Monday, October 19, 2015

Let's Hunt for Harriman History!

Henry Harrison Harriman

  Sarah Elizabeth Hobbs Harriman

        In 1879, Henry Harrison Harriman, age 30, and Sarah Elizabeth Hobbs Harriman, age 26, were called to help explore and settle the San Juan River country in southeast Utah, along with their children: Henry George, 6; Mary Clarissa, 5; John Alma, 3, and Elizabeth “Lizzie,” three months.  Sixteen male scouts, including Elizabeth’s brother George Hobbs, and another family—James and Mary Davis with their four children—joined them on the arduous journey. Their call was to establish themselves and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a wilderness of more than 9000 square miles frequented by outlaws, to make friends with the local Indians, and to prepare for the arrival of a much larger group of pioneers.

Now that you are started on their story, we are extending a call for family research help on Henry and Elizabeth:

It’s time search deeper for photos and stories of Henry and Elizabeth for the  fourth edition of Ron McDonald’s “Fort Montezuma,” scheduled to be printed in early 2016. We seek photos and provenance (the history of ownership) of any heirlooms still in existence—such as Henry’s rifle, which is owned by the Henry Nelson family, and Eliza Elizabeth Jones Harriman’s basket, which is owned by Ellen Nelson Frazier. It would be wonderful to photograph handiwork sewn by Elizabeth. We need help to reach out to their other descendants, who include the posterity of Henry George (married Gertrude Van Horn); Mary Clarissa, (married John Fausett); William Harrison (married Melissa Clifford); Cornelia (married Anthon Nelson) and Zuma Elizabeth (married Alva Frederick Murdock.) If you’d like to help in this effort, please comment and we will get you started.

Henry Harrison Harriman's rifle,  in possession of the Henry Nelson clan.  Please let us know the make and caliber, and any other details you can!

And now… the rest of the story! 

When they reached Montezuma Creek, they built a fort, but it was too late in the season to plant crops. The larger party of Saints called to the mission was scheduled to arrive with provisions shortly, but unfortunately, that band suffered the privations of the “Hole in the Rock” journey, which took six months instead of six weeks. The Harrimans were saved from starvation only through the providence of Heavenly Father, who guided Elizabeth’s brother George Hobbs in bringing them food.   When the other pioneers arrived at Bluff 15 miles west of Montezuma Creek, they were starving and exhausted, and most planted gardens and crops where they were. A few pushed on to Montezuma.

Harrimans built a cabin and raised crops on a farm a mile near the fort. They became good friends with the Indians, even to the point of allowing a Navajo family to take Lizzie for short visits to their camp.  A son, William Harrison, was born on 5 February 1881. But tragedy struck the family twice: Lizzie died in March of 1881, and John died of measles in 1882. The environment was harsh—they scorched in the summer and the San Juan River was unpredictable. Thieving outlaws hid in the canyons. There were Indian scares, with killings between the Ute and Navajo tribes and other white men—but the Mormon pioneers escaped because of the Lord’s mercies and their kindness to the natives.   In late 1883, Church authorities extended a release to those settlers who wished to move away; they voted to stay at least another year—and in 1884, spring run-off brought the biggest flood the San Juan had ever had, which tore out the pioneers’ water wheels, crops, and many homes. 

Lizzie and John Harriman's graves.  We do not know who placed the headstones, made of native sandstone. Kind people have covered the graves with rocks to protect them. 

          With their farm in ruins, the Harrimans bid goodbye to two little graves and turned their faces northward, never to return.  They eventually settled in Canyon Creek, Idaho, where Henry died in 1908 and Elizabeth in 1925. 

In the 1950s, Brenda Nelson, a great-granddaughter of Henry and Elizabeth, led her younger siblings on “pioneer treks” on the family dry farm near Canyon Creek. The girls wore sunbonnets and carried dolls, while their brother “scouted” from the hilltop with a stick for a gun. Brenda and her Nelson cousins had heard stories, made hazy by time, about golden-haired Lizzie and her brother who died, and other adventures of their forbears.  Brenda’s early fascination with family history became a lifelong passion. She married Sherrell “Shae” Anderson and they became parents of eleven children. They experienced the Teton Dam Flood, which displaced them from their home in Sugar City, and other trials.  A son, Owen, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and another son, Brett, drowned as a toddler. In 1995, Brenda and her family moved from Idaho to Ohio, leaving two little graves on a hillside. 

