The Early Families of Villisca
Compiled by Audrea Higgins
One of the first questions arising in a
story about a community is that of who were its first settlers. Contacting many of the families who have been
residents of the Villisca community for many years, resulted in a wealth of information.
The following chapters of biographical
information are entered mostly according to the years in which the families settled in the
Credit is also given to the person from who
the information was received. Obituaries are
from the Villisca Review, in most cases.
John Harris Family
John Harris, born in Tennessee
on January 16, 1818, married Jane Keeney, born September 8, 1820 in Tennessee, on February
23, 1841. The Harris family emigrated to Iowa
from the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee. They
went south through Muscle Shoals in a houseboat to Cairo, Illinois, before striking out
over land to Iowa with an ox team. The family
settled about three miles northwest of Villisca. (Where
the Willis Gourley farm is located today.) This
area was to be known as the Dunn Settlement.
Accompanying the Harris
were Mrs. Harris parents, the Thomas Kenneys. Mr.
Kenney was a distiller and cooper by trade, but was driven out of Tennessee by the rebels
who were opposed to his abolition ideas.
After settling in this county,
Mr. Keeney raised tobacco.
John and Jane Harris were the
parents of the following children:
Martha A. Harris, born Feb.
20, 1842; died May 9, 1844.
L.B. Harris, born Mar. 4,
1844; died May 9, 1844.
J. Wes Harris, born Aug. 9,
1853, married Eva Smith (I), died Feb 5, 1937; married
Nannie C. Fulton (2), Oct. 1, 1885.
Sara J. Harris, born Feb. 7,
1856; married R. J. Dunn; died Jan. 3, 1929.
Lee W. Harris, born June 8,
1861; married Fannie Van Wert, Jan. 12, 1886; died Nov. 11, 1941.
Charlotte M. Harris, born
Sept. 18, 1864; married Will Hillbourn, Mar. 23, 1886; died Aug. 15, 1940.
Lydia B. Harris, born Feb. 26,
1866; died No. 11, 1872.
The first election caucus in
organizing Montgomery County was held in the log cabin home of John and Jane Harris in
John Harris died October 18,
1872. Jane Kenney Harris died January 2, 1905.
(Information by Melber Harris,
George W. Harris
George W. Harris was born
August 9, 1853, in a brick house on the farm now owned by Willis Gourley. He was the son of John and Jane Keeney Harris, and
for many years took credit for being the first white boy born in Montgomery County. This
story was later challenged by a lady in the western part of the county.
Mr. Harris was actually born
the year the county was surveyed and formed, and the first election was held in his
parents home. Eighteen votes were cast
in this election, twelve Democrat and six Whig votes.
In 1874, George married Eva
Smith and they founded a home in Republic, Kansas. Mrs.
Harris died May 5, 1882, leaving Mr. Harris with two sons, L.A. Harris, and Guy, who died
at the age of two, shortly after the death of his mother.
On October 1, 1885, he was
married to Nannie C. Fulton. To this union
were born three sons, Albert, Orval, and Melber, and two daughters, Fay, and Sylvia. Nannie Harris died October 16, 1923.
George was well acquainted
with the operators of the underground railroad during the Civil War when
slaves made their escape to the North and safety.
He also recalled helping his
Grandfather Kenney worm tobacco plants and told how they twisted the leaves into ropes to
dry. They held these ropes in place under
pressure by using heavy weights with a long lever and rocks.
These are only two of the
tales George Harris liked to tell. He also
often wrote articles for publication in local newspapers.
In one such article, he stated: Todays
residents have difficulty realizing what the country looked like when I was born. There were no long ribbons of concrete
bisecting the area. There were no steam trains
plying between towns which had not yet been conceived.
There were no people. There was
no livestock or cornfields. Montgomery County
was practically virgin territory.
In his obituary taken from the
Villisca Review, quote: Harris lived
through the growing period, passed through the Puritanical Age, the Gay Nineties, the
early depressions, Spanish-American War, World War, post war inflation and its subsequent
George Harris could tell his
experiences by the hour. Following is an
article written by a student who interviewed Mr. Harris and really tells it like it was.
With An Old Settler
So you want to know
about the early days in Iowa? Well, my folks came here with the surveyor, and I was the
first white child born in Montgomery County, so I reckon I ought to be able to give you a
little information upon the subject.
Let me see, and
George Harris puffed his pipe reminiscently.
My folks were born,
raised and married in a little town in Cumberland Mountains in East Tennessee. They came to Iowa with my mothers folks in
I can hear my dad now,
talking over old times, money was mighty scarce and hard to get down south, so a bunch of
us neighbors slipped up to this country, cause wed contracted a bad habit. Yep, it sure were a bad habit. You see it was this way, wed contracted the
habit of craving food three times a day. Now
you know youve got to be up and doing to satisfy a habit like that! And I guess he had it right.
Most of the trip, up the
Tennessee and Ohio rivers to the Mississippi, was made in a flat house boat. While going up the Tennessee they went through the
Muscle Shoals, and I guess they pretty near upset.
When they got to Cairo
they changed from the house boat to a regular steamboat that carried passengers up and
down the river. They went up the Mississippi
to Dubuque where they landed and bought an ox team and other necessary supplies, and set
out for Lee County, Ioway.
They were living there
when Joseph Smith, the great Mormon prophet, was killed in the massacre at Nauvoo, which
is in Lee County, and only a few miles from where my folks settled.
My dad saw the Mormons
leave for Denver. They must have been a
discouraged looking lot, the men pushing the baggage in wheelbarrows, and their wives and
children riding crowded together in wagons.
Well, to make a long
story shorter, my folks came to Montgomery County in a prairie schooner, drawn by an ox
team, in the spring of 1852. At the various
stops along the way they fell in with a good many of their future neighbors and fellow
citizens, who were also traveling west.
Some of these folks had
been out and made their locations the year before, and were bringing their stuff out. Others, like my folks, were coming for the first
time, bringing their stuff along, and expecting to look around a little before they
There were wagon trails
leading west from all of the Mississippi landings. My
folks followed the Old Ridge Road, so called because it followed the ridges
and kept out of the slews.
The first wagon train
that came that way set out bushes every now and then, which was very thoughtful of them,
but the road changed considerable after that, and the bushes werent good for much
except decoration, maybe. Well, my folks
followed these all-fired bushes, and got lost. And
that wasnt all of the bad luck, they ran out of matches.
The dry prairie grass
was so high, it came up to the hub of the wagon. If
a prairie fire had got started they would have been burned to death, sure.
Guided by the hand that
leads all pioneers, they left the road and cut across the seemingly boundless prairie,
til they caught sight of a grove off in the distance.
They made for this grove, hoping and praying that some one lived there who
could supply them with matches, and show them the right road.
Thank God, their prayers
were answered. The Good Settler
gave them enough matches and directions to last the rest of the trip, and told them how
close they had come to being burned to death. He
told them if they got caught in a prairie fire, to plow in a circle around the wagon and
burn off the grass between the plowed strips.
didnt have any occasion to use this advice, during the rest of the trip. They arrived safely, and located on the West
Nodaway River in June, and started right in breaking the sod, with an old prairie plow and
the ox team they had driven from Dubuque and another the bought after they got here.
They let this plowed
soil lie and rot until the following spring, when it was sown with spring wheat, and
considered ready for a crop of corn the next year.
The first livestock the
folks kept was a flock of sheep which gave them wool for the clothes and blankets for the
The coarse homespun
dresses were called linsey woolseys, and home spun pants were called jeans. Today we consider wool clothes better than cotton
ones, but in those days, calico was the most fashionable material. The purchase of a gown of calico was a much talked
During the first few
years the settlers lived on wild game, and fruit and nuts.
Deer, prairie chicken, and sorghum and wild crab apples was their sauce. They killed so many prairie chickens that they had
to throw away all of them but the breast, which they packed in barrels and froze. The timber was full of deer and there was plenty of
fish in the Nodaway in those days.
They dug their first
well with a spade and walled it with boards. Its
a wonder they didnt drink polly-wogs. There
was only one disease then, and they didnt lay that to the water. This disease was the shakes, or ague. It was supposed to be caused from the rotting
prairie soil. My, but it was awful. And the medicine was worse. They had to take big black bitter pills, that
didnt have any sugar coating on them. These
pills were supposed to keep the ague away as well as to cure it. When I was a little fellow, my mother broke mine up
and I ate it with sugar. Some of the men
dissolved theirs in whiskey.
Our log house had two
rooms. One was the dining room and general
living room, and the other was where we slept. In
one end of the best room was a great fireplace. The
puncheon floor was made of hewn oak, which was white and would scrub good. The roof was made of clapboards instead of
shingles. These clapboards were thicker than
shingles, and a lot longer. They didnt
have any nails to nail them down with so they put boards and weights on them to hold them
Our furniture was a
rough board table, a cupboard made out of a packing box, a cot bed, a bench made out of a
plank with pins in it for legs, and several chairs made on this same order. A spinning wheel and a cradle always stood in front
of the fireplace, and the rifle and powder horn hung over the door.
