Enoch Knuck Harris

Enock “Knuck” Harris and his wife Deborah, photographed in the 1860s in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Harris was one of the founding fathers of Mount Vernon before moving on to become one of the founders of Kalamazoo County, Michigan. Despite early laws restricting free blacks, Harris managed to become very successful through real estate transactions and industrious farming.

MOUNT VERNON -- Not a lot of people know that one of the founding fathers of Mount Vernon was a black man.

Enoch Harris, better known as 'Knuck,' was a pioneer of the town — and quite a dealer in real estate. At one point in Mount Vernon's early history, Harris owned about one-sixth of the entire village. That's a remarkable achievement for a free black on the Ohio frontier in the early 1800s.

Harris first came to my attention in 2008, when I covered a library talk by Dr. Lorle Porter for the Mount Vernon News. Porter, an emeritus history professor at Muskingum College, had been researching the famous musician Daniel Decatur Emmett in early paperwork for a biography she was writing, when she came across references to Knuck Harris.

Porter said that due to the scarcity of records, she wasn't able to find out much information about Harris' early years. He was born in 1784 in Virginia, then married a woman from Pennsylvania, suggesting that he might have moved north into that state. Around 1805, he came west to the Ohio frontier and settled in Mount Vernon.

According to Porter, the state of Ohio had laws on the books in those days requiring free blacks to pay a bond of $500 to settle in the state. There are no surviving records of Harris paying this bond, and he became quickly established as a respected mover and shaker in the growing community, so it seems likely that the bond law was quietly ignored in his case.

Harris' first purchase was a property at the corner of North Main and Hamtramck Streets for which he paid $8. As new settlers streamed into the county, land values skyrocketed, and just one year later, Harris was able to sell the property for $50.

Through such transactions, he was able to profit over 265 percent on his real estate deals, according to Porter's research.

Over the next two decades, Harris bought and sold land, opened a store, fought in the War of 1812, invested in a failed bank project, then moved out of town to a farm near Sparta. Somewhere around 1830, he decided to head further out on the frontier and moved to Kalamazoo County, Michigan, where he became one of the founding fathers there.

Harris and his wife Deborah lived on a 200-acre farm there for the next 40 years, becoming so highly regarded that his obituary in the Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph described Harris as being “esteemed as an upright and industrious man by his neighbors, perhaps none the less so because he was a colored man. He was fully equal to his neighbors, superior to many of them ...”

Harris is remembered as the first person to plant an apple orchard in Kalamazoo County. Was that an idea Harris gleaned from another one of Mount Vernon's early figures, John Chapman, better known as “Johnny Appleseed?”

Anything is possible. What seems impossible at this late date is to figure out Knuck Harris' roots. Official paperwork from throughout his 85-year life varies between calling him a “colored” man and a “mulatto,” the latter term suggesting mixed-race parentage. He was described as being tall, with bright blue eyes.

It is unknown if Harris was born free or as a slave in Virginia, but it was clear that he had enough money to deal in real estate when he came to Ohio, making over $1,000 in land purchases in his time in Knox County. Since we lack paperwork records from Virginia or Pennsylvania, perhaps someday DNA testing of his descendants will turn up new leads.

Enoch Harris passed away in Oshmeto Township, Kalamazoo County, Michigan, on March 21, 1870, and is buried just a quarter of a mile away from his farmhouse, in Genessee Prairie Cemetery.

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