Friday, April 19, 2013
Some Bedford families survived by the skin of their teeth. John Bell was 7 years old in 1732, when he came with his mother from Colraine, Ireland, to rejoin his father in Bedford. The Bells produced enormous quantities of butter and sold it to Bedford neighbors and in markets as far away as Boston.
Like most men in colonial New Hampshire, John was largely self-sufficient and survived with trade. About 1755, he married Sarah Bell of Londonderry, and they proceeded to have 11 children.
Ordinarily, this would be the basis for a flourishing family, but only three of these lived to marry and only two have living descendants today.
During the French and Indian Wars, John conducted a risky business, working as a suttler conveying goods and Army supplies as far east as Portsmouth and as far west as the fort at No. Four. In October 1760, Sarah, who was illiterate, asked Matthew Patten to write a letter to her husband at the fort.
Patten was a near neighbor who traded goods and services with the Bells. His family paid silver and pewter for butter. When infant Rebecca died at birth, Matthew made her tiny coffin the next day. The men hauled and shaved clapboards together, mowed and loaned each other oxen and mares. They traded or paid for turnips, salt, corn, molasses and brown sugar. Bell brought tobacco from Portsmouth for Patten. He also supplied guns, leather for soles and woven snowshoes.
Patten helped John Bell transport a huge number of clapboards in 1754, perhaps to build Bell?s new house. The two men were charged with building the wooden pulpit for the church. Bell later made coffins, too. When Bell?s father died, Patten assisted with the probate proceedings, and was helpful throughout the years it took to settle the estate, even when mother was pitted against son.
The town eventually held many proprietors? meetings at the Bell home. John served the town as constable, town clerk, and was the first jury man ever sent from Bedford to the new Superior Court.
During Sarah?s childbearing years, they rarely had more than three living children at a time. Rachel survived 15 years before dying in 1777. Son Joseph, born in 1757, became a blacksmith, and was lamed in a military training exercise but lived to see a son graduate from Dartmouth and achieve political office. John, born in 1760, lost his twin at birth, but lived to marry, have a daughter who drowned, then die himself in 1786. Daughter Mary lived to have three children.
Several things about John Bell were omitted in the town histories. John Bell owned African slaves until they were freed in 1789.
He also had at least two children with Jennie Conn, a single woman who may have had four or more children with different men in the 1760s and 1770s. Matthew Patten made diary notes of guardianships and acknowledgements for these children without further comment. What Sarah thought of this situation is not on record.
In April 1775 when news reached Bedford that General Gage had fired on Americans at Concord, Matthew Patten ran to his neighbor?s house where he found John Bell already gone to join the Army in Cambridge. Bell was back before May 11, however, and enlisted for at least one campaign, serving under Gen. John Stark at the battle of Bennington.
Sarah (Bell) Bell died in 1786. John survived her by almost 20 years. The local newspaper noted his death in April 1804, ?On the 3d instant, Mr. John Bell, AEt 74 ?By his death society are bereft of a valuable citizen, a firm supporter of religion and law.?? No tombstones stand for John and Sarah, but eight of their children are memorialized on elegant slate gravestones in the Old Bedford Cemetery.
Melinde Lutz Byrne is a member of the Friends of the Town Of Bedford Cemeteries.