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Daniel Jefferson Harris was born in 1832 at Southampton, Suffolk County (Long Island) New York. He was the second child in a family of six children. His ancestors go back at least six generations to a George Harris, who was living in Southampton as early as 1657. Dan’s father and grandfather were farmers.

At the age of fifteen, Dan accompanied an uncle on a Artic whaling voyage. Later, at the age of 18 he was commissioned as a boat steerer (harpooner) on the whaleship Levant under the legendary Captain Mercator Cooper. For three years Dan hunted whales all over the Pacific Ocean. The ship is credited with the first U.S. landing on Victoria Land (East Antarctica). Dan is noted as the crew member who actually stepped out onto the ice! Dan departed the Levant in the summer of 1853 in Honolulu. He made his way to then Fort Victoria (British Columbia) the winter of 1853. He arrived on Bellingham Bay in the spring of 1854. In 1855, he filed for a Donation Land Claim on land originally settled by John Thomas, receiving a certificate for 146.44 acres in 1868 and a patent in 1871. Dan later purchased another 43 acres along the shoreline west of his claim. For many years Dan combined homesteading with trading on the wild undeveloped North Puget Sound, first as master of the Schooner "Phantom” and later of a vessel named "Bounding Ball,” in which he carried coal from a 148 acre tract of public land he bought a mile east of his claim.

Dan Harris displayed a great deal of enterprise. He spent the period from the fall of 1860 to June 1861 in the mines of British Columbia. In 1875, he single-handedly constructed a three-mile road from Sehome to Lake Whatcom. In 1878, he led a team of oxen to the Cariboo Mountains in British Columbia. From as early as 1877 he envisioned developing a town on his claim. Because of his untidy appearance and infrequent bathing, Dan Harris was given the sobriquet "Dirty Dan” as early as 1867. However, marriage and the acquisition of wealth late in life substantially improved his public image.

Harris was a harpooner, a pioneer, a trader, a rum-runner, a trail packer, a sailor, a land speculator, and a developer in his heyday. It was easy for him to spin improbable tales of his experiences much to the delight of those around him. One of his favorites is about being kidnapped by a band of Fraser River Indians near Point Roberts. As Harris told the story, he and two other whites were captured by the Indians, and a British sea captain came to their rescue. After much bartering, the captain paid a ransom of five blankets to get the first victim back, seven for the second. When he negotiated for the return of Harris, the chief grunted disgustedly, "ugh, him delate skookum! You takum - no blanket. Heap eat, no work!”

Dan had brushes with the law too. In 1855 he was arrested for selling "spirituous liquor” to First Nations People. In 1856 Dan was arrested for inciting the Stikines to attack the Lummis, and in 1867 for using $60 entrusted to him by William Nichols for the purchase of a bank draft in Victoria, B.C. to buy trade goods and then for smuggling those goods, including liquor in casks labeled "Honolulu Sugar,” into the U.S. Once, he was stopped by customs inspector Edward Eldridge, who seized Harris’ illegal cargo. Not one to be caught a second time, Harris hid his booty by throwing it overboard and towed it ashore without raising the suspicion of Eldridge.

Dan Harris was not a complete scoundrel. Operating a fast sloop in his improving trading business, he was once dispatched to bring word to Captain Haller at Port Townsend of an attack by Nooksack Indians on the Block House. Troops crushed the invasion.