The Starlings React to the Loss of Home

common starling

The cap that tops the liquified petroleum tank at the farm makes a fine birdhouse for starlings. That was the conclusion of the pair that settled there early in the spring. When I noticed their comings and goings I lifted the cap and discovered the large messy nest they had constructed and their cute brood of four nestlings with open mouths waiting for me to feed them. They didn’t seem to notice that I wasn’t their mother or father, just hungry mouths yearning for food. I closed the lid and left the task to their parents. Though starlings are not my favorite birds by far, far be it from me to toss them out of their new home.
The starling family prospered for the next month, but their LP tank home looked more and more like a slum neighborhood with an absentee landlord. Bird digestive residue added nothing to the ambience of the surrounding garden. Finally, after the fledgling birds had flown the coop, I waged my assault, armed with a power washer. The whole tank by that time required the highest pressure and nozzle available.
I was happy for the starlings who had benefitted from my patience, and the power washer did an admirable job in cleanup, but how was I to protect the tank from further squatting by the starlings? I decided to fill the cap with wadded chicken wire.
The next morning my wife Jan observed the result. A noisy pair of starlings seemed to be having a squawking argument and poopfest due the wire-encumbered entrance to their former home. They looked and sounded like an old couple who had spent many hours practicing verbal combat. They strutted around, trying to poke their beaks into the cap entrance. The smaller of the two, whether the female or the male, I do not know, persisted in poking its beak into the hole and moving the wire until it was finally able to reenter. That motivated me quickly to add to the quantity of chicken wire until there was no possibility of nesting there again. At least, at this point, I think I accomplished that end.
They seem to be eyeing me warily as I walk around the farmyard and mumbling nasty comments to each other. My “no tolerance” policy toward rebuilding inside the LP tank cap has not yet persuaded them to stop roosting on the tank itself. The starlings and I do not seem to share the same value system. We have different needs. They do have plenty of options in the neighborhood. In that respect they have the advantage over other homeless creatures.

Confessions of a Gullible Cler-G-man


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I grew up as the youngest of three brothers by ten and five years, so at an early age I developed the unfortunate habit of believing everything my brothers told me, only to have to unlearn some of it later. For example, my brother told me that it was all right to hunt for Christmas presents before Christmas and to peek at them before they were wrapped. That was not right. My brother showed me (without telling me) that it was all right to hide certain magazines under my bed. Whether right or not, it was a mistake. As a result, the challenge for me, whether due to my position in the family or not, has been to know whom to believe, when the story is convincingly, seemingly sincerely, told. I have wanted to believe what is revealed to me.

My middle brother provided the context for the most glaring family truths while I was in seminary and shortly thereafter. His wife—a charming, attractive, and voluble woman—found that every time she had a serious issue with her husband was an opportunity to involve me and my young wife on her side, representing her point of view and history of events. She was always a convincing storyteller and, I learned to my sorrow, she had a proclivity for invention and misdirection. Not that my brother was an angel in their relationship, far from it, but neither was he the intractable villain she consistently portrayed. The best result of this time of third party mis-interventions was the time we got to spend with our niece and nephew, but that came to an abrupt end. After she had run through a series of jobs and made a reputation for dishonesty, she decided to empty the house of their possessions and as much of their bank account as she had access to, while he was away at work, and moved the three of them five hours away, without a forwarding address. You might conclude that he was physically and emotionally abusive, but that was not the case, at least not in any flagrant way.

I have lost track of the times when, as a clergyman and counselor, I have been tempted to replay this scenario, recruited to side with one partner in a relationship, only to learn that the truth was not so easy to find.  

A husband came with complaints about his wife’s domineering and excessive expectations, presumably seeking to bring his wife into counseling with him.  She would not come. He replayed the drama for his parents and siblings that he wanted to reconcile, but his wife was unwilling. We met twice, while I followed the principle that I could only help the one who comes for help, and the same story unfolded in several variations about her stubbornness and unreasonableness. When I finally succeeded in visiting with her, the problem that she identified was not only his absence from home and family duties, but his serial adultery that kept him away from home with an abundance of excuses. She believed that his effort to seek counseling was aimed at persuading other people that he had tried, but she was unwilling, therefore his divorce was justified. When he knew that I was aware of this background, he dropped the idea of counseling and proceeded with the divorce and remarriage.

