The Problem of Elmer Fister

One of my early blog posts concerned the puzzle presented by my great grandfather, George Feister (1882-1952), who told his children that he had Native American ancestry. It would be a fairly credible claim to make, as George was born and raised in Cattaraugus County, New York, in which part of the Seneca Nation Reservation lies. But the evidence just isn’t there.

George R. Feister with Bill, Delia and Valeta, circa 1923

George R. Feister with children: Bill, Delia (my grandmother) and Valeta, circa 1923 in Olean, NY

George Fister was raised by his mother, DeEtta Bishop Brisley (1863-1947), and step-father, John Brisley (1861-1941). Lacking birth records for either George or his sister, Mary Fister, or a marriage record for DeEtta and their father, I sent for copies of George and Mary’s death records. George’s death record lists his father as Ralph Feister. Mary’s death record lists her father as Elmer Fister. Before receiving Mary’s death record, I had already surmised that Elmer Fister was their father (see my post on DeEtta Bishop Brisley).

Elmer grew up in Little Valley, Cattaraugus County, NY. He first shows up on the 1865 New York State Census living with his adoptive parents, George and Mary Cullen, and their adopted daughter, Elizabeth. George and Mary Cullen immigrated from England, probably before 1850. Of note on this Census record is that George Cullen is working another man’s farm, so he didn’t own his own place. At age 48, he was apparently a poor farmer. Also to note is that he was a naturalized citizen (click on image to enlarge).

1865 New York State Census

1865 New York State Census

As a minor, Elmer was listed on the 1865 New York State Census (above), 1870 U.S. Census and 1875 New York State Census with his adoptive father’s name. At the time of the 1880 U. S. Census, he was 19 years old and using his birth name, Elmer Fister. The Cullens were in their 60s by then, George had is own farm going, and Elmer worked on it.

As Elmer was growing up, DeEtta Bishop lived just down the road, and John Brisley’s family also lived nearby. The three of them grew up in Little Valley together and probably attended school together. The area was very rural, the population about 1150 people in 1875. (History of Little Valley)

The Nov. 18, 1881, issue of the Moravia Valley Register reported a curious incident involving Elmer: he was mugged. Why a newspaper about 200 miles away from Little Valley reported the event is mildly curious.

Moravia Valley Register 18 Nov 1861

Moravia Valley Register 18 Nov 1881

George Fister was born in Aug. 1881; his sister Mary was born in Feb. 1883. By 1888, their mother DeEtta had married John Brisley. There is a line on the 1930 U. S. Census which asked “Age at first marriage.” For John, that age was listed as 24, or the year 1885. For DeEtta, the age was 17, or the year 1880. Presumably, DeEtta and Elmer were married in Little Valley in the year 1880.

But, what happened to Elmer? Was there a divorce? Did he die? Were he and DeEtta actually ever married?

I have yet to find records which prove anything. But, “Elmer Fister” isn’t exactly a common name. Online searching for an Elmer Fister, born 1861 in New York, produces only one potential candidate. Presuming, that is, that he didn’t change his name or leave the country. Below is information gathered about him:

  • The 1915 New York State Census lists Elmer Fister living outside Buffalo. Age 53; single; living in a boarding house; employed as a peddler.
  • The 1920 U. S. Census lists Elmer Fister, his wife Marion, and his mother-in-law Gertrude Wilson, living in Irondequoit, Monroe County, New York. Marion and her mother were from Canada.
  • There is a memorial page on Find-a-Grave for Elmer Fister with the information that he died May 20, 1920, in Clarendon, Orleans County, NY. His parents are listed as Isaac Fister and Sophia VanBuren.

Could this Elmer Fister be the father of George and Mary Fister? I believe he could be.

Isaac Fister was an itinerant Methodist minister. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1803. He was married and widowed three times. A month after the death of his 3rd wife, he was declared insane, committed to an asylum, and died a few months later. A detailed memorial page has been posted for him on Find-a-Grave.

Isaac’s 2nd wife was Sophia Van Buren (1829-1861). It appears that she died the same day Elmer was born: Dec. 15, 1861. Isaac was 58 years old at the time, with a 5-year-old son (Clarence) and a 3-year-old daughter (Harrietta). It is perfectly conceivable that he would give up an infant to be raised by another family.

