Tracing Richmonder Benjamin James Harris

First owner of Clifton, Benjamin James Harris, has an interesting, yet spotty history.  I am working to uncover as much about him as possible, in the hopes of establishing a feasible connection to the commission from Latrobe.  So far my chronology is:

1808, March Harris owned a house at 11th & Main, called “Harris’s High House” which burned in this month

1808, May Harris bought 3 lots [more details to come]

1808? Commissions “Clifton” design plans from B.H. Latrobe

1812, Aug 3 Harris writes pantent request to Thomas Jefferson – DC? Re: Cotton & water purification (for an actual image of the letter and transcription, see below.)

1813, Feb 6 John M. Gordon, Lynchburg, Virginia, to Benjamin James Harris, Richmond, Virginia: power of attorney from John Bullock.

1814 A patent granted to Harris for a fireproof ceiling

ca 1814-1815 Purchased and moved to Belvidere estate (previously owned by Col. Harvie)

1817 Formed business partnership w/ Geo. Winston & Jacqueline B. Harvie (Col. Harvie’s son) to develop Sydney (The Fan)

1819, Dec 29 Daughter Caroline Virginia born to Harris and wife Sarah (d. Feb 17, 1871)

ca 1825 Transfer of Clifton to Madison Walthall

1839 Harris is tried and acquitted in Richmond for whipping a slave girl to death, via William Poe testimony

??? Bankruptcy from investment in Sydney town and economic downturn

??? Harris goes to New Orleans in an attempt to recoup his finances

??? Harris moves to Kentucy, becomes a maniac, dies (qtd Slavery in the United States: a social, political, and historical …, Volume 2 By Junius P. Rodriguez, p 611)

Richmond 3 August 1812

Thomas Jefferson Esquire


I herewith enclose to you two drawings

showing  the principles, of two different inventions that I consider to be

entirely new, which I wish to submit to your examination — One

of them is for the purpose of constructing Fire proof buildings &

the other for Filtering and Refrigerating water

I will thank you to investigate bothe of these principles and give me

your opinion of them, — And as I wish to procure Patents for them,

Should they be new, I will also thank you to inform me if you

have ever known Patents granted upon either principle.

I am just engaging in the manufacture of Cotton, and have

for a long time been endeavouring to find some plan or

principle upon which the Ceilings of rooms in large buildings

can be constructed Fire proof at any thing like a moderate expense.

The site that I have procured for this business is very inconvenie=

=ntly situated for good Drinking water, which circumstance has induced

me to investigate the principles of Filteration & Refrigeration, and

as I know you are a great friend to the Arts & Sciences, and

[page 2]

of domestic Manufacture & improvements, I beg leave to ask if you know

of any better principles upon which my objects can be accomplished

than those which I have submitted to your examination — and if you

know of any, please to transmit me a description of them.

I am very respectfully,

Your most obd, Svt

Ben James Harris

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