April 20, 2017

Daniel Smith Harris: A Notable "Catch"

Sarah Coates Harris, whom we covered last time, had a life-changing experience when she inadvertently met the widower Captain Daniel Smith Harris while traveling by Mississippi river boat on a lecture tour.

Daniel Smith Harris (1808-1893).  Photograph courtesy of
Judy Kerr, Ashland, Oregon.
Sarah and Daniel were married on August 25, 1851, probably in Galena, Illinois, where Daniel lived with his five children by a prior wife.  Although Sarah was a birth-right Quaker, and it was said that "[...] her whole life would prove a testimony to Quaker beliefs [...]", there is no indication that Daniel was a Quaker or that they married according to Quaker tradition.  (Oestreich, Winter 1999, 2.)  In fact, Quaker records indicate that prior to Sarah leaving Chester County, Pennsylvania, to join her sister Esther in Ohio, Sarah was disowned by the Fallowfield Monthly Meeting for "absenting herself from religious communion with Friends."
Sarah's husband, Daniel Smith Harris, was one of thirteen children born to James and Abigail Bathrick Harris at Kortright Station, Delaware County, New York. He was born on July 24, 1808,the sixth of their children and the first son.  Eight years later, the Harris family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where James eventually found it difficult to support his family.  In 1823, he decided to join the Moses Meeker colony to the Fever River lead mines near Galena, Illinois, and took his fifteen-year-old son Daniel with him.
Daniel rejoiced in the adventure of traveling by river on the Colonel Bomford  keelboat along the Ohio River and then the Mississippi.  Once on the Mississippi, Daniel took note of the swifter steamboat Virginia which quickly overtook the keelboat as it plied its way ahead.  This sight began his interest in steamboats and a career on the Mississippi River that would make him famous.
A year after beginning work at the lead mines, three of Daniel's younger brothers joined him and his father on a farm James had purchased for the family.  They industriously worked to produce vegetables and other crops that were in great demand by the local mining community, making a prosperous living from that alone.  Daniel and his brother, Scribe, continued, however, to work the mines and one Sunday they happened upon an old deserted mine shaft that contained one of the richest leads ever found in the area.  They named the mine West Diggings and ultimately removed 4,000,000 pounds of mineral that made and kept them wealthy their entire lives.
Lead smelter at the Galena mines.  Source of image: Mining History Association.  Visit
mining photos and an article titled "History of the Upper Mississippi Valley Zinc-Lead Mining District."
Daniel's success and aggressive ambition attracted the attention of Captain David G. Bates, a steamboat captain who transported lead from the Galena area on the upper Mississippi to St. Louis, Missouri.  He offered Daniel a position in the pilot house as cub-pilot of the steamboat Galena in 1829 and a year later took on Daniel's brother Scribe as an assistant engineer.  This fortuitous happenstance laid the groundwork for Daniel's and Scribe's later steamboat design and building activities and Daniel's career as a steamboat Captain.
By the time Daniel met and married Sarah Coates in 1851, he had amassed sufficient wealth to indulge his passion for steamboat design and construction and also, in 1855,  provide a large home in Galena, called The Steamboat House, for their growing family.
The Steamboat House.  Source of image: web site for The Steamboat House B&B at

