Mormon Missionary Diaries
About the Collection
John Claiborne Harper
by Brian A. Warburton
John Claiborne Harper was born 15 April 1846 in Franklin, Virginia, to Robert M. Harper and Liddy Hill. During the American Civil War John enlisted in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, Company D, 2nd Virginia Cavalry and may have been wounded at Meadow Bridge on 12 October 1864.1 He was present at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant of the United States Army. As part of the surrender agreement General Grant allowed the Confederate soldiers to go home as paroled prisoners of war. To ensure their safe travel home each soldier was issued a certificate signed by his commanding officer stating his status as a paroled prisoner of war.2 In 1870 John became a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and soon moved to Utah and married Mary Davis on an unknown date.3
John was ordained a Seventy in the LDS church on 16 April 1876 and in 1879 he was elected constable in Payson, Utah, a title he held for several years.4 John married Fanny Coombs on 23 August 1883 in Salt Lake City and was called to serve a mission in 1887 leaving home on 13 May of that year and arriving at Chattanooga, Tennessee on 19 May 1887. He received brief instructions at the mission home in Chattanooga and was assigned to labor in Wilkes County, North Carolina. Many LDS missionaries suffered persecution while in the southern states at this time and John mentioned that tensions were often high. After attending a Baptist church he recorded, “we were followed and they threw stones at us. However, none of them struck us, but it manifests the murderous spirit which actuated them.”5
Even with the persecution John stayed positive and found many friendly people. At one point he became very sick with the flu and a Mrs. S.A. Wright took care of him, “I will ever feel grateful for her kindness to me. She is a widow, not a member of the church, but always has been a staunch friend to our people.”6 Even though the missionaries often found conditions oppressive to their cause they also found success. “Baptized two persons Bro. I. Y. Nance and Mrs. Queen Victoria Ball and blessed her babe. These make 11 persons we have baptized in this state since I joined elder Dickson 21st last May.”7
John was made president of the North Carolina Conference on 29 October 1887, having responsibility to direct missionary activities in North Carolina. John, as president of the North Carolina Conference, was also placed in charge of helping the members of the church in the area immigrate to Utah.8 John also had the opportunity to travel to his home county of Franklin, Virginia, and visit many of his old friends and relatives as well as the grave sites of his mother, sisters, and his first wife, Ruth Anna Hill. John wrote of the reverence he felt at the gravesites of his loved ones and “how intensified this feeling by the knowledge the gospel brings, by vicorious [sic] work which is a labor of love for us who have the glorious privilege of living in a gospel dispensation.”9
John never finished his missionary journal, the last entry he wrote was on 30 June 1888, but he must have returned home sometime in late 1888 or early in 1889, as he was imprisoned in the Utah State Penitentiary by summer 1889 for unlawful cohabitation (polygamy). While in prison he kept an autograph book which was signed by fellow prisoners.10 In order to avoid further persecution from the U.S. government for the practice of plural marriage John moved his family to the Mormon town of Colonia Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico.
The Harper family arrived in Colonia Juarez in 1891 and John bought a plot of land next to the public park with a stipulation that he build a “house of entertainment” on the lot.11 He moved his family into a small one room house and became the water master and opened a butcher shop, from which he earned the money to keep his promise and build a hotel on his lot of land. The Harper Hotel became well known as a clean comfortable place to stay and was very popular. “Traveling salesmen, newspapermen and journalists as well as business representatives from all parts of the Republic and western United States made reservations for long term residence…all considered the time spent…an excellent way to spend a vacation.”12 John continued operating his hotel until 1 December 1909 when he passed away. After his death his wife, Fanny continued to run the hotel until she sold it in 1929 and moved to San Francisco because of failing health.13 Fanny lived in San Francisco until her death on 10 May 1947.
1 http://www.geocities.com/r_leddy/cw/rosters/va2cavd.html 1997–2002. This web site contains a roster of the 2nd Virginia Cavalry and a “Harper, Jno. C.” is listed as being wounded on 12 October 1864.
2 John Claiborne Harper, “Papers, 1856–1899,” MSS 185, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. John’s certificate is still in existence and is preserved as part of this collection. A certificate stating that John had taken an oath of allegiance to the United States in July 1865 is also included in this collection.
3 United States Census, 1880. Provo, Utah: MyFamily.com Inc., 2003. 26 March 2004 Available from http://www.ancestry.com The 1880 census shows that John was married to a Mary A. Harper by 1880.
4 Harper, The collection includes a certificate of ordination as a Seventy in the LDS church as well as certificates of proof that John was elected as constable in Payson.
5 Harper, “Papers,” May —June 1887.
7 Ibid., 11 September 1887.
8 Throughout the 19th century LDS church members were encouraged to gather as a body to a central location.
9 Harper, “Papers,” 15 March 1888.
10 Ibid., This autograph book is part of the Harper collection.
11 Nelle Hatch, Stalwarts South of the Border pg. 226.
12 Ibid., 227.
13 Ibid., 229.
United States Census, 1880. Provo, Utah: MyFamily.com Inc., 2003. 26 March 2004 Available from http://www.ancestry.com
Civil War Rosters. Geocities.com, 1997–2002. 26 March 2004 Available from http://www.geocities.com/r_leddy/cw/rosters/va2cavd.html
Harper, John Claiborne. “Papers, 1856–1899,” MSS 185, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
Hatch, Nelle Spilsbury and B. Carmon Hardy, ed. Stalwarts South of the Border. California: E. Hatch, 1985.
Taylor, Harold W., ed. Memories of Militants & Mormon Colonists in Mexico. Yorba Linda, California: Shumway Family History Services, 1992.