The Irwin Sisters of Irwinton

Jane Irwin Harrison, Hostess in the White House

Elizabeth Irwin Harrison, Mother of a President

By Joan C. McCulloh

          In the eighteenth century Scots-Irish, sturdy and industrious, settled the Conococheague area of south central Pennsylvania.  Named for the stream that with a circuitous route wanders through it with both west and east branches, the settlement included farms and mills that enabled the people to live by their diligent work not ostentatiously but well in their solid houses built of native limestone.  The prominent families, all Presbyterians, were the Irwins who had a mill on the Conococheague east of Mercersburg,  the Findlays who lived at Church Hill, the Smiths of Mercersburg who also had a mill, the McDowells who had a mill north of Mercersburg, and the Ramseys who had a mill on the Conococheague close to Mercersburg.  Staunch Presbyterians, they built at what  was and is called Church Hill their house of worship, the Presbyterian Church of the Upper West Conococheague, sometimes called the White Church, roughly equidistantly from all of their homes to the church that was the nexus of their society. In this society inter-marriages abounded.  In this closely knit society were born Jane Irwin Harrison, hostess in the White House during the brief presidency of William Henry Harrison, and her younger sister, Elizabeth Irwin Harrison, mother of President Benjamin Harrison.

           One of the strong family connections in the Conococheague Settlement was that between the Irwins and the Findlays. The first Archibald Irwin  (1732 - 1798), who built the mill and also a log house on the Diamond in Mercersburg, married Jean McDowell.  Of his seven children his son, Archibald  Irwin II (1772 - 1840), and his first wife, Mary (Polly ) Ramsey, were the parents of five children, three sons and two daughters, Jane and Elizabeth.   A daughter of  the first Archibald Irwin, Jane (1769 - 1850), married James Findlay ( 1770 - 1835) of the Church Hill Findlays. James Findlay of that family went to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1793.  Four years later he married Jane Irwin at her home, Irwinton, in the Conococheague settlement.  Findlay became a prominent merchant in Cincinnati, served as mayor of the new city, was a colonel in the War of 1812, in which he established Fort Findlay, now the site of the city of Findlay, Ohio, was secretary in the Legislative Council of the Ohio Territory and represented Ohio in the United States House of Representatives from 1826 to 1833.  With both his political and commercial connections he became a close friend of General William Henry Harrison (1773 - 1841), renowned fighter and negotiator with Indians who would be elected to the Presidency in 1840 as the nation’s ninth President.

          Since James and Jane Irwin Findlay had no children, they frequently welcomed their nieces and nephews into their home.  While there, the young people met their aunt and uncle’s friends such as the Harrisons.  While visiting her aunt and uncle and an aunt on her mother’s side, who also lived in Ohio, Jane Irwin met William Henry Harrison Jr.  In 1824 twenty year old Jane Irwin, daughter of Archibald Irwin II, married twenty-two year old William Henry Harrison Jr. at her home, Irwinton, on the Conococheague just as her aunt and uncle had been married there twenty-seven years earlier.  A lawyer, he took his wife to Cincinnati, but unfortunately his life disintegrated as he encountered financial difficulties and soon developed problems with alcohol.  They had a son, James Findlay Harrison, and another son who did not live to maturity. William Henry Harrison Jr. died in 1838.  After William Henry Harrison had been elected as the nation’s President in 1840 and was inaugurated in March 1841, his daughter-in-law, now a widow, Jane Irwin Harrison, became the hostess in the White House, as his wife, Anna Symmes Harrison, was ill and did not go to Washington.  During Harrison’s brief Presidency from March to April 1841 in which he died of pneumonia Jane Irwin Harrison, assisted by her aunt, Jane Irwin Findlay, who knew Washington society well since she had lived in Washington during her husband’s years in the House of Representatives, served as the official hostess.

           In 1831 seven years after the marriage of Jane and William Henry Harrison Jr. her sister, twenty-one year old Elizabeth (1810 - 1850), married William Henry’s brother, twenty-seven year old John Scott Harrison (1804 - 1878).  It is believed that Elizabeth and John Scott met at the home of Jane and William Henry Harrison Jr.   This time, though, the wedding was either in North Bend, Ohio, the site of the residence of the Harrisons, or at the Point, John Scott’s large farm in southwest Ohio.  John Scott, however, was more stable and responsible than his brother.  Interested in and concerned about his family, he provided well for his family both financially and emotionally. A farmer who served one term in 1853 in the United States House of Representatives, he had been married previously, but his wife died, leaving him with two small daughters, whom Elizabeth brought up with her own.  He and Elizabeth had ten children, the second of whom was Benjamin named for several forbears including his great-grandfather, Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and governor of Virginia. This Benjamin Harrison, grandson of the ninth President of the United States, served as the twenty-third President of the United States from 1889 - 1893. 

          Note:  The office of the Tuscarora Area Chamber of Commerce is located in Archibald Irwin’s log house in Mercersburg.

          At one time in 1826 three Findlay brothers served in the United States Congress at the same time.  John Findlay, the oldest of the three, lived in Western Pennsylvania and served in the House of Representatives from 1821 until 1829. The second brother, William Findlay, represented Pennsylvania in the United State Senate from 1820 to 1826.  James Findlay was elected to the House of Representatives by his constituents in Ohio and served from 1826 to 1833.


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