A wife came with grievances against her husband’s time-consuming involvements in a volunteer fire and rescue service, while she was pursuing an advanced college degree. He never made time for her and her needs. It was difficult to find a time to meet with both of them, and at first he seemed oblivious to the idea that they were having any problems. When we met together, he claimed that he got so heavily involved in emergency response because she was never at home, and he wanted to stay busy at the same time that he supported the wife that he was so proud of. When they talked to each other, it became obvious that they had married a short time after high school graduation when they had no sense of their different life interests. The wife had become aware of her intellectual superiority, and that attitude showed in every verbal exchange. She wanted affirmation that it was all right for her to move to a new person in her life, after her husband had financed her education, and her excuse was his inattention.  

It is necessary to understand that the people whom we care for as members of our parishes, or the family members that we love, may not be presenting the real reasons for their actions, their confusions, or their emotional states. We want to believe them when they sound sincere. We must often do some investigating of the deeper holes that people dig for themselves and the empty spaces in their hearts that they need to fill with something or someone.

The Play Preacher


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Scott and Tammy were a couple of twenty-year-olds living together in a small apartment near Lincoln United Methodist Church when I came there to serve as their first Intern Pastor in 1970. They were a local version of the “flower children” of the Sixties, smoking weed, sitting on pillows on the floor since they had no chairs, and working for just enough to get by. They were also expecting their first child, so their lives were about to change, and they were giving some thought to getting married when I knocked on their door and introduced myself as a neighbor, working at the church.

“Strange you should come,” they said, “We were just thinking we might go knock on your door, and see if someone at your church could help us get married.”

“I’m your guy,” I said, explaining that I was there for a year to serve as an intern. To their follow-up questions I answered that, as an intern, I would be visiting people, helping with the church school and adult study groups, filling in for the regular pastor from time to time, working with students at the community college, and helping a church in Tilton get reorganized. (I didn’t say that I would also be writing verbatims of many counseling sessions and visits, providing copies and recordings of sermons and worship services, meeting agendas and notes, evaluations of projects, and meeting with my seminary supervisor.) “And I can marry and bury or get you in touch with the regular pastor to do it.”

“So there’s a regular preacher and you’re the play preacher,” Scott said.

I admitted that I hadn’t heard that job title yet, but it fit. So began my first wedding counseling session on my own, since the regular pastor, my on-site supervisor, didn’t like to spend much time doing jobs that wouldn’t “build the church.” He was on a fast track to becoming one of the youngest bishops in the history of the church, or so it seemed in his own mind. In reality, he was on track to burn out before he made it to forty-five.

Scott and Tammy offered me a cup of some odd tasting herbal concoction, and we proceeded to talk about their thoughts on getting married and having a baby and life in general. As the plans progressed in the next few weeks, they were simple and easy, but they also wanted to talk about faith and God and finding meaning in life, so our get-togethers continued through the year past the date of their simple wedding ceremony by the lake with a few friends and family attending.

At the end of the year they both thanked me for coming to see them regularly, and told me they would miss our get-togethers. I told them I enjoyed our talks, too, and wished them well for a long life together with their beautiful baby and each other. I don’t know what became of them later, but I am confident that they had as many or more chances for that wish being fulfilled as any of the over five hundred couples that I have counseled since.

“You’re not just a play preacher,” Scott said. “You’re the first real preacher that I’ve ever known.”

“Thanks, but don’t rush me,” I said. “I’ve got a lot more to learn and I’m beginning to feel like ‘play preacher’ will suit me just fine.”

