Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Sailor, War Prisoner, Settler: John Harris


This post is a bit of a departure from my normal themes, but there will be a gravestone or two, never fear! I spent a lot of last weekend working on a submission for the publication ACORN put out by the ‘Architecture Conservancy Ontario’, with my brother, who is nearly finished his undergraduate degree in architecture at the University of Waterloo (shout-out to my cool brother!). We wrote about the importance of conservation and reuse at the Harris & Co. Woolen Mill in the Rockwood Conservation Area in Rockwood, Ontario (Township of Guelph/Eramosa), and its been a lot of fun to work on a project together!

While doing research for the paper, we were reading a document that our aunt has had for a while: Transcriptions of John Harris’ Diary from 1811 – 1820. Reading historic documents is an excellent way to gain insight into not only a person’s life and day-to-day activities, but also to get a better understanding of who that person was in their life. John’s diary was mostly records of what he did, with some personal thought and strife added in there, but it is where a lot of these events occurred that I remain amazed that he managed to record any of it at all. Lets delve in, shall we?
John Harris was born in County Cork, Ireland, in the 18th century. He was a sailor and worked for a shipping company in Ireland, it seemed, by at least 1811, at the start of his diary. He had signed himself onto the ship for 3 years. The diary transcripts are held at the Wellington County Museum & Archives in Fergus, Ontario, in case anyone wants to go there and read the amazing document for themselves!

Carefully recorded, John’s diary makes notes of details of his life at sea such as:
1811, 8th. Sailed and after some fine weather arrived at Scilly on the 11th, where we remained for a few days. Loaded with coals, red herring and sundry other articles for Oporto.
1812, The wind proving contrary the fleet put into the Needles this day, and brought up between south Yarmouth and Lymington.” 

His journal records details everyday tasks, always with the date beside it, helpfully allowing us to chronicle his activities. (All transcriptions in this post will keep the spells provided, which is a typewriter transcription of the original journal itself, and not a very good scan off it.)
However, his peaceful seafaring journal did not last long, as on February 6, 1813, John wrote:

The wind blowing from the south the next day, being the 7th we saw a large cutter bearing up to us on our loft bow. Many suspicions she caused for [?] come up to us. Our Master hoisted his colours to know what she was. She did not answer it, but passed [?] of us, that going about 1/3 a mile astern of us. She tacked and stood [??] then we knew her to be a French privateer. Going up and fired a gun and several ausquets over us. Hoist the French colours and advised us to heave to, which was immediately gone by [Loth?] vessels. The schooner’s people at took to the [Loth?] and got safe on shore and the schooner was taken.
Our mate John Briggs, being his name, and two apprentices took to the boat, who in attempting to get the boat on shore upset. The lads were lost, but the mate was thrown ashore almost senseless. Two hands staid in the prize and were carried into France in her. While [??] a boy and myself were taken on board the privateer. She was called Le Corsair, Captain Arthur Le Roux, carrying 14 guns and about 20 men. She was printed in disguise, having two white stripes on one side and the other side being painted yellow. When we were captured Hart Point bore W. [?]., distance about 8 leagues. I saved very few clothes, not having a second shirt to change into for some months after I was taken. The people of the privateer behaved well to us, and promised to get us ashore at Guernsey, but the weather proved tempestuous until we arrived at the Isle of [Drehat? Irehat?] on the coast of  Britanny, on the 9th of the 2nd mo. 1813, at 3 o’clock P.M.” 

I remember being told as a kid that we had a relative who had been captured by pirates, and the first time I read those lines, I was so excited! John Harris, now a prisoner during the Napoleonic Wars, was brought to France after the capture of his ship, and marched across France from 1813 til 1815. The level of detail he recounted in his diary of the attack is amazing, and he continued to write throughout his imprisonment, recording details of how far he and the other prisoners walked every day, what they ate, their conditions, and where he was. I haven’t done it yet, but it would not be difficult to plot his route through the countryside of France thanks to the detail of his diary.

1813. 2. mo. 12. In one corner lay a bundle of damp straw, that I suppose some hundreds of poor fellows had lain on, by its appearance. One stool was the only furniture that this miserable place offered. Nothing particular on the road this day, after travelling 21 miles we arrived at Arno, where 4 of us were put into a room one storey high, having a crossbarred window with no glass. It being very cold and blowing nigh, we stuffed the window with straw, which we learned then and afterwards, and of ten found to be comfortable window shutters. ..after walking 27 miles we arried in good time at Rennes, which was the capital of ancient Britanny and the modern development of Ille et Villan. Lat.N.46. Lon. 4’2w. of Paris. (It was common of John to have recorded his location with lat/long and distance from major landmarks).  

While it was apparent from the diary that John and the prisoners were billeted with civilians in most cases, rather than prison cells across the country, but it was still a difficult situation, walking 10 – 30 miles a day by his account without enough food and often left in the cold without blankets or enough straw to cover himself or the fellow prisoners with.

1814, 3 mo. 12. Oft have I when overpowered with fatigue and sleep, fancied myself at home in the company of my friends: but alas! how great the change when I awoke and how distant that day appeared.”

At another point in the diary he mentions being taken to Paris, and mentioned s

1815. 5 mo. 6. In the square at the back of it, on a pedestal supported by arches of most beautiful cut stone, stands the representation, of a Golden Chariot drawn by 4 horses abreast, with the figure of an angel on each side leading the horses, and said to be brought back from Venice by Bonaparte.” 


View from the Basilica San Marco, Venice. Photo by author, 2009.