Isaac traveled around Western New York State from the late-1820s through the mid-1860s when he settled in Cattaraugus County. Just before Sophia died, the couple was living in Pomfret, Chautauqua County, with their two children, as seen on the 1860 U. S. Census (click on image to enlarge).

1860 U. S. Census

1860 U. S. Census

About the year 1863, he married his 3rd wife, Julia Ann Mackey Caldwell. The 1865 New York State Census lists them living in Salamanca, Cattaraugus County. Salamanca is about 10 miles from Little Valley, where Elmer was living with the Cullens in 1865.

The Rev. Fister remained in Cattaraugus County up until he was committed to the asylum (see 1870 U. S. Census, 1880 U. S. Census). Did Elmer grow up knowing that Isaac Fister was his father? What went on with him when, at the age of 22 and having fathered two small children, his father was committed to an insane asylum? Is that why he took off and left DeEtta to raise them? It certainly would fit the pattern for him to believe a man could simply walk away from his children; after all, his father had abandoned him to be raised by George and Mary Cullen.

While I feel there is circumstantial evidence to support the theory that the Rev. Isaac Fister was Elmer Fister’s father, I’ll continue looking for evidence to back up the dots I’ve connected in this story line.

Revolutionary War Patriots

DAR insignia Week 21 of the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge, in observance of Memorial Day, follows a military theme. For this post, I decided to update my list of Revolutionary War patriots, and verify each one in the DAR Genealogical Research System (GRS).

I researched all family lines on both my paternal and maternal sides, as far as I was able, looking for men who were alive during Revolutionary War. I uncovered the service of six men in the DAR Patriots Database of which I was not aware. Along the way, I was also able to correct some errors in my research, and the research of others, which is always a good thing.

Below is a list of men who either fought for the cause of freedom or provided patriotic service. I am a direct descendant of them all. There are 11 in my maternal line and 16 in my paternal line. Links are provided for those for whom I’ve created posts here on my blog. It looks like I have many, many more stories to tell!

