Everywhere I’ve lived has had a connection with my family’s past.
Growing up in Richmond, Indiana, I knew my family had a history there. My grandfather and great-grandfather were publishers of the local newspaper. My great-great grandfather recruited and led a company of men from the area during the Civil War. One of my four-times-great grandfathers co-founded the nearby town of Hagerstown, Indiana; another was one of the earliest white settlers in the Richmond area in 1806, ten years before Indiana became a state.
Finding connections in Richmond wasn’t surprising.
But when I learned a few years ago that during college I lived less than a mile from where my four-times-great grandparents lived, died and were buried, I was a little shocked.
Jonas Harris, my four-times-great grandfather who co-founded the town of Hagerstown, moved to the South Bend area around 1835, following the sudden and traumatic death of one of his children. He and his wife Hannah decided to transplant themselves with their family, including four unmarried children and three married children with their spouses and a one-year-old grandson.
In January 1834, Reuben Willits and his wife, Mary (Harris) Willits, both died of milk sickness–the same disease that took the life of Abraham Lincoln’s mother in 1818. This malady commonly attacked in areas where land had only recently been cultivated. It came from a certain weed that cows would eat, which then poisoned their milk. The result for humans who drank the poisoned milk was weakness and trembling, then vomiting and nausea, then unconsciousness. It was a painful way to die.
The four young Willits children were sent to live with Reuben’s relatives in Illinois; Jonas and Hannah Harris immediately began making arrangements to leave. After selling their land in 1834 and 1835, they transferred their Quaker church membership to a meeting in Northern Indiana and made their way to South Bend.
Around 1836, Jonas erected a mill along the Saint Joseph River. He would run it for only a handful of years before his death in 1843; his wife, Hannah, died a few years later. Both were buried on their farm, “the spot of their pioneer struggles and pleasures” (according to a later historian). Today all evidence of the mill and their graves has disappeared.
The site of the Harris farm and mill lies hidden within the boundaries of Wheelock Park in South Bend. When I attended the University of Notre Dame in the early 1990s, I drove right by it hundreds of times as I traveled from my apartment to campus. I didn’t discover the significance of that spot until many years later.
After my time in South Bend, I met my wife and we moved to Columbus, Ohio so that I could attend The Ohio State University. We settled in a western suburb of Columbus called Hilliard, but we have often traveled the fifteen minutes to downtown Columbus. Yet for many years I didn’t realize its connection with my family history.
In 1812, the Ohio legislature appointed Joel Wright to survey the land that would hold the new capital of Ohio. He laid out the town of Columbus, providing for a statehouse, a penitentiary and other public buildings.
Joel Wright was my five-times-great grandfather’s brother (making him my six-times-great uncle). He was a Quaker from Maryland who had been traveling to the Northwest Territory since 1788 to survey new lands for settlement. He led a small party to meet with the Wyandot Indians in northern Ohio in 1798. Six years later, he was asked by his Quaker friends to join a delegation to visit Little Turtle (chief of the Miami Indians) and Five Medals (chief of the Potowatomi Indians), but he declined for personal reasons.
The surveying instruments used by Joel Wright when he laid out first few blocks of Columbus are held at the Ohio Historical Society. They aren’t currently on display, but you can see a picture of them in the society’s online databases.
Last year I went to the Ohio Statehouse with my son Alex and his fourth-grade class. We climbed out of the school buses that took us there onto a street that was originally designed by Joel Wright. As we walked around that block in the center of Columbus, I thought of my six-times-great uncle who had stood on that piece of land almost 200 years before. I felt somehow grounded.