After a longer-than-expected time lapse from my last post in this series, I’m finally turning my attention to the meat of my “Genealogical Journeys” project. This post will be in the first in a series of eight posts, one for each branch of my family corresponding to my great-grandparents. We’re starting with the Bell branch, which obviously is my father’s paternal grandfather’s branch.
My father’s father, Robert Bruce Bell (1909-1981), grew up in the small village of Newboro in Eastern Ontario, in what has been known since 1850 as the United Counties of Leeds & Grenville but historically was part of Leeds County as opposed to Grenville County. The Newboro area is picturesque, although only about 300 people live in the village today. Relative to other parts of Eastern Ontario, there are a large number of lakes near Newboro, and the Rideau Canal – which opened in 1832 and connects Ottawa to Lake Ontario – runs through the area.
Bruce (as everyone called him) was the eldest of five children of George Bell (1866?-1954). Two of the children died fighting for the Allied forces in World War II. Two others immigrated to upstate New York and spent their adult lives there; and that’s where George would die, having moved to live with his daughter Ida and her young family in the Syracuse area. My grandfather had also left the area, spending his adult life in the Ontario village of Stirling, about 80 miles from Newboro as the crow flies. As a result, my family had more or less lost its ties to the Newboro area. However in recent years we’ve been in touch with a 2nd cousin of mine from around Newboro, whose grandfather died in aerial combat in Germany in 1941 at age 19, leaving behind a 3-month-old daughter.
I’ve seen George’s gravestone in the cemetery of the Anglican church in Newboro, and it says 1867-1954. However, the historical records I can find contain conflicting information about his birthyear. When he got married in February 1909, he was listed in the registry as being 41; having said that, I’ve seen a number of lies about marital ages in my research… In the 1911 census he is shown as having been born in September 1866, and in the 1921 census he is shown as being 55. The piece of information that tips the balance for me is that George has a younger sister, Martha (but known to my father as “Aunt Matilda” Warren), who was born in either June of 1867 or 1868. To my mind, the only way to make sense of all this information is to assume that George was born in September 1866, and Martha in June 1868.
George was the sixth child, but the first son, of William Bell (1832-189?) and Johanna Shea (1827-1920). Both William and Johanna had immigrated to Canada from Ireland as children together with their respective parents. Johanna Shea’s death registry notes that her father, Denis Shea, was originally from County Kerry, and also lists her mother’s name as being Mary Sullivan. In the 1871 census, Denis and Mary are living in the same household as William and Johanna and their children. Interestingly, that census indicates that Denis & Mary and Johanna were Catholic, while William and all of William & Johanna’s children were Church of England. Indeed, as we’ll see by the end of this series, the Sheas are to best of my knowledge my only Catholic ancestors; there’s an awful lot of Irish in me, but it’s all Irish Protestant.
I know little else about the Sheas. In 1871, Denis was 69 and Mary 62. I don’t know when they emigrated, other than it has to be after Johanna’s birth in 1827 and before the birth of William & Johanna’s first child in 1857. I don’t know if Johanna had any siblings. And I don’t know for sure where in County Kerry the Sheas came from, although there is a Catholic baptismal record in August 1802 for a Denis Shea in Killarney; that might well be my 3x-great-grandfather, but might not.
With respect to William & Johanna’s family, I’m more than a little frustrated about how little I’ve been able to learn about them. I know from census records that there were 8 children, born between 1857 and 1873. However, I can only locate 2 of George’s siblings as adults – Martha/Matilda as noted earlier, and also the eldest child Mary Ann (who would marry a man named Donohue and then, when he died leaving her with 3 minor children, marrry a man named Moore and bear 2 more children). But there are four other girls born between 1859 and 1864 – Honor, Ellen, Hester, and Elizabeth – that are mentioned in the 1871 and/or 1881 census but whom I can’t locate as adults. There’s a similar story with George’s only brother, the youngest child, William; he was still living at home at the time of the 1891 census, but that’s the last record I can find of him. Nor do I know precisely when the elder William died, but I believe it to have been sometime in the 1890s, as he appears in the 1891 census while Johanna is listed as widowed in 1901 census.
