Rushford Founder’s Early Years: Part One

Harriet Stevens
By : 
Laura Deering and Donna Hansen

“She’s a banker’s wife, a nice woman and a good lady…you will like her” was quoted from a letter by Mr. Murnahan to his wife written in 1888. The quote is referring to Harriet (Rees Colfax) Stevens, the future wife of Rushford’s town founder George Stevens. This is the first in the series, where I will be sharing what I have learned about this remarkable woman. I hope you will like her too!

Like many early pioneers, Harriet Rees comes from the eastern part of the country; Ashtabula, Ohio. Maybe significant to her future patriotic service, she was born on the 4th of July in 1830. We’ll learn together of her Civil War nursing service, founding of three Episcopal churches, decades of commitment to the black community, as well as a dedicated servant to Rushford, such as starting our library.

As a young girl, Harriet left Ohio with her parents, Henry and Mary Rees, and moved to Michigan City, Indiana. Her father worked as a Forwarding Agent. Early in her life she faced hardship due to her father becoming an invalid. Despite being a youth, she took care of her father, and through that learned about nursing care and skills. Harriet’s mother was also a care provider to her husband, as well as the community. She often brought Harriet with her during her rounds of tending the sick.

During Harriet’s stay in Michigan City, another family from the east moved into the community in the 1850’s. They are the Colfax family, many of which find fame in their own right. Harriet married Richard Wilson Colfax in 1854. Richard owned the only printing press, ran an Abolitionist newspaper and published articles against slavery. Those opposed to slavery are known as Abolitionists. This is the earliest connection we have on Harriet, associating her as an Abolitionist. It appears Michigan City harbored many Abolitionists, as noted by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, it is a known Underground Railroad community. Part of this may be due to its location of being a port town located on Lake Michigan.

The Underground Railroad often used the main transportation mode of the time, that of water vessels. Once escaping slaves made it to Michigan City, they could go in two directions to Canada (and ultimate freedom). One direction would be to take a water vessel on Lake Michigan, heading north to Canada. The other route was to continue on land to the east. This land route also has known Underground Railroad communities peppered along the way, such as Cold Water, and Detroit, Michigan.

Abolitionists risked their lives and livelihood, as aiding escaping slaves was against federal law. Even in Free states and territories, some of them were threatened by angry mobs, suffered beatings or even death. Those arrested were placed in prison and paid large fines, which often resulted in the loss of their farm or business, from not being able to attend to their responsibilities, and loss of funds. While it is not known yet, there is a great possibility that Harriet participated with the Underground Railroad and helped the escaping slaves.

As noted the Colfax family is quite extraordinary. Richard’s first cousin, Schuyler Colfax, later became the Vice President serving President Grant. Prior to the Civil War, Schuyler also lived near Michigan City. He too had his own Abolitionist newspaper. He was one of the founders of the early Republican Party, and their foundation was very clear – they were against slavery. Schuyler to this day holds the record with only one other politician (John Garner), that of serving role of both House Speaker and Vice President. Later in this series will be an interesting Minnesota connection with Schuyler Colfax, which shocks the nation.

Another famous Colfax family member is Harriet’s sister-in-law, who also has the same name of Harriet. It is stated she assisted her brother Richard Colfax as a typesetter for his newspaper. Later, during 1861-1904, the sister-in-law becomes known as “Uncle Sam’s best employee.” As a Lighthouse Keeper in Michigan City on Lake Michigan, she accrued 43 years of consecutive service! The Chicago Tribune in 1904 proudly proclaimed, “A Fragile Woman of 80 Years is Uncle Sam’s Oldest and Most Reliable Lighthouse Keeper.”

In the article, the Chicago Tribune gushed about this 80 year old Lighthouse Keeper near retirement: “at eventide each day during the navigation season for forty-three years she has replaced the waning lamp with a fresh one; at dawn for forty-three years she has quenched the beacon… of her unfailing light had carried courage and brought safety to many a ship and small boat tossed on the rough waters of Lake Michigan. The article described the storms in which she had to navigate in lighting the lamp: “there were nights when the groaning, wind driven seas lashed over the long pier that led to the harbor beacon. But she never failed. Drenched with icy spray, almost blown from the slippery footing, groping her way from the lighthouse to the beacon.”

Indiana is very proud of their famous Lighthouse Keeper and one can visit her exhibit at the Michigan City Lighthouse Historical Society, Inc. Old Lighthouse museum.

As for Richard and Harriet their marriage sadly ended early and tragic, with Richard dying shortly after his 26th birthday in 1856. This left Harriet widowed with children. In the 1860 federal census she is still in Michigan City, living with her mother who is identified as “widow.” The next entry shows Harriet with “do”, meaning ditto, also a widow. So at age 30 she was without a father and a husband, and only $50.00 to her name.

It is interesting to learn, Harriet’s future second husband, George Stevens, also lived in Michigan City around the same timeframe as Harriet. In 1850 George married Julia Everts. Julia and Harriet are the same age, and may have known each other while living in Michigan City.

George and Julia continued their journey westward and lived several years in St. Charles, Ill. During this time they had their first daughter, Maie, in 1853. Ever on the move, George ventured out alone in 1854 to the remote patch of southeast Minnesota, to what we now know as Rushford. In 1857 they built a residence in Rushford, and later had a son Harry and another daughter, Jessie. If these names are sounding familiar, George helped plot Rushford, hence, the street names of Maie, Harry and Jessie are in honor of his children. Stevens Avenue is proudly named for the entire family.

During these early years of Rushford, there were other eastern settlers. The mill and residence were owned by Roswell Valentine and Hiram Walker. Their residence included a safe room, where fugitive slaves would hide. Rushford, like Michigan City is connected to a great waterway, the Mississippi river. One of the major escape routes was following the mighty river north, guided by the North Star. It is fitting, considering we are the North Star state.

Historical signage
Donations are being collected to erect a sign near the Rushford Historical Depot, telling the story of Rushford’s role in the Underground Railroad and the connected stories of George. If you’d like to help, send donations payable to the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, to PO Box 443, Rushford, MN, 55971.


Wow, nice article.  Something you don't see written about these days.  With history comes the new.  A suggestion might be a Go Fund Me Page v. a check.