Lieutenant William Harris (1633-1698)

Father-in-Law of Thomas Owsley

The following account, in slightly altered form, was first published as "Lieutenant William Harris - A Study of His Life," by Ronny O. Bodine, in the Owsley Family Historical Society Newsletter, December 1993.

Acknowledgements: I wish to thank Homer Keck for his efforts in securing selected documentation from libraries in Alexandria and Washington D.C., as well as undertaking other field trips into the "wild" in an endeavor to locate the grave of William Harris. Many thanks also to Patricia Osisek, financial administrator and keeper of cemetery records of Pohick Episcopal Church, for her research into the church records for references to the gravestone transfer, as well as to Charles M. Ward, Jr., David S. Raese and L. Joseph Owsley for their contributions of time and research materials. And, one cannot overlook the past efforts of David P. Himes and his father, Philip J. Himes, Dr. J. Marion Bryant, Betty Royster, and Chuck and Elizabeth Rawls in bringing an awareness of the importance of Lieutenant William Harris to the heritage of the Owsley family.

According to his gravestone, the only source for his date and place of birth, William Harris was born in England in 1633. Neither his parentage nor his origins in England are known and much of what is known of his life is based upon a few scattered references in the earliest surviving court records of Stafford County, Virginia.

The inscription on his gravestone reads: HEARE LYES / BODEY OF LIEUT / WILLEAME / HERRIS WHO / DIED MAY Y. / 16: 1698: / AGED: 065 / YEARS: / BY BIRTH A / BRITAINE: A / GOOD SOLDIER / A GOOD HUSBAND / & KINDE: / NEIGHBOR.

He would appear to have arrived in the Colony of Virginia as a Lieutenant in the English army in the late 1650s or early 1660s, possibly located first in Westmoreland County and subsequently in Stafford County upon its formation in 1664. No mention of Lieutenant Harris has been found in the earliest records of Westmoreland County, Virginia, many of which, surprisingly, have survived. As a member of the British military, it is unlikely his presence would have been recorded in the court records unless as a result of some extraordinary occurance.

One early account speculated that he was probably an officer in the regiment of Colonel Herbert Jeffreys, sent over to subdue Bacon's Rebellion, which took place over the course of several months in 1675 and 1676 (William and Mary Quarterly, Series 1, Volume 4, No. 3, January 1896). This latter claim was investigated by Jack Ouseley, his wife Win, and his sister Jeanne Driver, of West Sussex, England in 1987. Searching through the Calendar of State Papers, Colonial, America and West Indies, and Colonial Papers at the Public Records Office in Kew, the results were published in the OFHS Newsletter of September 1987, pp. 5-6, which is here quoted in part:

      "The records made it abundantly clear that Bacon's Rebellion constituted a major crisis in Virginia, which necessitated the raising of an expeditionary force in England of five companies, the requisitioning of eleven merchantmen as transports to move 1105 soldiers and "500 new raised men," the procurement and shipping of war equipment, et cetera.

      "Five Captains were listed, named Jeffreys, Nutlowe, Middleton, Meoles and Picks - the latter being replaced by Walters. When the Lieutenants, Second Lieutenants and Ensigns were also listed there were high hopes of finding the name of Harris among them. But this was not to be.

     "We must therefore assume that William Harris was already serving in a British regiment in Virginia before the Rebellion."

William Harris was indeed in Virginia before the rebellion, but his tombstone remains the only source of his military rank as a Lieutenant. The OFHS Newsletter of December 1987 (p. 3) speculated that Lieutenant Harris might be associated with a Major William Harris living in 1670. However, this individual, the son of one Captain Thomas Harris who came to Virginia in 1611, was killed by Indians in 1677 and had no known connection with Stafford County. The earliest known reference to the subject of this account occurred on 12 November 1668, when William Harris and Thomas Baxter purchased the 1000 acre patent (Northern Neck Patents 5: 644) of William Boren in Stafford County, on the northeast side of Occoquan Creek. Less than one year later, on 25 October 1669, "William Harrys, Thomas Baxter and Burr Harrys" were granted a patent of 1200 acres on the West side of the Potomac River on the main run of the Occoquan (Northern Neck Patents 6: 295). And again, on 10 October 1670, William Harris and Thomas Baxter were granted 3000 acres, described as southwest on the Occoquan River, adjacent to Mr. Deaton, near the falls upon the southwest dividing line of this and the land of Colonel Humphrey Higginson. This patent (Northern Neck Patents 6: 324) included the 1000 acre patent acquired from William Boren in 1668. Thus, in the the course of less than two years, William Harris acquired an interest in 4200 acres of land in Stafford County.

