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Erie County (PA) Genealogy

John Robert Smith Journals

Contributed by Beth Simmons


John Robert Smith Journals


            During the summer of 2016, a great primary resource of Harbor Creek Township and Erie County and City of Erie surfaced. Where? In Denver , Colorado , of all places.

            John Robert Smith came from England as a ten-year-old boy with his family in 1830. The family joined relatives in Victor, NY, south of Rochester . He received a ‘gentleman’s education’ providing him with the common sense to be elected one of the two Justices of the Peace for over twenty-five years during the last quarter of the century in Harbor Creek. Judge James Chambers was the other Justice who served for over fifty years.

JR Smith settled in Harbor Creek as a young man for about ten years when he was single. Then he married Melissa Leach (daughter of preacher Job Leach) and they moved to Iowa. In 1857, Melissa died in childbirth and in his grief, JR brought the baby back to North East Township where the Leach’s lived. JR worked both in New York and in Pennsylvania. He boarded and worked in Harbor Creek at the Samuel Kingsbury’s along the Sidehill Road. Leaving Melissa in the care of her grandmother, JR apparently enlisted in the Civil War out of Victor, NY, as a wagon-maker, his trade.

On his return from the War and the surrender, he purchased a house along Buffalo Road in the village of Harbor Creek and a piece of property big enough for a wagon shop. He began keeping his journal on the tenth anniversary of his father’s death in April of 1867.  Writing in the journal faithfully every week on Sunday afternoon or evening, JR recorded the weather, the family life, the church and village life, and activities in Erie County and the city. He expanded the weekly writings to include international politics and sometimes poems or statements he had read during the week.

Fortunately his grandson, Ralph Waldo Thomas, Erie weatherman and newspaper columnist had the foresight to copy the first journal, so it remains intact. It covers about seven months during 1867-1877. Then there is a wide time gap when the original journals continue in 1894. The rest of the collection covers the time until 1899 with but one gap.

Overlapping the end of that time period until 1917, Ralph Thomas also kept a journal, so grandson and grandfather relate their thoughts on the same days for a number of years.

JR’s great-great granddaughter, Kathye Thomas, who lives in Denver and is a copy editor for the Rocky Mountain News, owns the journals. She and Harbor Creek Township coordinator, Beth Simmons, (who lives in Lakewood, Colorado ) are transcribing and editing the journals and preparing to publish them in some form, complete with photographs and maps.

The journals are JR’s personal history of Harbor Creek and the surroundings and include probably five hundred names and details of neighbors, city officials, lawyers, judges, and doctors. The journals tell of the old Presbyterian Church in Harbor Creek, then the new building. They relate the remodeling of the Methodist Church that once sat along the Buffalo Road. They tell of the ‘Nickle Plate’ railroad, a trip to Europe, and a trip to Victor, New York. One tells of the Bicentennial Celebration in Erie in 1895 and the laying of the library’s cornerstone. JR relates the development of the grape industry and the strawberry business in Harbor Creek. He tells of the lawsuits of Harbor Creek. He describes fires that burned houses and barns. And for those fanatical weather watchers, the weekly writings give a day-by-day play of the climate changes. He even describes local baseball games!

These journals are the most important Harbor Creek personal primary resource ever to surface. The Harborcreek Historical Society has copies of the originals. However, transcriptions are forthcoming and when published, will furnish a great historical (and easier to read) study in the history of Harbor Creek and Erie County.

This page was last updated on  Tuesday, January 6, 2004 .

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