As I’ve mentioned before, genealogical research favors the resourceful -- and the patient. One of my outstanding brick walls, a man who has defeated generations of researchers in my mother’s family, is my great-great-grandfather John Francis Bell (1839–1905). Now, while nothing I’m going to say here will provide anything so pleasing as a breakthrough on this mysterious fellow, I think (and hope) there will be value in the journey, in advance of reaching some sort of destination.
I have written elsewhere about strategies for Google searches and the uses of periodic name searches (under every conceivable name variant) when dealing with recalcitrant relatives. John Francis/John F./J. F. Bell is, as I say, high on my list, as is my great-great-great-great-grandfather Dr. John Campbell White (1757–1847), of whom perhaps more later. And so, last week, I did a routine set of searches for Mr. Bell which, of course, turned up some intriguing biographical notes.
The earliest confirmed something I already knew. The John F. Bell family can be found in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1880 Federal Census, and he is listed (in partnership with Thomas J. Bowles) as Bell & Bowles, carpenters, 504 West Main Street, in Chataigne’s Richmond city directory for 1883–84. (Bell’s home address was 1007 West Main, as in the 1880 Census.)
The Engineering Record, Building Record, and Sanitary Engineer for 9 June 1888 lists John Francis Bell as (presumably) an unsuccessful bidder for a contract to enlarge the Richmond Court House: his estimates are by far the highest of the four, perhaps reflecting the small scale of his operations.
The Southeastern Reporter, Volume 20, reports a judgment of 31 January 1895 in the case of Taylor et al. vs. Netherwood, a case involving “the validity of the lien of a subcontractor filed under the mechanic’s lien law.
“In the month of April, 1890, John F. Bell entered into a contract with Wirt E. Taylor to build for the latter a dwelling house of stone and brick in the city of Richmond. Bell, who was a carpenter, employed James Netherwood to do the stonework and furnish the necessary materials for the fixed sum of $2,350. Netherwood furnished the materials, and executed the work as required by the plans and the specifications, and to the satisfaction of the architect, the general contractor, and the owner. There was no complaint of the manner of its execution. It was only of the delay in doing the work.”
An exhaustive account of the case follows, but the summary is all we need: “[The] court ascertained that Bell, the general contractor, owed James Netherwood the amount claimed under the lien, and that Taylor owed Bell more than enough to satisfy the lien, [so] neither of them is injured by the form of the decree, nor has any good cause for complaint. Taylor, in his answer, admits that he holds the amount money claimed in his hand to be paid to Bell or otherwise, as the court may direct. It would be a vain and useless act to subject the property to the payment of the lien when the owner already had the money in hand to pay it, and only waited for the court to decide to whom he should pay it. There was no occasion, therefore, for the court to direct that Taylor’s property on which the lien was perfected should be rented or sold, but only to decree to whom it should be paid.”
I think we catch another glimpse of John F. Bell in the Engineering News Record supplement of 27 June 1901: “The lowest bid received on June 1 for the stable at the Norfolk Navy Yard was that of John F. Bell, Norfolk, Va. at $6,091. The bid was accepted.”
John Francis Bell is buried with his wife Isabella (Phillips) Bell at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, which can be seen at Findagrave. A bonus in my search is this reference to my great-grandfather, J. F. Bell, who appears in 1922 as a Justice of the Peace for Norfolk in the Kempville Magisterial District.
 It could also be my great-grandfather, the younger John Francis Bell (1878–1944), who would marry Minnie Estelle Jackson of Norfolk in 1902.
About Scott C. Steward
Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.View all posts by Scott C. Steward →