A JOURNEY INTO HISTORY
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1) A Journey in History (This Page)
2) Passage to Cumberland Region
3) The Illusive Avery Trace
4) Northeast Cumberland
5) Bell Homestead
Although no researcher has validated any report of the Bell Witch Legend that pre-dates M. V. Ingram’s influence – no newspaper articles, no church records, no wills, no personal journals, absolutely nothing, many still conclude that something unusual occurred. Even though the absence of those records should seriously suggest that maybe Ingram invented the whole thing to sell books – certainly a rational consideration for a rational person.
Nevertheless, for the conspiracy theorists, for the believers in the absurd regardless of the proof, or for fans of the Easter Bunny, no amount of common sense, logic, or evidence can convince them of reality. Where facts don't exist, others invent them. Recording visions of fantasy hundreds of times may not convert creative fabrications into truth, but it can create a legend.
In a book, soon to be published, a researcher offers considerable evidence that Ingram had a well-established track record of making up “factional” stories, that is, taking real characters and real history and twisting bizarre tales around them. Naturally, Ingram was careful that no one cared or had the where-for-all to contest his yarns.
In an examination of the Bell Witch the facts weren't too difficult to decipher. The story was a novel by Ingram and nothing more. Most twentieth-century people who bothered to read Ingram's book would quickly find it to be a laughable fairy tale. Nevertheless, the story persists, kept alive though imagination and the Internet by those who like a good scary story.
Behind the legend is an intriguing story of the first settlers in the Cumberland Region, where the Bell family made its home. These pioneers were isolated from colonial America and in a region that had recently suffered a fifteen years of bloody Indian wars. The record that follows is a trip back into the time of the Bell family, not for any skeptical goals, but for enjoyment of middle Tennessee's rich heritage.
Phil Norfleet on his Web Site, http://bellwitch02.tripod.com/, (1) provides extensive documentation of the chronology of the Bell family. He graciously shares his extensive research into the Bell Witch Legend at no charge and without self-serving hyperbole and creativity of other authors who attempt to derive commercial benefit from M.V. Ingram’s century old fantasy. Norfleet has traced Bell family history through Federal Census Reports, deeds, wills, court minutes and church records. He has attempted to test the validity of Ingram’s story by contrasting it against official documents and in the process has found factual errors in Ingram’s account. An interesting exercise, but unfortunately it doesn’t prove much.
Many Bell Witch authors quote references identical to Norfleet. Nevertheless, documentation does not imply validity or even independent confirmation. In research all reports must be traced to "sources." Virtually all these writers have rehashed Norfleet’s contribution without giving him proper attribution and have complicated legitimate scholarship.
Norfleet's work is a good starting point. This report summarizes his timeline and adds several events significant to the family (FYI: this research has not, as of yet, verified Norfleet's references). It also restates Norfleet’s observations of the errors in Ingram’s story.
Ingram’s story of the Bell family begins in late eighteenth century in Edgecombe County in north-eastern North Carolina near the Roanoke River where the John Bell, wife Lucy, and their children have a 323-acre homestead. From here they emigrate at the turn of the century to Robertson County, Tennessee in the western part of the Cumberland region near the Cumberland River and purchase a 220-acre farm. Norfleet’s timeline is as follows:
1733: April 28: John Nairne conveys a 100 acres to William Bell of Edgecombe Precinct. [See Edgecombe Precinct NC, Deed Book 1, page 73].
- Ingram: Book claims William Bell was John’s father from Edgecombe Precinct of North Carolina.
- Norfleet: Earliest instance for which he found record of anyone named William Bell in the Edgecombe area.
1754: May: The 12/01/1752 will of William Bell entered into probate in Edgecombe County. [See North Carolina Secretary of State Wills, Will Book 8, pages 107-108]
- Ingram: Book claims John was born in 1750.
- Norfleet: William mentions his sons Arthur and Joshua and daughters Mary Pyrent and Ann Bell, but makes no mention of a John. He guesses William is the father of John Bell, since William is the only Bell that he could find in the official records in the Edgecombe area in the right time frame.
1773: September 01: William Barnes conveys to John Bell of Halifax a 323-acre tract of land on the south side of Kehukee Swamp. [See Halifax County NC, Deed Book 13, page 157]
- Ingram: Book makes no mention of these details
- Norfleet: He assumes this John Bell is that in Ingram’s book.
