09 September 2008

County History Books - Checking the Facts

Most of us have an ancestor who made the pages of a county history "mug book". Most all of us know that said ancestor paid to have their biographies published in said books. Providing that said ancestor did not go overboard embellishing his life story, there is a wealth of information to be found.

My 3rd great grandfather is Hillory Asbury Taylor Harris, who always went by his initials - H.A.T. Harris. He married Mary Ann Frances Bess, who went by her initials M.A.F. Harris and I can't help but think that he married her for her name. She must not have thought it very clever to be known as M.A.F. because whenever family refers to her she is called "Duck".

But I digress ... In 1880, " History of Poweshiek County, Iowa" was published by the Union Hist. Co. of Des Moines, Iowa. On page 790 is the biography for H.A.T. Harris:

HARRIS, H.A.T.—Washington Twp— Farmer and stock-raiser, section 33, P.O. Searsboro. Was born October 9, 1835, in Jonesville, Yadkin county, North Carolina, where he remained until he was eighteen years of age. He then went to Trinity College, Randolph county, same State, where he remained for six years, after which he became principal of Pleasant Home Academy, which position he filled for two years. He then took up the work of missionary in that State, which he followed for three years, his average traveling per year being 350 miles. It was said of him, while on his missionary duties, that he did more work than any other of the conference; but as his health failed him he was obliged to give it up and follow something else. In the year 1869 he moved to his present location. He was married, in 1860, to Mary Ann F. Bess, a native of North Carolina. Their family consists of six children: George W., Bessie, Flora, Jenette F.C., Evan D. and E. Jurishua. Lost two: Lewis and Ada. His farm consists of 142 acres, all under cultivation.

Let's check the facts, shall we?

1. Born 9 October 1835 in Jonesville, Yadkin County, North Carolina - H.A.T.'s death certificate, obituary and headstone all confirm the date, however, Jonesville in 1835 was in Surry County, North Carolina. Yadkin was formed from Surry County in 1850, after the census of 1850 was enumerated. In 1850 H.A.T. is enumerated with his grandparents (Benjamin and Mary Naylor), mother (Mildred Welborn) and step-father (Harrison Welborn)as living in the South Division of Surry County, North Carolina. But when this biography was written, Jonesville most certainly was in Yadkin County.

2. At the age of 18, went to Trinity College, Randolph County where he remained for 6 years. - This one required a bit of research. H.A.T. was 18 years old in the year 1853. In that year the only university in Randolph County was Normal College which had been granted a charter in 1851 and the privilege of granting degrees in 1853.

It seems the College experienced financial problems shortly thereafter. To keep the school operating, the trustees agreed to provide free education for Methodist men in return for financial support from the Methodist church , and in 1859 the transformation was formalized with a name change to Trinity College. In the here and now, 2008, this college is now known as Duke University.

At this point I had no idea what flavor of religion he had chosen for himself, but looking at #4 below tells me that it is possible he was Methodist and if so might have taken advantage of a free college education. I wanted more than a probability, so I contacted the Duke University Archivist, Thomas Harkins and asked him if student records were extant for this time period. Mr. Harkins was extremely helpful and a very nice man. His reply informed me that H.A.T. was indeed a student at the college. From Mr. Harkins - "H.A.T. Harris was in the fourth division, or first year, of the "English department. Students in that department took mathematics, English literature, natural sciences, and several other courses, but did not take the Latin and Greek that were part of the "Regular," or classical, curriculum. He attended 1853-1859, but there is no record of him receiving a diploma."

Well two for two. H.A.T. Harris was at college for 6 years.

3. Became principal of Pleasant Home Academy, which position he filled for two years -

I will be honest here and tell you that I didn't even try looking for Pleasant Home Academy first. I instead decided to locate him in the 1860 census and then look for his place of employment.

I found him in Lincolnton, Lincoln County, North Carolina, living with his wife "Duck" in the home of her parents, Peter and Sarah Bess.

HARRIS, H. A. T., age 26, Minister Methodist Episcopal, value of personal estate $130, b. Surry County, N.C. , married within the year.
HARRIS, MARY A. F.,age 18, born Lincoln County, N.C. , married within the year

Well this corroborates #1 and #2 as well as #4 below.

Lincoln county did have a school called "Pleasant Retreat Academy" which was chartered in 1813 and was in operation until after the Civil War. The school was not owned by the Methodist Church but it was definitely Methodist flavored. In 1908 the school building was given to The Daughters of the Confederacy and turned into a memorial hall. In the book "The Annals of Lincoln County" by William L. Sherrill, A Minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, pub. 1937 - Mr. Sherrill advises that records no longer exists pertaining to the teaching staff.

From the information I have, there is an extremely good possibility that H.A.T. Harris was indeed a principal for the academy.

4. He then took up the work of missionary in that state which he followed for 3 years - H. A. T. Harris was in fact a Methodist Minister. A search of marriage records for Lincoln County, North Carolina show that he performed marriage ceremonies from 1863 until 1868. Thinking that he must have been ordained or licensed or have some kind of credentials from the Methodist Church. I contacted yet another friendly archivist from the Western North Carolina Methodist Archives. Nancy Anderson, the head archivist is a saint. She responded to my email the very next day with this information:

We have some information on H.A.T. Harris. He was a preacher in western North Carolina between 1861 and 1869. From 1861 until 1866 he was a preacher of the Methodist Protestant Church. In 1866 he was involved in the meeting that set up the Virginia and North Carolina Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. (This was the northern branch of Methodism. Most southern Methodists were members of the Methodist Episcopal Church South or Methodist Protestants.) If he moved to Iowa in 1869, he would have accepted as a member of the Methodist Church there, which was the Methodist Episcopal Church. During the Civil War he was in the area of Lincoln County as a Methodist Protestant. In 1862 he was assigned to the Cleveland Circuit, which is located in Cleveland County near Shelby and King’s Mountain, but which also probably went east to the Catawba River. In 1863 he was assigned to the Catawba Mission, which would have included Lincoln County which is bordered by the Catawba River to the east. The designation of Mission went to those areas where there were not many Methodist Protestants, and some financial aid was provided until they got on their feet. In 1864 he was assigned to the Catawba Circuit. It didn’t stay a mission very long and was never a mission to any ethnic group. In 1865 he was without appointment at his request, and in 1866 he withdrew from the Methodist Protestants. In 1867 he was admitted as a minister to the Methodist Episcopal Church. His appointments from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1867 and 1868 were in Wilkes County in the northern part of North Carolina. In 1869 he was appointed to the Yadkin Circuit, which is the county adjacent to Wilkes County. This information confirms that H.A.T. Harris was preaching in Lincoln County during the Civil War. I don’t have any means of getting any more family information. Just a thought, which I have no proof of. Many of the marriages he performed might have been of freed slaves, who under slavery were not allowed to marry. Several of my sources of North Carolina history have mentioned that as soon as marriage was legal for the freed men, many couples presented themselves for marriage. I have a list of his appointments from a data base that I can send you. I also have a description of the 1867 Methodist Episcopal Conference that he helped set up.

One little paragraph in a county history book led me to this treasure trove of information. Have you checked the facts on your ancestors?


  1. Heh, Sheri, The Ancestry Insider says in a recent post:

    "I'm capable of starting a precedent. Just look at the recent surge in usage of the phrase "but I digress" among genealogy bloggers."

    Perhaps AI reads your blog...;-)

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  3. Sheri...well done and clearly explained.....