A Guide to the

John T. Harris Papers, 1771-1937 (bulk 1850-1900)

SC# 2025

Compiled by: Brian E. Crowson, April, 1987
Revised: January 1992; September, 2009

Descriptive Summary

Repository: Special Collections, Carrier Library, James Madison University

Title: John T. Harris Papers, 1771-1937 (bulk 1850-1900)

Collection No.: SC# 2025

Creator: John T. Harris

Extent: 7 Hollinger boxes and 2 oversized folders; approximately 2.95 linear feet

Language: English



The John T. Harris Papers, 1771-1937,consist of a large number of personal and political documents relevant to the life and career of John T. Harris.  The bulk of the collection is comprised of letters of John T. Harris and his family, and of Peyton Randolph and his family. Several letters discuss Southern secession and the American Civil War. Also included are Randolph family letters, James Clarkson Papers, Civil War documents and Harris genealogy.

Administrative Information

Access Restrictions:


Collection is open for research.

Use Restrictions:


The copyright interests in this collection have not been transferred to the James Madison University Special Collection Library. For more information, contact the Special Collections Library Reference Desk (library-special@jmu.edu).

Preferred Citation: 


[Identification of Item], the John T. Harris Papers, 1771-1937, SC# 2025, Special Collections, Carrier Library, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Va. on deposit from Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society, Dayton, Va., housed in Special Collections, Carrier Library, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Va.

Acquisition Information:

Placed on deposit according to a Nov. 1985 contract with the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society.

Alternate Format:


The collection is also available on microfilm at Special Collections of James Madison University and at the Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.


Biographical/Historical Note

John T. Harris (1823-1899) was perhaps one of the most prominent citizens of Rockingham County throughout the nineteenth century. The son of Nathan and Ann Harris, he was commonwealth's attorney for Rockingham County from 1852 to 1859, and in 1856 served as a Presidential elector for James Buchanan. Thereafter, he served in the United States Congress from 1859 until the outbreak of the Civil War. Despite his strong Unionist sentiments and his continual efforts to keep Virginia in the Union, Harris remained loyal to Virginia when she seceded in May 1861. During the war he served two terms in the Virginia General Assembly. Following the war John T. Harris was judge of the 12th judicial circuit, which included Rockingham County. In 1870 he was again elected to Congress and was continuously re-elected until 1880, after which he resumed his law practice in Harrisonburg. John T. Harris returned to politics in 1889 as a rival of P.W. McKinney for the Democratic nomination for the governorship. Later he was appointed by Governor McKinney as one of the representatives for Virginia to the World's Columbian Exposition in 1892. He died in Harrisonburg, October 14, 1899.

In addition to the Harris family letters, there are a large number of miscellaneous letters (3 Hollinger boxes) of the related Peyton Randolph Family. The Randolph family papers came into the Harris family when John T. Harris's son, John T. Harris, Jr. married Peyton Randolph's daughter, Mary Elizabeth Randolph. Born in Washington, D.C. in 1833, Peyton was the son of James Innes Randolph, a congressional clerk, and Susan Armistead Randolph. However, despite the numerous letters to him, little is known about Peyton Randolph. Prior to the Civil War he attended Columbian College (now George Washington University) and was an engineer on numerous railroad projects in Virginia, Indiana, and Alabama through the 1850's. He enlisted in the army in Mobile, Alabama at the outbreak of war and served as an engineer in Pickett's division, rising to the rank of major by 1865. Thereafter, even less is known of his life. He married Mary Fisher following the war, returned to the engineering profession, and died November 28, 1888.

Scope and Content

The John T. Harris Papers, 1771-1937 (bulk 1850-1900), consists of seven Hollinger boxes and two oversize folders (2.95 linear feet).  [It is also available on microfilm; see Contents List.]  Although the collection contains a large number of personal and political documents relevant to the life and career of John T. Harris, the bulk of the collection is comprised of letters of John T. Harris and his family, and of Peyton Randolph and his family. A small number of James Clarkson Papers are also present.  The collection is arranged in five series: Letters, Personal and Family Papers, Political Papers, Miscellaneous and Oversize.  Brief descriptions follow here.  Notable items are listed under their appropriate folder in the Contents List.

