The Harris Family of the Harris-Lass House Museum

by Mary Hanel

(published in the Santa Clara County Connections,


The Museum gets its name from the two families that lived in the house -- the Harris Family from 1865-1906 and the Lass Family from 1906-1987. Much information is known about the Lass Family because much of the furniture in the house once belonged to that family; the family has a number of descendants who have shared their memories of visiting or staying in the house; and there are many photographs, home movies, oral history recordings, and newspaper articles to document the family's life in the house.  But when the Museum first opened to the public in 1991, much less was known about the man who first owned the house -- Henry Harris.  The focus when talking about the Harris family was on Henry's son, Albert Harris, a banker and city official profiled with a biographical sketch  in a 1904 California history book, who had  remodeled the home in the 1890s, and later, in August 1906, sold the property to Captain Christian Lass, patriarch of the Lass Family. 


In the past few years, however, thanks to contacts made through  the Museum's website at,  relatives of  the Harris Family living in Australia and England;  and a genealogist researching the story of a ship called the Brooklyn -- have provided the Historic Preservation Society of Santa Clara with additional information on the life story of Henry Harris.  


In honor of the house's 150th anniversary, here is a summary of what is known about the life and family of Henry Harris.  


Harris Family descendants named Keira Lockyer of Australia and Sue Woolf of England provided information that Henry Harris was born in Surrey, London on June 25, 1819 to Jewish parents, Jacob Harris and Catherine Philips Harris.   Henry left England possibly as early as 1839 traveling to Australia, then Chile, Mexico and the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii).


 A genealogist from Davidsonville, Maryland named Bill Allen whose relatives sailed on the ship Brooklyn in 1846 provided the story of how Henry met his wife Mary Murray. Mary was a 36 year old spinster born in Aberdeen, Scotland who had been living in Massachusetts in 1845 when she heard that the ship Brooklyn was seeking passengers to begin a new life in an unsettled part of Western North America. The majority of these passengers were Mormons led by Elder Sam Brannan. By paying $75, a passenger could book a "cabin with provisions" for a 24,000 mile trip around Cape Horn and up the Pacific Coast.  Mary Murray was on the Brooklyn for this trip when it departed from New York Harbor on February 4, 1846. 


Though bound for a port called Yerba Buena in California, the Brooklyn docked in Honolulu, Sandwich Islands on June 22, 1846 for a ten-day stopover.  At the Sandwich Islands, a young 27 year-old carpenter and merchant by the name of Henry Harris became enamored of a pretty passenger on the Brooklyn -- namely, Mary Murray.   Henry, although not Mormon, found Mary Murray to be as adventurous as he was and decided he'd like to join Brannan's group to settle in California.  Sam Brannan reluctantly agreed but negotiated a tough bargain -- Henry Harris was going to have to pay as much for his passage of three weeks-- from Sandwich Islands to California--as the other members of the Brooklyn party who had paid for a six month journey.  


However, the money would also include membership in the association that had been formed -- S. Brannan & Co.  Even before the July 21, 1846 arrival in Yerba Buena, California, though, Henry and others were dissatisfied with the management of Brannon & Co.  In Yerba Buena, Brooklyn passengers disembarked with the intent of establishing their colony.    Within three months of having   settled in Yerba Buena, Henry Harris who by now had married Mary Murray, had second thoughts about the association in which he had invested.  He asked the investors to let him withdraw and asked for his share of the common stock.  This was refused, so Henry Harris went to court against Sam Brannan. However, Henry lost the case.  He then bought lots in early day San Francisco and tried to make a living among the Mormons.  Although he started a small business, he struggled to make a living.    Mary and Henry had a son named Henry William Harris but the child died June 28, 1848.  A healthy daughter named Miriam, though, was born in San Francisco on December 21, 1849. 


Shortly after Miriam's birth, Henry and Mary decided to leave California and go back to the Sandwich Islands.  They arrived in Honolulu on January 30, 1850.  For the next couple of years, Henry earned his living as a merchant transporting goods between Honolulu and Yerba Buena.  In 1851, Henry's youngest brother Nathaniel, 25, joined his trading business.  Thanks to the California Gold Rush there was a ready market for foodstuffs and other Hawaiian goods.  The Gold Rush brought changes to the social situation in Yerba Buena or San Francisco -- its population was growing exponentially and was booming with people from all over the world.  This diversity provided lots of opportunities for ambitious businessmen, investors and traders like Henry and his brother Nathaniel.   On October 5, 1852, just a few months after his son Albert was born on August 12, 1852, Henry, his wife, two children and brother Nathaniel departed Honolulu for San Francisco on the Brig Wallace.  They arrived in California on October 21, 1852 where they would spend the rest of their lives. Henry's family took up residence on a ranch near Milpitas.  He mined gold for a spell but made much more money as a cabinet maker.  But he was also a shrewd investor and land speculator and by the time he bought the 13 acre property that was to become his home in Santa Clara, he was semi-retired and his occupation in voter and census rolls was now referred to as "Capitalist."   Although Lass Family tradition held that what is now known as the Harris-Lass House was built in 1865, records from 1863 and 1866 attach the name James Harris to the property.  By the 1870 census though and in the early 1870s City directories -- Henry, Mary, Miriam and Albert Harris are in the Santa  Clara Township on Market Street  not far from the old Los Gatos Road.  Nathaniel, meanwhile is also prospering -- but in San Jose.


