For the second time in the past 10 or 11 years, I’ve been looking for information concerning a shadowy — maybe even non-existent — early Texan one of my friends has asked about.
The subject of my search apparently used the name of Dr. Benjamin Harrison, and according to the information given in some Texas history sources, he was the son of President William Henry Harrison and the uncle of President Benjamin Harrison.
According to Clarence Wharton, one of the most highly respected Texas Historians of the era around the Texas Centennial, I’m not alone in my puzzlement.
Wharton wrote an article that questioned Dr. Harrison’s existence, suggesting he might be a phantom. He was even more doubtful about his claims of being the son of William Henry Harrison.
My early copy of the “Texas Handbook,” however, states although this man was more an adventurer than a physician, he did graduate with a degree in medicine.
This source states in clear black type that Benjamin Harrison’s father was President William Henry Harrison, and that he was born on Sept. 8, 1806, in North Bend, Ohio.
“As a young man he was threatened with alcoholism and made a trip to the far Northwest with a French fur trader named Charles Larpenteur in the hope of overcoming the habit,” the 1952 edition of the “Handbook” states.
“Harrison touched the history of Texas only lightly, coming to Texas about 1834 and marrying Mary Raney a short time later.”
For those who don’t remember, Mary was the sister of Ann Raney, an early resident of what is now Brazoria County, who came here from England with her family and penned a fascinating account of her life titled “Victorian Lady on the Texas Frontier,” edited by C. Richard King.
The “Handbook” entry for Benjamin Harrison notes he had previously been married to Louisa Bonner.
“In Texas Dr. Harrison became a man of mystery and controversy. In April 1836, he was captured by the Mexican general, Jose’ Urrea, who sent him as an emissary of good will to the Texas colonists,” the “Handbook” article states.
“According to Urrea’s diary, the mission was successful. Herman Ehrenberg, on the contrary, contended that Harrison was an imposter and that his mission to the Texans was a failure.
“After his release by Urrea, Harrison returned to his home in Ohio, where he died on June 17, 1840,” the article concludes.
Bibliography for this item includes Elliott Coues, editor, “Forty Years a Fur Trader: The Personal Narrative of Charles Larpenteur, 1833-1872”; Pat Ireland Nixon’s “The Medical Story of Early Texas”; a book by Herman Ehrenberg, which was written in the German language; E. Castaneda’s “The Mexican Side of the Texan Revolution”’ and Wharton’s “The Phantom Dr. Harrison: A Story of the Goliad Campaign.”
The entry on Harrison in the 1996 version of the “Handbook” is almost identical, though the reference listed following Wharton’s name was changed to Remember Goliad.
Despite my good intentions, efforts to triple check via the “Handbook Online,” I chickened out after reading a message stating that innumerable changes to my programs could be made if I continued.
That led this highly incensed, would-be user of computers to question why programs have to change so frequently, invariably resulting in frustration on the part of researchers over the age of 29.
As a result, I fell back on the Ann Raney diary, which includes several mentions of Harrison. English by birth, Ann and her sister, Mary, came to what is now Brazoria County when they were teenagers.
According to Ann’s account, the two girls were considered “belles of the Brazos” and attracted a great deal of attention from that day’s young residents.
She wrote that she and Mary were introduced to Dr. Benjamin Harrison when he answered their call for a physician to treat Mary when she became ill.
Ann was customarily very reticent about “naming names” of people she met, originally identifying Harrison only by his initials, as “Mr. B.H.” She then wrote, however, that she had learned he was the son of Gen. Harrison of Ohio and had just come to Texas to open his medical practice.
When Harrison came to the Colemans’ residence when Ann was ill, he met and talked with 17-year-old Mary, whose much-older husband had recently died.
Ann noted in her journal that Harrison “seemed pleased in (Mary’s) society, so he often gave us a call.”
Originally impressed by Harrison’s good looks, Ann described him in her journal as having been about 6 feet tall, “a fine looking man, with fair hair and eyes … and a fine form.”
Before long, it appeared he and Mary were falling in love. At about the same time, however, Ann learned Harrison was known for being overly fond of liquor, and that acquaintances strongly questioned his claims about his father.
In fact, she wrote, they told her Harrison was no more the son of the general “than she was the Queen of England.” Repeating this information to Mary, Ann urged her sister to “acquaint” Harrison with what was being said about him.
When Mary told Harrison of the “reports in circulation” about him, he replied he would immediately write to his father and ask the general to contact Ann and reassure her that his account of his family connections was accurate.
A short time later, Ann wrote, “I received a letter from General H., himself, stating that he had been requested by his son to address a few lines to me for my satisfaction.”
Although the letter may have answered Ann’s questions concerning Dr. Harrison’s identity, it must surely have awakened other worries.
According to Gen. Harrison’s letter, his son had been sent to Texas so that he would be forced to rely on his own resources for support.
This had been necessary because of Benjamin’s past drinking habit, during which he had run his father into debt, according to Ann’s report of the letter’s contents.
After having outlined his son’s “imperfections,” Gen. Harrison concluded by stating that if Mary should see proper to marry his son after having been told the truth, “the latch of my door shall never be shut against them, and my house shall be their house….”
General Harrison added, however, that he would never “give my son a fortune, as he has spent one already for me,” but added that in such circumstances, at his death, he would provide for his son’s wife and children.
Next week: Harrison agrees to plead Mexicans’ cause.