It is interesting to locate the original patents and compare them with present day localities, all within Fairfax County. The land purchased in 1668 extends into Belmont Bay and now includes the town of Colchester. The 1669 patent now encompasses land within Occoquan Regional Park, the District of Columbia Department of Corrections, Fort Belvoir Military Reservation and the town of Lorton. The 1670 grant now includes the town of Occoquan, as well as portions of Occoquan Regional Park and Sandy Run Regional Park.

As noted above, on 25 October 1669, William Harrys, Thomas Baxter, and Burr Harrys were jointly granted a 1200 acre patent. The spelling of the name as Harrys is not unusual nor is the case of interchanging Harrys/Harris with Harrison, but in no instance has William Harris been recorded as William Harrison. Burr Harrys was better known as Burr Harrison, born 28 December 1637 and baptised 3 January 1638 at St. Margaret's Parish, Westminster, England. He died in Stafford County in 1706. His father, Cuthbert Harrison, was believed by the Rev. Horace Edwin Hayden, in his Virginia Genealogies (1886, p. 512), to have been descended from the Harrisons of Ancaster, Yorkshire. What is intriguing, though likely only coincidental, is the baptism of one William Harrison, son of Leonard, on 10 June 1632 at St. Margaret's in Westminster. The possibility of William Harris and Burr Harrison being cousins should not be entirely ruled out and there was at least one further occurance of a link between the two men which will be addressed later. Fairfax Harrison in his Landmarks of Old Prince William County (Richmond: Old Dominion Press, 1924, I: 137-138) notes that Burr Harrison's name is spelled Harris or Harrys until he became a justice of the Stafford Court in 1698, afterwhich records show it correctly. He adds that William Harris was undoubtedly of this family.

On 2 May 1671, William Harris sold 625 acres of the land acquired jointly in 1668 with Thomas Baxter to Robert Beckingham (Prince William County Deeds B: 141-143).

In 1675, William Harris was in England and in May of that year he wrote a letter to Sir Joseph Williamson in which he apologized for his actions (not stated) and asked permission to be allowed to return "home" by the next ship in order to be with his daughter and "weak family" (OFHS Newsletter, Apr/May 86, p. 3).

On 20 May 1679, William Harris was granted another 1600 acres in Stafford County on the head of the main run of Neabsco Creek (Northern Neck Patents 6: 691).

Colonel Cadwalader Jones, King's Agent in Virginia, writing in a letter of 3 June 1681, explained why he had been unable to obtain crews for ships that the Crown had ordered manned, stated in part "that men were refusing to go on the ships because of the danger of being captured by the Algerines, and the Colonies could not raise money for their ransom because of the Indian wars. This is my problem, when men of such high caliber and character as William Harris, who has been held captive for over a year cannot be redeemed..." (OFHS Newsletter, Apr/May 86, p. 3)

Then, on 1 January 1686, we find the first recorded contact between William Harris and Thomas Owsley in the form of an indenture. On this day, Thomas Owsley sold William Harris three slaves--Bess, William Davis and Angell Davis, a shallope (a two-masted ship) called Black Bess with its furniture, sundry home furnishings comprising one feather bed and furniture, two course beds and furniture, two servants beds and furniture, three iron pots and six pewter dishes, as well as one mare named Buton, six horses, five cows, four heifers, two bulls, two steers, three sows and five shootes, all for the sum of 31,000 pounds of tobacco and caske (recorded 8 June 1687 in Stafford Co. Deeds D, I: 47). By now Thomas Owsley had certainly married Harris's daughter, Ann, and the sale of the items mentioned in the indenture is most unusual. It would appear that Harris had either lost all of his own property in some calamity or had returned to Stafford County after a prolonged absence to reestablish a substantial household.

On 28 January 1687, William Harris rented a parcel of land in Chappawansick to Thomas and Mary Smith for the sum of 2000 pounds of tobacco and an annual rent of 2 poultry and one bushel of Indian corn, payable at Christmas. This deed provides the earliest and only one of two known examples of William Harris's signature, a facsimilie which was noted in the original record book as " W H" (recorded 11 October 1690, Stafford Co. Record Book, 1689-1692/3, p. 184).