My great-grandfather’s other grandfather – William’s father – was also named George Bell (1808-1888). George and his wife, born Elizabeth Foster (1809-1869), were immigrants from County Cavan, one of the 3 Ulster counties that is in modern-day Ireland as opposed to Northern Ireland. The 1851 census for North Crosby Township, which is immediately north of Newboro, shows a household consisting of: 42-year-old George & 40-year-old Elizabeth; 6 children born in Ireland, ages 10 through 20, including 18-year-old William; 2 children born in Ontario, ages 7 and 5; and a 23-year-old named Thomas Foster. Thomas would later marry William’s younger sister Mary Ann, who was 10 in the 1851 census. I have presumed that Thomas is Elizabeth’s younger brother, although I have no proof of that.
From this, we see that my Bell ancestors emigrated from Ireland to Canada sometime in the early 1840’s, slightly before the Irish Potato Famine, which transpired in 1845-1852. (William’s younger brother James was born in Ontario in June 1845; but, Mary Ann was born in Ireland in December 1841.) I have not been able to trace the Bells or the Fosters in Ireland.
Unlike the situation with William’s own children, I’ve actually been able to learn quite a bit about William’s siblings and their own progeny. Most of William’s siblings stayed around the Newboro area, although as I mentioned in a previous post William’s younger brothers Robert Bell (1837-1914) and Thomas Bell (1853-1936) emigrated to Saginaw, Michigan in the late 1870s, presumably in connection with the lumber boom there, and lived out their lives in Michigan/Ohio.
As I’ve learned what I can from historical records about these long-lost branches of the descendants of George & Elizabeth Bell, the main theme of what I’ve found can be summarized succinctly: I’m not as special as I thought I was.
You see, while I was growing up the only Bell-branch relatives we knew about were concentrated in Eastern Ontario and Upstate New York. Whereas, my parents and I moved around a lot, making it as far afield as Southern California before returning back to Ontario; and then ultimately I would leave Canada to build my life in Chicago. In that context, it was easy for me to imagine that, at these various stages of life, we were continually breaking new ground with respect to the Bell-branch.
When we moved to Southern California in 1985, surely we were the only Bell-branch descendants living there, right? Nope. Unbeknownst to us, my grandfather’s 2nd cousin William Stirling Foster (1899-1989) – a grandson of Mary Ann & Thomas Foster – had been living in L.A. for over four decades. (Interestingly, he and his brother both enlisted in the U.S. Army in November 1942 in their early 40s, were honorably discharged after serving for about 4 months, and 2 months thereafter parlayed their military service into U.S. citizenship!)
When we moved to Ancaster, Ontario (about 50 miles SW of Toronto) two years later, surely I became the first Bell-branch descendant to graduate from Ancaster High School, right? Nope. Unbeknownst to us, my father had three 3rd cousins named Brown who had graduated from Ancaster High in the 1960s and 1970s; their mother Margaret Eulalia [Foster] Brown (1913-2008) was also a granddaughter of Mary Ann & Thomas Foster.
When I settled in Chicago in the 1990s and my eldest child was born there, surely he became the first Bell-branch descendant to be born in Chicago, right? Nope. Unbeknownst to us, my grandfather’s 2nd cousin Mary Lucy [Bell] Kogstad (1921-2006), a granddaughter of William’s youngest brother Thomas, had ticked that box several decades earlier.
In short, George & Elizabeth Bell’s descendants spread out, rather more widely than we ever knew growing up. I suppose that’s the story of North American immigration in a nutshell, isn’t it.
I’m going to conclude each of these posts with some basic summary facts about my great-grandparent, which ultimately I’ll meld together in order to summarize what I’ve learned about my ancestry. Before I do that, I need to adopt a convention as to what I mean by “1st-generation Canadian” – is the person who immigrates to Canada “1st-generation”, or is that person’s Canadian-born child “1st-generation”? While both usages are common, I’m going to pick the former usage.
So, the stats on George Bell:
- National Origin: 100% Irish
- Religion: Church of England (but, mother was Catholic)
- Immigration Status: 2nd-generation Canadian (both parents were born in Ireland and immigrated)
I didn’t ever mention George’s wife above, but she’ll be the focus of my next post. Which, I promise, will be much shorter, as sadly there’s not that much to say…