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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.