The Ones Who Stayed Behind

The Harris House in Roanoke, Virginia

The Harris House in Roanoke, Virginia. It stood from 1876 to 2004, when it was removed to make way for Route 221. See the link at the end of this post for more information about the house.

In the years following the American Revolution, it was common for families to pick up and make their way west.  Some were younger sons looking for land and opportunity.  Some were just adventurous souls looking for their next thrill.

But for every family that left the eastern seaboard and went over the mountains, there was another that stayed behind.  For these hard-working, middle-class families, there often wasn’t time or opportunity to stay in touch and with the passing of generations, cousins drifted apart.

I grew up in Indiana so, in every instance, my ancestors were the ones who came west.  Their brothers, uncles and cousins were the ones who stayed behind.  Some of these followed the westward trail in later years, others remained in the east for generation after generation.

My fourth great grandfather, Jonas Harris (1779-1843), was one of the adventurous younger sons.  He left Virginia around 1801 and never looked back.  After almost two decades in Ohio, he made his way to Indiana where he settled down, built a mill and raised his family.  Six generations later, I grew up less than 20 miles from the town Jonas helped build in eastern Indiana.

Jonas’s older brother Levi (1777-1847) stayed behind in Virginia.  Since then, his descendants have been on the same land, some of them even living in the same house for three generations.  As of 2003, one of my grandfather’s fourth cousins still lived on the Harris farm in Roanoke.

Lewis K. Harris

Lewis K. Harris, grandson of Jonas Harris and Captain in the 69th Indiana Infantry

When the Civil War shook the nation in the 1860s, two brothers who were grandchildren of Jonas signed up to fight in the 69th Indiana Infantry.  Lewis K. Harris would rise to the rank of Captain; his brother William would become drum major, the leading musician in the regiment.  Both served for the duration of the war, with some of their most intense fighting coming at Vicksburg in the summer of 1863.

On the other side, Levi had two grandsons who served in the war, also brothers.  William and Francis Snyder both enlisted as privates in the 28th Virginia Infantry.  They probably saw their most significant fighting during the Peninsula Campaign and the Battle of Antietam.  Their unit would participate in Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg, but neither of the Snyder brothers lived to see it.  Suffering a fate common to many soldiers, William had died on April 26, 1863 of some unknown disease; Francis had died on May 25, 1863 of typhoid.

Jonas’s grandchildren never faced Levi’s on a field of battle. I doubt they even knew they were on opposite sides in this most momentous of struggles.

I’ve found no record of any communication between the families after their parting in 1801.  Most likely, they lost touch and became absorbed in the challenges of their own lives.  And then as each generation passed, the bonds became weaker and weaker.

Now, six generations later, it’s taken me years of research even to find these ones who stayed behind.

For a history of the Harris House in Roanoke and Levi’s family, see Part 1 and Part 2 of a report by the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research.

For more on Jonas Harris, see my previous blog posts:  Recalculating… and Grounded

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7 Responses to The Ones Who Stayed Behind

  1. pokedpotato says:

    That sounds so crazy that (second?) cousins would not know about the other fighting on opposite sides. But then I think about my grandfather’s brother’s grandkids in CA, who I only met a handful of times. When I was growing up, my mom kept me up to date on all the kids but now I have no clue what they are doing. So I guess to think they fought on opposite sides of war without knowing it is not as crazy as it sounds.

    • ArborFam says:

      I think in many ways it is easier for us to stay in touch these days. Especially across distances. The internet and other technologies keep us close. Back then, if you didn’t have the time or money to send letters or to visit, you lost touch.

      It’s hit and miss too. Even today, I have some 2nd cousins I know a lot about and see often. I have others who I know nothing about and see never.

      Thanks, as always, for reading!

  2. bronxboy55 says:

    How exciting it must have been to help build a town. Then again, the struggles and discomfort probably outweighed the thrills.

    “…as each generation passed, the bonds became weaker and weaker.” You’re doing a great job of reconnecting those bonds, Kevin.

    • ArborFam says:

      I often wonder if it would have been easier or harder to live in a time when less people lived in America, there was less developed land, and more opportunities. I go back and forth. There are lots of pros and cons to each.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. If they didn’t think of crossing the mountains, new towns wouldn’t have been built. How interesting it is to see, years later, how a single man’s decision might change the history of a lot of people. Decisions matter, no matter their catalyst.

    • ArborFam says:

      Decisions do definitely matter. It’s astonishing how significant a single decision can be in the direction for a family for generations. It’s both exciting and terrifying!

      Thanks for reading!

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