HARRIS, JOHN, land agent, judge, merchant, office holder, and politician; b. 16 July 1739 in Elizabethtown, Pa, third son of Thomas Harris and Mary McKinney; m. 1766 Elizabeth Scott, and they had at least two sons and one daughter; d. 9 April 1802 in Truro, N.S.
The opening up of Nova Scotia to British settlement in 1759 [see Charles Lawrence*] resulted in the formation of many land companies to obtain grants in the province. One such organization was the Philadelphia Company, which in October 1765 obtained from Governor Montagu Wilmot* a grant of 200,000 acres on the northern shore of Nova Scotia. Thomas Harris and his three sons, Matthew, Robert, and John, were all involved in the company and consequently in its attempts to settle the grant. John, the youngest, was a graduate of the College of New Jersey (Princeton University), where he had obtained his ab in 1763; having studied medicine after his graduation, he had become a doctor. It was he who was generally in charge of the company’s affairs in Nova Scotia and who led the first of the settlers there in 1767 aboard the brigantine Betsey. The party, which numbered ten adults, including Robert Patterson, and 15 to 19 children, arrived in Pictou harbour on 10 June. During the first night, while the ship was anchored in the harbour, a son was born to Harris and his wife.
The region appeared rather forbidding to this first group of English-speaking settlers. The land was almost completely wooded, and the harbour frontage given them was swampy, for the best land surrounding the port had been granted to Alexander McNutt. Moreover, Truro, the nearest settlement, was 40 miles inland. Nevertheless, the settlers began clearing the land and during the next two years were joined by others from Pennsylvania and Maryland. By January 1770 there were 176 people in Pictou, as the community was called, and the town had acquired an air of permanency. Harris was one of the more prosperous inhabitants: he had six servants or labourers living with him, he owned 11 head of livestock, and his land had produced 50 bushels of wheat and oats the previous year. The arrival of the first large contingent of Scottish settlers on the Hector in 1773, and that of another group of Scots, who had initially established themselves on St John’s (Prince Edward) Island, in 1774, added to the stability of the community.
During the first few years of the community Harris was heavily involved in attending to the needs of those who had settled the company’s land. In addition to being the company agent, responsible for selling lots to applicants, he had been made a justice of the peace in October 1767 and a magistrate in 1771. His medical training undoubtedly proved useful, but no records of his practice have survived. He and his brother Matthew were also involved in coastal trading; John owned the shallop Dolphin, which was wrecked in a storm off Cape George in November 1771.
At the time of the American revolution the Scots, who formed the majority of the settlers in Pictou, were passively loyal, but there was also an American faction in the settlement. Harris, who had friends and relatives on the rebel side, belonged to this faction in spite of his crown appointments. He contrived to carry on trading with the American colonies, and Lieutenant Governor Michael Francklin* once seized a cargo belonging to him and his brother Matthew in the belief that they were trading with the rebels. Although no charges were laid against Harris, because of his known sympathy with the American cause considerable resentment developed against him in Pictou. Perhaps as a result of this antagonism, but possibly also for business reasons, Harris moved to Truro in 1777.
During his residence in Truro Harris was much involved in community and provincial affairs. He became clerk of the township in 1779, a registrar of deeds, and a justice of the peace, and he represented Truro in the House of Assembly between 1781 and 1785. In 1793 he became a judge of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas. He continued to enjoy positions of influence despite his views on the American revolution. It is probable that his political beliefs had changed somewhat, given that he had remained in Nova Scotia. Harris’s career, which is notable for his promotion of settlement at Pictou, illustrates the dilemma faced by American settlers who arrived in Nova Scotia before the revolution.
PANS, MG 9, no.170; MG 100, 161, no.53; 207, no.6 (typescript); 228, no.13; RG 1, 212; RG 46, folder 3. “A direct road between Annapolis Royal and Halifax,” PANS, Board of Trustees, Report (Halifax), 1937: 37–44. Acadian Recorder, 26 Oct. 1816. Directory of N.S. MLAs. Robert Stewart, Colonel George Steuart and his wife Margaret Harris: their ancestors and descendants . . . (Lahore, India, 1907). J. M. Cameron, Political Pictonians: the men of the Legislative Council, Senate, House of Commons, House of Assembly, 1767–1967 (Ottawa, ). George MacLaren, The Pictou book: stories of our past (New Glasgow, N.S., ). G. G. Patterson, Studies in Nova Scotian history (Halifax, 1940). George Patterson, A history of the county of Pictou, Nova Scotia (Montreal, 1877). R. F. Harris, “A pioneer Harris family and the pre-loyalist settlement of Pictou,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 33 (1961): 103–35. Alexander Mackenzie, “First Highland emigration to Nova Scotia: arrival of the ship ‘Hector,’” Celtic Magazine (Inverness, Scot.), 8 (1883): 140–44. Pictou Advocate (Pictou, N.S.), 2 Oct., 18 Dec. 1947.