  • Bacheller/Batchelder, John (1745-1817) Massachusetts. Assessor and Selectman. DAR Ancestor #: A007340 [maternal line]
  • Beach, Caleb (1732-1781) Massachusetts. Member of the Committee of Correspondence. DAR Ancestor #: A007724 [maternal line]
  • Beach, Moses Tyler (1762-1850) Massachusetts. Corporal in companies of Capts Asa Barns, Amariah Babbit & Simonds. DAR Ancestor #: A007776 [maternal line]
  • Bond, William Jr (1760-1851) Massachusetts. Private, Capt Nathan Fuller’s company, Lt Col Wm Bond’s 37th regiment, MA Continental Troops. Received a pension. DAR Ancestor #: A011932 [maternal line]
  • Bryant, Joseph (1729-1810) Massachusetts. Major in Cols Thatcher & Bullard regiments. DAR Ancestor #: A016334 [maternal line]
  • Chaffee, Amos (1744-1815) Massachusetts. Private in Capt. Daniel Cadwell’s Co., Col. Timothy Robinson’s Regiment of the Massachusetts Militia. DAR Ancestor #: A026507 [paternal line]
  • Chaffee, Ezra (1742-1815) Connecticut. Captain under Brig. Gen. Fletcher, Athens Militia, 1782. DAR Ancestor #: A026520 [paternal line]
  • Chamberlain, Jedediah (1737-1810) New Hampshire. Signed Association Test and served as Surveyor of Roads. DAR Ancestor #: A064839 [paternal line]
  • Conant, Joshua (1750-1777) New Hampshire. Private in Capt Reynold’s company. Signer of the Association Test. Died at Battle of Bennington. DAR Ancestor #: A024826 [maternal line]
  • Cummings, Reuben (1757-1808) Massachusetts & New Hampshire. Private in Capt. Haskell’s Co., Col. Trescott’s Regiment, 1776. Signed Association Test. DAR Ancestor #: A005968 [paternal line]
  • Ely, Levi (1732-1780) Massachusetts. Captain in Cols. Moseley & Brown Regiments. DAR Ancestor #: A038251 [paternal line]
  • Harris, Asa (1737-1817) Massachusetts. Private in Capt. Peter Porter’s Co., Col. John Brown’s Regiment. DAR Ancestor #: A051527 [paternal line]
  • Hodgkins, Thomas Jr. (1756-1835) Connecticut. Lieutenant and Clerk, Capts. Hand & Abbee Co., Cols. Talcott & Wyllys Regiment. DAR Ancestor #: A056268 [paternal line]
  • Hubbard, Elisha (1752-1834) Vermont. Corporal in Lt. Moses Johnson’s Co., Col. William Williams’ Regiment. DAR Ancestor #: A059221 [paternal line]
  • Johnson, Moses (1738-1803) New Hampshire. Private in Capts. Mellin & Twitchell Co., Col. Hale’s Regiment. Signed the Association Test. DAR Ancestor #: A206909 [paternal line]
  • Marsh, Joel (1745-1807) Vermont. Private in Capt Daniel Gilbert’s Company, 1780. DAR Ancestor #: A0741797 [paternal line]
  • Martin, George Jr. (1742-1827) Connecticut. Private in Capt. Brown’s Co., Col. John Durkee’s Regiment. DAR Ancestor #: A074202 [paternal line]
  • Miller, Jacob (1756-1824) Massachusetts. Patriotic service as highway surveyor, 1780. DAR Ancestor #: A203103 [paternal line]
  • Moore, Abijah (1724-1792) Vermont. Captain in Cumberland Co. Militia, 1775-1776, in Col. William Williams’ Regiment. DAR Ancestor #: A079223 [paternal line]
  • Norton, John (1756-1835) Massachusetts. Sergeant, Capts Doolittle, Sparhawk & Smith. Served from 1775-1783. Received a pension. DAR Ancestor #: A084801 [maternal line]
  • Park, David (1724-1790) Massachusetts. Surveyor, 1775-1776 ; Constable, 1777. DAR Ancestor #: A087050 [maternal line]
  • Stanley, John (1750-1806) Vermont. Private in Capts. Bigelow Lawrence & Cyprian Downer Co., Col. Walbridge Regiment. DAR Ancestor #: A108498 [paternal line]
  • Stearns, Asa (1758-1852) Massachusetts & New Hampshire. Private in Capt. Josiah Fay’s Co., Col. Ward’s Regiment. DAR Ancestor #: A109274 [paternal line]
  • Thompson, Abijah (1739-1811) Massachusetts. Master armorer & clerk in Capt Belknap’s company. DAR Ancestor #: A113798 [maternal line]
  • Tidd, Jonathan, Jr (1757-1842) Massachusetts. Private in Capt Walker’s company, Col David Green’s regiment. Received a pension. DAR Ancestor #: A115341 [maternal line]
  • Tidd, Jonathan, Sr (1724-1785) Massachusetts. Lieutenant in Capt Walker’s company, Col David Green’s regiment. DAR Ancestor #: A115340 [maternal line]
  • Whitney, Silas (1737-1813) Vermont. Private, Capts. Salisbury & Spafford Co., Col. Allen’s Regiment. DAR Ancestor #: A125393 [paternal line]

There are several men on both sides of my family for whom I have found evidence of patriotic service, but they have not yet been “proved” for inclusion in the DAR Patriots Database. That is something I would have to do by submitting application papers providing proof of their service and tracing the lineage. In some cases, it will be very easy to prove them. But my privateer sailor, James Oliver, is going to require a lot of work and luck!

William Irvine Gives America a Try

While I am able to trace many of my family lines back to The Great Migration, and even to the Mayflower, my maternal grandfather Jack Irvine‘s side of the family includes many genealogical “brick walls.” The furthest back I can go with any certainty is William Irvine (1801-1866), my 3rd great grandfather.
Irvine tree

The earliest record I have of William Irvine is the June 19, 1824, publication of his marriage to Domitille in Montreal. Below is an image of the church record with a rough translation.

CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE

CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE

“… Monsigneur Bishop ___ …. for the marriage of William Irvin(e), saddler and resident of this parish, legal age son of John Irvin(e) and the late Marie Buchanan (“of the County of Glengary?), on the one part and Miss Marguerite Domitille Lebert, under age daughter of Sieur Jean-Baptiste Lebert, master butcher and of Marguerite Cardinal, _______ of this parish on the other part, were married … in the Holy Church in the presence of Mr Francois Nietzehler (Nietzchler?), Mr J-B Lebert, father of the bride and many others who have signed along with me. (signatures) Domitille Lebert, Wm Irvin, Francois Nietzler,  JB Franchere, Victoire Lebert, B  Le Saulnier, priest

 

 

 

A few facts can be gleaned about William from the marriage record: William’s parents were John Irvine and Mary Buchanan; Mary may have been from Glengary County in Ontario, Canada; Mary had died before 1824. That is all I’ve been able to trace about William’s parents, thus far.

At some point in the early 1850s, William brought his family to America. The 1855 Massachusetts Census lists William & “Matilda” living in Boston with 5 of their children: Arthur, Ephraim, Albert, Balsamie and Mary Ann. William had other children, Marie Celestine (b. 1836) and Oston Peter (b. 1838). Marie may have died as a child; Oston Peter, or “O.P.,” apparently came to America with the family but immediately struck out on his own. What caused William to migrate to America is unknown; presumably, to offer his sons more opportunities.

As in the record of his marriage, William’s occupation is listed on the 1855 Massachusetts Census as “saddler.” This census record contains the first idea of when and where William was born: about 1801 in Canada. Later family stories claim William immigrated from Scotland, but it’s more likely that his father, John Irvine, came from Scotland.
1855 MA census-Wm and Matilda1855 MA census

At some point before 1860, William had given up on Boston and made his way west to Rochester, NY. An Irvine relation living in Rochester, Tellsford Irvine, had died the year before, leaving behind his wife and young son (see my post on Phebe Monaghan). Perhaps William decided to assist the young widow?

Tragically, William himself would suffer loss in Rochester. Matilda passed away in August, 1859. An account of the sad event was recorded thus:

SUDDEN DEATH. – Coroner BROWN was called yesterday morning to visit the residence of Mr. WILLIAM IRVINE, on Romaine street, whose wife DONATILE IRVINE, a middle aged woman, died very suddenly during the previous night. She has been ailing for some time, but was able to be about her household duties, and Wednesday evening went to bed as well as usual. Sometime in the night she awoke her husband, complaining of a difficulty in breathing, and, he assisted her to rise. She died a few minutes afterward while he was supporting her in her seat. Dr. HALL made an examination and ascertained that the cause of death was disease of the heart. – The Coroner dispensed with the formality of an inquest under the circumstances. (Rochester Democrat and American. 15 Aug 1859)

The 1860 U.S. Census shows William living in Rochester with four of his children: Alphonsine (i.e. Mary Ann), Arthur, Ephraim (incorrectly listed as Ivo) and Albert. By this time, his oldest daughter, Balsamie, had returned to Montreal where she married Jean-Baptiste Ovide Lauzon in 1859. While Arthur was working with his father in 1860, within the coming months he made his way to Chicago where he was a machinist apprentice. When the Civil war broke out, Arthur signed up with the regular Army in an artillery unit.

1860 US Census
After Matilda’s death, William moved from the Romaine St. location to Oak St. and worked on Canal street, as can be seen in the 1861 City Directory. It’s interesting to note the many changes in his occupation over the years: saddler, wagon maker, carriage trimmer. Certainly, his skills were varied and he adapted to the needs of the times.

1861 city directoryWith all the upheaval of the War in the States, the loss of his wife, his sons either away fighting in the war or getting on with their own occupations, the aging William returned home to Montreal. In the fall of 1866, at age 65, William passed away. Below is the record of William’s burial at the Notre-Dame-de-Montréal in Montréal (with translation).

"On the 17th of September 1866, the undersigned priest buried the body of William Irvin, saddler, widow of Mathilde Leber, who died ___ before, aged 64 years of this parish. Witnesses were Benjamin Desroches and Francois Xavier Champagne ... (unreadable)."