While Sarah pursued her interests in homeopathic medicine, anatomy, hygiene, physiology and women's rights, as well as raising a growing family and entertaining on behalf of social causes and for their own pleasure, Daniel built and piloted a variety of steamboats on the Mississippi, always striving to produce the fastest and most efficient.  He seldom piloted a single steamboat for more than a year or two, always building or purchasing new ones to test their speed and competitive edge on the river.  His competitive tendencies were renowned and his competition with the Minnesota Packet Company, which continued for years, almost ruined them both.  This finally resulted in Daniel being asked to join the Packet Company. This did not, however, reduce his competitive drive to pilot the fastest steamboat on the river.
The first fast boat Daniel built was called the War Eagle.  Completed in 1845 before he met Sarah, it remained the fastest steamboat on the upper Mississippi for five years, setting a record from Galena to St. Louis.  Ten years later, in 1855, Daniel brought out the Grey Eagle which he had built in Cincinnati with his own money at a cost of $60,000.  (This amount converts to $1,568,365.96 in 2016 dollars.)  It was aboard the Grey Eagle that Daniel's most notable exploit took place.
When the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable was installed in 1858, newspapers and the populace eagerly anticipated the first cable transmission from England.  This came in the form of a telegraph message from Queen Victoria that reached Dubuque, Iowa, on August 16th.  There were no telegraph  lines from the Atlantic seaboard to St. Paul and the Mississippi River towns in Minnesota at the time, making these communities reliant on the steamboat to bring them the news.  Daniel Smith Harris resolved to be the first to deliver this news to St. Paul as Captain of the Grey Eagle.
1858 map of the route of the trans-Atlantic cable from England to the United States.
Source of image:  Wikimedia Commons.

Harris set out from Dunlith at 8:30 a.m. on August 17th carrying copies of Dubuque and Galena newspapers that contained the message from Queen Victoria.  The steamboat Itasca, piloted by Captain David Whitten, had left nine hours earlier for the same purpose.  With extra fuel aboard and despite making some deliveries along the way, the Grey Eagle traveled one hundred and fifty miles by 9:30 p.m., cutting Whitten's lead by almost two-thirds.  Delivering papers to the towns along the way by slowing the Grey Eagle enough to throw them ashore, Daniel managed to catch up with the Itasca about one mile from St. Paul.  Captain Whitten, by this time, perceived what Daniel was trying to do and the two steamboats essentially "raced" toward St. Paul with the Grey Eagle soon pulling alongside the Itasca.  Whitten's boat, however, had the inside track and pulled into the wharf first.  While the crew of the Itasca was occupied with tying up and getting ready to unload the papers they carried, the Grey Eagle pulled alongside with a deck hand on a swinging stage carrying a number of newspapers.  These he flung to one of Daniel's agents on the dock.  The news reached St. Paul before papers from the Itasca could be delivered ashore.  With the speed of the Grey Eagle and fast thinking , Daniel had won what became known as "The Race of the Grey Eagle."

The Grey Eagle had given Captain Daniel Smith Harris the "victory" of his lifetime but it would soon be his undoing.  On May 9, 1861, Daniel was piloting the Grey Eagle when it crashed into a pier of the Rock Island Bridge and sank in twenty feet of water.  Some of the people aboard drowned and several were injured.  This was Daniel's only accident in his thirty-two year career on the river but the incident and the loss of the Grey Eagle devastated him, resulting in his retirement from river activity.

Old newspaper clipping showing the Grey Eagle.  Source of image: Iowa History Project.

Daniel Smith Harris returned to his mining business and related activities after he left the river.  He and Sarah raised Daniel's children by his first wife plus had seven more of their own, two of whom died in infancy.  Theirs was a busy household that often hosted people of note such as Ulysses S. Grant and Susan B. Anthony.  Sarah passed away in 1886, leaving Daniel to live on without her until his death in 1893.  He is buried with Sarah in Galena, Illinois, at the Greenwood Cemetery.


Ancestry.com census and Quaker Meeting records.

Merrick, George Byron.  Old Times on the Upper Mississippi, The Recollections of a Steamboat Pilot from 1854 to 1863.  Cleveland:  The Arthur H. Clark Col, 1909.

Oestreich, Kathryn.  "Sarah Coates Harris: A Woman of History" in Miner's Journal Published by the Galena/Jo Daviess County Historical Society, Winter and Spring, 1999.

Petersen, William J.  Steamboating on the Upper Mississippi.  New York: Dover Publications, 1968.

(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2017.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating post! I've been to Galena a couple times and love the history of the place.