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Fisher Sanford Harris: Non-Mormon Peacemaker in Zion

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 27, 2008

Fisher Sanford Harris was arguably the most beloved man in Utah when he died in 1909. A Protestant welcomed in Mormon country, a respected Democrat in what was fast becoming a Republican fortress, the son of a Confederate family who counted Salt Lake’s minorities among his close friends, a humble hotel clerk who rallied the richest businessmen – Harris navigated all social minefields to bridge the chasms and mend the breaches of a polarized past.

He won such respect by his unfailing courtesy and by utterly refusing to make any man the butt of a joke or the target of scorn.

Born in Virginia, Harris remained the Southern gentleman throughout life. He never lost his accent, either, despite claims to the contrary: “When I fust come to this country, suh, I talked exactly like an old Vuhginiuhn, suh, but I have managed to break myself of the most of it, suh,” he once said. He stepped off the train in 1889 and immediately made Salt Lake City his home, finding employment in the hotel business here.

Harris liked to talk – “the purest and sweetest of English” – and newspapers commonly referred to him as the “silver-tongued orator.” His favorite subjects were the Utah that was, and the Utah that could be.

In 1895 he ran as a Democrat for secretary of state, saying: “It is my hope that there will be a time when all the unnatural questions that have vexed us shall be banished forever. And then the question shall be, ‘What are your qualifications? What is your reputation among your fellow men?’ and the words ‘Mormon’ and ‘Gentile’ shall no longer find a place in our political vocabulary.”

Gentile Harris, along with Mormon B.H. Roberts, were savaged by the rabidly Republican Salt Lake Tribune throughout that campaign. Harris never retaliated but continued to treat the Tribune’s personnel with courtesy.

Harris organized Salt Lake’s businessmen, of all political and social divisions, into an effective Commercial Club early in the 20th century; he declined to serve as the Club’s president but accepted assignment as the Club’s workhorse secretary.

He turned his silver tongue toward winning tourism and convention business. The Second Irrigation Congress and a traveling salesmen’s organization met in Salt Lake, largely because they were charmed by Harris.

Concerned that so many Americans were vacationing in Europe, Harris promoted local tourism. He coined the slogan “See America First,” which he promoted on speaking tours throughout the country. It was during such a tour in 1908 that Harris collapsed with throat cancer brought on by lifelong smoking. Harris never spoke again, a harsh whisper replacing his golden voice.

In the summer of 1909, a dying Fisher Harris witnessed his greatest triumph as Utah’s ambassador: The Grand Army of the Republic – tens of thousands of Union veterans of the Civil War – came to Salt Lake for their annual encampment. Harris could not join in the songs and toasts, but he witnessed the vivid success of his efforts as a peacemaker: Union veterans marched down Main Street, greeted by a Living Flag composed of red-white-and-blue-clad Mormon children whose parents had largely avoided the war, their thirst quenched by lemonade served by women from the Daughters of the Confederacy.

Fisher Harris died a few weeks after that encampment. Tributes poured in. Representative of many segments of society, the Japanese association wrote that “In his kindness we found a real friend. Now he is gone, but he will be remembered by the Japanese residents, and live forever in their hearts.” Governors and mayors served as pallbearers.

Six weeks after Harris’s death, hundreds of contributions allowed the Commercial Club to purchase Harris’s rented house for his widow.

His epitaph was, “He did what he could to bring unity and harmony into the relations between the citizens of this community. If there is a special blessing pronounced upon the peace-makers, Mr. Harris will not lose his reward.”



10 Comments »

  1. What an interesting and delightful man!

    Ardis, do we know what brought him to Utah territory? I think it is significant that he arrived even before the manifesto.

    Comment by Mark IV — May 27, 2008 @ 8:44 am

  2. Mark, although I’ve been following his Utah career for years, and have traced some Virginia ancestry, I have not seen anything to explain why he came to Utah. My best guess right now is that there were no real economic opportunities for him in Virginia so he came west. He may not even have been headed to Utah in particular, but recognized a good thing when he saw it.