Seeing Jesus


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Lillian lived a rough life. She had been married a short time, but she got out of it because she saw quickly that it had been a mistake. She made a living as a secretary, in an assembly line, and finally as a clerk in a package liquor store. She was a chain smoker for many years, so it was not a surprise when Chronic Pulmonary Disease took over her final years.

Her older sister, Margaret, on the other hand, lived a comfortable life, married to Bob for over fifty years, mother of two daughters, who were also married and raising families. With her husband, Margaret was active in her church and as a volunteer in the community, but she never had to earn a living outside of the home. Margaret always worried about her little sister, and when Lillian became sick and lived by herself, she made sure that her sister had a comfortable home near her own, had help when she needed it, and that her pastor would visit Lillian and, with the Elders, offer her communion as they did for other shut-ins in the community.

That is how I met Lillian. She didn’t resemble her sister, until she shared a picture of them together as young women. When I met her, Lillian was extremely thin, wrinkled, and leathery, while Margaret was plump, relatively youthful-looking, and often smiling. They were a study in contrasts in appearance, temperament, and life histories.

Underneath the obvious differences, they did share not only their childhood history, but other characteristics as well. They both had worked hard in their own ways and neither took an easy route when the harder route appeared better. Both were questioners and somewhat skeptical, not accepting a superficial answer, but digging deeper. In spite of the different paths their lives had taken, they shared many values underneath the surface.

Lillian did not respond immediately when I first visited her. She seemed a little irked that her sister had asked me to come. She was distant and unresponsive, but I persisted, saying that I liked to keep in touch with the people of our village, whether they were church members or not, just to see if there were needs that we could fill, which was part of our purpose as a church, and Margaret was one of those who made sure that we served that purpose. It was my usual spiel when talking to our non-member and indifferent neighbors. She allowed me to come and eventually to bring the communion elements that she had not received since she was a young woman.

Eventually her health deteriorated to the point that she no longer could stay at home and use oxygen there. She made several trips back and forth to the hospital and spent her final year in a nursing home, where I continued to see her about once a month. It was likely in her last trip to the hospital that she would not be discharged back to the nursing home. She seemed to be slipping deeper into unresponsiveness every day.

Then one day it was different, and she seemed to be unusually bright and alert. After a few light comments, she announced that she had a wonderful experience the night before. Jesus had come to visit her. She saw that I was taken aback, for she continued, “No, really. I know that you were here earlier, even though I didn’t feel like talking. And I know what you’re thinking—that I mistook you with your beard for him, but it really was him. I know the difference between you and Jesus! Don’t think I don’t!”

By this time we both were smiling, for this was the old plain-spoken Lillian that I hadn’t seen for a while. “Well, then, what did Jesus say to you, that made such a difference in you?”

 “He said, not to worry, that I would be coming home with him tomorrow night, and I would be able to breathe again. We had a wonderful talk, and then I relaxed and fell asleep. When I awoke he was gone.”

I don’t know what else we said about that visit with Jesus, but soon I was praying a thank you prayer with Lillian, and telling her that, one way or another, I expected to see her again. That night she fell asleep for the last time.

The Extravagant Transformation of Hamilton Oaks Farm


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farm windmill

In 1955 our landlady summoned my father to fly from Illinois to Asbury Park, New Jersey, where she lived. She wanted to show him the registered Angus cattle that she planned to buy in the showplace farms of New Jersey. She planned for the farm on which we lived near Paxton, Illinois, to become such a showplace, to breed and sell registered Angus cattle. Of the sixteen farms in Illinois that she inherited from her physician husband, the 320 acre farm that we leased would be the most suitable, in a highly visible location along a busy state highway, with many acres suited to pasture and hay but not grain production. After five years of leasing, my father had proven capable of caring for a herd of a hundred beef cattle that produced many calves and a significant income every year, and he had cleaned up the farm, replacing the deteriorated fencing and taming the previously out-of-control weed population.  She would call the farm “Hamilton Oaks,” honoring her late husband and referencing the twenty-acre oak grove behind which the farm buildings sat. She wanted my father to buy a fifty percent interest in the registered cattle, as they already shared half interests in the rest of the farm production. He could not commit to that new expense, having no extra savings to spend, but she made it plain that he must agree to her proposal for the farm conversion itself, if we were going to stay there.

