Genealogy is much like detecting - the goal is to bring an individual out of the shadows and into the light.
Though, hopefully, the ancestor we discover hiding in our family tree wouldn't have minded the exposure quite so much as his criminal counterpart.
After mother left father when I was six weeks old, she became hell bent on expunging father from history, as well as from her life.
Discovering anything at all about him from mother's memories was next to impossible.
Upon his death a great many things had been sent to mother, but she had returned almost all, allowing them to end up, inevitably, in the same mental,
and probably physical, trashpile to which mother
had already consigned father.
And with that action, mother made the task of discovering much of anything about just who my father was, or anything about his family, a monumental task.
I had only a few scraps of information and a set of photos of father's childhood that I had "liberated" from mother's file cabinet before she could get around
to burning it all, an act I have never regretted. For years I never got around to opening that file, and it lay forgotten among my own debris. It was
only after early retirement from IBM that I had the time and the inclination - and the power of the Internet - to use to research those few clues.
The most important information came from an obituary of father's mother, Catharine.
"She settled in Canon City [Colorado], where she was married to Jack Bell, mining man, and became editor of the local newspaper...
"She is survived by ... a son, Bradley Evans Bell of the U.S. Army."
Jack Bell. Grandfather's name might as well have been John Smith for all the luck I had trying to find him in Denver records. But
Canon City Historical and Denver were able to add some information. Jack and Catharine ran the newspaper together, and Jack Bell had also invented
a stove to take camping. That article also mentioned a gunfight at the bottom of a silver mine, and the fact that Jack Bell was well known in
mining circles, and had won and lost fortunes from Alaska to South America.
One would have thought that information would have opened the floodgates, but no such luck. Nobody had written about a silver mine gunfight,
and everyone seemed to have been named Jack Bell! It wasn't even clear what his middle initial was, E or C. Poor Jack. Lost to his descendants, it looked
like he was going to stay that way. And so he did - for over a decade - while I was busily running down rabbit holes and finding rainbow ends of all
the ancestors and family members of Jack Bell's wife, Catharine.
And there poor Jack sat for over a decade. Without showing up in Denver or Canon City myself to explore nooks and crannies, I saw no way to move forward
with Jack Bell.
It was only when a
research project I was buried deep within suddenly paused that I began to frantically look around for some place to discharge some of my excess research passion and
thought to do a few old searches. Like Jack Bell.
Like Jack Bell!
Instantly my screen filled with newspaper articles by a Jack Bell written in the early 1920's from Nevada.
Nevada? I'd never even thought to look in Nevada. Turns out there's a lot of mining that went on in Nevada.
A long, deep breath, and I was down and running.
I hadn't expected it, but I should have. People really liked Jack Bell. And when they liked him, they wrote about him. My research was uncovering
article after article written about Jack Bell. With all of those clues it was possible to pull together a rough timeline of grandfather's life.
Jack Bell came to Colorado in 1887. A census added the information that he came with three years of college behind him.
According to the small bio, Jack prospected in Dahlonega GA, Montana and Globe AZ. All we know for sure is that in 1897 he was working as a mail
carrier, an old-timer from the story's perspective, in Ouray for Ollie Eldridge and, before that, had worked for Judge John C. Bell, formerly of Tennessee, in Montrose CO.
The story described
Jack's survival after being caught by an avalanche. That, as it turned out, was going to be almost typical for Jack Bell.
Not wanting to miss out on any possible excitement, Jack volunteered for the Spanish American War at the age of 33.
The Cuban heat must have been too much for Jack, because he next shows up in 1899-1900 in Nome Alaska, freezing along with twenty other miners working the
Crooked Creek mining camp. But frostbite, too, began to pall, and one of the mini bios mentions Jack prospecting in the
Natural Bridge Country (Colorado/Arizona) various times in 1900-1903.
In January of 1901 he also ends up working as a miner in the Stratton Independence mine in Victor CO.
After five months he's promoted to shift boss and he stays in that job for 15 months.
The high point, or low if you consider it took place 400 feet below the ground, was a gunfight in the mine while trying to catch ore thieves.
Perhaps the experience got through to him, because Jack next shows up working as a reporter on the Denver Post.
And it was while in that relatively safe occupation that he marries 29 year old Catharine, a divorcee from New York with a six year old daughter.
Married, but not settled down, Jack is tempted by a strong appeal from the Independence mine to come back to a position as second in command.
The position is described in various bioettes on him as "purchasing manager,"
From October 1902 on he might no longer be ducking bullets, but it seems that all that ore just sets his mining urges to tingling. In 1903 he quits
the Stratton mine to prospect for himself in the Freemont County Mountains.
But finding one good site isn't enough, and in mid 1904 Jack sets off in a luxurious wagon along with Catharine's first cousin Ernest Lansing and
a teacher friend, as well as her eight year old daughter. Their goal is to let Jack follow his mining instincts through Colorado, New Mexico,
Arizona, and down into Mexico. The trip lasts 14 months, and home probably looked pretty darn good.
Jack seems to be trying to settle down with his small family in Canon City. To his step-daughter, Catharine adds a son, whom they name
Bradley Evans Bell. I've assumed that the middle initial of E stood for Evans, and I'm more convinced after finding that, for the first time,
Jack identifies himself to the 1940 census as John B. E. Bell.
He takes a job as guard at the local penitentiary
and buys the Canon City Clipper (becomes Canon City Cannon), which he and Catharine edit.
Well, Catharine really. Jack is back at his nimble-footed ways and is off prospecting again.
In mid 1906 Jack seems to have really done it. He's discovered a rich district of copper/gold five miles out of Buckskin, which is named Bell View,
for him. To get the capital needed to exploit his find, Jack starts up the Jack Bell Gold Mining Company,
the stock selling for 30 cents a share.
But even with rave reviews coming in from his friends, Jack can't find enough timbers to enable him to take his mine down far enough, and is tempted
to sell out by a pretty good offer. The new owners didn't have the capitalization problem, and they quickly descend into a wildly successful vein
that's the talk of the area. Close, but no cigar. Sigh.
It's not clear how much impact this almost-success had on his marriage, but in mid 1909 he and Catharine divorce. It takes her another year before she
sells the paper and moves up to Denver.
Where Jack goes in this period is unclear.
1911 finds Jack mining in/near Nevada, and by 1915 he's taking a new wife, Laura, on a long prospecting trip for radium.
Except for inventing a stove that might do better for him than his mining has, Jack stays mostly out of the news.
But he's obviously reading the news. When America goes to
war, Jack packs his new campstove up, and takes off again to fight for his country. Although in his 60's, Jack becomes a master sargaent in the signal corps, seeing
service in France.
1922 finds Jack back out west, working as a newspaperman in Reno, mining sporatically, and living in nearby Verdi.
What happens to Laura is unclear. 1930 brings a new wife - Lola, a newspaperwoman working for the same company, New York Daily News, as Jack.
From now on, there will be very little actual mining, mostly Jack just writes about his memories of mining. He's has become a feature writer and writes large headlined
articles about the nascent air mail and the daredevils who fly the mail, about the animals and the people he's encountered along the way. Jack has become a
naturalist through experience rather than training, and his lilac prose is popular with the non-adventurous public.
For much of the remainder of his life, Jack writes about his passion for fly fishing and the wonderful streams and creeks that flow right through the middle of
Reno. He's still as popular as he was back in 1897, when his recovery from the avalanche was celebrated by so many friends.
And when the time comes for Jack to "go west", as he describes the passing of aviators, there are multiple stories written about this man that so many knew, admired and liked.