As I noted in the introductory post to this series, researching one’s genealogy using modern tools like ancestry.com is for the most part about making inferences from data, as well as exercising judgment about which inferences to trust and which to ignore. In this post, I’ll share two case studies of distant 19th-century relatives I encountered in my work where I was faced with difficult choices on what to believe: Thomas Bell, and Henry Bell.
Comments on Sources
In internet-enabled genealogy, there are two main tools of the trade: primary sources; and other researchers’ family trees.
By primary sources, I’m talking about databases and digitized images of such historical documents as census records, death records, marriage records, birth records, military draft or service records, and the like. It is amazing how useful these records can be, particularly in establishing links between generations. The presence of “mother’s maiden name” as a field in death, marriage, and birth records is particularly helpful.
Most of my ancestors lived in Ontario, Canada, for which I’ve had access to a rich set of records: census records for every 10 years from 1851 through 1921; birth registrations, primarily from 1869-1913; death registrations, primarily from 1869-1936; and marriage registrations, primarily from 1869-1927. For other jurisdictions, the nature of available records varies. For the U.S., decennial census records are currently available up through 1940, while Social Security death records are currently available through 2014.
While I’ve tried to focus my research as much as possible on looking to primary sources, the existence of other researchers’ family trees is a temptation that is difficult to resist and often can streamline matters. On ancestry.com, you can search to see if a dead person in your own family tree appears in others’ family trees; this feature doesn’t work for living people on others’ family trees, due to privacy considerations.
The difficulty here is, how do you determine whether other researchers’ conclusions are necessarily reliable? Particularly when different researchers may have reached conflicting conclusions as to when someone was born or died, or who their siblings or parents were, or who they married and what children they had. At some level, one needs to look to the direct sources – which may themselves be contradictory or otherwise unclear – and apply one’s own judgment to determine what to believe.
As one example, we’ll consider the case of Thomas Bell.
I’ll discuss the Bell line at length in the next post in this series, but my great-great-great-grandfather George Bell immigrated from County Cavan, Ireland to Leeds County, Ontario sometime in the mid-1840s. He and his wife had 9 children, the first of 6 of whom were born in Ireland, and the last three of whom were born in Ontario. The second-oldest child, William, was my great-great-grandfather.
Thomas was the youngest child. We first learn about Thomas in the historical record via the 1861 census of what was then still called Canada West, where we see a household consisting of: George & Elizabeth, the parents; three sons that also appear in the 1851 census record; and Thomas, who is listed in the 1861 census as being 14, but doesn’t appear in the 1851 census listing of Canada West for George & Elizabeth Bell’s household. We see Thomas again in the 1871 census of Ontario, as it had been rechristened in 1867. Elizabeth had passed away in 1869, so now the household consists of: father George; two of the sons that had appeared in both the 1861 and 1851 census records; a 24-year-old daughter Hester, who appeared in 1851 but not in 1861; and Thomas, now listed as being 18.
So, already we’ve got some contradictory evidence to contend with. If Thomas was really 14 in 1861, then why doesn’t he appear in the 1851 census, and why is his age wrong in the 1871 census? And if Hester was 24 in 1871 and 4 in 1851, then why doesn’t she appear in the 1861 census? I think the simplest solution is to assume that the 1851 and 1871 census records are accurate, and infer that the census-taker in 1861 got confused and conflated Thomas and Hester: Instead of reporting a 14-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son, he simply reported a 14-year-old son. As such, I think it’s clear to believe that Thomas Bell was born circa 1853, at which point his mother Elizabeth would have been about 43.
After the 1871 census, Thomas vanishes, at least insofar as Ontario records are concerned. I can’t locate him in the 1881 census of Ontario, or any subsequent census. I can’t locate any Ontario death or marriage records for him. He’s not buried in the Anglican cemetery in Newboro, Ontario where his mother and some of his brothers are buried.
But: There is a man named Thomas Bell, born in 1853, who died in 1936 and is buried in Toledo, Ohio. Let’s call him “Toledo Thomas.” We have census records from 1930, 1920, 1910, and 1900 for Toledo Thomas; he was living in Toledo in each of those years. Those four census records all indicate that he was born in Canada, and that both of his parents were born in Ireland. They also all indicate that he immigrated to the U.S. sometime in the 1870s, although different years of immigration are stated in different census records: In 1930 it’s given as 1871; in both 1920 and 1910 it’s given as 1876; and in 1900 it’s given as 1870. He’s shown as widowed in 1930, and married to Lucy Bell in the previous three censuses; Ohio death records show that a Lucy Bell, born in 1857, died in 1927. Lucy is also known from the censuses to be Canadian-born, immigrating to the U.S. as a child in the late 1860s. In the 1900 census Thomas and Lucy are living with 8 children, ages 2 through 17; the first 7 of those children are born in Michigan, with the youngest having been born in Ohio.