These horses were stolen from the Basilica San Marco in Venice by Napoleon (to be fair, Venice stole them from Constantinople, who took them from somewhere else in the Roman Empire, and the horses were made in Greece somewhere between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD), and John mentions them again a few years later when he is on a sailing trip to Italy. He spoke of seeing the space where the horses once stood. Today, those horses are back safely in Venice, but the jewels are missing from their eyes and they are housed inside the Basilica rather than on the balcony, where their replicas stand today. I have stood in the Piazza in Venice looking at those horses with my family, the same way John did nearly 200 years earlier, which is amazing to think about!

It wasn’t until 1815 the John attempted an escape from his captors with a few of the other prisoners, when other soldiers in town caused some sort of commotion. John made a break for the mountains and it seemed as is he had managed to escape, however without provisions they soon had to turn back and return to the town. It seems that they were taken back into custody at that point, but later that same year John was set free and returned to Ireland. There don’t appear to be details about his release in the diary, but suddenly he starts writing about taking boats to various towns in Ireland, and it is inferred that at the end of Napoleonic Wars he was released and sent home. He wrote:

1815 3 mo. 8. They kept this as a day of mourning, and all the vessels in all river of all nations went in mourning on this day, it being requested by the magistrates of the town. 
Left Bordeaux and arrived before [B]laye.
3 mo. 9. Arrived at Pauliac. Contrary Winds.
3 mo. 16. Weighed and proceeded below Pauliac.
3. mo. 17. To the Roads.
3 mo. 20. Sailed from the Roads to sea. Bound for Cork with a general Cargo.” 

After returning home, John took up work as a merchant sailor again for a while, occasionally mentioning his sister whom he visited regularly. After mentioning an illness many times, he had to take time off from sailing to recover, and opened a small grocery store with his sister. I’m not sure what illness he suffered from but at one point he mentioned that part of his face was swollen and he had a ‘great pain in [his] stomach’, and another time he took leave from the ship because his side hurt too much to work.


Jane Harris (nee Weatherald). Photo from the Wellington Country Museum & Archives Digital Record, Harris Album.

In 1820, John Harris boarded a ship bound for St. John’s, Newfoundland, then on to Quebec, to seek new opportunities in Canada. He doesn’t give much explanation for this, other than leaving letters for his mother and one of his sisters (I assume Sarah, the one he opened a store with for at least a year). After travelling through much of eastern Canada, John eventually came to the township of Eramosa, Ontario, where he purchased the eastern end of Lot 3 Concession 4. In working his land there and erecting a shanty structure he became the first European settlers in what became known as the Town of Rockwood.

After some time, he married Jane Weatherald and they had six sons together, and adopted a daughter. John died in 1857, and just 10 years later in 1867, a few of John and Jane’s sons, John Richard, Thomas, and Joseph, as well as their brother-in-law Thomas Weatherald opened the Harris & Co. Woolen Mill. The mill was first made from primarily wood, but after a fire in the 1880s, new structures were added, made from limestone from a local quarry, and represented an industrial economy for the Town. The mill itself was powered by the Eramosa River which flowed through the town, and many goods were produced there. Between 1915 and 1918 the mill won a large contract to make blankets for the Canadian army. 100 years earlier John Harris was freezing in captivity of one army, and how his children and grand children were creating blankets to keep different soldiers warm.


Portion of Tremaine’s 1861 Map of Wellington County. Note how Thomas Harris still owned a portion of the east end of Lot 3 Con 4, where his father had built the town’s first structure. (Ontario Historical County Map Project)


Portion of 1880 map of Eramosa Township, showing the now constructed Harris and Co. Woolen Mill. an A.McMillan now resides on Lot 3 Con 4, but the Harris’ aren’t far away. (Canadian County Atlas Digital Project)

Unfortunately due to growing industry in Toronto and Cambridge, the Harris & Co. Woolen Mill closed in 1925, and in 1963 the structures and the land surrounding it became the Rockwood Conservation Area, which is still open today and is an exciting natural and geological area, as well as containing impressive structures. What is left of the mill today is the stone shell, gutted by a fire in 1965. It has been stabilized, and is used as a landmark, and popular destination for photographers and weddings.


The Harris & Co. Woolen Mill, as it looks today. Photo by Gordon Lacy.

Something that I find very interesting about the history of this place and its presence in the landscape as an industrial structure, and a family legacy, is that I’ve recently moved to Ontario and am suddenly finding out that my family has deeper roots in this area that I suspected. My grandma’s family is from the city I moved to, and the Harris’ in Rockwood were around for ages as well! As weird as it has been to not be living in Newfoundland after being there for the last two years, it’s been really cool to get to know a place where apparently a lot of my family is from!

Oh yes, and before I forget. When people have lived somewhere for a long time, they also tend to die there:


(thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the story! I’ll be back soon with more death-related content!)

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

5 thoughts on “Sailor, War Prisoner, Settler: John Harris

  1. Great job telling our grandpa’s story. I’m wondering if I gave you a copy of all the documents that I’d received from the museum. I must go there, when I’m in the neighborhood soon and look at the photos. Next, there’s your Great grandmother’s stories… ❤ ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Curious Canadian Cemeteries: The Rockwood Cemetery, Rockwood, Ontario | Spade & the Grave

  3. I’m not sure if I have documents from this John H Harris or another one. The document says that John was American Seaman age 19 his height says City but I can’t make it out. State Connecticut and that he a Citizen of USA
    Dated. 18th of July 1815.
    It also has a seal on bottom left side
    Can you maybe tell me more also have another Document from George W Harris mentioned John H Harris Preston Connecticut
    These were in a military looking canister
    Thanks Gail N


    • Hi Gail, The John Harris in my family never lived in the US, so that must be another fellow! My relative was from Ireland and moved to Ontario 🙂


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