Around the late 1990s, Ron McDonald of Blanding, Utah, a piano tuner and voracious hiker, explorer and researcher, ran across the graves of Lizzie and John Harriman. He wondered where the family had gone—no Harrimans lived in San Juan County.  He put queries on the Internet seeking descendants of Harrimans, and months went by.

In Ohio, Brenda had connected with the New England Harriman family organization and other connections.  Someone online told Ron to contact Brenda, which he did. It was 2000 and Brenda was very ill with terminal leukemia. She was excited to hear of his interest in Harriman family history and gave him the names of cousins who helped him obtain Harriman history and photographs—Colleen Smith and Wilbur T. “Whitey” Nelson. With this information, Ron started a huge research project; more than a decade ago, he published the history of the Montezuma mission and all the families who settled there in “Fort Montezuma.”  He continues to obtain new information and plans to publish a fourth edition of the book in early 2016.

          A month ago, when we heard of the dedication of a monument in Bluff, Utah, we realized it was a chance to meet Ron and have him show us the Montezuma sites.  From Wayne Nelson’s family, Bruce Nelson, Jeanne and Alan Jeppesen and Norm and Debbie Holm made the trip. In Bluff, we met cousins from Lester Nelson’s family— Clara Ann and Doug Olsen and Joy and Bill Wingo, and Jeff and Michelle Nelson and family, and Lisa Nelson Horton and her family. 

          Fort Bluff is a historic site with restored cabins of the Hole in the Rock Pioneers. The monument features President John Taylor, who presided over the church when the San Juan missionaries were called.  It has a section in honor of Montezuma pioneers. (For more information, go to:

Plaque in the Hobbs Siblings Cabin, Fort Bluff

          Joy introduced us to Graig Taylor, a descendant of George Hobbs. George scouted for the exploration party and for the Hole in the Rock pioneers, which included his and Elizabeth’s sister, Ellen Hobbs Fielding. Graig gives big “Hobbs hugs” and is on the board of the Hole in the Rock Foundation (HIRF). Graig told us of the trials modern workers endured to build the cabins and the visitors center. He placed a little high chair and dolls in the “George Hobbs Siblings” cabin in honor of Elizabeth.

High chairs and dolls on left side were placed in honor of Elizabeth Harriman

          The dedication was in honor of the “second wave” of pioneers who settled in Bluff around 1915, when they left their homes in Mexico during the troubled time of Pancho Villa. LaMar Helquist, chairman of the HIRF, paid tribute to the Montezuma pioneers and was visibly moved when about 20 members each of the Davis and Harriman families indicated their presence. All who were there from the two families posed for photos together, and I obtained an email address for Carol Parrett of their group.

In the afternoon, the “Wayne” group and Clara, Joy and Bill met with Ron and quickly sensed his deep love of the Montezuma pioneers, of the Harrimans, and of Brenda, who started him on this journey. 

Tradition says LDS church leaders built the Montezuma Creek church near Harriman’s cabin site, and just across the highway and up a hill are the graves of Lizzie and John.  We climbed about 300 feet from the road up a hill covered with tumbleweeds, prickly weeds and dry rock.  It was incredible to see these graves, preserved for 132 years in an inhospitable landscape.  Lizzie and John were never forgotten; Henry or other early saints built a fence of cedar wood around the graves; unknown people in Montezuma Creek or Bluff placed sandstone headstones; in the 1970s, a Mr. Kemner led a Lions Club project to build a white metal fence around the graves. Kind people—including members of the Montezuma Creek Branch and missionaries from Fort Bluff—have covered both graves thickly with large river cobblestones, and kept them clear of weeds, a labor of love for which our family owes a great debt of gratitude.  When Ron found the graves, there were remnants of the cedar wood fence, which he had placed on the graves; someone had thrown the aged sticks off of the graves, but we found them and put them back. This tiny plot is sacred ground to us. 

Ron showed us where wagon wheels could possibly have left tracks and scarred a rock cliff side near the San Juan River– nowadays, it’s “thick enough to pour like cement,” Bruce said. However, Ron emphasizes that "We simply don't know the exact location of anything except the Harriman graves. We just know the approximate locations." 

We drove a mile up the road from the church, walked across another field of weeds to the bank of the muddy San Juan River to see a pile of rocks in the water. Ron has hefted them when the river is low and feels that they were part of a man-made structure.  Maybe it is the site of Fort Montezuma – they built the fort or parts of it with rock.  Most likely, it was the cribbing platform of William Hyde's water wheel, which would have been a little west of the actual fort.  In any case, these rocks are the correct size for a man to lift to make a structure. 

   Rocks in the San Juan River that are the right size to have been used in a man-made structure.        

          As we walked back to the car, we pondered why the Lord would have the Harrimans come to this desolate place and suffer so much, and then move away, feeling like failures, tired and worn out. Brenda immediately came to mind and I said, “It’s like anything in mortal life—we don’t know why.  Why would my sister Brenda, a mother of eleven children, die of cancer before she could meet her grandchildren? We don’t know, but God does, and one day it will all be made plain to us.  We know that the Harrimans were very strong people with great faith in God, and they passed that on to their posterity. And Brenda was determined to share their story.”  Ron walked thoughtfully for a moment and then said, “Maybe that’s why I just couldn’t give up.  Two or three times, I boxed up all of my work on the book and put it under the bed.  I told my wife I was ready to quit.  And then I couldn’t leave it alone.  I came back to it.” It was a sacred moment.

As we drove away, Ron showed us Recapture Canyon, where Harrimans turned their wagons north when they left to go to Huntington (where our grandmother, Alice Anna, was born). Back at his truck, Ron asked us to send him a photo of Brenda.  I feel Brenda influenced Ron to keep working on a book that only he could write, and he united facts from the Nelsons with his knowledge of the terrain and pioneers of San Juan County. He hopes for more information before he finishes the book’s final edition.

Elizabeth Harriman, seated, with a grandchild and daughter Alice Harriman Nelson. This photo was taken at Elizabeth's homestead home in Canyon Creek in about 1910.

          Henry and Elizabeth lived their testimonies of the Savior Jesus Christ by doing everything that was asked of them. The purpose of their mission—to provide a civilizing influence over Southeast Utah and to make friends with the Indians—proved to be a success. At that time, there was much conflict between the Navajos, Utes and white men of the area—cowboys, outlaws, settlers, and cavalry.  Under Army orders, Kit Carson and his men had forced the Navajos to march to a reservation in 1863-64—many men, and even women and children, were killed; many died of privation.  In 1879, renegade Utes killed Nathan Meeker and his men (whose clumsy attempts to civilize them including telling them to kill many of their horses.) After the “Meeker Massacre,” hostile Indians came through Montezuma Creek but crossed the river a mile south of the fort. A report reached Salt Lake City that Indians had killed the Harrimans and Davises. Thales Haskell, sent to bury them, ascertained with much relief that they had been preserved.
The Harrimans and Davises were exceptions to the general hatred and vengeance.  They offered the Indians friendship, patience, and restraint, and received the same in return.  That kind of behavior isn’t extolled in most history books but it changes the hearts and lives of the posterity of all races.  Many Native Americans were present at the dedication ceremony, and some live near the Harriman graves, which are on reservation property.

We hope there are photos and artifacts that will shed more light on these valiant ancestors. Modern generations may not know all their stories but the examples of our forbears resonate deep within our bones.  Please respond to this call!  We need your help. 

Ron McDonald, Debbie Holm, Bruce Nelson, Jeanne Jeppesen

 Clara Olsen, Ron McDonald, Joy Wingo 

 Ron McDonald on a flat rock near the San Juan River.