The next two years would see a flurry of activity. An old barn was moved about two hundred fifty yards to the west side of the bluff above the river valley, and it, along with a second old barn, was renovated with stalls for select cattle. A new pole barn, 120 by 60 feet, was built to serve as hay storage and shelter next to new concrete feedlots on the site vacated by the old barn, on the east side of the bluff that opened to the major pastures that lay in the river valley to the south and east. Large earth movers scraped topsoil from the farm lots to level the entire top of the bluff; the earth movers covered the whole area with hundreds of tons of gravel excavated from the river valley, providing plenty of mud-free parking and work areas. The banks along the entire half-mile length of the river, piled on both sides with dredging mounds left forty years earlier, were smoothed to provide additional pasture.

A new deep well was drilled, providing plenty of fresh water for the growing herd of cattle. Every building was repainted and renewed, except for the house in which we lived. Sided with asbestos shingles, the house had uneven interior walls suggesting an old story-and-a-half log cabin underneath, expanded with a turn of the century addition of a living room and a third bedroom above it, accessed through a hallway that had been more recently converted into the only interior bathroom. The outhouse still stood in a corner of the yard; it was especially useful when the plumbing and septic system balked, which was often. An oil furnace sat in the small rock cellar under part of the house. We had inside plumbing and central heat for downstairs; we could not complain.

Board fences replaced the woven wire fences around the farm lots visible from the highway, and we spent many weeks painting those new fences white. Masons built a large ornamental concrete block gateway to the farm, and the “Hamilton Oaks” sign, five by six feet, with the image of a black Angus bull prominently displayed, arose on one side of the entrance.

The registered cattle began to arrive from New Jersey in cattle trucks. The prize bull alone cost $5000, much more than our annual income. He was overly fat and barely able to move, as was fashionable in the fair judging circuits of those days. Twenty-five expensive cows came with him. We pored over their pedigree papers, impressed by the extraordinary names and titles given to each one. Naturally, as a harbinger of things to come, the surly bull had no interest in the cows that came with him.

Boxes came filled with fancy leather show halters, curry combs, brushes, and a large barley cooker. Several weeks of feeding cooked barley was supposed to add a fine sheen to the black Angus hair. (We didn’t grow barley.)

Our landlady gave me a registered Angus calf, Prince Something-or-Other, that had a misshapen head. I was ten years old and had just begun to take part in 4-H, and Prince was my project for the year. My oldest brother was working his way through college, and he took a year off to help during the year of construction. My middle brother was finishing high school, and also working to earn money to start in college, so the success of the enterprise fell to some extent on my successful competition in the fair and cattle show circuit. I attended the Farm Extension Service cattle judging school, and learned what I could about how to prepare and show my steer. For the next four years I went to the 4-H fair, earning “B” ribbons for my steers every year, a long way from the Grand Champion prizes so coveted by our landlady. She thought that two men and two boys would have plenty of time to show cattle during summer fairs, but that was not the case, nor did the registered bull cooperate, so we relied on the unregistered herd to provide the 4-H projects. Artificial insemination was becoming available, but she did not want to pay for that when she had already paid so much for an award-winning bull and everything else.

The farm looked like a showplace, not up to New Jersey standards, certainly beyond ours, but there was no market for her registered cattle in our area. After five years she was ready give up, sell the herd at rock-bottom prices, and get rid of us. After we left, no one painted the fences, no one raised cattle, and the “Hamilton Oaks” sign was taken down.


Churches Against Torture and Impoverishment


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Reaching a sabbatical year in 1987, while serving St Paul UCC in Minonk, Jan and I planned a trip to Europe that coincided with our daughter Alicia’s Spanish Club trip. Jan, Nathan, and I flew to London for a week, traveled to Amsterdam by train and ferry, and then met Alicia in Paris on Bastille Day, while she came from Madrid; we stayed in Paris for a week, traveled to Geneva for a few days and then to Frankfurt—these destinations by train. We rented an automobile for the two weeks in Germany, beginning and ending in Frankfurt. All in all it was a month, using $25 a day tour guides and a tight budget.