“On the 17th of September 1866, the undersigned priest buried the body of William Irvin, saddler, widow of Mathilde Leber, who died ___ before, aged 64 years of this parish. Witnesses were Benjamin Desroches and Francois Xavier Champagne … “

I chose to write about William Irvine for the Week 19 theme of the 52 Ancestors challenge, “There’s a Way,” because he tried to make a way for his young family in America. While it doesn’t appear that William himself met with success in America, his sons went on to live fairly well in their adopted country. Three of his sons settled in McKean County, Pennsylvania. O.P. prospered in the Pennsylvania oil industry. Arthur served in the Civil War as an artilleryman and then as a naval engineer; after the war he, too, worked in the oil industry, even patenting a new type of drilling device. Ephraim became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1896. William’s youngest son, Albert, seems to disappear after 1860. The fate of Mary Ann, too, remains undiscovered.

Where there’s a will, there are Mayflower ancestors!

Much of genealogy research rides on the work done by those back in our family tree who took the time to search numerous archives, court houses, libraries and cemeteries, and then  gather all the material together to write the lines of descendancy. These compilations are sometimes re-examined in later years, together with newly discovered material, resulting in corrections to set the record straight.

Then, too, some genealogical breakthroughs come about by sheer chance. This happened to me this week when, in an online discussion group, I was given a tip which quickly led to the discovery that I have 4 ancestors who came to the New World aboard the Mayflower!

“Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor,” by William Halsall, 1882 at Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA – via Wikipedia

Here’s how things happened …

In an online discussion group for family researchers, participants were musing over interesting first names given to our ancestors. Many names once in vogue are unheard of these days, many being Biblical in origin, like: Azubah, Jerusha, Mehitabel, Shubael and Tryphena. Or, names conveyed Christian virtue, such as: Grace, Deliverance, Increase, Submit and Temperance. (All of the names mentioned are in my family tree!)

What had me stumped was a name passed on to three men in my family tree: Sluman Wattles Harris. I posted the name to the discussion group and within minutes I was informed of a Sluman Wattles (1752-1837) from Lebanon, New London County, CT. He was a land surveyor and later a judge and, I quickly learned, the husband of my 5th great grand-aunt, Mercy McCall. So, that settled the origin of the name. Clearly, Judge Wattles was much respected by his relations, so they named a child after him and the name got passed on.

AmGen magazine cover

Click on the image to read the article in PDF format

Before I learned the above, I had not researched the family of my 5th great-grandmother, Faith McCall (1737-1785). All I had on her was her marriage to revolutionary war veteran, Asa Harris (1737-1817) and their children. Once I had the name of Faith McCall’s sister (Mercy), I proceeded to find her parents and siblings. My subscription to AmericanAncestors.org quickly allowed me to locate the article: “A New Daughter for Benajah Mackall of Lebanon, Conn.” by Elizabeth P. White and others (The American Genealogist, Vol. 65, Oct. 1990, pgs. 214-218).

The research of Ms. White and her colleagues achieved what I described above: they reviewed existing material about the McCall family and combined it with newly discovered material to confirm that Mercy McCall was a previously unidentified daughter of Benajah McCall. The researchers had to piece together and connect the dots between the 1753 will left by James McCall (Benajah’s father), a probate document from 1758, and a later property settlement document from 1765. It was only careful scrutiny of all three of these records combined which led to the revelation that Mercy McCall was a member of the family.

Week 18 of the 52 Ancestors challenge suggests creating a blog post which deals with an ancestor’s will which was interesting or solved a problem. Clearly, Ms. White and her associates solved a problem through a new examination of the will left by James McCall.

So, where’s the Mayflower connection?

Well, it happens that the above named article mentions that Benajah McCall’s wife, Hannah Otis, was a descendant of Mayflower passengers John Howland and his wife Elizabeth Tilley, daughter of John Tilley and Joan Hurst Tilley. All four of these people came over on the Mayflower.

John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley Howland were my 10th great-grandparents. John and Joan Hurst Tilley were my 11th great grandparents. Both John Howland and John Tilley signed the Mayflower Compact.