Series I, Letters, 1831-1937, n.d, is arranged chronologically in four subseries: 


The John T. Harris Letters, 1841-1899, consist of letters to Harris from his constituents requesting personal favors. Letters from 1860 to 1861 primarily address the issue of Virginia seceding from the Union. Echoing the sentiments of many residents of western Virginia, most of the letters express pro-Unionist feelings and encourage Harris to work for a compromise in Congress to avert violent conflict. Moreover, the contents of these letters, suggest that Harris worked with and may have been a close friend of Stephen A. Douglas.  Also included is a letter dated May 24, 1871 to Harris from William Nelson Pendelton written on behalf of Henry Clay White of Rockbridge County requesting appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  The letter is property of Carrier Library at James Madison University, and is not available on microfilm.

Harris Family Letters, 1831-1937, consist chiefly of letters among various members of the Harris family, and provide descriptions of family life. However, there are several letters to John T. Harris, Jr., from Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.


The Peyton Randolph Letters, 1846-1884, consist of letters from several college friends and Peyton Randolph's immediate family. Notable among these are letters from college friend Henry Force. Force was the son of historian Peter Force and acted as surveyor on the Border Commission dispatched to study the newly acquired lands in present-day New Mexico and Arizona. In a series of letters to Peyton from 1848 to 1853, Force describes his encounters with Mexican soldiers and Apache Indians, as well as his duties on the trek from New Orleans to San Diego. Transcriptions are available for 8 of Force's letters, 1848-1851. 


Randolph Family Letters, 1837-1928, include letters to Peyton and his sisters, Mollie, Nannie and Sue from their mother, Susan Armistead Randolph, correspondence between the siblings, as well as a few miscellaneous items of Peyton Randolph's including a book of psalms which he carried during the Civil War.  The letters from Susan Armistead Randolph form the bulk of this subseries. In her weekly four-page letters Mrs. Randolph describes life in Washington, D.C. during the 1850's, including the inauguration of Franklin Pierce and the funeral of Henry Clay. Susan Randolph was acutely aware of the political climate of her era and took particular interest in the Know-Nothing party in the 1850's. In several letters she outlines the platform of the Know-Nothings and even urges Peyton to join the party. However, despite her vivid political commentaries and her proximity to the arena of the conflict, she does not mention the issue of slavery. In addition to her political and social sketches, she provides detailed accounts of family life, including rather grisly descriptions of the deaths of various family members. Her letters from Richmond during the war describe the changes in life in that city through the course of the war and include detailed examples of the rampant inflation of prices on common goods such as bacon and flour. Of particular interest are Mrs. Randolph's inquiries concerning her first cousin, General Lewis Armistead, who was said to be the first Confederate soldier to cross into Union lines during Pickett's Charge at the battle of Gettysburg. See Randolph Harris Moulton's Some Randolphs Around Civil War Times for transcriptions of some of the Peyton Randolph letters.

Series II, Personal and Family Papers, 1843-1936, n.d., is arranged topically and contains a variety of materials.  General papers include John T. Harris' law license, an 1861 will, and his post-Civil War oath of allegiance to the U.S.  [A certificate in which President Benjamin Harrison appoints Harris as Virginia's representative at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1892 is located in the oversize miscellaneous file.]  Also in this series is a photocopy of his handwritten 1898 autobiography, which gives many particulars of his life, as well as a photocopy of his son John T. Harris, Jr.'s typed 1936 autobiography, which includes characterizations of the lawyers with which the younger Harris was acquainted.  Genealogical notes and charts as well as newspaper clippings pertaining to the Harris family are also present.

