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Harlan Family In America:
A Brief History

by Louis R. Harlan

We have come here to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, to celebrate the 310th anniversary of the Harlan family in America. There are today perhaps twenty thousand Harlans in the United States and a somewhat larger number of those with other names who are descendants or relatives of Harlans.

Most of us Harlans are descendants of two English brothers, George and Michael Harlan, who arrived in 1687 at New Castle, Delaware, then part of the colony of Pennsylvania, and of a third brother, Thomas, who never came to America but some of his sons arrived fifty years later. The Harlans are only a small proportion, of course, of the entire United States population, but even so they are a nationwide extended family deeply embedded in our national history.

In the years since 1687 the Harlans have spread and multiplied. They have taken part, sometimes in a major way, in the great migrations that peopled this country, and in most of the great events of American history. Though the Harlans certainly were not aristocrats in either England or America, as my father used to say, "they generally married above their station." Wives, take note.

Harlans have prospered and have been responsible citizens wherever they settled, except possibly for a few black sheep best forgotten on this occasion. Though no Harlan so far has grown up to be President, the family's history includes two members of Congress, a U.S. Senator, a member of President Lincoln's cabinet, and two justices of the United States Supreme Court. We have cause for pride in our family name, and we also have reason to gather in support of the family as an institution in a period when it is threatened by extreme individualism.

For the detailed knowledge we have of our family history, we are all heavily indebted to Alpheus H. Harlan, who in 1914 published a History and Genealogy of the Harlan Family. He had labored on this book for twenty-three years without the aid of a computer. It not only contains the skeleton family tree but includes a wealth of biographical information, letters and other documents. It is an astoundingly accurate piece of work that no Harlan family member should be without. Any of you cousins who know your grandfather's or grandmother's name will probably be able to trace your ancestry back twelve generations to the first Harlans in America. Alpheus Harlan's book is back in print again and you can own a copy and pass it on to your children.

We have only fragmentary knowledge of the Harlands in England, all with a d on the end of their name. They were pretty much centered in the north of England, around Durham and in the North Riding of Yorkshire, which some of you may know from James Herriot’s books about people and animals of the Yorkshire Dales. One has only to look in the local telephone books of York and Durham to find several pages of Harlands listed, presumably distant cousins of ours but removed by many generations.

There was a Richard Harland who sided with the winning Royalists in the English Civil War and was rewarded by Charles II in 1660 with the ownership of Sutton Hall, a manor surrounded by a large estate which had belonged to the crown. It passed to another family in the 19th Century, however, and we don't even know precisely the relationship of those Harlands to us American Harlans.

The earliest paternal ancestor of the Harlans in America that we know much about was James Harland (1)*, son of William Harland. James was called a yeoman, not an aristocrat nor a gentleman, born near Durham, England, about 1625. He was the father of Thomas (2), George (3) and Michael Harlan (4), and had his three sons baptized in the Church of England, at the formerly Catholic monastery of Monkwearmouth near Durham. Britain was in constant religious conflict all through the Reformation, when ordinary people began reading the Bible for themselves, and the Harlands took part in that turmoil.

As George and Michael were growing up in the mid 1600s, a radical religious movement swept over England led by the Reverend George Fox, known as the Society of Friends, more often called the Quakers. This denomination had no clergy, practiced freedom of worship, and opposed all forms of violence including war and slavery. With such ideas, it naturally became banned and persecuted by the established church and the government. George and Michael Harlan and their brother Thomas became Quakers, and were forced to flee to northern Ireland, England's first colony, only to find that English persecution followed them there. Meanwhile, William Penn, the Quaker son of a British admiral, was granted the colony of Pennsylvania, where his Quaker co-religionists found a haven, as did other persecuted sects such as the German Mennonites. George and Michael Harlan and George's wife, Elizabeth, and four children sailed from Belfast, Ireland, to the new colony in 1687, Just six years after its first settlement at Philadelphia.

George Harlan had bought land in what is now Delaware before leaving Ireland. He became one of the leading citizens, and when William Penn decided that the "three lower counties," that is, Delaware, were so remote from Philadelphia that they needed their own government, he appointed George Harlan one of the governors. Soon, however, George moved to the Brandywine valley of Pennsylvania as a farmer near to where his brother Michael had already settled.

George Harlan was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1712, but died two years later, leaving nine children. His brother Michael, about ten years younger, married three years after reaching America. He was not as prominent as his brother, but his will and the inventory of his estate show him to have been a prosperous farmer. Michael died in 1729, leaving eight children. Many of his descendants moved to New York and then westward along the northern tier of states. Meanwhile their brother Thomas's descendants arrived in Pennsylvania from Ireland and joined the Harlan gene pool in America, mostly in Quaker country.

From these three brothers with their large families, most of the Harlans in America are descended. Most of them dropped the d on the end of their name, not because they were illiterate, but because spelling did not become standardized until the 19th Century. Their vigor, sexual energy, and restlessness helped to expand and populate this country of ours.