1793: August: The March 14, 1792 will of John Williams, Sr. [entered into probate in Edgecombe]
- Norfleet: Will mentions his wife Mourning and five daughters: Betsy, Mary (wife of Robert Lancaster), Milberry, Nancy and Lucy (wife of John Bell, per Ingram); and four sons: Benjamin, Jesse, Drury and John, Jr. Lucy receive one Negro woman and her increase - presumably this is Cloe.
1795: Treaty of Holston. Great Indian wars cease in Cumberland region and one year later Tennessee becomes a state.
1801 to 1802: Cumberland Road (a.k.a. Great Stage Road) opened to provide wagon passage as a turnpike from Fort Southwest Point on confluence of Cinch and Tennessee rivers near Knoxville to Nashville.
1803: January 23: John Bell conveys to William Rawls 376 acres on the south side of Kehukee Swamp. [See Halifax County NC, Deed Book 19, page 164]. In September John Bell receives a letter of dis-mission from the Kehukee Baptist Association. [See church minutes]
- Our Note: We have not seen confirmation of date on letter.
- Our Note: No author has verified when Bell left NC. We estimate that Bell family relocated to Tennessee, in late 1803, most likely in October (that time of year was preferred for travel through Tennessee to Cumberland Counties) traveling the Cumberland Road and leaving from Fort Southwest Point. We estimate that leg of the trip took about four days.
1805: April 20: John Bell received into membership of Red River Baptist Church by letter of Kehukee Baptist Association NC. [See Church Minutes, page 61]
1807: August 27: William Crawford of Louisiana Territory conveys a 220-acre tract of land, on south side of Red River to John Bell. [See Robertson County Deed Book E, page 126, April 1808 Term of Court]
1812: December: A series of over 2000 earthquake shocks in five months, five of which were 8.0 or more in magnitude commence. Eighteen of these rang church bells on the Eastern seaboard. Land was destroyed in the Missouri Bootheel, making it unfit even for farmers for many years. It was the largest burst of seismic energy east of the Rocky Mountains in the history of the United States and was several times larger than the San Francisco quake of 1906.
1815: John Bell patents additional 100 acres in Robertson County. [See TN Grant Book K, page 403, grant #7376].
1816: Late Autumn: Ingram claims unusual phenomenon commences in Bell household.
1818: January 13: John Bell is excommunicated from the Red River Baptist Church for taking usury. [See Church Minutes, page 148]
1820: December 20: John Bell, Sr. dies intestate and Ingram says unusual events cease shortly thereafter.
1821: February 12: John Bell, Jr. appointed as administrator of John Bell, Sr.'s estate. [See Robertson County Court Minutes, Volume 6, pages 193-196]
1821: February 27: Lucy Bell's dower portion of John Bell's real estate is 106 and 2/3 acres. [See Robertson County TN, Will Book 3, page 268]
- Ingram: Book claims John Bell owned 1000 acres.
- Norfleet: All official records (including this one) show John Bell owned only 320 acres.
1821: March 8: Lucy Bell's dower portion of the personal estate includes one Negro slave named "Dean." [See Robertson County TN, Will Book 3, page 267] The sale of the personal estate of John Bell, Sr. is held. [See Robertson County TN, Will Book 3, pages 269-277]
1822: October: The nine (9) remaining slaves, Harry (19), Anica (25), Fanny (23), Phillis (21), Cloe (60), Peggy (4), Dolly (3), Judy (1-1/2), Frank (3) are valued and divided. [See Robertson County TN, Will Book 3, page 503]
1823: February: Final division of the slaves is returned and recorded. [See Robertson County TN, Will Book 3, page 504]
1824: March 21: Betsy Bell marries Richard Powell, her tutor. [See Richard Powell Cipher Book, page 222 in Tennessee State Archives in Nashville under Manuscript Accession Number 75-260]
This time period is what we plan to back fill. Our work-in-progress uses historical records to trace the journey of family Bell from Edgecombe County to Robertson County. Our excursion is ad-hoc, letting history take us where it may and writing as we go.
Our first task was to sketch the route the Bell’s most likely took from Edgecombe, backtracking from the known location of the Bell’s Tennessee farm on the Red River to the most likely location of their North Carolina farm. Our goal was to relive that experience, as they most likely knew it.
However, in the process, we uncovered our first controversy – the Avery Trace. That name appears on maps and on road signs throughout Tennessee between Nashville and Knoxville, but some historians say it never existed.
The links in this web page were created in 2008. Many of the URLs may no longer be valid. We are trying to replace them, but some are gone forever.
(1) Unfortunately, the great resource provided by Phil Norfleet is no longer at this URL. We have yet to find if it has been relocated or permanently removed.