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Bell Witch Of Tennessee

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John Bell and His Family - the Documented Record

By Phil Norfleet

The "Red Book" by M. V. Ingram contains a fair amount of genealogical information concerning the family and friends of John Bell (1750-1820).  The purpose of this essay is to test the reliability of this information by comparison with extant official documents such as Federal Census Reports, deeds, wills, court minutes and church records.

Genealogical Information in the "Red Book"

The following is a series of quotations from the "Red Book" containing information of interest to genealogists and Bell family historians:

From Chapter 2:  

"Along with this tide of immigration came John Bell and his amiable wife Lucy and family of promising children, also a number of likely Negroes, then slaves. They landed with their train of wagons and splendid teams in the west end of Robertson county, Tennessee, near where Adams Station is now located, on the Southeastern line of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, in the year 1804, ... surrounding himself with about one thousand acres of the best land on Red River; ... The principal families composing this delightful neighborhood at that time were Rev. James and Rev. Thomas Gunn, the pioneers of Methodism; William Johnson and James Johnson, the founder of Johnson’s Camp Ground, and his two sons, John and Calvin Johnson; John Bell, Jerry Batts, the Porters, Frederick Batts, the Long family, James Byrns, the Gardners, Bartletts and Dardens, the Gooch family, Pitman, Ruffin, Mathews, Morris, Frank Miles and brothers, "Ninety-Six" Needham, Justice and Chester; and just across Red River, between that and Elk Fork Creek, was the large Fort settlement, the Sugg family, McGowen, Bourne, Royster, Waters, Thomas Gorham, Herring, and many other good people.  Rev. Sugg Fort was a pioneer Baptist minister and a man of great influence."

From Chapter 3:

"John Bell, Sr., was born in 1750 in Halifax County, North Carolina. He was a son of William Bell, a thrifty farmer and prominent citizen. ... In 1782 John Bell wedded Miss Lucy Williams, daughter of John Williams of Edgecombe County, North Carolina, a man of considerable wealth and prominence in the community. ...  John Williams approved the match, and gave his daughter a young Negro woman, Chloe, and her child, named Dean, and with the means John had saved up, they bought a farm in Edgecombe County, beginning a prosperous career.  They both embraced the Baptist faith and became earnest Christian workers, living up to their religion through life.

"Twenty-two years of prosperity having now attended the happy union, John Bell and wife found a large family growing up around them – six children had been born to them, and Chloe had eight, that had become valuable as slaves - a family of seventeen.  There was absolute necessity for more elbow room; more land to give their boys a chance in life. Then it was that Mr. Bell determined to emigrate to Robertson county, Tenn., settling, as he did, on Red River, some forty miles north of Nashville, which history the reader is already familiar with.

"At the time the remarkable events in this history begun, they had nine children, seven sons and two daughters:  Jesse, John, Jr., Drcwry, Benjamin, Esther, Zadock, Elizabeth, Richard Williams and Joel Egbert.  Benjamin died young; Zadock was educated for the bar, and became a brilliant lawyer. He settled in Alabama, and died in the flush of young manhood, having a promising future before him.  The other seven lived to mature age, honored and useful citizens. ... The first marriage in the family was that of Esther, who wedded Alex. Bennett Porter, July 24th, 1817, Rev. Thomas Gunn officiating at the altar. ... Jesse Bell, the eldest son, married Miss Martha Gunn, daughter of Rev. Thomas Gunn. This marriage took place several months later. Both couples settled in the neighborhood, making a fair start in life, sharing the confidence and good will of the community.  A year or two after the death of John Bell, Sr., the two families emigrated to Panola County, Miss., where they settled for life and raised large and interesting families, and have many descendants there at present. John Bell, Jr., the second son, was said to be the very image of his father, and developed the old gentleman's character to a great degree, and was distinguished for his firmness and stern integrity.  He was a successful, farmer and a progressive citizen, and enjoyed the fullest confidence of the community. He served as magistrate during a term of years. John Bell, Jr., married Elizabeth Gunn, daughter of Rev. Thomas Gunn, and raised an interesting family. He died in 1861.  John, Jr., Drew, and Alex. Gunn engaged in flat boating in 1815. They built generally two or three boats during the summer season, in Red River, at Thomas Gorham's, now known as the Sugg mill place.  The boats were constructed of rough hewn and sawed timber, and were cabled to the bank, awaiting the Winter or Spring rise in the water, when they were loaded with all kinds of produce, ... to New Orleans, the southern mart. This was the only way people had at that time for shipping their produce to market, except by wagons. It was very slow, but generally sure, and always got there with the tide that left Red River. ...  After arriving at New Orleans, and selling the cargo, the boats were worthless except for fuel or second-hand lumber, and they were sold for what the timber would bring, and the boatmen made their way home as best they could, generally walking, and arriving in time to build more boats for the next season."