In every generation elder sons and daughters tended to main where they were bom, whereas younger sons moved south and west. Take, for example, my own line of descent. The founder George Harlan's younger son, James Harlan (11), moved all the way over the Blue Ridge into Frederick County in western Virginia. He remained a Quaker until his death about 1760, had ten children, and was buried at a Friends Meeting House. His son George (45), bom in 1718, spent most of his life on the family farm in Frederick County, Virginia, remained a Quaker, and died about 1760. Of George's sons, Jehu Harlan (212) moved to the adjacent county, now Berkeley County, West Virginia, where he established a farm and gristmill at Falling Waters, still a local landmark and still owned by his descendants.

But the American Revolution was approaching and with it the opening up of the West beyond the Appalachians. In 1774, a year before Lexington and Concord, Jehu's brothers, Silas (215) and James (216), crossed the Proclamation Line that the British government had drawn to try to separate white settlers from the Indians, who after a century of supporting the French were now allies of the British government. Silas and James were in Captain James Harrod's party of pioneers who went down the Ohio in canoes and up the Salt River to found Harrodsburgh, Kentucky, the first permanent white settlement across the Appalachians. Soon afterward they moved seven miles away and built a stockaded fort they called Harlan Station. James farmed while his brother Silas went off to fight the British and Indians. Silas became a major under George Rogers Clark and died a hero at the battle of Blue Lick Springs, Kentucky, in 1782. Harlan Countv, Kentucky, was named after him. James was later a captain in the War of 1812. Most of the east-coast Harlans, as Quaker pacifists, stayed out of the American Revolution, but the western Harlans did take part. In four generations a peaceful Quaker family had sired an Indian fighter. Silas had no children, but his brother James became my ancestor.

Among James Harlan's nine children was John Caldwell Harlan (844), who became postmaster of Harrodsburgh and a large meatpacker and dealer in livestock. His daughter Sarah Ann Harlan (2960) married her first cousin Benjamin Harlan (873), and they were my great-grandparents. Both they and her father, John Caldwell Harlan, moved to Maury County in the Tennessee bluegrass, where they both had large livestock farms. Thus, I am doubly a Harlan, which probably explains my extra large nose and prominent cars. Among other things, my ancestors raised jackasses and mules - maybe that’s where my ears come from!

Before leaving the Kentucky Harlans, however, let me say that they played a prominent part in our family history and in American history. During the time between the Revolution and the Civil War, many Harlans moved on both sides of the Ohio River, all through the rich farm lands of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois as well as Kentucky and Tennessee, and they were a very close extended family as time passed. James Harlan (845), my great-grandmother's uncle and my great-grandfather's first cousin, became a lawyer, a leading state official and a congressman. Abraham Lincoln appointed him the U.S. District Attorney for Kentucky. He moved to the state capital, Lexington.

His son was John Marshall Harlan (2969), who was a colonel in the Union Army, a political leader in keeping Kentucky in the Union, and eventually Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. John Marshall Harlan was one of the greatest men ever to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. During a conservative era of the Supreme Court he became the chief liberal dissenter on the court and for many years, the only dissenter. In his dissenting opinions in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 he spoke out for the rights of African Americans guaranteed by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. His dissent against the segregation of black people in the infamous Plessy decision of 1896 was a legal landmark, and used much the same reasoning that the Court later followed in the Brown decision of 1954 that ended legal segregation of public schools. He was in the minority in favor of the constitutionality of the federal income tax when it first came before the Supreme Court.

And yet, John Marshall Harlan had been a slaveowner, as his father was before him. History is full of such contradictions. Justice Harlan had a black half-brother, Robert J. Harlan, whom the family taught to read and write. They allowed him to go into business for himself in Harrodsburgh, Lexington, and Cincinnati. In 1849 he went to California in the gold rush, returned with $50,000 said to be gambling winnings, went back to Kentucky and bought his freedom. In later life he became a racehorse owner and trainer, a leading local Republican, and later a federal officeholder in Washington. Robert Harlan won't be found in Alpheus Harlan's history, but his life is on record in other histories and documents.

Harlans were on both sides of the Civil War, but without having an actual count, I would say more of them were on the Union side. That was true not only of the northern Harlans, but the Kentucky Harlans, and even the Tennessee Harlans. And then there were Quaker Harlans and Whig Harlans who opposed the war. My grandfather, George Henry Harlan (3095), who was nineteen when the Civil War ended, was dying to join the Confederate Army, but his father wouldn't let him volunteer and made him continue to make money driving hogs and horses back and forth through the battle lines for sale to both armies. But all his life, my grandfather felt deprived of his battle experience, and whenever a Confederate veteran passed on the road near his farm, he invited him home to dinner to pump him for his war stories. A Harlan from Maryland was the chief surgeon of the Union Navy during the Civil War. There were many from the upper Ohio valley who fought for the Union in their state militia units.