I was born in this house
August 9, 1853, and I lived there until I was eight years old. I was christened George Platter West Harris, for
one of our neighbors. I always signed my name
G. P. W. Harris until I went to sign a deed once, and the notary asked me why I
didnt shorten my name to G.W. Harris. It
didnt make any difference, after all, because everybody calls me Old George
When I was about eight
year old, my folks built a new brick home. They
gave Larcas Brothers, contactors, an eighty-acre farm for building it. Of course, land was cheap then and building
material was high before the railroad came through, because us folks were so far from the
markets. All of the brick for the house was
burnt in an old fashioned kiln. I thought I
was awfully big, carrying bricks, but I guess I was just in everybodys way.
The county was organized
at about the same time that we moved into our new house, so we had the first election
there. It was held out under the trees in the
yard. Mother got dinner for all of the voters. There were eighteen of them. There was John Ross, Jim Ross, R.W. Rogers, James
Carlisle, G.D. Connolly, J.G. Romaine, William Wilson, Wells Sager, A.J.Lowe, Mr.
Hannoway, J.H. Sager, Chauncy Sager, Robert Dunn. Twelve of them were Democrats and six
Ill never forget
my first day at school. It was a cold winter
day and there was a light snow on the ground. I
ran off barefooted. Jim Ross, the school
teacher, followed my tracks through the snow, and took me to school with him and kept me
there until my folks came after me.
All the schooling I ever
had I got at this school. The first thing we
studied was the Elementary Spelling Book.
It had a few words on each page, with easy sentences at the bottom of the
page using the words in the spelling lesson. When
we had gone through this twice we were ready for McGuffeys Reader.
In connection with our
school work, we organized literary and debating societies.
We would put on programs every once in a while. We used to come to Villisca in sleds and spell
against the school at Villisca. Once we got up
a play and put it on at the neighboring school house.
About every four weeks
on Friday afternoon, we would have what we called an exhibition, and our folks
would come to hear us speak our pieces and sing our songs.
Ever so often we young
folks would get together and have a taffy pull. Those
were the days of real sport and good cooks. We
werent allowed to have very many dances, but we always managed to have at least one
dance during the holidays. They were always
invitation dances held at private homes.
The High School at
Villisca was just starting at the time that I finished at the country school. My folks had planned for me to go there, but there
was a siege of typhoid that winter, and we all got it.
My father and my sister died, and they gave me up, but I didnt die. When I got over that, I had to stay home and work,
so I didnt get to go to High School.
Another thing which I
about forgot to mention was the old swimming hole. There
was the dandiest one on our place, so we boys just about lived in it in the summer. Also, we earned our spending money by trapping and
by digging out young wolves in the summer.
Another event which
stands out in my memory of my boyhood days, is the time that I and several boys rode to
Red Oak on the train which was the first to come through.
We were hoisted on top of the box cars.
The train went so fast that I got dizzy and scared. We could hardly hang on. Believe me, we were glad enough to get off when we
The first church I was
ever in was the Baptist Church at Sciola. I
always went to Sunday School and revival meetings in the school house. They had a dandy circulating library in the Sunday
In those days we really
celebrated on the fourth of July. We used to
go to Frankfort to celebrate, with a high flagpole on the wagon, and the team all
decorated with flags. People were more
patriotic in those days than they are now.
One time when I was
about fifteen, we drove a heard of hogs to St. Joe and brought back a load of stuff for
the store in Villisca. On the way, we stopped
over night at a farmhouse, which we found later to be a station of the underground
railroad. The lady of the house looked just
like a jailor, and she carried a big bunch of keys around with her all the time. She made me nervous.
I didnt sleep very much that night.
I remember before the
war, the men of the community would organize and drive the bushwhackers back
About this time we took
a Missouri paper, the Missouri Democrat which was a Republican paper. There
was another paper called the Missouri Republican, which was a Democrat
I guess the war
surprised everybody that read about it as much as it did me. Most of us out here thought
that it was over a disagreement over slaves between the southern slaveholders and some
Abolitionists back east. We didnt think
that the outcome of the war held any great importance for us until Abe Lincoln made all
under the U.S. skies see the importance of keeping us all under one flag. I wasnt old enough to go, but my brother
carried a gun for the family.
Times go pretty hard
right after the war when payment was received, by we managed to have plenty to eat and
clothes to wear. True we didnt have many
fixins but we were thankful for being alive. Human
life was a sort of casual thing in the early days. It
wasnt fine ideas that kept you alive, it was hard work.
Youd hardly know
that this was the same country, for every year has brought its own changes, but honestly,
Im telling you the truth, Id rather have my grandsons see what I saw and feel
what I felt when Iowa was in the making, than to get up their radiators, step into their
baths, speed away in their cars, and go to their universities. I am glad that I had my share in these grand and
glorious things which can never be again.
And the old settler wiped a
bit of moisture form his eyes as he said Those were the he-man days.
(Information by Melber Harris, Clarinda, Iowa)
More to come. Check back soon.
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