THE BELL HOMESTEAD
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1) A Journey in History
2) Passage to Cumberland Region
3) The Illusive Avery Trace
4) Northeast Cumberland
5) Bell Homestead (This Page)
In 1803 family Bell left 376 acres in Northeast North Carolina and in 1807 settled on 220 acres (from actual land records) on fertile, gently rolling land in the upper northwest corner of Robertson County, which by any measure was relatively small. Here, the typical land grants were at least 640 acres. The 1783 Military Reservation Act offered privates who served in the American Revolution 640 acres and all others participants greater parcels [Alice Barnwell Keith, ed. The John Gray Blount Papers, Vol II (Raleigh, North Carolina: State Department of Archives and History, 1952), p.486].
The "Land Grab" Act of 1783 offered for sale almost all the western lands not included in the Cherokee country and Mero District at the price of ten pounds per hundred acres. [Lucille Deaderick, ed. Heart of the Valley, A History of Knoxville, Tennessee (Knoxville: East Tennessee Historical Society, 1976),p.2].
Settlers in the area prior to these grants were offered "preemption" (a.k.a. Corn Law) grants where settlers could claim with parcels of 640 acres if they proved they had cultivated the land.
These circumstances suggest that Bell was ineligible for Military Grant and short on wealth. Bell purchased their Robertson County homestead on Red River from William Crawford of Louisiana Territory [See Robertson County Deed Book E, page 126, April 1808 Term of Court].
Three dates are important for researching the emigration of the Bell family to their new home-stead in Tennessee: January 1803, when John Bell conveyed his North Carolina property; April 1805, when John Bell joined the Red River Baptist Church; and August 1807, when he received the Red River farm. Four years, a lot of time, was unaccounted for.
This period would not be an issue for a single man who could easily live off the land. But, for a family of six plus at least a couple of slaves, they required more formal accommodations and a source of income. It was a big gap confirmed by legal records.
The solution could be as simple as the household stayed behind until John Bell established a new place for them to relocate. It could be they "squatted" on the Tennessee property and the recording of legal transfer was delayed or recorded late. It could be that the John Bell of Tennessee was not the John Bell in the North Carolina records. The more significant questions was "Did any of this matter to the credibility of the Legend?"
Ingram's description of the Bell homestead deviates from historical records in other aspects.
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. . ., in the year 1804, and met with a hearty reception by old friends who had preceded them. Mr. Bell purchased a home partially improved, with good houses, barns, and a fine young orchard, surrounding himself with about one thousand acres of the best land on Red River; and settled down for life, clearing more land and opening a large and fertile farm. His commanding appearance, steadfast qualities, and force of character, at once gave him rank and influence in the community.
John Bell commenced to have a happy and prosperous career in his new home on the south bank of Red River in Robertson County. . . He become one of the wealthiest and most influential men in the community. His house become the home of every passing stranger, and neighbors delighted in frequent calls and visits. Many were the pleasant social gatherings at the Bell Place.
Artist Sketch provided by M.V. Ingram in his 1984 book "Authenticated History of The Bell Witch".
According to Ingram the old Bell farm was about one mile from Adams Station on the south side of Red River, bordering some distance on that stream and stretching back nearly one mile. The public highway, known as the Brown's Ford and Springfield road, ran through the place within one hundred yards of the house.
The residence was a double log house, one and a half stories high, a wide passage or hallway between, and an ell-room with passage. The building weather-boarded on the outside, furnishing six large comfortable rooms and two halls, and was one of the best residences in the country at that time.
It was located on a slight elevation in the plane, nearly a half-mile back from the river, a large orchard in the rear, and the lawn well set in pear trees.
On the opposite side of the river from the Bell place, was the William La Prade farm and just below, all between the river and Elk Fork Creek, was the Fort settlement, a large and influential family, distinguished among the pioneers, and whose descendants still maintain the honored name. On the east was located the Gunns and Johnsons, all having good farms. James Johnson and two sons, John and Calvin, were Bell's nearest neighbors, and next the Gunn families.
One mile above Bell's the Clark brothers had a mill to which the early settlers carried their grain and grist. Fort's mill was built below.
Ingram claimed John Bell to be one of the wealthiest and influential men in the community and to have one of the best residences in the country. The historical record does not support that conjecture.
On December 20, 1820 John Bell, Sr. died intestate. 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], which implied John Bell owned 320 acres, not 1000 acres. Records of the sale of the personal estate of John Bell, Sr. [See Robertson County TN, Will Book 3, pages 269-277] show modest value and not the property of a wealthy man.
Most land grants were at least 640 acres and with Ingram's erroneous 1000 acres, Bell would have been one of the largest land owners in the area, but with his actual ownership of 320 acres his farm was relatively small. Furthermore, Goodspeed in his history of Robertson County gave several long lists of dignitaries, politicians, and officials. John Bell was not mentioned anywhere. Had it not been for the alleged Bell Witch incident, John Bell would have been totally forgotten and lost peacefully with time.
Ingram may have got his dates a little wrong, but to claim John Bell was a wealthy and influential man was a serious error that a good newspaper man like Ingram would have not overlooked, assuming of course he was reporting fact and not fiction.
When we re-examined 1793 will of John Williams, Sr. noted by Norfleet we also noticed a strange coincidence. These family names were almost identical to Ingram claims to John Bell's family. Betsy, Mary, Milberry, Nancy, Lucy, Benjamin, Jesse, Drury and John, Jr. Our conjecture was that Ingram fabricated this entire store. But why did Ingram chose the Bell family for his hoax.
It might have been just a matter of documentation convenience rather than malice. He just happened to have the records for some other newspaper story or research and conveniently used it.
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