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:

Monday, April 27, 2015


Today, 27 April 2015,  is the 150th Anniversary of the sinking of the steamboat Sultana in the Mississippi River near Memphis.

Most of the passengers were Union Soldiers from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee, that had been Confederate prisoners of war, many held at Cahaba Prison in central Alabama, near where I lived for fourteen years.  This was actually the worst maritime disaster in the United States. Total number of passengers, as well as the total number of the dead, has never been exact.  There were approximately 2500 persons packed almost standing-room only, as you can see from the picture.  At one point when the passengers crowded near the rail for a photo, the steamboat almost tipped over, and they had to be warned back. The boat's legal capacity was 376.  The captain was paid per person - $5 for an enlisted man, $10 for an officer.  

A badly repaired boiler exploded about 2 AM on April 27th, causing a chain reaction of explosions and fire and eventual sinking of the Sultana, about seven miles upriver from Memphis.  The water was still cold, the prisoners, many who could not swim, greatly debilitated.  Estimates of the dead range from 1500 - 2000 - the total will never be known.

I was always greatly fascinated by this story of horror, primarily because it has been such a little known historical tragedy - but never did I think I would have a personal connection.

One of my great-grandfathers was Enoch Reuben Adamson, born 19 February 1841 in Indiana, died 7 January 1910 in McAlester, Pittsburg County, Oklahoma, on a trip away from his home in Rogers, Benton County, Arkansas.  I knew, of course, that he fought in the Civil War - he received a pension for many years for chronic health problems as a result. I have placed a military marker at his grave which had gone unmarked.   Enoch was one of eight siblings and I knew that others in his family had fought in that War.  Several members of the family moved to Iowa right after the War, though not all stayed there.   

Enoch's sister Mary Emily Adamson, married Benjamin Franklin Learner, right after the Civil War - 5 December 1866, in Janesville, Bremer County, Iowa.  By 1870, they were back in Howard County, Indiana where they remained the rest of their lives.  Benjamin's parents, immigrants from Baden Germany, were living next door in the 1870 census.  I had quite of bit of information regarding these families, but not until I found Benjamin's obituary did I know that he had been on the Sultana when she went down.  He had, in fact, been reported as one of the dead.