An analysis of the official records in North Carolina and Tennessee indicate that there are several factual errors in the above cited extracts from the Ingram book.

Genealogical Information in the Official Records

The following Bell family genealogical data has been abstracted from various official records and presented here in the form of a chronology:

In Virginia

1721:  William Bell of Isle of Wight County VA, marries Ann Jones, daughter of Richard Jones.  [See Isle of Wight County VA, Great Book 2, page 84]

In North Carolina

28 April 1733:  John Nairne of Edgecombe Precinct, Albemarle County NC, conveys a 100-acre tract of land on the south side of the Moratock (now called the Roanoke) River to a certain William Bell, also of Edgecombe Precinct.  [See Edgecombe Precinct NC, Deed Book 1, page 73]

This is the earliest instance that I can find for the presence of anyone named William Bell in the Edgecombe area.

May Court 1754:  The will of a certain William Bell, dated 01 December 1752, is entered into probate in Edgecombe County North Carolina.  In the will, William mentions his sons Arthur and Joshua and daughters Mary Pyrent and Ann Bell.  He bequeaths a 393-acre plantation to his son Arthur Bell that is situate " ... in the River Islands bounded by Marmaduke Norfleets Line ... " [See North Carolina Secretary of State Wills, Will Book 8, pages 107-108]

Please note that the wife of William is not mentioned in the will nor is a "widow's dower" mentioned in the subsequent probate papers.  This constitutes strong evidence that William's wife was already dead at the time of he wrote his will in 1752.

My current conjecture is that this William Bell is the father of John Bell of Bell Witch fame. Even so, it is important to note that no one named John Bell, is mentioned in William's will. Since John Bell (supposedly born in 1750 per M. V. Ingram) is not mentioned in the will, the conjecture that John was the son of this William Bell is considerably weakened.  However, this particular William Bell is the only person of that name, for whom I have been able to find evidence in the official records, who lived in the Edgecombe County area in the right time frame who could possibly have been the father of John.  It is, however, quite possible that Ingram has the name of John Bell's father wrong.  Certainly there are other errors in his account and he could also be wrong in this instance.

01 September 1773:  William Barnes and Mary his wife, of Halifax County NC convey to John Bell of Halifax a 323-acre tract of land on the south side of Kehukee Swamp, joining Killingsworth, Blackman's Branch.  Witnesses to the indenture were Theophilus Cotton and Jesse Dickson.  Deed was recorded in Halifax County at the August 1774 Term of Court.  [See Halifax County NC, Deed Book 13, page 157]

August Court 1793:  The will of John Williams, Sr., dated 14 March 1792, is entered into probate in Edgecombe County NC.  In the will, John Williams, Sr. mentions his wife and executrix, Mourning Williams; five daughters:  Betsy, Mary (wife of Robert Lancaster), Milberry, Nancy and Lucy (wife of John Bell); and four sons:  Benjamin, Jesse, Drury and John, Jr.  Lucy Bell is to receive one Negro woman and her increase - presumably this is Chloe, who many years later, was listed as being 60 years of age, at the time the slaves of John Bell, deceased, were valued and divided in Robertson County TN in 1822.

23 January 1803:  John Bell of Halifax County NC conveys to William Rawls of Halifax County NC, 376 acres of land on the south side of Kehukee Swamp and south side of Blackman's Branch, joining William Champion, Blount Whitmell, Tunstall, and [Marmaduke] Norfleet.  Witnesses to the indenture were Henry Baker and T. Harris.  Deed was recorded in Halifax County at the August 1803 Term of Court. [See Halifax County NC, Deed Book 19, page 164]  Presumably, this is the same John Bell who in 1804 would remove to Robertson County TN.

September 1803:  John Bell receives a letter of dismission from the Kehukee Baptist Association.  [See church minutes]

In Tennessee

20 April 1805:  John Bell becomes a member of the Red River Baptist Church.  He was received into membership by letter issued by the Kehukee Baptist Association back in North Carolina.  [See Church Minutes, page 61]

27 August 1807:  By indenture, dated 27 August 1807, William Crawford of Louisiana Territory conveys a 220-acre tract of land, situate in Robertson County TN on Red River, to John Bell of Robertson County.  This indenture was recorded in Robertson County TN during the April 1808 Term of Court.  [See Robertson County Deed Book E, page 126]

1815:  John Bell patents a 100-acre tract of land in Robertson County (Grant Number 7376).  [See TN Grant Book K, page 403]  He now owns a total of 320 acres (220+100) of land.

