The Travels of Abiathar M. Harris: Tragedy in Buffalo

This is the second installment of excerpts from the diary of itinerant printer, Abiathar Millard Harris, a paternal 3rd great grand uncle. (See introductory post and post #1).

Abiathar was employed from March through the end of June 1821 at a grubby print shop in Moscow, NY. After working 3 months without pay, he returned home to Rochester to spend Independence Day with his family. The 18-year-old youth continued his travels through Western New York state that summer in search of employment. His travels were arduous and his experiences were very unpleasant, to say the least.

On the first day of July I started for Rochester, a distance of 35 miles, and arrived 4 P.M. In this place I stayed 12 days, in which time I spent the 4th July very pleasantly and the remaining part of the time I spent with my father and relations.

On the 12th departed for Moscow, and arrived on the 13th 2 P.M.

On the 14th I started for Batavia on foot, 22 miles, and arrived 7 o’clock P.M. very lame.

On the 15th I looked about town, enquired for work, could get none, my money was nearly expended.

On the 16th I started for Buffalo, a distance of 40 miles – I overtook a wagon, got aboard as a passenger, and arrived about dusk.

On the 17th I applied for work and obtained a situation for a few weeks – I called on an Uncle, etc., during the day I walked about the town, which is very small, but delightfully situated, it being situated on the outlet of Lake Erie, and opposite the Fort. As I was walking in the harbor where a number of men were employed, I observed a number of boys bathing in the creek, which attracted my attention, and induced me to pass to them – as I was standing spectator, many boys collected and the number in the water was about 16, a Mr. Mills, being unacquainted with the depth, and no swimmer, stepped off into the deep water, and cried for assistance, no person went to his relief, but all left the water much frightened and ran for the town. I plunged into the water and seized the young man by the arm, at that instant he seized me by both arms and we sank together – I made many efforts to release his hold, but not being able, when we rose to the top of the water, no one to be seen to relieve me, we were about sinking and I was obliged to brace my knees against his breast to force him from his grasp – with much difficulty I reached the shore – and he sank to rise no more. He was taken up about an hour after, but the vital spark had fled.

Excerpt from A. M. Harris diary on the 16 July 1821 drowning of Francis Mills

Excerpt from A. M. Harris diary on the 16 July 1821 drowning of Francis Mills

It must be believed that this harrowing experience left a permanent mark on the young Abiathar’s conscience. He and the poor victim were of the same age, just 18 years old.

Curious about the identity of “Mr. Mills,” I searched Rootsweb for anyone by the name Mills who died in Buffalo in the year 1821. The results brought up Francis Mills. (Notably, the death date for Francis Mills is incorrectly given as August 6, 1821.)

I then searched newspaper archives for a report on the drowning of Francis Mills at the Old Fulton NY Post Cards site and found these two items:

The Albany Argus, Tuesday, 24 July 1821

The Albany Argus, 24 July 1821

New York NY Evening Post, 24 July 1821

New York NY Evening Post, 24 July 1821

Poor Francis was the 8th of 14 children born to Asa & Arthusa Phelps Mills of Litchfield, CT. The Mills family were among the pioneers of Western New York and Michigan. There are some eerie coincidences related to the drowning of Francis Mills. For one thing, Francis was named for his older brother, the firstborn child of Asa and Arthusa Mills. That Francis Mills died at the tender age of 5 years. (Michigan Historical Collections, Volume 5. Michigan State Historical Society. Michigan Historical Commission, 1884. via Google Books)

The other eerie coincidence … well, I’m saving that for later.


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