Monday, May 11, 2015

Harmon Truth and Tradition

John L. Harmon and his wife Elizabeth Byrd were my 4th great grandparents.  There is a huge amount of questionable information about this couple floating around the Internet - the purpose of this blog is not to try to explain all that I find wrong that can be proved otherwise, but primarily to point out some discrepancies in a family tradition reported in a newspaper story.

To find out more that is actually documented concerning John L. Harmon, go to my Harmon webpages beginning here:

I will just say here that he was not a son of Jacob Harmon and Sarah Lorton - he was most probably not even of German descent. His apparent relatives in the area of western Virginia where his records are first found were named William, Patrick, Joseph, Sarah, Elizabeth, etc.   Unfortunately there are just too few records in early Montgomery, Grayson, and surrounding counties to discover the exact relationships. Y-DNA testing has supported his close relationship to a Patrick Harmon, whose parents are thought to have have been Joseph and Sarah Harmon, possibly from Pennsylvania before migrating to Virginia.  Y-DNA of descendants has shown John L. Harmon is not likely part of any of the German Harman/Harmon families that were in western Virginia at that time.

Now, on with the story.

A grandson of John L. and Elizabeth, Charles Harmon, born 25 December 1844 in Boone County, Indiana, died 13 August 1915 in Brownsburg, Hendricks County, Indiana.  He was quite a story teller.  He had fought in the Civil War and did a great deal of reminiscing - many of his stories found their way into newspapers, particularly a series called "Past Times" by Joan Lyons that appeared in the Zionsville Times Sentinel.  The Past Times Collection is at the Hussey-Mayfield Memorial Library in Zionsville, Boone County, Indiana and can be found by following along to their Downloads/Databases link and then to "Past Times" and searching on whatever you like.

A search for Charles Harmon will bring up a total of 53 articles - he either wrote these or appears in them.

Here is the direct URL to the story about his ancestry

The same story is related here by scrolling down the page.

Just a little background.   John L. Harmon died in 1825 in Marion County, Indiana; his wife lived considerably longer - at least until after 1850, when she was living with adult children in Carroll Co, Illinois.  John and Elizabeth's son James, who was the father of our subject Charles, died in April of 1847 - his wife, Philadelphia, nee Dickerson, died a month later.  Charles was not yet three years old when he was orphaned.  He never knew his grandfather at all, likely never met his grandmother, and would scarcely have remembered his parents.

In his narrative, written in 1906, Charles, now age 62, states that what he knows of his ancestors was told to him by his brother, James Dickerson Harmon, forty or fifty years earlier - about 1860 or so. Charles would have been in his teens, his brother James, born in 1828, in his thirties - James was about 19 when their parents died and James had died in 1897.  James never knew his grandfather, either.

I don't know what your experience might be, but I've been fortunate to have many relatives live very many years.  Their stories told by memory sometimes changed over the years.  Different family members have very different memories about the same events.  We also have a few story tellers in the family and they generally like to embellish - my stepfather, a champion of stories, said he never told a story the same twice - that would be too boring!  Based on the many Civil War stories related by Charles in this series - told decades after the events - he was also a story teller of large proportions. There are instances in some of the articles written by others that do not support all that Charles related.  But I do not intend to in any way discredit his Civil War memories - I'm sure the trauma of his years in this War was imprinted quite clearly.

Now, here are some his "facts"from his story about his ancestors and why I believe we really cannot depend on the accuracy of his statements regarding his lineage.

Charles stated that
"during the Revolutionary War a family of Harmons came over from England.  Near the coast of Virginia the ship in which they were sailing was wrecked.  Of the family, all perished except two boys.  They were rescued and landed in Virginia.
One of these boys was my grandfather, John.  These two brothers were separated, never to see each other again.  The brother Richard, it is known, went Northwest into Pennsylvania.  Grandfather drifted to the southwest into the Carolinas then up into Tennessee and on into the south central portion of Kentucky, locating near where the battle of Mills Springs was fought.
My grandmother's maiden name I do not remember.  Indeed, I am pretty certain I never knew.
It is my understanding that my father was born near the place where, during the War of Rebellion, the battle of Mills Springs occurred (Pulaski Co, KY.)
I think it can be stated with a full degree of certainty that grandfather, John L. Harmon, was of pure English stock, and it may be stated with equal certainty that Grandmother was of Irish descent, in part at least.  She lived to be 99 years old and died at the home of daughter Jane Ray in Illinois."

