a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The tale of two John Harts

The final resting place of John R. Hart in Congruity Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Westmoreland County, Pa. (Scott Beveridge photo)
By Scott Beveridge

There is an oral history in my mother's family that her father was a descendant of the John Hart who signed the Declaration of Independence for New Jersey.

Unfortunately a primary source document has never surfaced to confirm the Hart side of my family descended from this obscure American hero whose story has mostly been lost to history.

What is known involves two John Harts being among the first settlers in Westmoreland County, Pa., in the 1780s, and that both of them claimed to have been sons of the signer of the document that launched the Revolutionary War.

It's been well document that the signer's son did relocate to Westmoreland County after the war ended. The other "John R. Hart" was either the signer's illegitimate son or an impostor.

At least one confirmed descendant of the signer is certain those who believe John R. Hart was the man's son are making a "grievous mistake," according to an email I received from her.

John R. Hart's family was certain the story was true and went as far as adding a plaque to his tombstone in Congruity Presbyterian Church Cemetery in New Alexandria, Pa., commemorating his service in the war and listing him as a son of the signer of the Declaration of Independence.

One descendent of John R., James W. Hart Jr., also seemed to have been as confused as other Hart genealogy buffs who have attempted to solve this mystery, according to 1981 notes he deposited in a file on the family at the Historical & Genealogy Society of Indiana County Pennsylvania.

He noted he found "sometimes contradictory information" among the documents he researched and nothing to substantiate additional claims that John R. Hart's wife, Martha Taylor, came from a family of early Virginia settlers who were the "forebears of two U.S. presidents."

And yet there is another John Hart - my ancestor -  who shows up in Westmoreland in the late 18th Century.

Just how my great-great-great-great-grandfather, John Hart of Westmoreland County, ended up in this story is anyone's guess.

He received on brief mention on a mostly blank sheet of paper someone slipped into the John R. Hart file at the historical society in Indiana, Pa.

Born in 1791 in Westmoreland, he married Elizabeth Wheaton in 1813, and possibly was related to the signer of the Declaration of Independence, the unsourced record states.

That John Hart's birth year, however, doesn't match up with the official children of the real son of the signer or the other one with the tombstone at Congruity. Every John Jr. and nearly each of their many siblings appear to have named a son John, further complicating this research.

It has also been documented he had a son Jacob who produced my great-grandfather, Mack Kelly Hart. Mack Kelly's father, Jacob Hart, was a blacksmith and he suffered an untimely death in 1871 after he relocated his family from Connellsville, Pa., to Abilene, Kansas. My grandfather, Howard, was Mack Kelly's son.

My late mother, June Hart Beveridge, lived most of her life in Westmoreland County, and had an aunt who once warned her not to dig too deep into the family history because was liable to "find some things out that you don't want to know."

My mother drew the conclusion before her death that the John Hart she chased for so many years was an illegitimate child.

She probably was right about that.