James Harnett Wolfe was born between 1780 and 1800, probably at Templeathea, in western County Limerick. He was the son of Maurice James “Young Maurice” Wolfe and Hanora Harnett Wolfe. His middle name and his mother’s maiden name are sometimes spelled Hartnett. Wolfe had seven siblings: Richard (b. 1802), John Harnett (b. 1807), Edmond, Timothy, Mary, Patrick Maurice, and Catherine.
Family oral history—contained in a letter between Wolfe relatives dated August 1956 from Cratloe, County Limerick, also known as the “Aunt Dollie” letter—suggests that James Wolfe “had intended to go into the Church and had acquired a good knowledge of the classics. He changed his mind, however, and left for the United States in 1824.”
Other, more reliable sources relating to his brothers’ attempt to claim his estate suggest that he immigrated in 1819, establishing a school, or working as a teacher, in Virginia. He remained there for about twelve years. According to the Aunt Dollie letter, he then moved west to Monticello, Iowa. Although many Wolfes later settled in Iowa, evidence conclusively indicates that James Wolfe actually moved to Monticello, Lewis County, in northeastern Missouri. The county, named for the Virginia explorer Meriwether Lewis, was established in 1833; a log courthouse was completed in Monticello, named for Thomas Jefferson‘s home, in June 1834.
Around 1833, in Lewis County, Wolfe purchased 240 acres of land from the U.S. government at the price of $1.25 per acre ($300). By 1836, the estate’s estimated worth was $9,000.
According to the Aunt Dollie letter, Wolfe “had, throughout, kept in communication with his kinfolk in Cratloe and one, at least, of his letters is extant. Then the letters suddenly stopped.”
Wolfe’s brothers Richard and John Wolfe traveled to the United States to inquire after his whereabouts in 1836. In a letter home dated December 26, 1836, John Wolfe writes that “Brother James Wolfe died in the state of Mississippi the first [of the] year he went to Natchez. The fine learned man. There is nothing grieves Richard [and me] more than to say that we cant see, hear or find our brother alive on his Estate after the bold stroke we made in going to him five thousand miles from home.”
The Dollie letter speculates that Wolfe was murdered: “He had been drowned in the river and there had been a suspicion of foul play.” Whatever the case, his brothers took title to James Wolfe’s land and settled in Missouri. James Wolfe never married or had children.
image: plat of the town of Monticello from An illustrated historical atlas of Lewis County, Missouri (the Edwards Brothers, eds., 1878)