The_Mayflower_Compact_1620_cph.3g07155

Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1899 via Wikipedia

This is the path from John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley to me:

    • 10th great-grandparents: John Howland (1591-1673) m. Elizabeth Tilley (1607-1687)
    • 9th great-grandparents: Desire Howland (1623-1683) m. John Goreham (1621-1675)
    • 8th great-grandparents: Lydia Goreham (1661-1744) m. John Thacher (1639-1713)
    • 7th great-grandparents: Hannah Thacher (1690-1780) m. Nathaniel Otis (1782-1771)
    • 6th great-grandparents: Hannah Otis (1718-1782) m. Benajah Mackall/McCall (1712-1753)
    • 5th great-grandparents: Faith McCall (1737-1785) m. Asa Harris (1737-1817)
    • 4th great-grandparents: Daniel Harris (1771-1853) m. Amanda Miller (1778-1862)
    • 3rd great-grandparents: Sluman Wattles Harris (1800-1874) m. Mary Histed (1804-1860)
    • 2nd great-grandparents: Wilna C. Harris (1826-1914) m. Harriet L. Farnham (1832-1915)
    • Great-grandparents: Virginia L. Harris (1861-1948) m. George B. Garrison (1860-1943)
    • Paternal grandparents: Florence M. Garrison (1895-1950) m. Merle L. Marsh (1894-1970)

“An Old Fashioned Way of Spinning” : Memories of Harriett Farnham Harris

1903 Harriett Farnham Harris

1903 Harriett Farnham Harris

Family stories are such a treasure, and I am very fortunate to have the loan of a cache of family records, letters, photos and compiled histories from my brother about our father’s side of the family.

Among the stories I’ve come across from these documents is a narrative given by our great-great grandmother, Harriet Farnham Harris (1832-1915), about life in Western New York during the early 1800s. Harriet Farnham Harris was the wife of Wilna C. Harris.

A visit to a farm house in olden times, especially at Christmas time, was something to be enjoyed. First of all, perhaps we were taken over rough roads in a large sleigh with plenty of buffalo robes and a large heated stone beneath our feet.
Upon arriving at the house someone was there to let down the bars that we might drive in close up to a large porch where we were met by all the family.

thomas-birch-winter-scene-or-farm-scene-with-horse-drawn-sleigh-1834

Painting by Thomas Birch, circa 1834

We were all very cold and hungry. The odor from within was delicious. Soon we had a glimpse of a large tin bake oven in front of a large fireplace. In this oven was a dear little pig roasting so brown. Upon a crane hung large kettles with other goodies. The pumpkin pies had been baked earlier in the day. Great loaves of rye and Indian bread were all on the deal table, which was a long table the whole length of the room.
Thanksgiving-cooking-around-the-hearthIn the morning the boys had brought in a back log and placed it on the two large andirons, sometimes called firedogs. Then, after the fire was well started, a fore log was put on which would last for all the day.
After the noon meal, the girls would spin wool. The machine with which they spun the wool was a large spinning wheel. It was quite a large block of wood standing on three legs. A large wheel was fastened between two pieces of wood letting it move freely.
From the right hand axis of the wheel was attached a treadle by which the machine was worked. A large shuttle about six inches wide was projected perpendicular from the left hand axis of the wheel.

Archival photo courtesy Windsor Public Library

Archival photo courtesy Windsor Public Library

The girls carefully caught the wool to the shuttle, as they put their foot on the treadle. The treadle started the wheel in motion which made a buzzing noise until the spindle was full of yarn. Before the wool was all gone, another roll was put on until it was long enough to contain hundreds of spools. These rolls of wool that were put on the shuttle came from the carding mills where lumps were taken out by rolling.
This process seemed very easy, but the rolls had to be handled with the greatest of care or they would come apart.
In the evening they would all sit around the fireplace eating apples and telling riddles. Then, all who could, sang. Last of all the town fiddler appeared. The room was cleared for dancing and at a late hour the guests were given tallow candles and shown the way to their bedrooms.

Country fiddler

Country fiddler

As you walked in the room, the first thing to meet your eye was a high post bedstead with curtains hanging all around it from the ceiling to the floor. A stool was provided so as to get into this thick feather bed. In one corner of the room stood a chair and opposite the chair was a dressing table. The adornments on the walls were samplers, these being pieces of linen with animals and flowers worked into the fabric with colored thread.
feather-bed

This reminiscence was related to Harriet’s granddaughter (my paternal great aunt), Edna May Garrison and recorded in Harris Genealogy: A line of direct descendants from James Harris of Boston, Massachusetts, to the present generation in 1975 by Robert Garrison Elliott.

