Sunday, April 5, 2015

Michael Harshaw 1807 -1876 Life in America

The Harshaw family from a small rural farm in Ireland began the hard work of creating a new life in rural Pennsylvania. In the few years after the reunion of the family, they were able to acquire for the first time good land which they actually owned. By the time the 1830 census was taken, the family was settled in West Salem Township, Mercer County, with Sarah buying the farm there just 3 years later.

Michael however wasn't listed with the rest of the family. He had moved on to fulfill his lifelong dream to acquire an education. He was living in Jamestown Pennsylvania, attending the Gamble Academic Institution. It must have been very difficult for a man already in his 20s to be attending classes with students much younger than he. Classes cost $4 a quarter. He had to work to earn the money for his educationm and support himself while he was studying.

Sometime in the 1830s, Michael completed his studies in Jamestown. By that time, there was a new university in Pittsburgh. He applied and was accepted. Pittsburgh was a growing industrial hub with smokestacks hurling black dust into the air, making breathing difficult, and layering black dust over all surfaces. It was a far cry from the lovely green valleys of Ireland. But there he could find work and continue his education. He was able to get a job at a local rock quarry where he could support himself while he studied. The owner allowed him to fit his work schedule to his college one, as he had become a trained blaster working on the Erie Canal. He blasted rock and then removed it in wheelbarrows for use in the building of the new city.

The Western University building was located in a section of the town where a number of Irish immigrants lived. Michael came to know a young seamstress who had immigrated to America with her mother from County Antrim in Ireland, Margaret McCloskey. The two Irish newcomers certainly shared their fond memories of their home country and in the process fell in love.

The young couple was in no position to marry for a long time. Michael did well in college, and decided that he wanted to study for the ministry. When he completed his college education, he was taken as a student by the Rev. John Black. By the time Michael was ordained in 1838, he could read the Bible in both Greek and Hebrew.
Rev. John Black 

Despite the large number of Irish immigrants, there weren't enough churches for Michael to have a settled parish. Instead the Presbytery of Western Pennsylvania offered him a position as itinerant preacher. Members of the Covenanter Church in Pittsburgh raised the money to buy him a good gray horse, with saddle and saddlebags, ready to take Michael into the wilderness.

Itinerant Preacher

First he rode west through Ohio and Indiana, before turning south.   His territory would be through the southern states west of the Alleghenies. For several years Michael traveled the small back roads of Kentucky and Tennessee, riding as far south as Alabama. He would stay for a few weeks in small towns and then move on.

There was considerable personal risk involved for any man on a nice horse to be riding alone in wilderness areas. One night, he came upon a new cabin in a very remote area. He dismounted and knocked on the door. A rather fearsome looking woman responded, and seemed most reluctant to admit the stranger. When the husband returned from work, Michael was even more concerned. The husband more resembled an outlaw that hard working farmer.

Still the couple invited Michael to share their supper of mush and milk. When they had eaten, the man began to fumble in his pocket. Michael feared that he was reaching for a knife. But instead he pulled our a Bible from his pocket and asked Michael to read for them.  Michael was only too happy to oblige.

Finally Michael rode north and crossed the Ohio River in southern Illinois. A few miles north there was a new settlement of families that had moved out of Abbeyville, South Carolina to avoid slavery. Michael may well have known about this settlement, as they were Irish families that had been part of the emigration from Ireland led by Rev. William Martin. Rev. Martin was the first minister of the Covenanter Church in Kellswater, Country Antrim, which was the church attended by the woman Michael intended to marry.

There was already a Reformed Presbyterian Church in Eden Il. But these Irish immigrants had come from the more conservative branch of the religion. And so did Michael. This flat land was nothing like the rolling hills of Michael's native Armagh, but the land was rich and easy to farm. Eden was already a growing community, so Michael would live in an area with many more amenities that many of the others he had visited in his travels. And there was no slavery, something Michael and his fellow Irish considered evil.

Michael took a good look around the area while he ministered to these farmers. Apparently, they found Michael's preaching and religious principles to their liking, as they issued a call for him to become the minister of the church they intended to build. Michael accepted the call and returned to Pittsburgh to prepare for his new life in Illinois.

The first thing Michael did was to propose to  the young Irish girl he had met while he was attending college there. The ceremony took place on Dec. 27, 1842. Finally, at the age of 35, Michael had achieved the place in life that he could only dream of in Ireland.
Michael and Margaret circa 1850

The young couple packed up their few possessions, loaded them on a barge and let the current of the Ohio River bring them to their destination. There was much to be done when Michael and Margaret arrived in Eden Illinois. Members of the congregation helped acquire 150 acres, the first plot of land Michael had ever owned,  Michael build a log cabin in what would become Cutler, Illinois. Then he and his congregation set about building a simple church in which to worship. They built the church in a lovely grove of trees on the highest point of land in the area. They called it the Mound Church.

For all of his life, Michael was a farmer as well as a minister. He would work through the week just as his neighbors did, with the added responsibility to minister to the sick and dying. As he worked, he certainly thought about what he would say to his congregation on Sunday. Covenanters dedicated the entire Sabbath to church lessons and sermons. They would come in the morning in their wagons, When the morning service was concluded, they would eat the lunches they had prepared the day before and brought with them. After they had eaten, afternoon services would begin.

This new life must have seemed the culmination of an impossible dream to Michael. He owned land, had a congregation of his own, a home, however humble, and a new wife. After 36 years of endless work and study. Michael had reached his goals, and could look forward to a life of achievement, happiness and service.

Michael Harshaw > William Roseborough Harshaw > Harold McCloskey Harshaw > Marjorie Harshaw (Robie)

to be continued )