Benjamin B. Harris, attorney at law, City Clerk of San Bernardino, and treasurer of the Society of California Pioneers-of San Bernardino County, was born in Hanover County, Virginia, in 1824.
When seventeen years of age he went to Nashville, Tennessee, and was there educated, graduating at Nashville University in 1845; studied law in a private office in that State, and was admitted to the bar of Tennessee. In 1847 he went to Panola County, Texas, expecting to remain there permanently, but the climate being malarious he suffered with liver troubles, which necessitated a change in his purposes. After the discovery of gold in California, he resolved to emigrate to the new El Dorado, and in March, 1849, started with a pack mule train of fifty-two men, to cross the plains, coming by the way of old El Paso, Chihuahua, Santa Cruz, Mexico, through Tucson and Yuma, Arizona. They had some trouble with the Apache Indians, who dogged their trail for days, and with whom they had a bloodless skirmish or two; the Indians knowing the superiority of the emigrants’ fire-arms, kept out of range of their guns. On crossing the Colorado river, where Yuma is now situated, they found it swollen by the melting mountain snows, to the width of 1 500 feet, and it was found necessary to improvise a ferry-boat in which to bring over their party, together with the baggage and supplies. This was done by appropriating the body of an abandoned wagon, making it water-tight by caulking the cracks with strips secured by tearing their shirts, and then pouring in melted beef tallow, which hardened by the cool water, making the joints impervious to water.
This was probably the first ferry established on the Colorado River. Mr. Harris arrived in Mariposa, September 29, 1849, and on the 13th of December of that year, he voted for the adoption of the first State constitution of California. He remained in the mining camps about three years, mining, and, incidentally, practicing law. His efforts in hunting gold were only moderately successful, but he fully recovered his health.
In September 1852, he opened a law office in Mariposa, and thereafter devoted his entire time and attention to the practice. While there he was professionally associated with the noted case of Biddle Boggs, lessee of General John C. Fremont, versus the Mercer Mining Company, in which 48,000 acres of mining land were involved. Fremont claimed the lands as a grant from the Government, and brought suit to dispossess the miners. The litigation begun in 1854, and went through the State courts with varying success and adverse results, and was finally disposed of by a decision in the United States Supreme Court, in Fremont’s favor, during the war. In 1861 Mr. Harris returned east. All his friends there had joined their fortunes with the seceding States at the opening of the civil war, and, having an interest in his father’s estate, which consisted in slaves, he too espoused the cause and spent four years in the Confederate army, rising to the rank of First Lieutenant. After the close of the hostilities, he leased the property of the Union University, a Baptist institution, at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, which had suspended during the war, and selecting a corps of professors from different religious sects, revived the school as a non-sectarian institution. It grew rapidly in popularity and patronage for three years, when, at the solicitation of the Baptist people, he surrendered the lease, and, in the spring of 1870 returned to California.
Before leaving ” the States ” he was married, in the early part of 1870, in Independence, Missouri, to Miss Bettie E. Clark. They came direct to San Bernardino, where they have remained ever since, Mr. Harris being engaged in active practice of the law, excepting two years which he spent in ranching. Sixteen years of that time he has been in the service of the city in an official capacity, thirteen years as a member of the Board of Trustees and City Attorney, and three years as City Clerk, to which position he was both elected and appointed in 1886, and is still filling the office.
Besides their homestead, embracing two acres on the corner of Second and G streets, which he bought in 1872, Major H. owns a fruit ranch with 4,000 raisin grapevines, English walnuts, and deciduous fruit trees on it. He has also fallen heir to some thousands of dollars from the estate of his brother, T. O. Harris, of Nashville, Tennessee, who died April 1, 1889. He was a prominent character in that State, distinguished as a financier, and noted for his benevolence and public-spirited enterprise. He amassed and distributed several fortunes. Major and Mrs. Harris have had seven children, six of whom survive-three girls and three boys. Mr. Harris is treasurer of the Society of California Pioneers of San Bernardino County, and president of the Old Boys’ Hunting Club; he is also a member of the Society of the Blue and the Gray. He is a cultivated and companionable gentleman, prolific in entertaining anecdote and reminiscence of “Forty-nine.”