On 26 February 1690/1, William Harris and Lewis Markham were granted a patent of 1600 acres on Neabsco Creek (Northern Neck Grants 1: 41).

And once again, the recitation of patents and indentures are pushed aside, for another more colorful look at William Harris. On 10 September 1690, William Harris registered a bill of sale with the Stafford County Court that he had ".....lately purchased of Mr. Edmund Pagett of Rappahonnock County a younge Negroe man called be ye name of Benjamin to serve as a Slave dureinge his naturall life..." and that after a period of fourteen years from 15 November next, Benjamin would be manumitted and declared a freeman (Stafford Co. Deeds, D: 166). However, there was more to this story that Harris neglected to relate himself and this was revealed in a subsequent court case the following year.

On 20 May 1691, Benjamin Lewis, the young black man that Harris had purchased came into court and testified that he had been a free Negro in England, had indentured himself for four years in return for his passage to Virginia, and once there had been sold by the ship's captain to one Christopher Robinson, who in turn sold him to Edmund Pagett, of Rappahannock County. After serving about half of his term, he had been sold to William Harris to serve out the remainder of his four years. When his servitude was completed, he asked for his freedom, but Harris would not give it, telling the court that the indenture was forged, and that his purchase of Lewis as a slave had been warranted by the seller. Because he considered Lewis to be an "ingenious brisk fellow" whom he felt might be "careless and negligent of all manner of service," he had covenanted that Lewis should serve for fourteen years, and had then registered the bill of sale and his compact. Nevertheless, a jury of eleven men, among them John West, ruled that the original indenture was valid, and the court, pronouncing that the second was a "fraud and deceit," ordered that Benjamin Lewis be given his freedom, requiring him, as all successful litigants were required, to pay the jury seventy-two pounds of tobacco. Harris appealed to the General Court at James City with Burr Harrison as his security to pay the costs of the appeal. (Stafford County Order Book, 1689-1693, p. 91-92). Record of this appeal, along with almost every action of the Governor's Council sitting as this highest court in the colony, was lost in a fire which destroyed the Government House at Jamestown

On 30 December 1690, William Harris signed a court order as "Deputy." This is the only instance of such an action, though another court record entry in 1692 implies he was still serving. The position of Deputy would refer to his being a Deputy County Court Clerk, though certainly not during the tenure of his son-in-law, Thomas Owsley, who served as Court Clerk several years later. One might tend to speculate if this man could have been a son of the elder William Harris (Stafford Co. Deeds D: 189).

On 29 August 1691, William Harris secured his final grant of land, comprising 383 acres on Chappawansic Creek (Northern Neck Grants 1: 104).

On 26 April 1692, William Harris again appeared in court, defending himself against charges of butchering a hog which he knew was not his own property, and denied that he killed it, though it appeared that Harris had directed Mingo, the slave of Sampson Dorrell to commit the deed, and claimed that everyone knew of it and several other persons received portions of the slain hog (recorded 11 May 1692, Stafford Co. Deeds, D: 248).

On 8 September 1692, George Anderson empowered his friend George Mason "to confess Judgmt to William Harris for what I am indebted to him..." again, an implication that Harris was still holding a court position, probably the "Deputy" noted previously (recorded 12 November 1692, Stafford Co. Deeds, D: 267).

On 31 October 1692, William Harris and Thomas Church appraised the estate of Thomas Fulsham, and Thomas Owsley signed as court official on 4 December 1692 (Stafford Co. Record Book, 1689-1692/3, p. 274).

Hereafter, what activities William Harris was involved in during his last years, with one exception, will remain forever unknown. The court order books for Stafford County from February 1693 to November 1699 are lost. The noted exception occurred about April 1696, upon the death of Martin Scarlett. In his will, which has survived among the Tayloe Papers at the Virginia Historical Society, he devises his land to his wife, Ann Scarlett, for life and then to Capt. Thomas Ousley. At the time, William Harris furnished a deposition to the court in support of the sale of her land to Thomas Owsley. It would appear the deed was not recorded until three years later based upon the following court entry of 15 March 1699/1700: "The Deposition of William Harris aged 64 or thereabouts sworn & examined saith that he saw Mrs. Ann Scarlet some time since come into Court with a deed of Sale in her hand and delivered the same to the Court & Capt. Thomas Awsley acknowledged the same to her as his Act & deed within the space of half an hour or thereabouts after she delivered the last will of Capt. Scarlet into Court which was read and probate thereof was granted her this Deponent testifies being at Court to witness the will and further saith not." (Stafford Co. Record Book, 1699-1709, p. 13)

