The Story as reported by Robert Harris, grandson of John Harris, Sr., in 1828.
Around 1720, a band of Indians stopped at the Harris trading post requesting rum. John Harris refused to grant them. In anger, they tied Harris to a nearby mulberry tree with the intent of burning him alive. One of the Harris family's slaves, Hercules, paddled over to the West Shore to get help from a tribe living there. They came to rescue Harris, and he was so grateful that he immediately emancipated Hercules and, in doing so, proclaimed his intent of being buried beneath the famed mulberry tree.
What Documented History Tells Us
In 1701, at the request of Indian leaders, William Penn outlawed selling liquor to Indians. At a council held in 1706 with the Conestoga, Shawnee, and Conoy tribes, the Indians asked Governor John Evans to keep traders from meeting Indians returning from the hunt - when they were loaded with furs and pelts - getting them drunk, and taking all the fruits of their hunt before they returned to their wives and families. The governor agreed to require traders to do their trading at Indian towns only. Establishing trading posts was also part of the solution.
In 1707, Governor John Evans led a contingent of men to "Peixtan" to arrest Nicole Godin, a French trader who had been selling rum to
the Indians. Godin was also rumored to be inciting Indians against the English. The Shawnee complained about Pennsylvania's failure to enforce laws against rum traffic.
There is no written record of the attempted burning of John Harris, Sr. at the mulberry tree until 1828, more than 100 years after the event. Robert Harris, John Harris, Jr.'s son, took active steps to preserve the story of the mulberry tree for posterity.
The first known publication of the incident at the mulberry tree was by Samuel Breck, a close friend of Robert Harris, in 1828. William A. Reeder, also a friend of Robert Harris, created the painting of The Attempt to Burn John Harris in 1839 - 1840. The original painting, 3'-8.5" long and 2'6.5" wide, hung in the old Capitol building for many years.
George W. Harris, John Harris Sr.'s great grandson, continued the story in telling I. Daniel Rupp for his book History of Dauphin County published in 1846.
When Mr. Harris, Sr. died in 1748, he was buried under the mulberry tree as he had requested. In his will, drawn up 1846, John Harris directed that, "It is my will that that my negro man Hercules be set free & be allowed to live on a part of the tract purchased of James Allco... left to my son William."
The people of Harrisburg assigned great significance to the mulberry tree, and went to
extraordinary lengths to preserve it. By 1840 it was still complete to the stumps of the first branches, and had been whitewashed for preservation.
The wood gavel and ballot box held at the HSDC are labeled with metal plates as having been made from the wood of the mulberry tree.