And: In the 1880 U.S. census, we find a Thomas and Lucy Bell living in Saginaw County, Michigan, with Thomas being 27 and Lucy 22, plus a 2-year-old child James born in Michigan in 1878. Let’s call this Thomas Bell “Saginaw Thomas”. Both Saginaw Thomas and his wife are listed as being Canadian-born, and it’s noted that both of Thomas’ parents were born in Ireland. And while not noted in the census, Lucy appears to have been with child when the census taker came around, as I’ve also found what is probably one of the saddest records I’ve come across in my researches: A death record in Saginaw County, dated Christmas Day 1881, for a 13-month-old baby named George T. Bell, son of Thomas and Lucy Bell. Other researchers indicate that little James would die in September 1880, two months before George was born, although I’ve not seen a primary source for that.
Now, to cut to the chase: Other researchers believe that Toledo Thomas, Saginaw Thomas, and my original Ontario Thomas are all the same person.
That is, they paint the story of Thomas Bell, born in 1853 in Leeds County, Ontario as the youngest child of Irish parents; who makes his way to Saginaw County, Michigan around 1876; who shortly thereafter marries a slightly younger Canadian immigrant named Lucy Mitchell; who sees his first two children die in infancy before having seven more children born in Saginaw County between 1882 and 1895; who moved to Toledo, Ohio in the late 1890s, in time to see his youngest child born there in 1898; and who lived in Toledo for the rest of his days, seeing his wife pass in 1927 before dying in 1936.
That story coheres. I’m aware of no piece of evidence that contradicts it, other than the fact that the 1900 and 1930 U.S. census records for Toledo Thomas suggest he immigrated in 1870-71, which would make it difficult for him to have been counted in the 1871 Canadian census – but as noted above, the 1910 and 1920 U.S. census records say he immigrated in 1876.
However, at the same time we’re missing the crucial evidence that would make the progression from Ontario Thomas to Saginaw Thomas to Toledo Thomas airtight, as these things go. I’d feel better if I could find a 1890 U.S. census record that shows a Thomas and Lucy Bell living in Saginaw County with some of the same children that appear in the 1900 U.S. census record from Toledo. And I’d really love to see a Michigan marriage record for Thomas and Lucy that might show the names of Thomas’ parents. But, I haven’t been able to find either of those.
We also need to assess: Is the story believable? Is it plausible that a young Irish-Canadian man in his early 20s, born and raised in Leeds County, Ontario, would have traveled almost 500 miles to seek his fortune in Saginaw County, Michigan in the mid-1870s?
On balance, I think it’s plausible enough that I’m willing to accept it as canon. There certainly seems to have been a lot of Canadian immigration to Saginaw County in the 1860s and 1870s: Of the 41 people listed on the same page of the 1880 U.S. census as Saginaw Thomas, 13 were born in Canada. My limited understanding is that there was a lumber boom in Saginaw at this time, which led to a lot of French-Canadian migration (Lucy appears to have been born in Montreal), but some English-Canadian migration as well. Indeed, while 7 out of Ontario Thomas’ 8 siblings remained in Leeds County, the eighth – Thomas’ brother Robert, older by about 16 years – migrated to Saginaw County around 1878-1879, dying there in 1914. That tips me towards believing the story, as does the fact that if you believe that Ontario Thomas and Saginaw Thomas are the same person, then the two children born in Saginaw County to Thomas and Lucy and who died in infancy share names with Thomas’ uncle and grandfather, respectively.
Can I prove it?
Prove? What does that mean exactly, in this context?
I don’t know that I can prove it. But I believe it.
But, belief may have its limits, as we’ll see in the strange case of Henry Bell, one of Thomas Bell’s nephews.
Henry was the eldest son of Thomas’ older brother Robert, the one who as noted above would also migrate from Ontario to Saginaw County, Michigan in the late 1870s. We first encounter Henry in the 1871 census of Ontario. Robert Bell and his wife are living in Leeds County with 5 children, of which 11-year-old Henry is the oldest. Robert’s wife’s name appears in this census record as “Adelia,” but in most other places it appears as “Lydia,” and I’ve noticed other situations where census takers have not gotten names quite right. Indeed, Henry’s name is spelled “Henery” in this census record.
