Skip to main content

Joseph Smith Harris papers

Call Number: WA MSS S-1293

Scope and Contents

The Joseph Smith Harris Papers document his work on the United States surveys of the Mississippi Sound and the Northwest Boundary. The collection spans the years 1848-1903, with the majority of the material dating from 1854-61.

The papers contain correspondence, reports of the Northwest Boundary Survey, photographs of the survey, and genealogical material.

The correspondence is arranged chronologically and consists primarily of letters by Harris to his family. These letters contain a great deal of information on the survey projects. There are also letters from survey colleagues and business correspondence regarding Harris's railroad work. The correspondence covers Harris's life from his last years in school and his first job (1848-54) through his work on the Mississippi and Kentucky surveys (1854-57) and on the Northwest Boundary Survey (1857-61) ending with letters from his time as a railroad engineer (1866-74).

Harris's letters for 1848-53, written to his mother and siblings, mention visits to relatives and journeys to and from school. The letters do not give much detail about his work for the North Pennsylvania Rail Road Company, but document his search for another job. In 1854, J. E. Hilgard offered Harris work with the Mississippi Sound Survey. Harris's letters from Mississippi discuss his fellow survey workers, troubles with provisions and the weather, and the astronomical and magnetic observations for which he was responsible.

Many of his letters, particularly those sent to his astronomer brother Stephen, contain a great deal of technical information. Occasionally Harris sent hand-drawn maps showing the field of action. At the end of correspondence for October 1855 is a map of the Gulf of Mexico showing all the cities and topographical features that Harris mentions in his letters.

Harris joined the Mississippi Survey in the fall of 1854, but an attack of cholera and typhoid fever kept him from working until February 1855. During these first months he worried about adequately carrying out his duties and meeting Hilgard's deadlines. In May Stephen joined him. There are a few letters from Stephen and some between the two brothers, but the majority of the letters were written by Harris to his family in Pennsylvania. They contain descriptions of the area and discuss local events, such as the yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans in October 1855.

Harris left the Mississippi Survey in June 1856 to accept a position with the Kentucky Geological Survey, but he resigned after a month because he did not have the necessary geological skills. His letters from Kentucky discuss the finances of the survey and give his criticisms of the project.

Harris's correspondence reveals that he was interested in the Northwest Survey project as early as 1854. A joint commission to establish the Canadian-American border had been appointed by the United States and England. In September of that year, he was in contact with a Professor Bache and there is a hint of employment by the commission. Again in February 1855, Harris mentions the boundary work. He was finally offered a position on March 10, 1857 by a telegram from J. E. Hilgard. A month later he wrote home describing the terms of his employment.* The spelling of place and personal names in this finding aid is consistent with Marcus Baker's "Survey of the Northwestern Boundary of the United States 1857-1861," Bulletin of the United States Geological Survey 174(1900).

From 1857 to 1861, Harris's correspondence documents the field work of the Northwest Boundary Survey. Along with letters from Harris to his family, there is correspondence between Harris and his colleagues including letters from Lt. John G. Parke to Harris, a few from William J. Warren and three from Archibald Campbell (June 8, 1859, January 15, 1860, November 1, 1861). Parke's letters provide information about daily survey operations. Harris's letters home describe the survey personnel, relations with the British team, his duties, and the Indians. His letters sometimes include maps which show the area or layout of the camps.

Harris's letters are a good source of information on the members of the American team. Two long letters, dated April 25, 1857, and January 31, 1859, discuss the survey personnel. Archibald Campbell served as commissioner, Lt John G. Parke as chief astronomer, C. B. R. Kennerly as doctor, Francis Herbst and Henry Custer as topographers, William J. Warren as secretary, and John J. Major as clerk. Letters in June and July 1857 introduce G. Clinton Gardner as assistant astronomer and surveyor, and give details on his employment by the commission. In 1859 Harris described George Gibbs as their geologist and interpreter and R. V. Peabody as guide. There is a good deal of information on the topographers in 1859, when Harris was in charge of one of the field teams.

Although Harris mentions some of the British team as early as 1857, the majority of his comments are made from the summer of 1858 to 1861, when the two teams worked together. By January 8, 1859 Harris felt that the British were becoming a "millstone about our necks." Harris went on to write about a squabble over Point Roberts in April, and in August an argument over San Juan Island, which, with the water boundary, was not settled for many years. Harris expressed the American opinion that British Commissioner Col. J. S. Hawkins traveled to England in the fall of 1859 to seek increased financial support for the British team and thus give it an edge over the Americans in the upcoming season. For another view of these same events see the Samuel Anderson Papers, Yale Collection of Western Americana. Anderson was an astronomer with the British team.

Throughout his letters, Harris discusses his own duties and responsibilities. His letters for July 1857 describe the work on longitude for which he and Gardner were responsible. In January 1859 Parke appointed Harris head of a field team in charge of cutting down trees to establish a physical boundary and Harris describes the team's progress. Harris's letter to J. E. Hilgard in December 1859, regarding the state of the magnetic equipment, documents his responsibility for magnetic observations. Harris often described the overall progress and future work of the commission. On May 9, 1859 he wrote the "most difficult portion of our whole work lies right before us" and went on to discuss the terrain between the Skagit and Similkameen Rivers. A good overview of Harris's daily work can be found in his reports (Box 3, folders 60-62).

Indians were another common topic of Harris's letters. He specifically mentions the Chinnock (Chinook) and the Kootenay Flatheads (Salish). Hired by the Americans to act as messengers and what Harris called "pack animals" (February 20, 1860), the Indians did not always live up to their employer's standards. In April 1858 Parke commiserated with Harris when the hired workers deserted, and the previous month Harris describes trouble between an Indian and the cook. Harris, however, also took time to observe and describe the Indians. He wrote about Mormon missionaries, Chief Joseph of the Flathead Indians, and the Chinook jargon they used for communication. By spring 1859 the survey team encountered increasing hostility form local Indians. There are letters by Harris to the local military commander requesting an escort and Indian affairs dominate correspondence among the survey members.

Harris's correspondence also contains personal information. Harris wrote personal resolutions and discusses the literature he read and the periodicals he received. In the spring of 1859, his younger brother Frazer died and Harris expressed his grief in his letters home in June.

The last boundary survey letters were written from Washington, D. C., in 1861, where Harris and others had settled to write the final reports.

The correspondence for 1866-74 covers Harris's life as a railroad engineer. Letters for 1866-68 are a mixture of Harris's letters to his wife and letters to Harris from the Lehigh Valley Rail Road Company. In 1874 Harris was working for the Pennsylvania Rail Road Company, and he corresponded with his old friend G. Clinton Gardner.

As mentioned before, Harris's written reports to G. Clinton Gardner (Box 3, folders 60-62) give full details on his work for the Northwest Survey. A report for December 10, 1858 focuses on his observations to determine magnetic declination and explore small rivers. It may have been used by Lt. Parke to produce his progress report in 1859 (See Senate Ex. Doc. No. 16, 36th Cong., 1st sess., p. 2-7). Harris's final report is present as a draft and in a fair manuscript copy: the draft contains a table of magnetic readings, which Harris passed on to the Coast Survey project and was printed in Marcus Baker's history of the survey.* Baker, p. 40-41.

The Northwest Boundary Survey Photographs contain sixty-six photoprints taken by one or more of the photographers known to have accompanied the British survey team between 1857-61 (See the correspondence file for 1860 in the Samuel Anderson Papers, Yale Collection of Western Americana for a reference to one of the photographers). The photographs include camp scenes, the boundary cuts and monuments, British survey personnel, landscapes, Native Americans, and one of the earliest views of Victoria, British Columbia.

Previous owners marked the prints in a variety of ways. Thirty-eight were numbered on the back of the print, the front of the mount, or the back of the mount. Twenty seven others, lacking numbers, feature brief captions on the back of the mount. One print has neither a number nor a caption on its back. In addition to the markings described above, many of the prints have captions written on the front of their mounts in a hand different from that which made the inscriptions on the back. It has not been possible to determine the significance of the marking schemes, but the prints have been organized to reflect them. Prints with previously supplied numbers have been arranged sequentially, followed by the prints with captions on the back of the mount, and finally by the one print lacking either number or verso inscription. An archival control number which reflects this order has been marked in brackets on the back of the mount.

This collection concludes with a family history, which was compiled by Harris and published in Philadelphia in 1903.

For related material see the Samuel Anderson Papers, Yale Collection of Western Americana. Anderson was an astronomer with the British North American Survey team.


  • 1848-1903


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The Joseph Smith Harris Papers are the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The Harris Papers, purchased in 1958 from Peter Decker, were a gift from E. J. & F. W. Beinecke.


5.5 Linear Feet (11 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The papers, which document Harris's work on the United States surveys of the Mississippi Sound and the northwest boundary, contain correspondence, reports of the Northwest Boundary Survey, photographs of the survey, and a genealogical record of the Harris family up to 1903.


Joseph Smith Harris was a surveyor and civil engineer. During the 1850s-60s he worked on several projects for the federal government including the Northwest Boundary Survey of 1857-61.

Harris was born and raised in Pennsylvania and he attended Philadelphia's Central High school. In 1853 he was appointed a topographer by the North Pennsylvania Rail Road Company. Harris left the private sector in 1854 to become an astronomer for the U.S. government's survey of the Mississippi Sound, and two years later filled a similar position on the Kentucky Geological Survey. He resigned after one month in July 1856 and returned to the Gulf of Mexico to complete his earlier work. The following March, Harris was hired as an astronomer for the Northwest Boundary Survey.

In 1846, Britain and the United States agreed by treaty to draw the western Canadian-American border along the 49th parallel and a joint American-British commission began survey work in 1857. Archibald Campbell served as the American commissioner and Lt. John G. Parke was appointed chief astronomer. Harris and G. Clinton Gardner were assistant astronomers.

When the commission completed its work in 1861, Harris became an officer on the U.S.S. Sachem and served in the Farragut Mississippi Squadron during the Civil War. He went back to railroad work in 1864, joining his older brother Stephen in the Schuylkill Company of Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Harris worked with his brother doing survey work for the Lehigh Valley Rail Road and the Pennsylvania Rail Road Company. During the 1880s he became general manager for the Central Railroad of New Jersey and later served as president of various railroad and mining companies.

In 1865 Harris married Delia Silliman Brodhead and the couple had five children. After the death of his first wife, Harris married Emily Eliza Potts in 1882, and in 1896 married Emily's sister, Anna Zelia Potts. He died at home in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1910.

For additional biographical information, see the Harris family genealogy, prepared by Joseph Harris.

Guide to the Joseph Smith Harris Papers
Under Revision
by Susie R. Bock
June 1987
Description rules
Beinecke Manuscript Unit Archival Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Repository

P. O. Box 208330
New Haven CT 06520-8330 US
(203) 432-2977


121 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06511

Opening Hours

Access Information

The Beinecke Library is open to all Yale University students and faculty, and visiting researchers whose work requires use of its special collections. You will need to bring appropriate photo ID the first time you register. Beinecke is a non-circulating, closed stack library. Paging is done by library staff during business hours. You can request collection material online at least two business days in advance of your visit, using the request links in Archives at Yale. For more information, please see Planning Your Research Visit and consult the Reading Room Policies prior to visiting the library.