Western Illinois University provided a course adaptable to my sabbatical plan, which was to study church-state relationships, with a faculty consultation in Paris and Frankfurt. I made contacts for interviews in the cities we visited, mostly making appointments after arriving in the cities. My family were good sports as we moved from church to church, office to office, and museum to museum.  I surrendered a few times to their desire for McDonalds, KFC, and pizza, but we did find that the definition of pizza was often as adventurous as other local cuisine, as peas, broccoli, tuna, and squid found their way onto our pizza orders.

The vitality of churches and the means of support for church budgets and buildings varied substantially. We found worshiping groups in all sizes, in traditional and non-traditional settings, and enjoyed facilities that were as new as a Methodist Church in Chelsea that finally rebuilt and opened in 1986 after being destroyed by bombs in the Second World War, and as old as the EKU (United Protestant Church) in Trier that met in a Fourth Century Roman basilica.

Some congregations derived much of their support from state church tax formulas, that for the most part maintained traditional buildings—great cathedrals such as St. Paul’s in London and Notre Dame in Paris, and historic buildings such as Calvin’s church in Geneva. The Kirchentag met in Frankfurt and hundreds of young people from across Germany and many international guests gathered, mostly paying their own way, for a week of worship, lectures, workshops, and service opportunities. Some buildings were supported by international contributions, such as the Synagogue at Worms, where a small Hebrew congregation gathered in honor and memory of the centuries of congregational life before the Holocaust. Some places seemed to be full of worshipers every day, such as Sacre-Coeur in Paris, and others closed even on Sunday, such as the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. Some congregations were entirely self-supporting, refusing even the offers of voluntary tax-channeled donations, in their traditions of independence.

Often we were noticed as guests and invited to join in meals, as was customary at the Third Order of Saint Francis Hospitality House and the “Pilgrim Church” in Amsterdam, and in many of the places that we visited.

Another thing that we noticed everywhere, whether it was in the active announcements in the services or the bulletin boards of buildings that we visited, even when we were not there during events, was common support for organizations and movements that oppose torture. Also, there were humanitarian efforts for community and international development, food, and disaster relief that we occasionally saw in the United States, but the opposition to torture and political imprisonment worldwide was remarkable, since at the time there was so little evidence of that kind of involvement in American churches. The support was evident in Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish congregations, in settings that otherwise appeared apolitical, conservative and liberal in their creeds.

Far from finding a lifeless church uninvolved in the issues facing people in the world, we found faithful communities actively concerned about the well-being of people throughout the world. If this was the evidence of the “post-Christian era” in Europe, then it held some lessons for self-congratulating religious life in the United States.

Part 2: “I sought the Lord, and afterward…”


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Pentecostal bannerThere was a retreat for campus leaders just before the beginning of my sophomore year, which resulted in the development of a goal—a campus coffeehouse. As the newly elected president of the Methodist Student Movement, I took part, and I was excited about the idea of a place where people could come to talk informally and explore serious issues of the day—religious, social and political issues. Other campus venues seemed to be purely social or academic, not existentially grounded, and not open to student leadership. When leaders in the Student Senate developed the idea, however, it leaned more toward an intimate center for student performance as actors and musicians, than an organizing center for serious conversation. I publicly criticized the development as a betrayal of the original purpose.

There was a lot of support for the developing performance center coffeehouse idea, and I failed to provide a coherent and attractive vision of a place where we dealt with heady issues. It was embarrassing. Clearly the different visions for using the coffeehouse were not mutually exclusive, and I apologized for my critique. We would get to use the coffeehouse for many different issue conversations and presentations, but my criticism had proven counter-productive for the “Student Movement.” I had alienated some of the people I wanted as allies and dialogue partners.