July 1817:  In July 1817, Major James Norfleet's eldest daughter, Elizabeth (some sources believe she was the daughter of Cordell Norfleet), died at the tender age of 15. She was interred in the Elias Fort Burial Ground. This cemetery was located on the Elias Fort plantation, on a hill overlooking Major James's mill on the Sulphur Fork. Elizabeth's funeral sermon was delivered by the famous Baptist preacher, Elder Reuben Ross.  Elizabeth Norfleet had been a very popular young lady and was much beloved by the local community. Accordingly, her funeral service drew a very large audience. Elder Ross chose this occasion to publicly announce his rejection of the Calvinistic Doctrine of Predestination. Such a theological position was, of course, heretical to the Primitive Baptist congregation (most were members of the Red River Baptist Church), to whom he was preaching. This incident is considered to be a major historical event for the entire Baptist movement in Tennessee!

13 January 1818:  John Bell is excommunicated from the Red River Baptist Church:  

"On motion the case of Bro. Bell was taken up (which is as follows) whereas, the jury of the Circuit Court for Robertson County found Bro. Bell guilty of violating the law of usury, as such we think the cause of Christ and Religion in the hands of Bro. Bell, and agreed at our November meeting to reconsider the business which was investigated and postponed from time to time until now. Now, although we cannot clearly see that Bro. Bell was guilty of taking usury, yet for the veneration, we have for the courts and have for our country, we publicly reprobate the idea of any of our members violating the statute laws of our country. As such we reprove Bro. Bell for giving cause of offence. Bro. Sugg Fort then preferred two charges with their specifications, that is to say, covetousness and treating the church with contempt on Sunday of our last meeting. 

"Specification to the first charge. That Bro. Bell coveted and because he had it in his power, took $20 or thereabouts more than he let Batts have as stated by Bro. Bell in July 1816.

"Charge second. Specification. First, in saying we received a member yesterday (i.e.) our last meeting, who did not walk according to the Apostolic Order.  Second, in saying hard contemptuous words against the church.  Third, in attempting to withdraw his fellowship from us.

"Bro. Bell was found guilty of the first charge, but gave satisfaction for the second charge and the specification.

"The question was taken whether Bell's acknowledgement were satisfactory for the first charge? Answer. No. Whereupon, the vote was taken and he, the said John Bell, was excommunicated from our fellowship."

[See Church Minutes, page 148]

20 December 1820:  John Bell, Sr. dies; he purportedly was poisoned by the Bell Witch.

12 February 1821:  Since John Bell died intestate, it was necessary to appoint an administrator to settle his estate.  Major James Norfleet (1767-1846) was one of the presiding Robertson County justices who, on 12 February 1821, appointed John Bell, Jr. as administrator of John Bell, Sr.'s estate.  John Gardner and Jesse Gardner were consigners of the $10,000 bond that John Bell, Jr. was required to post. [See Robertson County Court Minutes, Volume 6, pages 193-196]

27 February 1821:  Lucy Bell's dower portion of John Bell's real estate is laid off and allotted.  The dower consists of a tract of land containing 106 and 2/3 acres.  Since the widow's dower is equal to one-third of the total real property, we may calculate that the total land holdings of John Bell, at the time of his death, amounted to about 320 acres. This is consistent with the known land acquisitions of Bell in Roberson County but it is much less than the 1000 acres mentioned in most of the Bell Witch tales.  The surveyor in charge of making the allotment was a certain H. Johnson.  [See Robertson County TN, Will Book 3, page 268]

8 March 1821:  Lucy Bell's dower portion of the personal estate of her husband, John Bell, is laid off and allotted.  The allotment includes one Negro slave named "Dean."  The officers of the court performing this allotment are:  Hardy Grisard, James Johnson, Gabriel Masten, Joseph McNeal and John Gardner.  These men were appointed by the justices (including Major James Norfleet) of the Robertson County court on 12 February 1821.  [See Robertson County TN, Will Book 3, page 267]

8-9 March 1821:  The sale of the personal estate of John Bell, Sr. is held.  Besides members of the Bell family, buyers at the sale included James Norfleet, Josiah Fort, Thomas Porter, A. B. Porter, Joseph Woolfork, George Gardner, and Miles Gunn.  [See Robertson County TN, Will Book 3, pages 269-277]

October Term of Court 1822:  The nine (9) remaining slaves (Dean having already been allotted to the widow, Lucy Bell) belonging to the estate of John Bell, Deceased, are valued and divided as follows:

Name Age Value
Harry 19 $600
Anica 25 $500
Fanny 23 $525
Phillis 21 $525
Cloe 60 $50
Peggy 4 $200
Dolly 3 $175
Judy 18 Months $150
Frank 3 $200

[See Robertson County TN, Will Book 3, page 503]

February Term of Court 1823:  Major James Norfleet and J. W. Fort are the presiding justices when the final division of the slaves belonging to the estate of John Bell, Deceased, is returned and ordered to be recorded.  [See Robertson County TN, Will Book 3, page 504]

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