There’s a marriage record for Robert in Leeds County, in November 1859, that lists his wife’s name as Lydia Dier, also born in Ireland. As such, evidence points to Henry as having been born in Leeds County in 1860, although I haven’t located an 1861 Ontario census record for the young family of Robert, Lydia, and Henry.
The next historical record I can find for Henry is a marriage license issued in Saginaw County, Michigan on June 18, 1888. It lists as the groom one Henry Bell, age 27, born in Canada, son of Robert Bell and Lydia Dier, and living in Saginaw. The bride is one Josephine Thompson, age 27, born in Canada, son of Edward Thompson and an unknown mother, and living in East Saginaw (which was then an independent city but would get merged into Saginaw in 1889). The marriage took place in Buena Vista Township, to the east of East Saginaw; the witnesses were Edward Thompson of Buena Vista, and Jennie Bell of Saginaw (one of Henry’s sisters, albeit listed as “Jane” in the 1871 census record). Another record, which hasn’t been digitized but whose main fields have been included in a database, indicates the marriage itself took place on June 27, 1888.
So, there is zero doubt in my mind that the Henry Bell in my family tree who was born in Leeds County in 1860 immigrated to Saginaw County at some point, and ultimately married a Canadian immigrant named Josephine Thompson.
However, I can find no subsequent record of this Henry Bell. No census records in the U.S. or Canada, no death records, no mentions as being the father in any birth/marriage/death records of little Bells.
Josephine Thompson, on the other hand…
There is a Josephine Thompson about whom, using the historical records, one can build the following picture:
- She was born in October 1860 in Huron County, Ontario, in a place called Stephen Township that is about 30 miles north of London. Her parents were Edward and Mary Thompson, who would die in 1899 and 1891, respectively.
- In the 1870 U.S. census, she is living in East Saginaw, with her parents and 3 siblings, of which she’s the 2nd-oldest.
- In the 1880 U.S. census, she is living in Buena Vista, with her parents and 3 siblings (the oldest sister having moved away, and a younger sibling having been born in the 1870s).
- In the 1900 U.S. census, she is living in Menomenee Falls, Wisconsin (incorporated in 1892 and today a suburb of Milwaukee) with her husband Henry and three children, the oldest of which was born in February 1890. Henry is listed as having been born in Canada in September 1860 and having immigrated to the U.S. in 1878.
- In the 1910 U.S. census, she and Henry and the three children are still in Menomenee Falls.
- By the 1920 U.S. census, she and Henry have moved to Detroit, sharing a household with two of their children and a daughter-in-law.
- By the 1930 U.S. census, Henry has passed away and Josephine is living with her son and his family in the suburbs of Detroit, in Oakland County.
- Josephine would live until the age of 91, and is buried in Oakland County.
This sure sounds like the Josephine Thompson who got a license to marry Henry Bell in 1888 in Saginaw County, doesn’t it? Her age is right; her father’s name is right; the geography is reasonable (she was living in the same place in the 1870 census that the marriage license says she was living in 1888); Henry’s age is right; both of them were born in Canada. There is the minor nag of why Josephine’s mother was listed as “unknown” in the marriage license, given that Mary Thompson was still alive in 1888; but I suppose we could overlook that.
There’s just one teeny problem that is somewhat harder to overlook: In all of the records listed above, Josephine Thompson’s married name is not Bell, but Blair.
So, we’ve got two competing narratives.
One is that Henry Bell, the oldest son of Robert and Lydia Bell, decided to change his name from Bell to Blair as he and his wife moved 400 miles away to southeastern Wisconsin to build their life there. Hardly impossible, but it strikes me as a rather unusual thing for the eldest son to do!
The other is that maybe there were two Edward Thompsons who immigrated from Canada to Michigan in the 1860s, and each had a daughter named Josephine in 1860, each of whom would marry a Canadian immigrant named Henry – leading to the conclusion that Henry Bell and Henry Blair are different people. Far-fetched? Maybe; maybe not. One of Josephine’s brothers was named George W. Thompson, and I found evidence of a second George W. Thompson, born at roughly the same time to a different Canadian immigrant named Edward Thompson, and living in Bay City, Michigan, which is north of Saginaw.