Other matters added to my emotional turmoil. A trip to Chicago to take part in the SCLC-sponsored open housing marches had opened my eyes to the violence of the opposition to racial integration on Chicago’s southwestern suburbs. The war was expanding in Southeast Asia where the “Ugly American” had colored the conflict. My health was deteriorating. A friend whom I had joined for morning prayer frequently in my freshman year had become obsessed with Hindu yoga meditation, and I was not willing to pursue that for more than the satisfaction of curiosity. I was not finding a way through the spiritual solipsism that had confounded me.

In the middle of the fall semester a new hymnal was published for the Methodist Church, and Choir Professor David Nott invited everyone to the Presser Auditorium one evening to explore the hymnal. I was not involved in the choirs, but music was always helpful when I was distressed, and the prospect of hearing familiar and new hymns attracted me. Dr. Nott led enthusiastically. Then he introduced a hymn and arrangement that was new to him, though an anonymous person had written the words a century before: “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew, God moved my soul to seek ‘him,’ seeking me. It was not I that found, O Savior true; no, I was found by You.”

I was singing the song and praying the words, and suddenly I realized that the experience was real, and I was filled with a joy that had no measure. “You did reach forth Your hand and mine enfold; I walked and sank not on the stormy sea; not so much that I on You took hold, as You, dear Lord, on me.” Every word added to my joy through the last verse. “I find, I walk, I love, but oh, the whole of love is but my answer, Lord, to You! For You were long beforehand with my soul, Always You loved me.”

I had not yet read C. S. Lewis Surprised by Joy, although John Wesley’s sense of “having his heart warmed” was always entertained in my thoughts. This experience went far beyond either, as I felt so light that I nearly floated out into the night when the program ended. This was the experience of God’s Real Presence.

Real challenges would bring me back down to earth, and the awareness that my ideas of God would always fall far short of the reality of God’s Spirit would keep me from lifting my thoughts too high. There would be more to come than insight, more than comfort, more than strength, more than an answer to my feeble prayers.

Part 1: “I sought the Lord, and afterward…”?


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In the first semester of my freshman year at Illinois Wesleyan University I wrote an essay and titled it “Is God a Teddy Bear?” I was exploring the psychological roles of anchoring for personal security in a god and the projection of good and bad attributes onto one’s idea of god. This was based naturally in the different characterizations of gods as judgmental, oppressive, vindictive at one end of the spectrum to loving, generous, and forgiving at the other end. These seem to be tied to personal experiences with parents, leaders, and others, to degrees of stress in environment, and the coping mechanisms we adopt for dealing with them and for understanding ourselves. The result for me was not only an “A” on the paper, but also a crisis in my own faith that lasted throughout the year.

If I was only praying to and worshipping an aspect of myself projected onto an idea of a personal being, there was not much power in my activity. If I was refusing or delaying the mature behavior of taking responsibility for myself and for my own potential, even when connected to other people, then such worship provided no service that could be characterized as healthy, “saving,” or mature. Worshipping oneself, even as a projected self, is a dead end. I began to think of the practices of devotion that I had exercised increasingly during my adolescence as an echo chamber that simply revealed to myself what I was thinking. Obviously I was on the wrong track in planning to be a minister, and I began to think of a career in psychology instead, or perhaps I should return to my earlier interest in anthropology.  The immediate dilemma was practical—my scholarship was tied to my status as a pre-theological student, and IWU had a psychology department which was devoted to behavioral psychology only, with its theoretical foundations in B. F. Skinner, whose work did not inspire me in the least.

I wanted to believe. The means to that end seemed to be retreating, and the awareness of my practical and psychological needs only accelerated the retreat. Even the fact that my own projections were positive, based in loving parents and family, and helpful, intelligent advisors and mentors, did not provide the answer if they were only projections. Relying on the faith of others does not provide a substitute for one’s own faith. My advisor for my work with the Illinois Conference Methodist Youth Fellowship noted that sometimes we “act our way” into belief. We continue to do as much as we know how to do until the ultimate goal becomes real for us. I knew “how to act” but the advice did not deliver me from the circle of my own subjectivity. The college chaplain suggested that the analogy of projection relied not only on a projector but also on a screen; something had to be there to receive the projected image, or something had to be “behind the screen” that was true. While I agreed with the analogical point, it did not construct anything more than an idea of god, not God-as-personally-known-in-the-universe.

I had no idea about what could deliver me from this conundrum, but I continued seeking an answer.

Which John Bell?


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OLOP Cover Photo 3

John Bell was such a popular name in the 1800’s that hundreds of references to that name show up in southern and Midwestern records. Many can be eliminated as related to one another because of birthdates, locations of death, and other indicators that they are not related to the John Bells that are part of our own family, but many remain single references that are unconnected to any other data.


We began with confidence in our own closest ancestors with that name, the great-uncles and great-great-father who are buried in the family cemetery near New Salem, Illinois. From where did that Great-great grandfather come? There were other Bells and even John Bells in the immediate vicinity and surrounding counties who could be easily disregarded because there were no plausible family connections.


You can imagine my excitement when I found a ‘John Francis Bell’ born in the Cherokee Nation with the same birthdate as the Grandfather John F. Bell, reported by his grandson (our Grandpa Hillmann) to be raised among the Cherokees with twenty-one siblings. Then I found a maternal uncle, James Starr, traditionally responsible for his nephews’ upbringing, with twenty-one children of his own. The name ‘John Bell’ also appeared as one of the youthful protectors (or was it a gang?) of the Cherokee Nation’s eastern border, along with Starr’s own sons and several other relatives and neighbors. These instances provided a connection to a full line of John Bells well-documented in Cherokee records. John Francis Bell also disappeared from Cherokee Nation records in 1848 just after the murder of his father, and just before our John Francis Bell appeared in the New Philadelphia-New Salem area.


It was not the case that the records were entirely in agreement with each other. Sometimes two John Bells in the same Bell family appeared in each generation. John Francis Bell had a younger brother named John Martin Bell. They had an uncle named John Adair Bell who had first cousins named John Bell. Often the middle names were not used in separate records.


John Adair Bell was the most famous among them since he and his brother Samuel Bell signed the New Echota Treaty with the Federal Government in 1835. John Adair Bell led one of the large detachments of Cherokee people in the 1837-38 Removal, usually called the Trail of Tears. Members of the Bell detachment were mostly residents of the ancient city of Coosawattee in Georgia, and John Adair’s father, and his brothers, including David Henry Bell, and David’s son, John Francis Bell, were probably among its numbers. I must add ‘probably’ because no full listing of the detachment members has been recovered, and other circumstantial information has been assembled that points to their presence.


The John Bell who was the grandfather of the grandfather of our grandfather, in other words the father of John Adair Bell, has often been mistakenly identified as the signer of the New Echota Treaty and the leader of the detachment, instead of his son. To add to the confusion, his middle name may or may not be the John ‘Christopher’ Bell, born in Greenville, South Carolina, in May 1, 1782, although that date seems to be firm as the grandfather’s birthdate, so I will use that name for the sake of identification. John C. Bell married Charlotte Adair, the mixed Scot and Cherokee daughter of John Adair (the founder of Adairsville, Georgia), and their children included John Adair, David, Samuel, and Devereaux Jarrett, as well as several other well-documented men and women.


