19 May 2011

Fact Finding Mission

Genealogy teachers and lecturers often tell people about the marvelous discoveries awaiting in heritage books, mug books and local /county history books. They less often teach how to use those effectively. You need to evaluate the information in these works for consistency, and then seek corroboration from original sources.

My 3rd great grandfather is Hillory Asbeth 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 but everyone just called her "Duck" (don't ask - I haven't got a clue). In 1880, they appear in the " History of Poweshiek County, Iowa" 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 County was formed from Surry County in 1850 after the census was taken. However, when this biography was written, Jonesville most certainly was in Yadkin County. VERIFIED.

2. At the age of 18, went to Trinity College, Randolph County where he remained for 6 years
H.A.T. was 18 years old in the year 1853. 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. In 1859 the transformation was formalized with a name change to Trinity College. Today this college is Duke University.

I contacted the Duke University Archivist, Thomas Harkins and asked him if student records were extant for the years 1853 to 1859, the years H.A.T. Harris would have been a student. Mr. Harkins replied:

" H.A.T. Harris was indeed a student at the college. He 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 he never claimed that he graduated so I am calling this statement  VERFIED.

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

This would have been the years 1860-1862. Rather than run myself ragged looking for the school, I decided to locate H.A.T. Harris' residence during those years. From the 1860 census, I found him and his wife living in Lincolnton, Lincoln County, North Carolina. His occupation is Methodist Minister.

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 according to 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 exist that pertain to the teaching staff.

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

4. He then took up the work of missionary in that state which he followed for 3 years

The 1860 census gave H.A.T. Harris' occupation as a Methodist Minister. Looking for more detailed information about his career led me to the Western North Carolina Methodist Archives. I spoke with Nancy Anderson, the head archivist and the next day she emailed the following information to me:

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.

I think that this fact is proven and VERIFIED.

With this new-found information, I now have more questions.  A particularly nagging one is -
H.A.T. Harris was living in Lincoln County, North Carolina and in his early 30's during the years of the Civil War.  I have not found any evidence that he served as a soldier for either the Union or Confederate side.  I am wondering if perhaps ministers were exempt from having to serve in the military?  If not, then why wasn't he snatched up and made to fight?  


  1. I really enjoy reading accounts like this, Sheri, where someone has taken the time to thoroughly research and document family legends or "facts" claimed later in life. In my view, it's a very important part of the genealogical/family history process, and one which is so often disregarded as being too difficult, or pointless because it's all a myth anyway.

    In my experience, many - perhaps even most - of the family stories, even if they aren't entirely factually correct, have some basis in fact, and it is often possible, with enough perseverance to dig out the salients facts. Well done.

  2. Don't you just love it how you find answers to all those questions ... and yet have that one nagging burning head scratcher that won't let you close the case on this particular family member? Looking forward to your filing the next edition!

  3. Excellent research, and you turned up some really interesting information. I also have a few guys in the family tree who appear to have been the right age to serve but for whom I can find no records. Guess that will be a good research problem to tackle.

  4. found this:

  5. this is from an 1967 Times:

  6. Brett - High praise indeed coming from you Mr. Payne (she says while batting her eyelashes)thank you!

    Cindy - Isn't that the way it always goes!

    Greta - Somebody once told me that everyone had an ancestor who participated in the civil War at some point. It's up to us to find out what it was.

    Joyce - You Dahling Woman! Thank you so much for taking the time to find the article and post it here. A quick scan of the article tells me that yes indeedy, clergy were exempt from military service, but I'm off to read it more in depth.

  7. Thanks for writing about finding the facts - especially in biographical articles. I'm afraid too many take these types of articles as gospel truth. Unfortunately sometimes information about previous generations are erroneous because they are written after someone has died and subsequent generations only give information they think is correct or has been passed down. Excellent article, Sheri!