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John T. Harris papers

Identifier: SC 0089

  • Staff Only

Scope and Contents

The John T. Harris Papers, 1771-1937 (bulk 1850-1900), consists of seven boxes and two oversize folders of material. 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 correspondence addressed to John T. Harris and his family, and between Peyton Randolph and his family. A small number of James Clarkson papers are also present. The collection is arranged in five series: Correspondence, Personal and Family Papers, Political Papers, Miscellaneous, and Oversize.

Series 1: Correspondence, 1831-1937, is arranged chronologically in four subseries:

Subseries 1.1: Addressed to John T. Harris, 1841-1899, consists of correspondence addressed to Harris from his constituents requesting personal favors. Letters from 1860 to 1861 primarily address the issue of Virginia seceding from the Union. Most of the letters express pro-Unionist feelings and encourage Harris to work for a compromise in Congress to avert violent conflict. The contents of these letters suggest that Harris worked with and may have been a close friend of Stephen A. Douglas. The 24 May 1871 letter addressed 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 is property of Special Collections at James Madison University, and does not form part of the original collection on deposit. It is not available on microfilm.

Subseries 1.2: Harris Family, 1831-1937, consists chiefly of letters among various members of the Harris family; content includes descriptions of family life. Also included among this subseries are several letters to John T. Harris, Jr., from Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.

Subseries 1.3: Addressed to Peyton Randolph, 1846-1884, consists of letters from several college friends of Randolph and from 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 eight of Force's letters, 1848-1851.

Subseries 1.4: Randolph Family, 1837-1928, includes letters addressed to Peyton Randolph and his sisters, Mollie Randolph, Nannie Randolph and Sue Randolph from their mother, Susan Armistead Randolph, correspondence between the Randolph 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, Susan 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 detailed 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 2: Personal and Family Papers, 1843-1936, 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 United States. [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 John T. Harris' 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 3: Political Papers, 1856-1896, 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 5: Oversize.

Series 4: Miscellaneous, 1771-1933, 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 5: 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 3, Political Papers. The second folder contains oversized items from Series 4: 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.


  • 1771 - 1937
  • Majority of material found within 1850 - 1900


Access Restrictions

Collection is open for research. Researchers must register and agree to copyright and privacy laws before using this collection. Please contact Research Services staff before visiting the James Madison University Special Collections Library to use this collection.

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 (

Bio/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.


2.47 cubic feet (7 boxes and 2 folders)

Language of Materials



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


The collection is arranged into the following five series and subseries. All correspondence series are arranged chronologically, and all other series are arranged topically.

  • Series 1: Correspondence, 1831-1937
    • 1.1: Addressed to John T. Harris, 1841-1899
    • 1.2: Harris Family, 1831-1937
    • 1.3: Addressed to Peyton Randolph, 1846-1884
    • 1.4: Randolph Family, 1837-1928
  • Series 2: Personal and Family Papers, 1843-1936
  • Series 3: Political Papers, 1856-1896
  • Series 4: Miscellaneous, 1771-1933
  • Series 5: Oversize, 1821-1900

Acquisition Information

Placed on deposit according to a November 1985 contract with the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society. Two letters were donated to JMU Special Collections in July 2003 by R. Randolph Harris, great-grandson of John T. Harris (1823-1899).

Other Formats Available

The collection is also available on microfilm at Special Collections of James Madison University (Microfilm # 1471-1479) and at the Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

Related Material

Harter, Dale F. Of Men and Measures: The Memoirs of John T. Harris of Virginia. M.A. Thesis, University of South Carolina, 1999.


  • 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.

Processing Information

In order to streamline the process of applying collection numbers, Special Collections staff completed a large-scale renumbering campaign in the spring of 2017. This collection was previously cataloged as SC 2025.

A Guide to the John T. Harris Papers, 1771-1937 (bulk 1850-1900)
Brian E. Crowson
April 1987
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2013-11-21: Converted to schema conforming EAD by dtd2schema.vh.xsl.
  • January 1992: Revised
  • September 2009: Revised
  • 2017: Collection renumbered.
  • 2020-04-02: Minor revisions to finding aid.

Repository Details

Part of the James Madison University Libraries Special Collections Repository

880 Madison Drive
MSC 1704
Harrisonburg Virginia 22807
(540) 568-3612