As I was mulling this over, I observed that in the 1905 Wisconsin census for Menomenee Falls, where we again see Henry & Josephine Blair and their three children, Henry Blair is listed on the top of the page as being the town clerk. That got me thinking: if Henry Blair was involved in civic affairs, then maybe he left some other traces of his life behind? And that observation led me to a book published in 1907 called Memoirs of Waukesha County. (It’s amazing what you can find on the internet these days…) The book includes hundreds of pages of biographical sketches written by selected Waukesha County residents, including Menomonee Falls’ town clerk Henry Blair.
Here’s what Henry Blair had to say about himself, in 1907:
HENRY BLAIR, of Menomonee Falls, was born in Leeds county, Ontario, Canada, Sept. 2, 1860. His father Henry Blair Sr., was born in Scotland and immigrated to Canada. From that country he came to Wisconsin to 1865 to engage in the lumber business, but after a residence of two years returned. In 1879 he came to the United States a second time locating in Saginaw county, Mich., where he again engaged in the lumber business and where he still resides, although now retired from active business life. The mother of Henry Blair, Jr., is a native of Ireland. She is still living and both she and her husband are in the enjoyment of excellent health. The subject of this sketch received his education in Canada and began life for himself at the age of eighteen, when he worked in a lumber camp in Michigan as a scaler... Mr. Blair was married on June 27, 1887, to Miss Josephine Thompson, a native of London, Canada, and daughter of Edward and Mary (Edwards) Thompson, both now deceased. ..."
So, what to make of this?
If we assume that Henry Blair is really Henry Bell, then it’s interesting to note the half-truths in this description of his life:
- He really was born in Leeds County in 1860, and was educated in Canada. Note that Robert Bell and Lydia Dier were married in November 1859, so an early September 1860 birthdate for Henry makes eminent sense.
- His father (Robert Bell) really did immigrate to Saginaw for good around 1878. I’ve found no evidence that Robert Bell had spent a couple of years in Michigan in the mid-1860s, though. It appears that Robert Bell did move away from Leeds County for a time in the mid-1860s, as several of Henry’s young siblings were born in Cobourg, Ontario, which is on Lake Ontario about 125 miles from where Henry was born. So, possibly he was traveling back and forth to Michigan at that time in the lumber trade while his young family remained in the port city of Cobourg; who knows.
- As of 1907, I believe that Robert Bell was still alive and living in Saginaw County.
- His mother (Lydia Dier) was born in Ireland, and was still alive in 1907.
- The wedding anniversary is consistent, although the year is off by one.
On the other hand, we’re still left with the “big lie” about Scottish ancestry and his last name being Blair.
I should note that if we look through the U.S. census records, Henry Blair’s stated parental origins are inconsistent from one census to the next. In 1900, he says his father was from Scotland and his mother from Ireland; in the 1905 Wisconsin census, which contains only one column for “birthplace of parents” instead of separate columns for each parent, he filled out “Ireland” for the single column; in 1910, he’s back to saying his father was from Scotland and his mother from Ireland; but in 1920 – after he’s left Menomenee Falls – he says that both his father and mother are from Ireland.
After reading this, I decided to look for Henry Blairs in Leeds County in the 1860s. Maybe there really was a Henry Blair Sr.? In the 1861 census for the same township where the Bells lived, I found a Henry Blair that would be the right age and national origin to be our putative “Henry Blair Sr.” Alas, he was unmarried in 1861, and appears to have lived out his days in Leeds County, without siring a “Henry Blair Jr.”
That’s the data. What do I believe?
As I sat down to go through the act of writing this saga up, I felt that the proposition that Henry Bell and Henry Blair were the same person was “not proven” – plausible, but not likely enough for me to treat it as canon and integrate it into my ancestry.com family tree.
Having written everything up, though, I think I’m getting convinced. The piece of data that is pushing me over the edge is that Henry Blair’s biographical sketch cites his wedding anniversary as being June 27th, which is consistent with the Michigan microfiche record (which I haven’t seen but is included in a non-digitized database) saying Henry Bell was married on June 27th, 9 days after the marriage license that I have seen was issued. Given that, if we still wanted to argue that there were two Josephine Thompsons born in 1860 who married two different Canadian immigrants named Henry, we’d need to pile a shared wedding anniversary on top of all the other coincidences we’d need to accept.
It’s a strange story, and I’ll never know what would have motivated Henry Bell to change his name and turn his back on the Bells. But, I think I’m willing to accept that the Blairs born in Menomenee Falls in the 1890s are part of the Bell family tree.
In the next post in this series, I’ll talk more generally about what I’ve learned about my Bell lineage, in the first of eight planned posts associated with my eight great-grandparents.