Apparently in failing health and knowing his end was soon approaching, William Harris wrote his last will and testament on 24 March 1698. The actual will itself was contained in a court record book that has long been lost. Fortunately, however, portions of the will are known from a deed of partition dated 29 March 1741 and recorded in Prince William County Deed Book E: 305-309. Upon his death, William Harris was still in possession of 2446 acres of land and in his will devised this land upon his granddaughters Jane and Anne Owsley, to be equally divided between them. If they had no heirs, then the land was to go to Mary Owsley, and in the absence of her own heirs, it should go to Harris's grandson, Thomas Owsley. Thus in 1741, Matthew Gregg of Stafford County and Isaac Kent of Prince William County, two great-grandsons of William Harris, divided the remaining land amongst themselves.

The question remains, were there any other heirs of William Harris, any children other than his daughter Ann, wife of Thomas Owsley? This is a possibility that should not be overlooked. Aside from the land he devised to his grandchildren, comprising the remainder of his patents of 1668, 1669 and 1670, the disposition of the land he obtained in 1679 (1600 acres), 1690 (800 acres being his share) and 1691 (383 acres), comprising another 2783 acres, cannot be accounted for. Certainly, the sale of some or all of this land may well have been duly recorded in the many lost deed books of Stafford and Prince William County. On the other hand, Harris's lost will may have devised remaining lands upon his widow, whose name is nowhere recorded, and other children. At this writing, the identities of any other children are not known.

William Harris died on 16 May 1698, less than two months after composing his will. He was laid to rest in a grave located near the banks of Neabsco Creek, on the land that he, Thomas Baxter and Burr Harrys had patented in 1669. His final resting place was marked with an ornately engraved stone and is best described in the OFHS Newsletter of December 1986, p. 6, wherein "The top and bottom ends and sides of the top surface of the stone are beveled and the center of the stone surface is flat where the inscription is given. The beveled portions contain three symbols....A cherub, signifying the beginning of life, is carved at the top of the stone. At the right-hand side, a sabre is carved, representing Lt. Harris's military service. A carving at the foot of the stone, appearing to be a bow, is in reality a tipped over hour glass signifying that life is finished." The tombstone was originally of a "table" style, elevated on four corner leg-posts, and a popular style of the 17th century. A sketch of the stone, still elevated on its leg posts, was drawn by Katherine Haynes prior to its relocation and is depicted in D'Anne Evans' Prince William County: A Pictorial History (The Donning Company Publishers, Norfolk, 1989, p. 14).

The grave of William Harris has long been one of historical interest. On 20 October 1837, the grave was visited by one Thomas Hurd, who miscopied the weathered inscription and noted it was "...handsomely carved on a tombstone of unusual size, standing on the banks of the Neabsco Creek, in Fairfax County, Virginia. It's duration to this time is 229 years." The date noted by Mr. Hurd as "Correctly copied by me" was "May ye 16th 1608." To this, Mr. Charles Campbell, writing in The Southern Literary Messenger of October 1843, p. 591 added "From the earliness of the date, 1608, it is likely that Lieut. Herris was one of Smith's companions in an exploratory voyage." This discovery was again related in Howe's 1845 History of Virginia, and yet again in Alexander Brown's 1890 work, The Genesis of the United States, I: 150-151.

According to the 1965 Hollin Hills Bulletin, in an article entitled "Pohick Church: Voiceless Messenger from the Past," "The thicket where it stood was said to be haunted. Odd sounds were heard which scared even the dogs away. When the table stone was rediscovered the date of Herris' death was deciphered as 1608, which of course gave rise to all sorts of wild speculation since Capt. John Smith had first sailed up the Potomac the previous year. One School of Thought seriously contended that this was one of Shakespeare's pall bearers!"

To get at the truth, the Editor of the William and Mary Quarterly, in the company of Mr. R. L. Taylor,of Richmond, visited the gravesite of William Harris, noting they found it without difficulty, and made a tracing of the inscription, proving that indeed the date of his death was 1698 and not 1608. The facsimilie of this tracing, published in 1893, can be found in the William and Mary Quarterly, Series, 1, 4: 195.

