John Harnett Wolfe was born in 1807, 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: James Harnett (b. between 1780 and 1800), Richard (b. 1802), Edmond, Timothy, Mary, Patrick Maurice, and Catherine.
Family oral history—contained in a letter between Wolfe relatives dated August 1956 from Cratloe, County Clare, also known as the “Aunt Dollie” letter—relates how John Wolfe and his brother, Richard, traveled to the United States in 1836 to inquire after their brother, James. James Wolfe had immigrated in 1819, living first in Virginia and then in Monticello, Lewis County, Missouri. When his regular letters home stopped, his brothers went in search of him.
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.” John Wolfe and Richard Wolfe remained in Missouri, settling next door to one another in Lewis County.
In his letter, John Wolfe vividly describes passage on the Erie Canal and beyond:
we went on board the steamboat John Jay by the Lake Erie Canal boat towed by a pair of two horses to Buffalo 363 miles, fare 12 cents per mile, to Albany … We stood great danger in Lake Michigan. The Captain cast anchor several nights. Brother Patrick, we suffered a great deal more than you are aware during the long voyage from Ireland to Monticello. Lake Erie [and the] River Mississippi are the finest I saw in America. Inquired for information in several companies offices where maps of the States were kept but they could not give me any good information. We were very successful in make out our places of destination thank God. The D[istance] from New York to Monticello are [one] thousand five hundred miles our expenses amounted to about 1001,0 Dollars Breakfast, Dinner, Supper are provided on board at 25 cents per person with every delicacy the season can afford … Travelling is very expensive in America.
Wolfe described his late brother’s Missouri estate as including “first rate land, timber oak and water and trained limestone quarry on it—two eighties 2 forties jambed up with the town.”
On July 18, 1838, Wolfe married Louisa Ann Durbin (b. ca. 1823) of Kentucky, in Lewis County. The couple had five children: Mary Ann (b. 1839), Lucretia Ann (b. 1843), Honora L. “Hannah” (b. ca. 1845), Teresa Louisa (b. 1848), and James Maurice (b. 1851).
Wolfe is listed in the federal censuses of 1840 and 1850 as farming in Lewis County. He died sometime before May 25, 1856, in Lewis County. On May 24, 1858, his 160-acre estate—on the southeast quarter of section no. 7, township no. 11, of range 7—was valued at $1.25 per acre, or $200. It was sold to pay his debts.
image: detail from Pittsford on the Erie Canal—a Sultry Calm by George Harvey (1837; University of Rochester)