Opinion

ROUTE TO THE PAST: James Harris' family history

By Scott Gillies

James Harris, the man responsible for the Mammoth Cheese, is locally known as one of the leading cheesemakers in Oxford County during those early days of the dairy industry. But what was his pedigree?

Unlike some of his fellow cheesemakers who had immigrated to Canada from different parts of England, James was born in Oxford in 1824. The son of James P. Harris, this James was one of a long line of Harris family members who could trace their roots back to the opening days of settlement on the North American continent.

James’ grandfather Ely had been born in the seaside community of Saybrook, Connecticut. The son of Asa and Ann Harris, Ely and his many siblings took part in the migration of Harris families to Nova Scotia in 1761. However, tragedy struck this family within a year when patriarch Asa froze to death in a maritime snow storm. The young widow brought her charges back home to be with her family.

Ely – sometimes spelled Eli, and pronounced Eee-lee -- married Lucretia Ransom when he turned 18. Listed as a private in the pre-Revolutionary Army, he later served as an ensign in a new militia company formed in New York State in 1798.

In 1802 he was enticed to join the other families heading to the hinterlands of Upper Canada by Thomas Ingersoll. According to family lore, after arriving at a point south of present-day Ingersoll, Asa thrust his cane into the rich loam and said to his sons, “We’ll stay here”.

The name of Asa Harris first appears on Oxford County land records in 1810 when he bought 200 acres from Charles Ingersoll, who at the time was a merchant living in Queenston. He bought a further 40 acres from Thomas Hornor that same year. Within the year he had given it to his son Daniel. He conveyed most of his other property to his other sons before the War of 1812.

Being American-born settlers, Asa and his family all swore an oath of allegiance to the Crown in January of 1812 as the rumblings of war began to be heard. But he did not live to witness this civil war.

Buried initially on the home farm, his body was later reinterred in the cemetery which bears the family name south of town.

One of 11 children of Ely and Lucretia Harris, James P. was born in Connecticut in 1785. He is listed as a land owner of 50 acres of Oxford County in 1807. Three years later he married Lorainy Janes. By this time, he had been received into the Baptist Church and was acting as its clerk.

During the War of 1812, James Sr. was commissioned a lieutenant in the Oxford Militia and saw action in the capture of Detroit and later at Fort Erie. An example of this being a civil war, James was fighting for the British and Canadian cause, while his cousin and grandfather’s namesake was a captain in the American forces.

Following the war, James was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1822. In those early days, preachers received no wage but were instead often paid with clothing. His charge was not confined to the local area but instead extended as far east as Brant County. He passed to his great reward at the age of 73 in 1858. James Jr. and his brother John were two of the seven children named executors of their father’s will.

Born in 1823, James had married Julia Ranney in 1848. Within 20 years he had established a lasting legacy. The family trait of perseverance was exemplified by a speech he gave to members of the Dairymen’s Association of Western Ontario in 1867 where he shared that he had been laughed at by all his neighbours when he laid out $2,000 to erect his first cheese factory. James however got the last laugh. Within two years of his initial investment he was paying $30,000 in dividends to the patrons of his factory.


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