What’s in a name?

Historical reenactor Alice Hoover of Coshocton
Alice Hoover of Coshocton portrays a full cast of women as a historical reenactor. Her repertoire includes Mary Harris, who likely was the first person of European descent to live in the Ohio Country. Harris’ presence inspired the naming of Whitewoman Street in Coshocton’s Roscoe Village. (Photo by Damaine Vonada.)

Like the tip of an iceberg, the name of Whitewoman Street hints at considerably more than it reveals. The street forms the heart of Coshocton’s Roscoe Village, a restored 1830s canal town and living-history attraction where tourists often ask how it got such an eyebrow-raising name.

The short answer is that the street honors Mary Harris, a woman of European descent who lived in the Ohio Country. But that merely skims the surface of her story. In all probability, Harris was the first white person to reside in Ohio, and her presence was so extraordinary that it was noted on international maps and occasioned a nomenclature — including White Woman’s River, White Woman’s Town, White Woman’s Rock, and, of course, Whitewoman Street — that is particular to the Coshocton area.

The reenactors who stroll Whitewoman Street during Roscoe Village events often include Alice Hoover, a Coshocton resident and history buff known for her meticulously researched first-person portrayals of women. When depicting Mary Harris for schoolchildren or other groups, Hoover wears moccasins and fringed clothing and begins her presentation in French before transitioning to English.

“Do you wonder why,” her Mary Harris character asks the audience, “I was speaking French, but I look like an Englishwoman and am dressed like an Indian?” Hoover then explains the three cultures and the enormous geopolitical force that shaped Harris’ life: the protracted, multinational fight for the rich but raw land beyond the Alleghenies that culminated in the French and Indian War. “Mary Harris was in the crosshairs of that whole struggle,” Hoover says.

For Harris, that struggle began in Massachusetts in 1704, when Mohawk Indians and French soldiers attacked a remote Puritan settlement at Deerfield. They killed dozens of English colonists and forced some 100 captives to endure a 300-mile march to Canada. Among the ordeal’s survivors was Mary Harris, a servant girl who was about 9 years old at the time. She was taken to Kahnawake, a mission village of Christian Mohawks near Montreal, where she likely was adopted by an Indian family.

The French, at the time, intended to establish a glorious “New France” stretching from the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the east coast of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and French colonists increasingly sparred with their English counterparts over control of territory and the fur trade. The crucially located prize they both claimed was the Ohio Country.

Enter Christopher Gist, a frontiersman hired to survey the Ohio Country for a group of British-backed real estate investors from Virginia. According to a journal Gist kept, he spent much of December 1750 near present-day Coshocton at a Wyandot village on the Tuscarawas River. Gist wrote that in January, he went 5 miles west “to White Woman’s Creek [now the Walhonding River] on which is a small Town; this White Woman was taken away from New England, when she was not above ten Years old by the French and Indians.” Gist also recorded that she “has an Indian husband and several children,” and “Her name is Mary Harris.”

It’s not clear why Harris was living there, though her family was in the fur trading business, which thrived in the area. Scott Butler, a Coshocton native who has authored books about its frontier years, theorizes that White Woman’s Town might have been used both to bolster French influence with the Indians and to monitor English encroachments.

By 1756, when the French and Indian War was underway, Harris had returned to Kahnawake. Robert Eastburn, a British prisoner of war, was housed with her, and in a 1758 account, he described her as “very kind.” Harris presumably spent the rest of her days in Kahnawake and perhaps even witnessed the French surrendering Montreal to the British in 1760.

Folks around Coshocton called the Walhonding “White Woman’s River” well into the 1800s, and in the Roscoe canal port, the trail that led to that river became Whitewoman Street.

Interestingly, Harris’ reputation suffered during the heyday of the dime novel in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when tall tales —including that she murdered her husband and jumped to her death from a ledge dubbed White Woman’s Rock — became the slanderous stuff of legend.

“It’s utter bilge,” declares Butler, who, like Hoover, wants to clear Harris’ name. Their quest — via his writing and her portrayals — is conveying accurate information about the woman whom Butler considers the “first lady” of Ohio. “It’s important to get out the facts and not just accept false legends,” Butler says. “The history is far better than the legends.”

Scott Butler’s book, Mary Harris, “The White Woman” of the Ohio Frontier in 1750: The True Story, the False Legends, and More is available for sale at Coshocton’s Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum.