds that the narrative was submitted in substance to the inspection of Mr. Robert Harris, and declared by him to he correct.

When the picture relative to that scene (in possession of the State of Pennsylvania) was painted by Reeder, who was in communication with Robert Harris, the latter, it would seem, was of opinion that the alarm was not given by Hercules, and Hercules did not appear in it. His attention may not have been directed especially to the statement relative to Hercules in the narrative of Mr. Breck, or his subsequent recollection may have been at fault. The burden of evidence seems to be that the alarm was given by Hercules, and if it were, he is entitled to representation in the picture.

We have been thus explicit because the incident has been stated as untrue, and hence have given such traditionary evidence as it has been possible to obtain.

Although no mention of these facts is made in the provincial records, there may possibly have been good reason therefor, and it is well known that many incidents, well authenticated in later years, have not been noted in the documents referred to. By tradition and private sources alone are they preserved from oblivion. It was no myth, this attempt to burn John Harris, and although the pen and pencil have joined in making therefrom a romance and heightened it with many a gaudy coloring, yet accurate resources have furnished us with the details here given.

The remains of this tree, which in the memory of the oldest inhabitant bore fruit, stood until 1865 within the enclosure -- a striking memento of that thrilling incident. The late George W. Harris furnished the author with certain corrobatory <sic> traditional evidence, which is herewith given. That it did occur was not only traditional in the Harris family but also in others. The writer's grandmother, Mrs. Elizabeth (Thomas) Egle, tarried when a child of fifteen at John Harris', her father then being on his way from Philadelphia to his home at his mill on the Yellow Breeches. John Harris, the founder, in the course of conversation with her father alluded to the mulberry tree and the rude inclosure of the graves at its foot, and distinctly remembers then hearing the story in detail which we have given.

Robert Harris, a grandson of the Indian trader, stated it as a fact in which he believed. According to a memorandum, made in his lifetime, he stated that a band of Indians came to the house of his grandfather and demanded rum. He saw that they were intoxicated, and he feared mischief if he gave them more rum. They became enraged and tied him to the tree for burning. The alarm was given, and Indians from the opposite side of the river came and after a struggle released him.