Series III, Political Papers, 1856-1896, n.d., consists primarily of copies of John T. Harris' Congressional speeches as well as several made by other members of Congress. The most notable of these is the resignation speech of Preston B. "Bully" Brookes, who was censured by Congress for caning Charles Sumner in 1856. In addition, there are election returns from elections in which Harris was a candidate. These include reports from Rockingham County and localities throughout the Shenandoah Valley. A large number of political broadsides, handbills, and selected pages from newspapers regarding local and national elections, are housed in Series V, Oversize.

Series IV, Miscellaneous, 1771-1933, n.d., contains a variety of materials, including general miscellany and receipts, Civil War documents, indentures, James Clarkson Papers, photographs and undated material.  Among the Civil War documents are requests for exemption from military service, requisition receipts from Confederate military authorities, contracts between individuals and their military substitutes, and requests to John  T. Harris for release from Union prisoner-of-war camps.  The James Clarkson Papers primarily are comprised of legal documents from Albemarle County. These documents were preserved by John T. Harris's wife, Virginia Harris, who was a descendant of James Clarkson. Among the photographs is a print of Peyton Randolph and his four brothers, a photographed portrait of James Innes, and photographs of John T. Harris' writing desk, a young Isabelle Heard, and an unidentified young girl.  Undated material consists of any items in this series that may be undated, including print material, notes, memoranda, receipts, various lists, writings, and calling cards.

Series V, Oversize, 1821-1900, consists of two folders.  One folder contains oversized items such as political broadsides, handbills, and selected pages from newspapers regarding local and national elections from Series III, Political Papers.  The second folder contains oversized items from Series IV, Miscellaneous. Materials include a certificate signed by Benjamin Harrison appointing him as Virginia's representative at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1892; a land grant to Joel S. Graves signed by Governor Thomas M. Randolph; and a sheet dated March 11, 1861, signed by members of the provisional government of secession (Civil War) from South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alabama.


The collection is arranged in five series


I.  Letters, 1831-1937, n.d.
          John T. Harris Letters, 1845-1899
          Harris Family Letters, 1831-1937
          Peyton Randolph Letters, 1846-1884
          Randolph Family Letters, 1837-1928
II.  Personal and Family Papers, 1843-1936, n.d.

III.  Political Papers, 1856-1896, n.d.

IV.  Miscellaneous, 1771-1933, n.d.

V.  Oversize, 1821-1900


Boatner, Mark Mayo. The Civil War Dictionary. New York: David McKay Co., Inc., 1959.
Dabney, Virginius. Virginia: The New Dominion. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1971.
Daniels, Jonathon. The Randolphs of Virginia. New York: Doubleday, 1972.
Johnson, Allen & Malone, Dumas, ed. Dictionary of American Biography. Vol. VI. NY: Scribner's  

Sons, 1931.

Krick, Robert K. Lee's Colonels: A Biographical Register of the Field Officers of the

Army of Northern Virginia. Dayton, Ohio: Press of Morningside Bookshop, 1979.

Members of Congress Since 1789. Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1977.
The National Cyclopedia of American Biography. Vol. XIX. NY: Charles T. White and Co., 1926.
Tewksbury, Donald G. The Founding of American Colleges and Universities Before the Civil War. NY:

Archon Books, 1965.

Wakelyn, Jon L. Biographical Dictionary of the Confederacy. Westport, CN: Greenwood, 1977.
Wayland, John W. A History of Rockingham County, Virginia. Dayton, VA: Ruebush-Elkins, 1912.


