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Daniel Jefferson Harris was born on February 16, 1833 at Southampton, Suffolk Co. on Long Island, New York. He was second among six children. His family went back at least six generations to a George Harris, who was living in Southampton as early as 1657. Danís father and grandfather were farmers. Dan's older sister and next younger brother predeceased him. His father evidently died when Dan was a boy. He was survived by two brothers, a sister and several nieces and nephews. (See "Meet Dan's Family.")
At the age of fifteen, Dan Harris accompanied an uncle on an Arctic whaling voyage. In 1851 he joined a Pacific whaling expedition aboard the Sag Harbor ship "Levant" of which Mercator Cooper was Master. Dan Harris served as a "boat steerer" (harpooner). On this voyage the "Levant" made two trips to the Arctic and one to the Antarctic, where it penetrated further south than any U.S. ship up to that date. Dan was the only crew member reported to have stepped out on to the ice at that point. During the voyage, Dan was jailed in Hobart, Tasmania for arguing with other crewmembers upon returning late from liberty and put in chains at sea for being insubordinate to the captain. Dan left the ship on January 24, 1854 during its two-and-one-half month stay at Honolulu.
Dan Harris arrived at Bellingham Bay in May 1854, after a brief stop in Victoria, B.C. In 1855, he filed for a Donation Land Claim on land originally settled by John Thomas, receiving a certificate for 146.44 acres in 1868 and a patent in 1871. Dan later purchased another 43 acres along the shoreline west of his claim in a private transaction. For many years Dan combined homesteading with trading on Puget Sound, first as master of a Schooner named "Phantom" and later in a boat named "Bounding Ball," in which he carried coal from a 148 acre tract of public land he bought a mile east his claim in 1876 and held until 1882.
Dan Harris was involved in at least four notable legal scrapes. In 1855 he was arrested for selling "spirituous liquor" to First Nations People. In 1856 he was arrested for inciting the Stikines of British Columbia to attack the Lummis. In 1867 Dan Harris was arrested for using $60 entrusted to him by William Nichols for purchasing a bank draft in Victoria, B.C. to buy trade goods and then for smuggling those goods, including liquor in casks labeled "Honolulu Sugar," into the U.S. Dan was jailed more than once while awaiting trial and was bailed out by friends. Apparently, he was never sentenced to serve a prison term.
Dan Harris displayed a great deal of enterprise. He spent the period from the fall of 1860 to June of 1861 in the mines of British Columbia. In 1875, he single-handedly constructed a three-mile road from Sehome to Lake Whatcom. In 1878, he led a team of oxen to the Cariboo Mountains in British Columbia. On one occasion while there, he purchased several kegs of nails at $3.00 a pound and sold them for $5.00 a pound after transporting them just twelve miles. From as early as 1877 Dan Harris envisioned developing a town on his claim. Because of his infrequent bathing and untidy appearance, he was given the sobriquet "Dirty Dan" as early as 1867. However, marriage and the acquisition of wealth late in life substantially improved his public image. From as early as 1877 he envisioned developing a town on his claim.
Dan Harris filed the plat for the Town of Fairhaven on January 2, 1883. It consisted of eighty-five blocks 200 feet square, each divided into eight lots measuring 50 feet by 100 feet. He began selling lots in February. By the end of 1883 he had sold 238 lots and grossed almost $22,000. He reportedly spent about $16,000 of the proceeds constructing a three-story hotel and a deep-water dock at 4th and Harris Streets. In 1884 Dan Harris sold another eight lots, grossing $1,400. He sold no more property until 1889, when he conveyed his remaining Fairhaven lots to railroad magnate Nelson Bennett for $50,000 and his unplatted acreage to mining mogul Charles X. Larrabee for $25,000 in two transactions six months apart.
On October 17, 1885, Dan Harris, then fifty-two, married Wisconsin-born, Bertha L. Wasmer, twenty-eight, who filed for divorce a year later alleging verbal abuse and physical threats. The couple reconciled and began wintering in Los Angeles, where Bertha died on November 18, 1888 and Dan on August 18, 1890, leaving an estate of about $130,000 mostly invested in Southern California real estate. His three siblings and niece, Ella Fordham, in place of her deceased mother, Phebe, contested Dan's 1871 will which named his nephew, Benjamin, as sole heir. The Whatcom County Superior Court favored the nephew. On appeal, the Washington Supreme Court recognized all parties. By 1896, when the Washington portion of Dan's estate was finally settled, Fairhaven property values had plummeted and the five heirs received only $33.93 apiece.
During his three years of residence in Southern California, Dan Harris acquired at least eight pieces of local real estate, including a lot in downtown Los Angeles costing $40,000, and property in Redondo Beach and San Bernardino County. He also made several mortgage loans, including one for $10,000 on a commercial property, one for $5,000 to George Stoneman, a former governor of California, and one for $4,000 to his physician, Andrew S. Shorb. Dan also made unsecured loans totaling $1,788 to Dr. Shorb and his wife, Mattie, and apparently endorsed to her a $25,000 certificate of deposit which he had purchased with the proceeds from the Larrabee sale.
On the day Dan Harris died, Dr. Shorb, removed all of Danís financial records from his home. D. W. Field, the court appointed administrator for Danís estate, sued Andrew and Mattie Shorb for concealment of assets belonging to the estate. The Los Angeles County Superior Court decided in favor of the plaintiff. However, on appeal, the California Supreme Court reversed that decision in October 1893 and awarded the Shorbs $27,000 from the Harris estate. The disposition of the estateís other assets in Southern California is being investigated.