The Harlan who played the most prominent part in the Civil War era, however, was James Harlan (2297) of Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Born in Illinois, he grew up in a pioneer settlement in Indiana, got a good early schooling and graduated from what is now DePauw University. Immediately after college he moved to Iowa to become president of what became Iowa Wesleyan College, then was elected state school superintendent, and finally to the U.S. Senate, where he served for 18 years. In April, 1865, shortly before Lincoln died he appointed James Harlan to be Secretary of the Interior, serving for more than a year before returning to the U.S. Senate. While Secretary of the Interior, he compiled a list of some eighty clerks to be fired as lazy, immoral or disloyal. Reportedly, he visited Walt Whitman's desk in his absence and found evidence he was writing poetry while on duty and fired him. Many years later H. L. Mencken wrote that "one day in 1865 brought together the greatest poet America had produced and the world's damnedest ass." Let us attribute that remark, however, more to Mencken's admiration of Whitman than as a true characterization of Harlan, whom Mencken never met.

James Harlan certainly met the standards of his time and of his home state, which sent him back to the Senate in 1866. After retiring from the Senate, he returned to Mount Pleasant to take up again the presidency of Iowa Wesleyan College and lived there until his death in 1899. H's daughter, Mary Eunice (5864), married Abraham Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain and was for many years president of the Pullman Palace Car Company.

Meanwhile, other restless Harlans were moving west all the way to the Pacific. Some died on the prairies and in the Rocky Mountains, but George Harlan (852) made it all the way to California in 1845-46. He was one of the Kentucky Harlans, but 'had lived earlier in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. Inspired by a guidebook he had read, he set out from Niles, Michigan, with his wife, six children, a 90-year-old mother-in-law, and assorted nieces and nephews.

Wintering at Lexington, Missouri, the Harlans joined some 500 other emigrants along the Oregon Trail in the spring of 1846. While following the Platte River they joined forces with the Donner family of Illinois and learned that the author of their guidebook would meet them at Fort Bridger in southwestern Wyoming and personally guide them to California. They were among the few families that chose that option, and the guide talked them into a shortcut. This turned out to be like many of the shortcuts in life. Unfortunately the guide hadn't bothered to scout all the details of the route, and the Harlan party discovered after leaving Fort Bridger that it wasn't well suited to handle their 66 wagons. They had to make their own wagon road, later used by the Mormons to reach Utah. They had to fell trees, use a river bed full of boulders, pull wagons up sharp inclines with ropes and winches, and traverse the Great Salt Lake desert.

Along the Humboldt River they met hostile Indians who began to kill oxen and stragglers on foot. George Harlan sent his nephew Jacob (2984) to John Sutter in California for oxen and supplies, and with this help they were able to cross the Sierra Nevada before the winter snows. They were the last wagon train to reach California that year. The Donners, a couple of weeks behind them, were snowed in and were unable to traverse what became known as Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where 35 died and others were reduced to cannibalism in one of the worst disasters of the westward movement.

George Harlan settled in Santa Clara County, California, and had a large family. Members of the Harlan family acquired a large part of the Big Sur, where they had a cattle ranch and practiced sound conservation until finally agreeing in the 20th Century to turn it over to the government to be part of the Big Sur public park. For information on the California Harlans, I am indebted to writings by William K. Harlan of Walnut Creek, California.

Alpheus Harlan's history ends at the beginning of the 20th Century, but that is not to say that our family story comes to an end there. It is up to you, the Harlans of the 20th and 21st centuries, to bring our family saga up to date. Rather than regale you with details about present-day Harlans, I want to close with a few thoughts about what family is all about. We have cause for pride in the individual achievements of outstanding Harlans. We should keep in mind, however, that for every major historical character there were a thousand others who were simply self-reliant, solid citizens who made a contribution to society. Most of the early Harlans were farmers in a country that was overwhelmingly rural and agricultural, whereas the more prominent Harlans were mostly political leaders and professional men. In recent times, as corporations have come to dominate commercial agriculture and our country has become more urban and industrial, the family farm has become an endangered species.

At present, when large organizations and extreme individualists are both eroding the strength of the family unit, it behooves us to meet here in America's heartland on this Fourth of July weekend of national renewal, to strengthen our bonds with one another as an extended family. Environment is precious and irreplaceable, but so is heredity. You who bear the Harlan name or are descended from Harlans should be aware that you come from great stock, and you ought to remember where you came from.

Louis R. Harlan is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Maryland. Born near West Point, Mississippi, he grew up in Atlanta and attended Emory University (B.A., 1943), Vanderbilt University (M.A., 1948, and Johns Hopkins University (Ph.D., 1955).

He is the author of Separate and Unequal (1958), a study of Southern public schools. His two volume biography of the African American leader, Booker T. Washington (1972 and 1983) won the Bancroft Prize and Beveridge Prize in History and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1984. His latest book is All at Sea: Coming of Age in World War II (1996). He also was the chief editor of The Booker T. Washington Papers (14 vols., 1972-89).

(Numbers in parentheses indicate those assigned to individual Harlans in Alpheus H. Harlan's History of the Harlan Family in America.)