Related Material



[Click here for microfilm contents]

Series I: Letters, 1831-1937, n.d.:
# items

John T. Harris Letters, 1845-1899:



Notable letters:

  • 2 Feb. 1857 Arch Graham on national, state & local politics, with letter of 20 July 1925 from John T. Harris (son) interpreting the meaning of the letter. NOTE: These letters were donated to Carrier Library by descendent P. Randolph Harris after microfilming was completed and are not on microfilm.
  • 3 March 1860 Supporter of Stephen A. Douglas & "squatter sovereignty."
  • 2 May 1860 Talk of secession
  • 30 Oct. 1860 England blamed for dissolution of the Union
  • 1 Dec. 1860 South Carolina resident gives plans of that state with regards to the Union.
  • 16 Dec. 1860 Harris believes Union must be preserved.
100 letters


January 1861 

Notable letters:

  • 21 Jan. Constituent blames "Black Republicans" and Lincoln for conflict between the North and South
37 letters


February 1861 

Notable letters:

  • 20 Feb. Letter from Gov. John Letcher.
  • 21 Feb. Constituent refers to slavery as the "never ending nigger question."
  • 27 Feb. Letter from Col. David B. Birney, son of abolitionist James G. Birne
67 letters
March 1861-December 1864
90 letters
79 letters


37 letters


90 letters



100 letters


58 letters


110 letters


81 letters


77 letters



41 letters


68 letters


42 letters


57 letters

Undated Letters

57 letters
Harris Family Letters, 1831-1937:
# items


79 letters



60 letters


70 letters


84 letters


Notable letters:

  • 13, 18 July 1912 Letters from Woodrow Wilson
  • 25 Oct., 17 Nov. 1915 Letters from Teddy Roosevelt
67 letters


60 letters


79 letters


67 letters

Undated Letters

54 letters
Peyton Randolph Letters, 1846-1884:
# items


Notable letters:

  • Eight letters in this folder from Henry Force to Peyton Randolph, 1848-51, are available in transcription (NOT ON MICROFILM).
  • 17 Aug. 1850 Henry Force describes voyage from New York to Havana and New Orleans.
  • 7 Sept. 1850 Henry Force's duties as surveyor on Border Commission in Victoria, Texas.
  • 5 April 1850 Samuel Force giving views of a Princeton Freshman.
  • 29 June 1851 Henry Force describes encounters with Mexicans and Apaches in New Mexico.
39 letters


Notable letters:

  • 9 March Henry Force describe duties and life in San Diego and survey of the Gila River.
  • 21 March Susan Randolph, Peyton's mother, notes new painting in Capitol Rotunda-Washington Crossing the Delaware.
  • 4 July Mother describes Henry Clay's funeral.
  • 3 Oct. Mother describes father's involvement in Whig vs. Democrat politics
41 letters

1853 (January-June):

Notable letters:

  • 2 Jan. Mother describes death of Nannie's son, Randolph, of scarlet fever.
  • 4 Jan. Mother describes death of Peyton's grandfather.
  • 9 Jan. Mother describes erecting of statue of Andrew Jackson with speech by Stephen A. Douglas.
  • 6 Feb. Mother anticipates somber character of Franklin Pierce's inauguration because of recent death of his only son.
  • 13 Feb. Henry Force describes Apache attack on return trip from El Paso.
  • 13 March Mother describes Pierce's inauguration.
  • 22 May Mother describes 25th wedding anniversary.
30 letters

1853 (July-December):

Notable letters:

  • 21 Nov. James Innes Randolph asks for $200 to avoid fore- closure on house and sale of furniture.
22 letters

1854 (January-June):

Notable letters:

  • 28 May Father believes Kansas-Nebraska Act will make Northerners refuse to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law.
  • 18 June Mother urges Peyton to join the Know-Nothings.
  • 26 June Mother notes rumor that Pope's nuncio was engaged in Catholic atrocities to subvert the government and make Washington the headquarters of the Pope.
27 letters

1854 (July-December):

Notable letters:

  • 23 July Mother describes spread of cholera in Washington.
  • 19 Nov. Mother describes financial panic in Washington.
14 letters


Notable letters:

  • 1 March Mother gives vivid description of Grandmother's death.
  • 10 May Wm. Titcomb warns Peyton not to join Know-Nothings.
  • 22 Dec. Wm. Titcomb anticipates arrival of Santa Claus.
36 letters


Notable letters:

  • 9 July Henry Force describes trial of Preston Brookes for assault of Sumner in the Senate.
  • 17 Aug. Henry Force discusses maintenance of Washington Territory boundary.
  • 24 Aug. Father tries unsuccessfully to get a clerkship at Congress.
  • 3 Sept. Henry Force describes his father's (Peter Force) problems with his documentary history of America.
  • 3 Nov. Peyton believes Buchanan will defeat Fillmore in presidential election.
29 letters


Notable letters:

  • 7 June Peyton in Mississippi gladly notes absence of foreigners and Yankees.
41 letters


Notable letters:

  • 6 Jan. 1861 Peyton believes conflict between South Carolina and the U.S. will not last long because neither can afford a war.
  • 17 March 1861 Mother believes Lincoln will preserve peace.
  • 24 March 1861 Peyton joins the Army at Fort Morgan, Alabama.
  • 24 March 1861 Mother observes that most Know-Nothings have switched to the Republicans.
  • 14 April Mother says, "Hurrah for the Southern Confederacy."
  • 8 Sept.  1861 Mother descibes rising prices in Richmond. Peyton's brother John could see the Capitol rotunda on picket duty outside Washington.
  • 20 Oct. 1861 Mother visits Richmond hospitals filled with soldiers.
  • 5 May 1862 Mother describes Confederate evacuation of Yorktown and Norfolk. Notes Merrimac is in the James River.
  • 24 Dec. 1862 Peyton asks when Gen. Armistead's uniforms will be ready.
32 letters


Notable letters:

  • 15 Feb. 1863 Prices skyrocketing in Richmond.
  • 14 July 1863 Mother believes Lewis Armistead still alive despite rumors of his death at Gettysburg.
  • 20 Aug. 1863 Mother questions fate of Gen. Armistead.
  • 17 July 1864 Mother describes scarcity of food in Richmond.
25 letters

Undated Letters

42 letters
Randolph Family Letters, 1837-1928:
# items


Notable letters:

  • 6 July 1854 Birthday letter to Mary Fisher, Peyton's future wife. Advises her what to look for in a husband.
  • 10 Feb. 1856 Letter to Innes Randolph at Hobart College, New York.
36 letters


Notable letters:

  • 4 Dec. 1861 John Randolph describes winter camp life in the army and his efforts to stay warm.
  • 6 Feb. 1862 Mollie, fearing that the North will win, wonders why England and France will not recognize the Confederacy.
  • 12 Aug. 1863 Mother unsure of Lewis Armistead's fate. Notes the high cost of wood and coal.
  • 22 Nov. 1863 Mother describes death of James Innes Randolph.
  • 13 May 1864 Family wakes to booming cannon outside Richmond. John brought home wounded in thigh.
39 letters


47 letters

Undated Letters

56 letters
Miscellany, 1844-1865
7 items
Series II: Personal and Family Papers, 1843-1936, n.d.:
# items

General Papers, 1843-1887

21 items

Autobiography of J.T. Harris, 1898

116 pages

Autobiography of J.T. Harris, Jr., 1936

47 pages

Harris Genealogy:

Part I

44 items

Part II

31 items

Part III

21 items


Part I

18 items

Part II

57 items

Part III

19 items
Series III: Political Papers, 1856-1896, n.d.:
# items


Notable items:

  • 1856 Resignation speech of Congressman Preston B. Brookes.
55 items

Undated Material

28 items

Series IV: Miscellaneous, 1771-1933, n.d.:
# items

General Miscellany:


Notable items:

  • 1795 List of Subscribers to the "New Virginia Justice"
86 items



81 items

Civil War Documents:


45 items


112 items
Indentures, 1734, 1786
2 items

James Clarkson Papers, 1771-1835

94 items

Photographs, n.d.

5 items

Undated Material

35 items
Series V: Oversize, 1821-1900:
# items
From Series III, Political Papers
9 items
From Series IV, Miscellaneous
10 items