Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Joseph Harris – Portage Valley Pioneer

This essay was published in a different form in the May 2010 Bend of the River.

Joseph Harris – Portage Valley Pioneer

In the history of our land, the first European visitor was often a hunter or trapper. We have romanticized the trapper. Exploring soundless forests, looking out over nameless streams, blazing trails where none were there before, living off the land; the frontiersmen led a romantic lifestyle indeed. But you would have to temper that description with a clear understanding of what the settler was doing out in the wilderness. He was often a man on the make, there to make money, not to provide fodder for novels. Along with exploration and trading, he was also a candidate for alcoholism, fleas, untreated diseases, illiteracy, violence, and rapaciousness.

But the myth persists, and in some cases the negatives make the myths all the more powerful. Daniel Boone, David Crockett, Kit Carson, even our own Peter Navarre make for enduring frontier heroes. Less well known was Joseph Harris (17?? – 1820), a frontier settler who lived on the bank of the Portage River in Ottawa County near what is now Elmore, Ohio. We do not know much about Joseph Harris, but to recall his faint traces is a way to lead us into the world of the hunter/trapper/pioneer. And whatever his good points and bad points, he could read and write, giving us a way into his world that few of his fellow trappers could utilize.

Joseph Harris arrived in Ohio from Middletown, Connecticut “as early as 1797.” He lived in Cadiz and Harrisville in Harrison County and in Randolph, Portage County, before moving to the wilderness along the Portage River not far from its mouth at Lake Erie. At what is now the southeast corner of the bridge across Portage River in Elmore, he built a log cabin. At the time, this log cabin was the only European dwelling between Fremont and the Maumee River. He married a woman named was Elsey Newman, and they had at least one child. His brother-in-law, Jesse H. Newman of Croghansville (now part of Fremont) wrote of him in August 1819:

J. Harris (my Brother-in-law) who lives in that remote spot in the Black Swamp is well. Likewise his little family he is getting Rich notwithstanding he lives in the Wilderness…

A history of Ottawa County states that he settled on Portage River in 1818 “to live and trade among the Ottawa Indians.” We don’t know if the trade made him rich (a relative term), but a badly mutilated but partially readable 1818 letter from Harris to his agent, Jesse Olmsted (1792-1882) in Sandusky, survives and gives hints at the nature of his trade:

Portage River, March 1, 1818
Mr Olmsted,
Sir, I sent by Mr.....
23 Racons
25 Musc[rat]
90 Rabbits

Sir, if you will Receive... Loot of furs at this [?] you...
...please to place it to my credit and if not Mr. [Deleare?] will give you the cash for the 20 Bushels of oats and if you take the skins I wish him to fetch 60 B Moore.
Sir, with respect yours,
Joseph Harris

Jesse Olmsted, a native of Albany, New York, had come to Sandusky in the fall of 1817 with his brother George and built the area’s first general store. Two stories high, the Olmsted brothers store carried dry goods, groceries, hardware, and miscellaneous items. We don’t know if Jesse Olmsted routinely bought furs or not, but he bought from Joseph Harris, and contributed to Harris’s being “rich.”

When Joseph Harris died in 1820, a list was made of his possessions for the probate court. The list shows that Harris was neither a total vagabond nor that he was wealthy. He owned some livestock (“1 Breeding mare,” five colts, 28 hogs, a yoke of oxen, and three cows) and some farming tools (sickles, wedge, spade, hoe, plough). He also owned the tools a frontiersman ( two “rifle guns,” hides, wolf trap, axes). That and his bedding, tableware, a “looking glass, a“French watch,” and (oddly) an 8-year-old bull kept at Fort Meigs completed his household articles.

That is about the extent of Joseph Harris’s life as recorded in contemporary sources. We can surmise a few more tidbits. His cabin probably acted as a makeshift tavern to accommodate the occasional traveler on the road to Perrysburg. Harris apparently got along with or was at least tolerated by the Ottawa Indians; they might have acted as guides for some of his hunting exploits. And, presumably, Harris was an expert skinner of animals, as the 90 rabbits could testify.

When Joseph Harris died, he was likely buried in Elmore, although where and by whom is unknown. In that same year, another pioneer, John Fletcher, built a second log cabin near that of Harris. Fletcher’s brother-in-law, John Rosman, lived in the late Joseph Harris’s cabin. They never owned land in Ottawa County, but were, probably like Joseph Harris, transients. The land on which Harris lived was a popular place to cross Portage River owing to a stony bottom.

The world of Joseph Harris is gone, as drastically changed as his livelihood. The swampy woods he hunted are now flat green fields. Elmore is now a tidy village rather than a clearing inhabited by a few rough hunters. A nuclear power plant hovers on a horizon which Harris could not have imagined. And yet, with help of his single written letter, we can, at least, learn the lesson that nothing in this world lasts forever.

[I would like to thank Jennifer Fording, Local History Librarian, Harris-Elmore Public Library, and John Ransom of the Hayes Presidential Library for contributing to the research on Mr. Harris. I would also like to thank Richard Harris Smith, the agent who most recently handled the Harris manuscript. He and the owner of the Harris letter kindly allowed me to quote it.]