Unveiling the Mystery of Charles E. Wells

by Matt Hoppe

For many years we have known little about Hannah Compton’s husband and our ggggrandfather, Charles E. Wells. We had his name and marriage date to Hannah, as well as death date and place, and we had visited his grave. We knew something of his later life, but we knew nothing of his life before Hannah, nor anything at all about his family.  

4th great-grandson Matt by headstone of Charles and Hannah Wells, Brooklawn Cemetery, on 4 Mile Road nw of Grand Rapids, MI   

After the coming of the Internet, we made many online searches in all ways we could conceive, in all places we could think of to search, and we did it year after year. We found nothing. Searches for other documentation have also proved fruitless. To date, we have not been able to locate his Michigan death certificate. Either it was never filed, or the state of Michigan has lost it, or it is just buried away somewhere, but repeated efforts to find it, including a trip to the archives in Grand Rapids, have revealed nothing. It would likely have revealed his parents’ names. And we have found no trace of an obituary. He does appear in other people’s family trees online, but nothing is ever revealed other than his death and marriage date and the fact that he married Hannah. When the censuses came along, we were able to finally learn that he was born in Pennsylvania.

 The censuses are a useful tool for tracing ancestors back in history in the USA. But they have a big limitation. Not until the 1850 census was every person in the country recorded by name and age. In prior censuses, only the head of household is named, and even his age is only given as a ten-year block (between 20-29 years, for instance). Not knowing much more about a person, other than where they lived and what their name was, makes it almost impossible even to know if you have the person you are looking for and not someone else of the same name. This means that the usefulness of the censuses, going back from the present, largely ends at 1850. I say largely, but not completely. In this case, the 1840 census proved to be the key to unlocking what I believe is Charles’ past.

In 1850, Charles was already married and living on his own. Any chance of finding him in a census in his parents’ house—and so learning who they were—was nonexistent. However, eventually I decided to have a look at the 1840 census anyway. I restricted my search to Steuben County, New York, which is where I expected Charles should be, based on what I knew of the Comptons. I found what was likely him in the town of Tyrone, again a town familiar to us from the Compton history. What really got me, though, was that the entry next to Charles was a  Henry Wells. A neighbor with the same name is usually a relative. And on the same page of the census was another Wells—Jesse W. Wells. And Charles was listed as Charles E. Wells. A middle initial is a bit unusual in censuses. It is not common in genealogical records in general. It has always been one of the things that has added to the mystique of Charles E. Wells because he was always referred to as Charles E. Wells, not just Charles. In this case, these two were the only ones with middle initials on the whole page of the census.

I thought maybe I was onto something.

I went back to the 1850 and 1860 censuses, this time looking for Henry and Jesse. I found them in 1850, but then I found them living as next-door neighbors in 1860 (by that time, we know from our other sources, that Charles and family had moved to Michigan). Now I had ages, and Jesse W. was 22 years younger than Henry J. Yes, in later censuses Henry was also listed with his middle initial. It would appear to be a family eccentricity, and another circumstantial piece of evidence that I had found Charles’ family. The fact that Henry and Jesse were neighbors in 1860 would indicate that they were related, and their ages and names would mean they were most likely father and son. Searching the list of graves in the town of Tyrone, kindly transcribed and posted on the Internet, revealed graves for Jesse and Henry. Henry died in 1863, and his son died two years later in 1865. They were buried side by side, and for me that pretty much is the proof I was looking for that they were father and son. Their wives are not buried with them. I found that Jesse’s wife, Roxana, remarried and moved away, but don’t know yet what happened to Henry’s wife and our ancestor, Elizabeth.

The 1850 and 1860 censuses also indicated that Henry, Jesse W., and Charles E. were all born in Pennsylvania.

So now I knew that there was a good probability that Henry was Charles’ father and that Jesse was his brother. To summarize, Charles was living next to Henry in 1840, and Jesse was living close by (same page in the census). The three of them were the only ones to use a middle initial. Henry and Jesse were father and son for reasons listed above. The ages were consistent with that theory as well.

The probability was high, but it was all still a bit circumstantial. I went back to the censuses. In the 1825 New York census, Henry appears to have been the only Wells in Tyrone (but with a number of males and females in his household). In the 1840 census there were five Wells in Tyrone—Henry, Charles E., Jesse W., Alfred, and William P. The initial again. Another son? I have found no further trace of Alfred, and he could well have died, but I did find William P. He moved to Wright Township, Michigan, near Grand Rapids, around 1843. Ten years later, he had a son he named Charles. Also at that time (ten years later) our Charles E. with his family moved to within a couple miles of William P. in Michigan. Following his brother? Was baby Charles his godson? And William P.’s first son was named Henry J.! It gets better. According to William P.’s death certificate, his father’s name was Henry. Even though William P. died three years before Charles E., his death certificate was readily available. So he was clearly a son. So now we have Charles E. moving all the way from New York to the same spot in Michigan.

The total conglomeration of facts linking Charles E. to this family, while still circumstantial, are enough that to my thinking the only conclusion can be drawn is that he is indeed Henry J. Wells’ son. Beyond that connection, further information is sparse. We know his mother’s name was Betsy and that she lived until at least 1860, but that she isn’t buried next to her husband, who died in 1863. According to the censuses, in addition to the three brothers named, Charles appears to have had five sisters. One was named Marilla, who married Alanson Koon and migrated to Hillsdale, MI in the 1840s. Her oldest son was named Henry J. and her second son Charles E.

Another sister appears to be Asenath M. Her death certificate gives her mother’s maiden name (Knapp). However she is also married to a man named Knapp, so it makes you wonder. There are trees that connect to her on Ancestry, but some of the information they have is clearly wrong, so it makes you wonder again. However, some of the trees that connect to her take her through her mother Betsy’s ancestors back to England, some as early as the 1300s, and lists Mary, Queen of Scotts, among the ancestors.  The 1850 census shows her in Dix, New York, close to Tyrone where her father lived. In the 1860 census, she is in Wright, Michigan, where her brother William lived. Tracking down the others will not be easy but may yield more information about the family. We know that William came from Luzerne County, PA, so Charles was likely born there. Ancestry trees give Pittston in Luzerne County as the place for Henry and Betsy’s marriage.

The search will continue, and there is still a lot of research to be done trying to sort out the ancestry of Betsy Knapp, as well as to try and find Henry’s parents. But I feel that with all that we have learned about Charles, he is no longer a mystery.

Three months later: Imagine our surprise when a descendent of William P. Wells found and contacted us! She is a fourth-great-granddaughter of my third-great-grandfather’s brother. She found us through this website after her search for her ancestor’s brother Charles began when she found him living next door to Henry J. in that 1840 census. She has already found the key to what she believes started the migration of some Wells and Comptons to Michigan—William P. earned Land Bounty Rights when he fought in the Mexican War in the 1840s. 

Still a lot to learn about this family, but we already know so much more than we did for so long.