So here is what can be documented ...John L. Harmon is first positively appears on a tax list and living on Crooked Creek in Montgomery County, Virginia, in 1787 - tax lists usually refer to the previous year.  He was listed with a William Harmon, not as an independent male.  In December of 1787, he married Elizabeth Byrd, in Montgomery County, and apparently was 21 by then, as no permission was required.   Old cemetery listings give a birth for John L. as 1767 (the stone no longer there) which is very close in agreement.   Now it is 300 miles and more as the crow flies from this area to the coast of Virginia with some wicked mountains in between.  The story of a shipwreck and abandonment seems unlikely, given where he was living as a 21-year-old in 1787, five years after the end of the war.  The settlers in this area of Virginia came down the Indian paths and the rivers from northern Virginia and Pennsylvania and nowhere is there any suggestion that John L. Harmon was born anywhere other than Virginia.  A more plausible story would be an accident traveling down a river - not on the ocean - and certainly such could happen.   For a brother to travel to the northwest also seems somewhat implausible.  The two brothers story sounds a bit like an adaptation of the "three brothers myth - one stayed, one went west, one went south..."

John L. Harmon never lived in the Carolinas or in Tennessee.  He was in Virginia - Montgomery County and then Wythe and Grayson as the counties were formed.  Then he was a bit further west in Russell Co by 1796 where he remained until at least until the fall of 1803.  (His wife's mother and stepfather were in Grayson County. Several of Elizabeth's married sisters live near and around the Harmons in these locations.)

In 1804, John Harmon was living on Fishing/ Pitsman (goes by both names) Creek, Pulaski County, Kentucky.  James, father of Charles, born in 1797 according to a family Bible, was certainly born in Virginia - not Kentucky.  However, Charles was right about one thing - the Harmons did possibly live near where the Battle of Mill Springs was fought in the Civil War - that battle is also known as the Battle of Fishing Creek.

By 1812, the Harmons were in Hamilton County, Ohio, as cited when they sold their property back in Pulaski County.  Charles (or James) seemed to be unaware they had ever lived there.  Charles and James's parents were married, 18 February 1816, Franklin County, Indiana, and may have been the first of the Harmons to settle in Indiana.  The family did not stay long in Ohio.

Since Charles didn't even attempt to give his grandmother a given name, I think we can be certain he knew basically nothing about her.  By all accounts, she was from a Virginia family.  That both John L. Harmon and Elizabeth Byrd, were from somewhere in the British Isles is almost certain - that would be an easy family tradition/assumption for many families and both the Harmon and Byrd surnames could well be English in origins.  Byrd isn't typically Irish.

Another true fact is that Charles and James had an uncle named Richard.  Perhaps they confused him with their grandfather's supposed brother Richard, for whom there is not a shred of documentation.  In fact, their grandmother, Elizabeth (Byrd) Harmon, was living with Richard in Carroll County, Illinois, in the 1850 census and reported as blind. That she lived to be 99 and lived with her daughter Nancy, wife of Chesley Wray, in Knox County, Illinois isn't supported.  Elizabeth doesn't appear in any record after that 1850 census. She isn't with any of her children in 1860.  If she lived to be 99, that would have been say 1869 or 1870 and in 1870, Nancy Wray, widow, was herself age 71, and living with her son Mark.

The narrative goes on to discuss siblings and family members - some of the information seems correct, but siblings are omitted and some of the data is not quite right.  At the very best, these writings are third hand as remembered by Charles, told to him by James, who had been told presumably by other family members, some decades earlier.

As in so many of these stories, there is undoubtedly a grain of truth - but which grain?  John could have been orphaned at an early age - there's nothing to tell us how he was actually related to the William Harmon in Montgomery County, although the first thought is that they could be father and son.  He certainly could have lost family members in some sort of boating accident - or a similar accident could have happened in an earlier generation to John's parents or grandparents.  He could have lost contact with a brother Richard - although that may be a confusion regarding his son of that name.  Given that he may have had a close relative named Patrick Harmon - there might be a bit of Irish in the Harmon line, but probably not in his grandmother Byrd's family.  That said, there are still some serious holes in the story, much of which should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt rather than as grains of truth.

Newspaper reporters do love a good story.  I have had another experience with a newspaper article that was quite far off the mark - and produced a Revolutionary War ancestor that was never in my family.  I wrote a blog post about Moses Allen and why Moses was not Ethan Allen, of the Green Mountain Boys, It's here:

I have also written a blog about Charles Harmon and his brothers that fought in the Civil War and it can be found here: