The history of Texas conjures up images of hard-fought battles for independence led by legendary figures such as Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin. However, before all of that took place, a lesser-known historical figure named John Richardson Harris was among the first to settle the Harris County area.
Harris sailed to Texas from New Orleans in his own boat and was a part of the Old Three Hundred—the name given to the group of 300 colonists who settled Austin Colony in 1823 under the direction of Stephen F. Austin. Harris received a title to 4,428 acres of land and settled what would eventually become Harris County, wrote historian Adele B. Looscan, author of “The Pioneer Harrises of Harris County, Texas.”
“[He] found what he regarded as an ideal location for a city at the junction of Buffalo and Bray’s bayous,” Looscan wrote. “He seems to have been the only one of that early period who foresaw the future of Buffalo Bayou.”
Harris built a house, opened a store and built sailboats that started making shipments between his colony and New Orleans. He originally named his colony Harrisburg. The town of Harrisburg was surveyed and laid out in 1826. In 1827, John was joined by his brother David, and his other brothers—Samuel and William P. Harris—soon followed him.
In 1829, when John was traveling to New Orleans to get a part to complete his sawmill, he never returned. His death was attributed to yellow fever.
David continued his brother’s work at the sawmill and in leading ships. Several of the ships he commanded were responsible for key events leading up to the 1835 Texas Revolution, including an attack on a Mexican garrison under Tenorio to help free imprisoned colonists. William also came into command of the ship Cayuga, leading several missions to deliver aid to the Texan army.
As Mexican armies advanced, the Harris house was used as a meeting place for the cabinet of the Texas provisional government, with John Harris’ widowed wife serving as the host. It was at one of these meetings where David Burnet—president of the Republic of Texas—designed the Texan naval flag.
“It was copied from that of the United States of America, except a single white star shone on the blue field instead of a galaxy of stars,” Looscan wrote.
The cabinet, along with other settlers in Harrisburg, retreated to Galveston. When the Mexican army reached Harrisburg, they completely destroyed it, not leaving a single house.
The Harris family home was rebuilt by the next generation. It served as a tavern that provided bed and board to Texan soldiers during the revolutionary war.
Following the war, William played a role in bringing a railroad through Harrisburg. In 1840, William was a part on the committee that established the railroad’s route. This was also the time the area became known as Harris County.
“Each Harris brother bore a part in the colonial life of Texas,” Looscan wrote. “They were influenced by very strong ties of brotherhood, yet each one possessed an equally strong personality, which expressed itself in shaping their lives.”