It would seem that William Harris again entered a prolonged period of peace and quiet. Certainly the land on which his grave lay changed hands several times more, and increased traffic between the Pentagon and Leesburg Pike (Route 7) resulted in the construction of a limited-access road which opened in 1944 as the Shirley Memorial Highway. Later, plans were developed for the construction of Interstate-95 and several old gravestones, including that of William Harris, were identified for removal from the proposed site of construction. About 1950 the grave was visited by Katherine Haynes, who made the sketch of the stone on its leg posts noted previously.

Anticipating the beginning of highway construction, the gravestone was removed from its original site to Pohick Episcopal Church shortly before 3 November 1953. This site was selected because Pohich Church was the only Anglican church in the area at the time of Harris's death. The church vestry minutes of that date record:

     "It was reported that Capt. Joyce had obtained a container of soil from the Lt. Harris gravesite, representative of the remains of Lt. Harris, Died: 1698, having a tombstone originally on the Neabsco Creek, Prince William County, Va, now having been moved to Pohick Church Cemetery." (Pohich Church Vestry Book, 1942-1969, p. 194)

Captain Thomas F. Joyce, a former Church Vestryman, was serving as Cemetary Warden of Pohick Church.

On 11 May 1954, the vestry minutes further record that "Consideration was given to the reengraving of the Lt. Wm. Harris stone, now in the cemetery grounds. It was decided to obtain a price for this work..." (Pohick Church Vestry Book, 1942-1969, p. 215). It would appear that whatever the quoted price was, it was beyond the immediate financial means of the church and so was never carried out.

On 13 September 1954, the proposal was made that several old tombstones, including that of William Harris, be moved to a point behind the church and on 4 October 1954 the proposal was approved. A committee, headed by Mr. William Franklin, a Church Vestryman, was appointed to determine the proper location and final setting and soon after the gravestone was moved for the last time, to the location at which it stands to this day (Pohich Church Vestry Book, 1942-1969, pp. 258, 259).

On 31 May 1979, the Owsley Family Historical Society met in Lexington, Kentucky for the first of three days of its organizational meeting. Most of its membership claimed descent from Major Thomas Owsley and thus from Lieutenant William Harris as well. The society's next annual meeting was held in Richmond, Virginia in May 1980. As part of the schedule of events, a bus trip, on 24 May 1980, took many of the attendees to sites associated with the Owsley family, and this included Pohick Church, where the gravestone of William Harris was visited by the largest number of his descendants certainly since his original burial in 1698. During the meeting it was suggested that a modest statue or gravestone be erected in the Pohick churchyard commemorating the founding of the Owsley family of America. However, this did not take place (OFHS Newsletter, July 1980).

A similiar pilgrimage to Pohich Church took place during annual meeting in Richmond in May 1983 (OFHS Newsletter, Summer 1983, p. 3). On 11 December 1984, through the efforts of Owsley Family Historical Society President L. Joseph Owsley, the Society received permission from Pohick Church to have the Harris gravestone cleaned and re-etched, with stipulations that the monument remain in the churchyard (OFHS Newsletter, July 1985, pp. 1-2). Finally, on Sunday, 24 August 1986, following the church service, two bronze plaques were dedicated and placed at the foot of the gravestone. The dedication of the plaque was reported in several local newspapers, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch of 23 August 1986 and The Alexandria Gazette of 10 October 1986. The first plaque repeated the original inscription of the stone. The second read:     

"Mr. Herris (Harris) was the father of Anne Harris, the wife of Thomas Owsley, the immigrant ancestor of many American Owsleys. These plaques placed by the Pohick Church and the Owsley Family Historical Society to preserve an important historic antiquity. 1986"

A visit to Pohick Church continues to be a tradition of the Owsley Family Historical Society whenever annual meetings are held in Richmond as was the case in May 1987 and May 1993.

But the story does not yet end here. Following the 1993 annual meeting a concerted effort was made to locate the original burial site of William Harris in the hope that one day his remains might be reunited with his gravestone in Pohick Church. Towards that goal, OFHS member Homer Keck, in August 1993, armed with the best possible directions from various old maps visited the area where William Harris was originally buried.

In the 1940s, the gravesite was situated near the Neabsco Inn and the residence of the Miller family, apparently the only private residence nearby. The inn has long since disappeared and only the crumbling weed overgrown foundation stones of the Miller house remain. The area along Neabsco Creek where William Harris was buried is now hidden under a thick carpet of impassable vines, weeds and underbrush. Nature has ensured that the resting place of William Harris will finally remain undisturbed.