James Harlan Family
compiled by Janis Straesser


"History and Genealogy of the Harlan Family," Alpheus H. Harlan (1998), Gatehouse Press, Inc., pages 515-518.

When James Harlan was born in Clark County it was really an Indian settlement, extending itself to the west shores of the Wabash River. In the spring of 1823 Silas and Mary Harlan, the parents of James, moved to the east side of the Wabash, and with a colony of several families made a settlement in the unbroken woods of Parke County, Indiana. Silas Harlan was the head of the colony, and all his life was known as "Governor Harlan." More than six feet tall, weighing two hundred pounds, strong, clear-headed and muscular, he was a born leader of men. It was to the home of the Harlans that ministers, politicians and candidates for office went as a matter of course, and James was introduced comparatively early to a larger world than the world that lay about his childhood home. As in so many of those early homes, the mother was the teacher, and James could read before his fifth year.

His mother was a Methodist, his father had been a Quaker (Friend), but became of the same church as his wife. James was the second of ten children. He was about seven years of age when the first log schoolhouse in the community was built. But the Methodist preacher had been before the schoolteacher, and many a night the strong-browed boy had sat by the corner of the fireside silent and with deep, thoughtful eyes, listening eagerly to the talk between the itinerant preachers and his father, and getting more than they thought of a start in his education. He attended school in the log schoolhouse up to his thirteenth or fourteenth year. By that time he had gone through the usual district school course of spelling, reading, writing and arithmetic, and had added to his reading a history of the United States, a biography of Washington, and of a few other worthies of the Revolution. He was a sturdy working farm boy in his teens when, having gone for his parents to the store at the county seat, he chanced into a drug store, where the circulating library of Parke County, and also a supply of schoolbooks, was kept. He stood amazed and confounded. He had not known that there were so many books in the world. His eager inquiries showed the librarian that here was a lad fierce with book and learning hunger who had found just now his new world. He sent the lad behind the counter. For two hours, forgetful of his business errand, the boy reveled among the books. Then hiring by arrangement the successive volumes of Hume's "History of England," and buying outright with his pocket money Olney's "Geography and Atlas," a "Conversation Chemistry," and a "Natural Philosophy," he performed his errand and returned home through a different and larger world than he had come. His selection of books showed the strong working fiber of his mind. Hard work was structural to it. He devoured those books until they became a part of him. Happily, the right tramp district schoolteacher, like the old-time troubadour, came at the right time. A man named Terry, from Kentucky, lawyer, scholar, trained to write, eloquent of speech, but with roving habits that went with the traditions, drifted into the "New Discovery" (as the Harlan settlement was called), and taught the district school. He gave system and intelligence to young Harlan's work, had him review his studies in a connected way, added to them English grammar, practical surveying and logarithms, elementary astronomy and the calculation of the eclipses. James was then sixteen and his requirements were so much beyond the ordinary requirements of the district school that he was fitted for teaching, and when he was eighteen he taught a six-months' term in a school-house about four miles from his father's home. Thus teaching in winter, and working upon his father's farm in summer, he continued until he was twenty-one, and all the time was a tireless reader of books.

In the fall of 1840 he became a pupil in Rockville Seminary. Here he added Latin and algebra to reviews of his previous studies. Here he became a warm friend of the family of Rev. Dr. McNutt, the pastor of the Presbyterian Church, which added to scholarship the graces and charms of the highest social culture.

It was in May of the next year, and the son made ready to start at once to Greencastle, in the neighboring county, where the Methodists had recently founded Asbury University (now De Pauw University) under the presidency of Mathew Simpson, one of the chief pulpit orators of the last generation. Greencastle was eighteen miles from his home, and on the twenty-first of May, 1841, he walked the distance, carrying most of his worldly goods in a bundle. He had sufficient money in his pockets from teaching and from the sale of a horse to take him through the term. He was clad in the homely and substantial way of a Western boy of that time, and a good, loving and intelligent mother and four devoted sisters had not failed in their love of the boy.

His introduction to college life was similar to every other student's in a general way, and all the gilded morals painted in after years, when the country boy of the twenty-first of May, 1841, with buckskin trousers held up by a single suspender while he asked President Simpson, "Are you the man that keeps this school?" had, in 1871, as a leader in the United States Senate, met and mastered Charles Sumner and Carl Schurz in a mighty debate, and had led the Senate to a spectacular triumph with the whole country watching and applauding his masterful leadership - all these moral stimulants to youthful ambition founded on James Harlan's college life are sheer inventions. He entered Asbury University, as we have seen, in May, 1841, and graduated Aug. 20, 1845, at the sixth annual commencement of the University. He did not take honors. His college life had been too discursive and interrupted.

The young people of Greencastle, in the University and out, drew themselves to him in that generous, unselfish devotion which the young show to their chosen leaders among their comrades. About the time he graduated he became engaged to Ann Eliza Peck, an orphan girl. His purpose was to be a farmer, and though in college he had taken high honors as speaker and debater, and had done a good deal of speaking at Whig meetings and upon other occasions, and had been nominated by the Whigs of Parke County for the legislature, yet when he graduated in 1845 he had arranged to go to farming, and preliminary to that to teach a district school. On the ninth of November of that year he was married by Bishop Simpson to Ann Eliza Peck (in Peoria County, Illinois).

Iowa City College had but recently been organized, and an old friend of James Harlan, a Methodist minister whom he had known from boyhood, had been deputed to go to Greencastle and to confer with the faculty there as to a suitable man for principal. They had advised him to get James Harlan. James accepted, and on the fourteenth of March, 1846, he and his wife were on their way in an open buggy with a single horse, and thus they drove the distance, arriving in Iowa City on the evening of March 25th . . . Soon the young couple got a simple home and he began his work as principal.

Gifted as he was by an education that had cost him years of persistent toil, he was armed for any duty that might be thrust upon him. The year of his arrival in Iowa witnessed the adoption of the constitution of that state, and state officers were to be elected under it. The salaries were small. That of the Governor and members of the Supreme Court was but $1000. The highest paid office was that of Superintendent of Public Instruction, who received a salary of $1200. James Harlan declared himself a candidate and was elected by a large majority. A year later he was ejected on the ground that the law had not been properly published. He again declared himself a candidate, was elected, and was counted out by the returning board. By these political acts he lost a state office to which he had been twice elected, and the people elected him at the next election to the United States Senate, and kept him there for eighteen years.

In April, 1865, President Lincoln appointed him Secretary of the Interior. Then came the assassination of Lincoln, and Mr. Harlan delayed taking his seat till several weeks after that dreadful event, but on May 15 he resigned his seat in the Senate and took his place as a member of the cabinet. Here he remained until the fall of 1866, when he was elected to the Senate for a third term.

James Harlan's lifelong relations to the church of his early choice were healthful and permanent. He was personally acquainted with the elder generations of our people in Iowa, and was a man easily approached by all. Neat and tidy in his personal appearance, his dress, conversation and address denoted the perfect gentleman that he was. His statue, as one of the two of Iowa's most illustrious sons, is now in Statuary Hall in the capitol at Washington.



Any contributions, corrections, or suggestions would be deeply appreciated!

Copyright Janine Crandell & all contributors
All rights reserved