The Travels of Abiathar M. Harris: His Adventures Begin

Diary of Abiather M. Harris - March 21, 1821

Original in the University of Rochester Library

As noted in a previous post, it is my intent to share here the early 19th century travel diary kept by Abiathar M. Harris (1802-1844), a 3rd great grand uncle on my paternal side.

The photo at left is the first page of Abiathar’s diary. Below is a transcription of the first 2 ½ pages of the diary, covering nearly a 15 week period. He didn’t write every day, as you will see. Often, he skipped several days, weeks or months. Also, sadly, it is obvious that many pages are missing.

Rochester, March 20th, 1821

On the 21st March I left this place for Palmyra, a small village in the County Of Ontario, — I passed thro the towns of Brighton, Pittsford, Perington and arrived in this place at 5 o’clock P.M. During my stay in this place, I visited many of the adjacent towns and was very much pleased with the country. Palmyra village is pleasantly situated on one side of a ridge, and on the other side runs the great western Canal. The inhabitants are rich. I stayed in this place about six weeks in the employ of T. C. Strong, Printer.

On the 6th May, I visited Canandaigua, a beautiful village, 13 miles distant. This village is pleasantly situated on a mound, and the principal street is about a mile and a half in length. There is a gradual descent to the lake, which makes it very pleasant. The prospect is fine of the surrounding and flourishing country. The heat of the day was very great, but viewed the principal part of the town with great pleasure. There are many kind of amusements here which are much enjoyed by the citizens. In the evening I met with a Mr. Percival, who engaged me to take charge of an office in Moscow, Livingston County.

On the 7th May I started on the stage for Moscow, passed thro the towns of Bloomfield, Bristol, Richmond, Geneseo, and arrived 5 o’clock P.M.

On the 8th, being Sunday, I walked to the office – a d___d dirty office it was, the type lying in every corner, and the dirt deep enough upon the floor to plant potatoes.

On the 9th I commenced my labour, and no one to assist me (the printer and publisher of this paper was a lazy drunken rascal, seldom ever worked, but at tavern, his name was Ripley), I however got out half a sheet for a few weeks, etc. During my stay in this place, visited the Indians, their number amounted to about three hundred, they were very hostile and some of them very intelligible that spoke English. Their mode of living were like that of the English; their dress is like the English amongst some of them. Moscow is a beautiful little village, very few houses, but very fine. My employer was poor and unable to pay me or did not want to pay and I got little or nothing for three months labor.

So, what was going on in 1821 when Abiathar hit the road looking for employment?

  • On March 5 – James Monroe was sworn in for his second term as President.
  • Abiathar commenced his travels during the Era of Good Feeling.
  • In 1821, Monroe County was formed out of parts of Ontario and Genesee counties, and Rochesterville was named the county seat.
  • Just 11 days prior to his departure, Abiathar’s mother, Amanda Miller Harris, age 43, gave birth to her 10th and youngest child, Polly Ann Harris.

The 1822 map section of Western New York (below) displays some of the towns mentioned in the narrative. He started his journey from his home town, Rochester —  located on the map in the center yellow section above the word, MONROE. The population of Rochester at the time was just over 2,000. It wasn’t until 1834 that Rochester was incorporated as a city.

Though Abiathar does not mention his mode of travel, the Erie Canal, indicated “Grand Canal” on the map, was likely how he was conducted to Palmyra, which lies along the Canal route just east of Rochester.

The printer he worked for in Palmyra was Timothy C. Strong (1790-1844), publisher and author of many works.

The man who engaged Abiathar to take charge of the office in Moscow was James Percival, who purchased the “Moscow Advertiser and Genesee Farmer” from Hezekiah Ripley, the “lazy, drunken rascal” (see History of the Press of Western New York). The town of Moscow is now known as Leicester. On the map, Moscow can be located in the pink section, lower right, near Warsaw.

1822 Map of Western NYWe cannot know with certainty the exact model of printing press that Abiathar worked on. No doubt, they varied widely as he went from place-to-place, working sometimes with well established publishers and at other times, in offices which were “d____d dirty.” Below is an old wooden model popular in the early 19th century.

1820s wood printing press

Wooden printing press, Wyman and Sons Limited. Object No. 1863-14. © Science Museum

Stay tuned for the next installment of Abiathar’s travels! What began for the 19-year-old Abiathar as a peaceful sojourn through small, developing hamlets in the Finger Lakes area of Western New York soon became rife with drama, danger and adventures. He had no idea what was in store for him!

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