Sunday, July 10, 2011

Willie Mae Harris (1864-1909)

Sometimes as you research your family history you discover some very interesting women that you just have to wonder about. I mentioned in a previous post that I would write a history for Willie Mae Harris and document her short but eventful life. So here it is, as far as we can tell or have been told.

According to family stories, Willie Mae Harris was born 17 November 1864. Supposedly this is the same day that her father was injured during a Civil War skirmish in Atlanta (we have not found any documents proving/disproving this account of events although the majority of Atlanta had fallen to the Union only 2 months earlier). Willie Mae grew up in the small town of Yalaha, Florida on the shores of Lake Harris, with her father and two sisters, Grace and Fannie. Family legend states that Lake Harris is supposedly named after her grandfather Colonel Frank E. Harris who surveyed the lake. However, there are other records that state the lake was named for Ebenezer Harris. Family legend also states that Colonel Frank E. Harris was born in Georgia and came to Florida during the 2nd Seminole War and was stationed at Fort Wildwood.

The family is mostly a mystery since we have not been able to find a positive identification in any of the US or Florida census records between 1865 and 1880 or even documentation that her father was Frank E. Harris. Our records of Willie Mae begin on 1 September 1881, in Sumter County, Florida, when she married James Albert Walker (see the previous blog for his story). We have this marriage license so this is a proven event. In the 1885 Florida census Willie Mae, James and their daughter Burta (Bertha) are recorded as living in Sumter County. They had a total of three children, Bertha Gertrude (b. 1884), Ernest Albert (b. 1886), and Maxwell Eugene (b. 1889). Maxwell's birth is one of the mysteries surrounding Willie Mae. He was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Why would Willie Mae travel from central Florida to Chattanooga, Tennessee to give birth? This is where the 1890 census would have been useful because it would have been the first census with all three children listed. But since that record doesn't exist we have to guess what happened for now. We do know that James and Willie were forced to sell 160 acres between 1888 and 1889 due to delinquent taxes. We have been told that James left the family and Willie Mae married Samuel Seigler, then William Henderson, and finally Andrew Jackson (A.J.) Phares (1905) in the subsequent years. Samuel Seigler was born near Chattanooga, Tennessee and eventually ended up in Sumter County, Florida before moving to Jacksonville, Florida. Could there be a connection here as to why Maxwell was born in Chattanooga? We may never know.

This series of marriages is evidenced by several documents. The 1900 census lists Samuel Seigler and Earnest Walker (step-son) living in Higley, Florida. The 1901 Jacksonville, FL City Directory lists Samuel Seigler married to Mrs. Willie M. However, the couple were not living together. Samuel was living at 706 W Monroe Street while Willie was listed as boarding at 836 W Church Street. These homes are just a few blocks apart. Later in 1901 the Great Jacksonville Fire occurred burning 146 city blocks, destroying over 2,000 buildings, killing 7 people and leaving almost 9,000 people homeless. The fire started only a few blocks to the west of the residences listed above and probably also destroyed both homes. The 1904 Jacksonville, FL City Directory lists Willie M Henderson living at 133 Winter Street with her daughter Bertha Walker (dressmaker). So it appears that she had left Seigler and married Henderson by that time (or did she?). The 1905 Jacksonville, FL City Directory lists Willie Seigler working as a seamstress and living with her children Ernest Seigler (plumber) and Maxey Seigler (tinner) living at 420 Winter Street. Why does she keep changing names?

The next marriage, this time to A.J. Phares, is her fourth marriage and appears to be his second marriage. Records indicate that he was a boat captain and that he married Florence Mae Piper in Lake County, Florida in 1893 and then moved to St. Petersburg, Florida by the time of the 1900 US census. There is an interesting coincidence in that the Phares family originally came to Yalaha from Alabama after the Civil War and bought the Harris homestead. There is a book titled "Down in Dixie: The Story of Three Little Crackers" published in 1898 that describes the Phares family's adventures in Florida. The homestead was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 but has since been torn down.

Willie Mae and A.J. were married 17 April 1905 in Jacksonville and lived at 108 East Eighth Street. This address is in the historic Springfield neighborhood of Jacksonville. This neighborhood was spared the ravages of the Great Jacksonville Fire of 1901 and remains pretty much intact even today, however this home is no longer standing. While living there Willie Mae was a founding member of the Springfield M.E. Church. This marriage would also be short lived but this time it was due to a tragedy. On the cold morning of 22 December 1909, Willie Mae was stoking the fireplace in the home when her nightgown caught fire severely burning most of her body resulting in her death later that day, just 3 days before Christmas and only a little over a month after her 45th birthday. Her funeral was held two days later, on Christmas Eve, at her home and at the church. Reverend J. Alvin Ewing performed the services with music performed by Mesdames Boote, Patterson and VanNess. She was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Jacksonville. Her headstone is inscribed Willie Harris wife of Andrew J Phares. Her son Ernest is now buried alongside her.

Less than a year later, A.J. Phares married his third wife, Margaret A. Walston in Jacksonville. One of the last record we have for A.J. in Florida is his WW I service record, where at the age of 53 he served as a Chiefs Machinist Mate and Quartermaster 1st Class on 4 different shore patrol ships between April 1917 and November 1918. We believe he is buried in Rhinebeck Cemetery in Rhinebeck, New York. His headstone lists Mary Boice as his wife at the time of his death.

We will continue our search for Willie Mae Harris, trying to fill in all the gaps that we currently have. There are many questions yet to be answered but we have learned enough to indicate that she had a difficult life, being married 4 times between 1881 and 1905, but still had the faith to be a founding member of her neighborhood church.

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