    Had he lived, I believe the social climate in Utah would have been quite different — he had that much influence on both sides. For one thing, I think his Wizard of the Wasatch festival (something I will post about soon) would probably have caught on permanently, giving Utah a totally charming, totally nonpartisan business union for Mormon and non-Mormon alike. Pioneer Day would have preserved a more religious flavor and not become what it is today, disliked by most non-Mormons, and diluted from its earlier purpose in the interest of being all-inclusive. The political scene would be different, too, because we wouldn’t all define ourselves so much by what we are not — not Mormon, or not not-Mormon.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 27, 2008 @ 9:12 am

  3. One of my ancestors also relocated to Salt Lake City as a Gentile. A former Union soldier, he had attempted to start a business school in the South, but it did not work and his career as a carpetbagger was very short.

    After that, he took a job which took him through SLC. He also decided to stay. He started a business college and eventually joined the church.

    Unfortunately in none of his writings do I recall an explanation of why he chose SLC.

    On the surface, the answer as to why he came and stayed looks like Harris’ story. They were both respectable, principled, talented speakers, politically ambitious, interested in public relations, interested in the business community.

    Salt Lake City was a new community. It gave both of them an opportunity to use their formidable talents.

    However, I also like to think that there were other factors. The nice climate. The respectable people. Compared to the South (I’m having to draw on my high school education here), there would have been a lack of corruption, a lack of ossified social structure, a lack of violence and a lack of day to day exposure to bigotry and racism.

    My ancestor also died early. In his case it was 1894. He was a Republican (the party of Lincoln for this Union soldier) but he was also a very close associate of BH Roberts and I wonder sometimes how his political career would have developed if he had not died.

    * * *

    Perhaps a final destination like Los Angeles or Seattle would have worked as well for Fisher Sanford Harris, but besides the benefits which SLC gained from his presence, he would have missed being memorialized by Ardis 100 years later.

    Comment by Researcher — May 27, 2008 @ 10:01 am

  4. Yeah, I’m sure the future memorialization is what kept him here! /grin/ He really is one of my all-time favorite “neighbors.”

    My southern ancestors’ experiences suggest to me that even 25 years after the end of the Civil War, Reconstruction was still a terrible burden on most ordinary southerners, making a fresh start in the west an attractive option. Who was your ancestor, Researcher? He sounds like the kind of man I should keep an eye on, and may even have already run into.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 27, 2008 @ 11:07 am

  5. Ardis, thanks for this and your many other fascinating posts. I hope you can keep up the pace. To quote a recent comment by someone wise, “I hope that as we move into a new new Mormon history that we won’t allow a division between theorists and fact-finders. We need each other.”

    P.S. It was good to see you at MHA.

    Comment by Christopher — May 27, 2008 @ 11:58 am

  6. Yes, you’ve run into him and mentioned him in a post or two. John Morgan…served as Southern States Mission president for a number of years during Reconstruction, complete with run-ins with the KKK and other difficulties of that period. No one new; just someone else who came to SLC as a Gentile and decided to stay.

    Comment by Amy T. — May 27, 2008 @ 2:13 pm

  7. Okay, thanks, Researcher. If I had paid more attention to the business school detail, I would have recognized him right off. I do have a hard time remembering that he was ever a Gentile, though!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 27, 2008 @ 2:58 pm

  8. “He did what he could to bring unity and harmony into the relations between the citizens of this community. If there is a special blessing pronounced upon the peace-makers, Mr. Harris will not lose his reward.”

    If I can die with that on my marker, I will have lived the type of life I want to live.

    Again, thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by Ray — May 27, 2008 @ 6:46 pm

  9. […] Her blog ought be on your “always read” list. The ones I found most interesting were on non-Mormon Fisher Harris who was a beloved non-Mormon in 19th century Utah. Her responses to various papers on the Mountain […]

    Pingback by Best of the Week: Academic LDS : Mormon Metaphysics — May 30, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

  10. Fisher Harris was my great-grandfather, and family history had it that he left Virginia because he had lost everything during the Civil War. Apparently he owned a plantation and had slaves, all of which were lost. So, he was an economic migrant.

    As to why he ended up in Salt Lake, I have no idea. But it sounds as though he had a sharp mind and spotted a good opportunity when it presented itself.

    Comment by Kathleen Sheridan — December 3, 2011 @ 3:26 am

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