In the 1880 Census, Henry, Mary, Miriam and Albert are all living together at 1889 Market Street but Henry is the retired capitalist and Albert appears to be the orchardist running the farm.  On September 24, 1884, Mary dies.  Less than two years later, on April 6, 1886, 33 year old Albert Harris marries 20 year old Ada Jordan, a socially prominent young woman of Santa Clara.  Their marriage may have precipitated the move, also in 1886, of Henry and Miriam (Albert's unmarried sister) to a house on 415 West San Fernando Street in San Jose.  Albert then remodeled and added onto the Market Street house in the early 1890s. By this time Albert had a daughter and was becoming a prominent banker and a Santa Clara city official, serving a stint on the Board of Town Trustees and also serving for a time as Town Treasurer.  The house on Market Street appears in a chamber of commerce-style publication titled, Progressive Santa Clara 1904, which advertises the good life for those who settle in Santa Clara Valley.


Henry Harris died at his West San Fernando Street home in San Jose on March 6, 1899.  Miriam continued to live at that address in San Jose until her death in October 1901.  She had a good relationship with her brother Albert.  His only child, a daughter born in 1887, was also named Miriam.


In August 1906 after he sold the 1889 Market Street property to Captain Christian Lass, Albert Harris moved with his family to what was described as a stately and elegant house on North First Street in San Jose.  He died suddenly, probably from a stroke in September 1913.  His daughter Miriam, a Stanford University graduate, married a prominent physician, Dr. Thomas Blanchard in November 1913.  Miriam and Thomas Blanchard had no children. Miriam outlived her husband but passed away in July 1978. Her survivors were cousins descended from the Nathaniel Harris line of the family.


A man from Germany last year made contact with the Harris-Lass Museum -- he had found the Museum's website when searching for information about Miriam Harris Blanchard -- he was restoring a beautiful 1954 Cadillac that originally belonged to Miriam.  He shared a scan of her original registration card for the car, a picture of the car which is a vivid aqua color and asked if there was a photo of Miriam in file or additional stories about her life.


Henry's brother Nathaniel, who became a prosperous citizen of San Jose, died before his older brother Henry -- on May 4, 1894.  Henry was one of the executor's of his estate.  However, Nathaniel had many more children and grandchildren than Henry and he still has surviving descendants in his direct line.  One of Nathaniel's descendants got help with family history research from Genealogy Society consultant Jim Riley a few years ago.


Source information for this essay:


•History of the State of California and Biographical Record of Coast Counties,  California: An Historical Story of the State's Marvelous Growth from Its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time by Prof. J.M. Guinn, A.M., The Chapman Publishing Co., Chicago, 1904, pp.  919-920: "ALBERT HARRIS"

•Progressive Santa Clara *1904*: an abode where fruit and flowers  lead enchantment in the eye and health and plenty are the portion of her people,  published by the Santa Clara News and Endorsed by the Santa Clara Commercial League,  Nace Printing Co. [1904]

•The Story of Two Families, a Signposts column by Patricia Loomis, San Jose News, August 3, 1979, pp. 1B-2B.

•Jacob Harris and Catherine Phillips: Parents of Henry Harris and Nathaniel Harris who were Santa Clara County pioneers, Compiled by Harris Family descendants Keira Lockyer of Australia and Sue Woolf of England from information that has been verified by documentation.  (26/11/2008)

•Harris Family Story of 1846: (Part 1:  Mary Murray's 1846 Adventure on the "Brooklyn)/(Part 2: Mary Murray and Henry Harris), Background information compiled by Bill Allen, Davidsonville, MD,  Email:   (Electronic file name: Murray on the BrooklynRev4.docx)

•ShipBrooklyn.Com ( requires one-time fee of $20 to get access to members area with details on Passengers on the Ship Brooklyn of 1846


Newspaper Obituaries:

•Mary Murray Harris:  "Funeral of Mrs. Harris", San Jose Daily Mercury, Sunday, September 28, 1884

•Nathaniel Harris: "Death of A Pioneer Resident of Santa Clara County", Evening News (San Jose), Friday, May 4, 1894

•Henry Harris:  "The Death of a Pioneer", Evening News (San Jose), Monday March 6, 1899

•Miriam E. Harris:  "Biographical Sketch of Miss Miriam Harris", San Jose Mercury News, October 20, 1901, p. 11

•Albert  Harris:  "Sudden Death of Albert Harris, Santa Clara News, Tuesday, September 16, 1913, p. 1

•Miriam Harris Blanchard:  "Mrs. Blanchard Dies: widow of early-day doctor", San Jose Mercury News, Wednesday, July 12, 1978

•Newspaper Marriage Announcements:

•Albert Harris & Ada Jordan:  "Matrimony Notice: Harris-Jordan", Evening News (San Jose), April 8, 1886, p. 3 & "Wedded Bliss: Marriage Certificates Filed...", April 24, 1886, p. 5

•Miriam Harris & Thomas Blanchard: "Miss Harris and Dr. Blanchard Married", San Jose Mercury Herald, November 2, 1913, (Social Notes, p. 25)