John C. Bell’s 1842 Registered Claim clears some additional confusion about his life. He gives reasons for his 1833 move from Coosawattee to Alabama, where his brother Francis Bell was residing in that part of the Cherokee Nation, and the claim clearly indicates that John C.  Bell was ‘white,’ although his family is Indian. John C. Bell is a member of the Cherokee Nation because of his marriage to Charlotte, not because he was born into it. The Georgia legislature’s claim on John C. Bell, later declared unconstitutional by the Federal Court, was a claim on him as a white man and citizen of Georgia. This is interesting because many Cherokee records, dating from around 1900, claim that John C. Bell was half-Scot and half-Cherokee, like his wife. They often say that John C. was the half-blood son of John Bell, the Scotsman, who married a Cherokee woman of the Deer Clan.  This would make John C. commit incest, according to Cherokee tradition, when he married Charlotte Adair, who was also a member of the Deer Clan. I account for this lapse in Our Land! Our People! with the documented incidents later when families in the next generation disregarded clan membership when marrying, as the clan system was breaking down, and people were adopting the English familial system and different definitions of incest, but there was no corroboration of this with regard to John C. Bell and Charlotte Adair, and it is more likely that people later just got confused about which John Bell was which. John C. Bell, a Scot, married a woman of the Deer Clan, Charlotte Adair, and their children, observed the clan traditions and married spouses of the Wolf Clan, or other clans that were not Deer. John C. Bell’s father may have been named John Bell, or he may have been another David Bell; this is where the lines become unclear again, but neither married a Cherokee woman.


If I were to rewrite Our Land! Our People! I would consider John C. Bell as a full-blooded Scotsman, still with his Scot accent, who was one among several men who married Cherokee women and were adopted into the Nation. He was a well-known traveler, trader, farmer, and blacksmith who fell in love with a Cherokee woman, who was the daughter of another well-known Scot trader and traveler, John  Adair. That was enough of a challenge for their lives at the time without the additional burden of an accusation of incest.


It would have been a lot easier if there were not so many ‘Johns Bells’ in and out of the family.



John Bell’s 1842 Registered Claim



OLOP Cover Photo 3

Here is the witnessed claim of John Bell, the grandfather of John Francis Bell, recorded in Flint District in the Cherokee Nation West (now largely Adair County in Oklahoma):

John Bell, states on oath, he erected and made all the improvements set out in the above claim in the old Nation Since the 23rd day of May 1836.  that never was valued by the agents of the United States at the time that general evaluations made in the old Nation in the years 1836 & 7. The Loom he was compelled to have at his place of residence in 1838. When the general emigration took place as he had offered the said home for sale and could get no purchaser thereof it was lost to him. For the use and occupation of dwellings etc on the road he was from the force of circumstances literally compelled to leave said place, That the session of the legislature of the State of Georgia in the fall 1830 enacted a law compelling all white men, citizens of the Cherokee Nation to comply with certain restrictions or leave the portion of the Nation within the limits of the state. The Conditions of the said law was that he should swear to give them obedience and enforce all laws of the state, leave the state or its limits or be sentenced to the penitentiary for the time of four years at hard labor, the laws of the state being so oppressive to the Indians and he having an Indian family, would not nor could he doing justice to his own feelings comply with said law in taking the said oath, therefore  was compelled to leave the state or suffer imprisonment in the penitentiary for the term of four years, thereby left his place in Coosawattee which was well situated with a good dwelling, outbuildings + Lots, suitable for the accommodation of all kinds of stock, that in fact he was prepaid for the accommodation of travelers of all descriptions, and his place as a public stand on the road, and one of the best roads in the Cherokee Nation East, proved to him very profitable for the last five or six years before he was compelled to leave, that he left in the early part of the year 1831. And his family still resided on said place till August following, marking the time he lost the use of said place from August 1831. Till the same month in the year 1836. At the time the general valuations took place, which said place with all the appurtenances and all advantages, attributed to the said place, as a public stand and a good farm he lost or would have made annually the _____ charge per year, The five head of cattle, the Eleven head of hogs, and the shop, he entirely lost in the removal, The loss of property, consisting of home, trade, and many other articles of use to a family that he was summarily compelled to leave, and for his expenses in the removal out of the limits of the State of Georgia, was worth at a reasonable price five hundred dollars, That he has never from the United States or from any other source received compensation for the same or any part thereof.

Sworn to before me 29th April 1842. W. S. Adair [Walter Scott Adair].       John Bell [his legible signature]

Copied from 1842 Cherokee Claims, Volume 2, Compiled by Marybelle  W. Chase (Colcord, OK, Talbot Library and Museum, 2008), 54-57.