Here's the story:
Kokomo Daily Tribune, Saturday, 31 Jan 1925, p.1, column 1
B. F. Leaner Passes Away at Age of 82
One of County's Worthiest Citizens and Most Interesting Characters
Was Born Here in 1842
Knew the Indians of That Period - Was Survivor of Sultana Disaster
Benjamin F. Leaner, age 82, years, a native of Howard County and resident here most of his life, a Civil war veteran and one of the few survivors of the wreck of the Sultana, the greatest steamboat disaster of the Civil War period, died at his home, a mile east of Kokomo, on the north Greentown Pike, at 11 o-clock today, of septic poisoning.
An injury received by Mr. Learner in the explosion which destroyed the Sultana and snuffed out the lives of several hundred men, was really the cause of his death.  He was frightfully burned on one of his legs in that explosion.  The hurt was one which never healed; though he lived nearly sixty years after receiving it.  Always it was threatening him, and finally brought on the condition which resulted in his death.
Mr. Learner had been failing for several months, and had kept to his home since the beginning of winter.  He was able, however, to be about until a week ago last Tuesday.  On that day he was unable to arise.  It was the beginning of the final issue.  He failed slowly, but steadily, from that time on.  His vitality was remarkable.  His death had been expected for several days, but he withstood the destroyer's encroachment with the same tenacious courage that he had met every experience in his long life.  He had no fear of going, but it was like him not to die until he had to.
The death of this man removes from the community not only one of its most worthy citizens, but one of it most interesting historical figures.  Benjamin F. Learner's life spanned all the years in Howard County between the days of the Indians and the cabin in the clearing and the days of the airplane and the radio.  He was born in Howard County, on May 29, 1842, in Harrison township, in what was familiarly known as the Seven Mile Strip of the Miami Indian reserve at a point five miles southwest of Kokomo.  His birth was two years before Howard County was organized, and from the time memory awoke in him down to the day of his death he knew Howard County history from actual participation in it.
Mr. Learner was the son of Bernhart and Catrina Learner, who came to the Wildcat Valley, settling in what later became Harrison Township in 1841.  That was three years before Kokomo was founded.  The father was a native of Germany, of the state of Baden, and his boyhood was spent near the Rhine.  He died at his home five miles eat of Kokomo 23 years ago.  All older residents of the city and county remember him well, as a man of the sturdiest of virtues and finest type of citizenship.  He was one of Howard County's first shoemakers.
When B. F. Learner was a small child he moved with his parents to the Vermont neighborhood where he grew to manhood.  A tribe of Indians had their village near the Learner home, and as a boy Mr. Learner knew them all, bucks, squaws and papooses, well.  They were friendly Indians and furnished him with many an interesting memory that remained with him to the end of life.  He had a distinct recollection of the removal of the tribes by the Federal government to lands that had been provided for them beyond the Mississippi, and was able to recall many incidents of the visit which the chief and all his followers paid to the Learner home just before departing.  Some of these incidents were related by Mr. Learner at the celebration that was held last May, in the Union Street Friends' Church, by the Howard County Historical Society, in celebration of the eighteenth anniversary of the founding of the county.
Mr. Leaner was united in marriage with Mrs. Mary Emily Adamson, a member of a pioneer family of Taylor Township, December 5, 1866.  The Adamson family resided in a brick dwelling, on what is now known as the Githens farm, three miles southeast of Kokomo, on the banks of Kokomo Creek.  The marriage took place, however, in Iowa.
The surviving members of the immediate family are:  The widow, Mary Emily Adamson Learner; and the following chidren:  Ulysses Learner, city; Leavitt C. Learner, Abbeville, Louisiana; Ernest R. Learner, Buffalo; Ellis M. Learner who resides at the home place; Harry M. Learner, Buffalo; Donald H. Learner, Houma, Louisiana; and Mrs. Ruth L. Copp, Kokomo.  There are eleven grandchildren and two great grandchildren.  J. W. Learner of this city is a brother.
Mr. Learner was a member of the 57th Indiana Infantry and was principal in numerous heroic services during the civil war.  In (Continued on Page Two)
the battle of Franklin he was a member of the detail under command of Col. Willis Blanche which was holding the road and was cut off from the rest of the troops.  Finally the ammunition ran out.  Col. Blanch said that he would not order any one of his men to take the hazard of crossing the blaze of fire to replenish the stock but would call for volunteers.  Mr. Learner was the first to volunteer for the service which promised instant death.  When it came the moment for departure upon his hazardous undertaking Col. Blanch and Mr. Learner bid each other goodbye, for it was recognized that probably would never return.
Mr. Learner succeeded in getting to the spot where the ammunition was to be obtained without a shot being fired, as the Confederates did not suspect his purpose at the time and could scarcely believe that any man would hazard the trip.  But in returning to where his comrades were breathlessly awainting his return, the nature of his undertaking was suddenly realized and a rain of bullets pored around him.  One ball struck him on the side of his shoe, turned the round of his heel and left through the opposite side of the shoe, but the shock was so great that Mr. Leaner was thrown to the ground.  Fortunately the enemy believed him dead when he was seen to fall and by dodging from behind trees he gained his objective and afforded the much needed ammunition.
That Col. Blanche had a supreme confidence in his accuracy of observation and his integrity of recital was evidenced in a remark Col Blanche once made concerning him which was, "If Comrade Learner should give his version of how any incident happened in the war I would accept his account against the combined account of all his comrades."
An affection of a tender kind existed between the two warriors.  It was said that they never met but that they clasped hands, and after a moment of silence tears sprang from their eyes.
It was at the battle Missionary Ridge that Col. Blanche was seated upon a cream white horse, a conspicuous target for the enemy.  His finger had been shot off and the blood was streaming down the sides of the horse when Mr. Learner begged of Col. Blanche that he dismount to save his life.
One of the eleven hundred prisoners being taken to Vicksburg for the exchange, and leaving the Cahawba Prison in Alabama, where he endured horrors for three months, Mr. Learner was one of the Union soldiers aboard the ill fated Mississippi River steamer Sultana, the boilers of which exploded.  Scenes of indescribable misery and horrow ensued, and Mr. Learner was scalded so badly that the flesh came off his left leg.  He was so weak from the injury that for three months he was unable to feed himself.  During the ensuing years he often battled for his life when poisoning would arise from the old wound which never healed but gave him incessant pain.
The funeral will take place, probably at the United Brethren Church, this city, Tuesday at 2 p.m., the Rev. J. W. Lake officiating.  The burial will be made in Crown Point Cemetery.  Mr. Learner had been a member of the U. B. Church for many years, having his membership at Hillsdale, a few miles east of his home.  The pastor of that church, the Rev. Mr. Rosenbarger, will assist in the funeral services.
The G. A. R. burial service will be given by members of T. J. Harrison Post, with which Mr. Learner had long been affiliated.  The active pallbearers will be from the local post of Veterans of Foreign Wars.  The honorary pallbearers have not yet been designated.