Wilna C. and Harriett Harris, 1912

Wilna C. and Harriett Harris, 1912

Boat Building & Racing on the Genesee River: Wilna C. Harris (1826-1914)

W C Harris boat builderI love discovering ancestors who demonstrate a lifelong passion for something. For people like Wilna C. Harris, my paternal great-great grandfather, it was perhaps a matter of being born in the right place at the right time which developed his passion.

The theme for Week 15 of the 52 Ancestors challenge is “how do you spell that?,” and I chose Wilna as my subject because his uncommon first name was often recorded incorrectly.

Wilna was born in his parent’s large brick house on Byron Street in Rochester, NY. The house faced the Erie Canal. That waterway, and others, would shape Wilna’s life. Unlike his sister, Helen Amanda Harris Deming, it wasn’t an innate talent which distinguished Wilna. Rather, his achievements were the result of dedication and hard work.

In the year Wilna was born, 1826, Rochester had not yet incorporated as a city. The population was close to 8,000, yet none of the adults in the city at the time had been born in Rochester. Most of the residents had immigrated from eastern New York and New England. Wilna’s father, Sluman W. Harris, was born in Otsego County and had come to Rochester with his father, Daniel Harris, about 10 years before Wilna was born (1816). The opening of the Erie Canal the year before Wilna was born brought rapid growth to the area as Wilna was growing up.

Wilna C Harris circa 1845Sluman Harris was a boat contractor and agent. He also served as a city constable. He had a fairly comfortable income, most notable by the fact that when Wilna, his only son, was about 12 years old, Sluman commissioned a life-size oil portrait of the boy. Lamentably, at some point, the painting was cut down to about 30″ in height and placed in an oval frame. As late as 1975, the painting was still in possession of the family and presumably still is.

A written family history reports that when Wilna was old enough to attend school, his father often had him taken in a horse and carriage. As a boy, Wilna would travel through the woods to visit his grandfather, Daniel Harris. To his grandchildren, Wilna told of being afraid of the bears, wolves and bobcats which roamed the woods in those days. He also related to them his fondness for visiting his grand-aunt, Lucretia Lee, where he was treated to pumpkin pie with fresh whipped cream for breakfast. (Sounds great to me!)

Another piece of family lore is this story:

Wilna had a dislike for school which may have been inspired by the fact that he had to travel through the forest to attend classes. His dislike finally overcame reason and he decided to run away. A family negro maid servant was in sympathy with his plan, so one night she tossed a tied bundle of clothes to him from an upstairs window. The young boy ran away to sea, it has been said, but there is no record of how long he remained away, or when he returned. This period must have been in the six or eight years after the portrait had been completed.
(Harris Genealogy: A line of direct descendants from James Harris of Boston, Massachusetts, to the present generation in 1975, by Robert Garrison Elliott)

Presumably, R. G. Elliott did not consult the 1840 U. S. Census record, which shows that WIlna, then 14 years old,  was still living in his parents’ home. This helps narrow the time frame of his “escape.” The census record also shows that there was indeed a young black woman (under age 23) living in the Harris home at the time. I suspect that rather than “running away to sea,” Wilna simply hopped aboard a canal boat and traveled to west to Buffalo, where he would later live for a number of years.

Within a few years, Wilna was back home in Rochester where, on May 25, 1846, he married the young Harriet Farnham. Wilna was just a few months shy of his 20th birthday and Harriet was only 14 years old when they married. The couple remained in Rochester, as the 1847 city directory contains a listing for “Wilna C. Harris, Boat-builder” boarding at 9 South Street.

He is not listed in the 1849 Rochester city directory, so presumably the couple had already moved to Buffalo, where they are found on the 1850 U. S. Census. The enumerator got a few things wrong here, which is why finding people on Census records can be a challenge. For one, Wilna is listed as “William” and born in Canada; it was Harriet who was born in Canada. Also, their 1 year old child was a boy named Harry Clay, not a girl named Harriet. Sarah Winters was Harriet’s mother; Harriet’s father, Bela Farnham had died and Sarah remmaired. Josephine Farnham was Harriet’s younger sister.

1850 US Census - BuffaloBy 1857 or so, Wilna had returned to Rochester where he continued his work in boat construction. He also made a name for himself as an amazing oarsman. This article from the Lockport Journal and Courier, dated Dec. 6, 1859, recounts Wilna’s record-setting rowing journey from Buffalo to Rochester.

1859 Dec 6 Lockport Journal and CourierAt the time of the 1860 U.S. Census, Wilna and Harriet, living in Rochester, had four children: Harry, Mary, Sluman and Frank, and a young live-in maid, Sarah. in 1865, their youngest child, Wilna Jr. was born. Sadly, though, he did not survive infancy.

1860 US Census - RochesterWhen not crafting boats, Wilna turned his skill to making toys and sleds for his children and useful household tools for Harriet, such as a lap sewing board.

Mid-century, the country became engulfed in the tragedy of the Civil War, and Wilna was drafted. But as he had a family to support, the law of the time allowed him to pay $300 to another man to serve in his place.

By 1866, Wilna was so closely tied to the marine community in Rochester that he was appointed a Canal inspector.

1866 Jan 25Watkins NY Express - snippet

Watkins NY Express. Jan 25, 1866

At the time of the 1870 U.S. Census, Wilna’s children are all still living at home. His oldest son, Harry, was working with his father at the boat yard. His 2nd eldest son, Sluman, was working as a clerk in a shoe store. Two more children have been added to the family:  Jennie and Bertram. Interestingly, while Bert’s older brother was working as a shoe store clerk when Bert was still in school, Sluman would never rise above the occupation of salesman, but Bert went on to become vice-president of the Rochester Shoe Manufacturing Company. Note that here, again, the census enumerator is stumped by Wilna’s name and records it as “Vilney.”1870 US Census - Rochester - cropped The Monroe County Library System Local History division makes available online the Rochester Newspaper Index. I found in the index reference to an article about Wilna dated Jan. 18, 1878, the matter of which is that Wilna was “in Brunswick, Georgia: describes condition and territory there.” Below is the article:

Union Advertiser -Rochester NY- 18 Jan 1878

Union Advertiser -Rochester NY- 18 Jan 1878

Wilna’s family became homesick for Rochester, so they returned after little more than a year in Georgia. Wilna remained to fulfill the terms of his boat building contract.

Wilna continued to compete in regattas and other boating events across New York state. At times he was was crewman, and other times it was a boat of his construction which competed. I love this little newspaper item in which he won a skiff race and was not at all shy of accepting the prize of “filthy lucre,” much to the chagrin, no doubt, of his competitor.

1875 Conesus Lake Regatta - Rochester NY Union Advertiser

Rochester NY Union Advertiser. Jun 10, 1875

Wilna’s craftsmanship as a boat builder was much sought after and the commissioning of his work was often noted in the local papers.

1880 May Oswego Daily Times

Oswego Daily Times. May 1880

At the time of the 1880 U. S. Census, Wilna and Harriet were living at number 70 Mount Hope Ave. His eldest son, Harry, had moved out by that time (he later ended up in Chicago) and his eldest daughter, Mary, was married and living in Rochester with her husband, Frank Foster, and their 3-year-old daughter, Alice. Wilna’s other adult children seemed loathe to leave the nest. Sluman had left off with being a shoe store clerk and was learning his father’s trade. Frank was employed as a printer. This census record again shows how enumerators get things wrong: Sluman’s name is misspelled and Bertram is listed as Wilna’s daughter!

1880 US Census - Rochester - croppedAbout 1884, Wilna and Harriet moved from #70 to #103 Mount Hope Ave. and remained there through about 1888. Behind the home was the boat house on the banks of a feeder to the Genesee River in which Wilna built row boats and canoes. In 1888, Wilna and Harriet moved to #18 Alexander St. and remained there for the rest of their lives.

Robert G. Elliot’s Harris Genealogy includes a few photos of the elderly Wilna and Harriet. The photos are dated about 1912.

Wilna C Harris 1912 Wilna C Harris and boat 1912

Wilna passed away on March 18, 1914. The obituary for him printed in the local paper recalls his career as an oarsman and a boat builder. Harriet survived her husband by about 2 years, until she passed in October of the following year. They are both interred in the Harris family plot at Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, NY, though, oddly, there is no headstone to mark their graves.
1914 Oldest Boat Builder Dead