The James Smith Bess/Best Family

Written by: Mary Stiny


The earliest record of the James Smith and Mary Ann Heifner Bess family is the 1830 census listing of Warren County, Tennessee, where they are listed under Smith Bess, one male 20-30, one female 15-30, and one female under 5. By 1840 the family had moved to Walker County, Alabama, where they are found under the heading of James Best with five daughters. The 1850 census finds them in Hancock County, Alabama, under the heading of Smith Bess with all of the children listed for the first time down to the youngest at that time, Sara Jane, our great-grandmother. James Smith Bess died in 1855 so the Winston County 1860 census is under the name of Mary Ann Bess, widow, with all of her children living at her home. I believe that at least the oldest daughter, Martha A., was married to a William Cox, with one child at that time, even though she was still listed in her motherís household.

Military service records and pension records of William Jasper Bess, oldest son of James and Mary Ann Bess, show that he served in the Union Army as a 1st Sgt., Company A, 1st Alabama Cavalry, from January to December of 1863. Local history states that Winston County, where the family was living, was so opposed to the Confederate cause that the County voted to succeed from the State of Alabama and became known as the "Free State of Winston". It formed a Union Cavalry Company but the men spent most of the time in hiding from the Confederates. It appears that William Jasper Bess was discharged in December 1863 and took his family, brothers, sisters, and mother to Vandalia, Illinois. It seems likely that they went because of other family there, but at this point I have not been able to prove the connection.

In the 1870 census, Mary, Nancy, William Jasper, and John are living in the household of Sarah Burk, 51, and daughter, Mary, 15. Perhaps Mary Ann and Sarah are sisters, or cousins, or something. Son, Jasper, as he was known in later life, is also listed in the household of Martha Cox, 41, Alabama, Susan, 11, Alabama, and Wm, 8 Alabama. This has proven to be his oldest sister who married Wm Cox in Franklin County, Alabama. Later, daughter Susan Cox is found in Oaktown, Knox County, Indiana, married to George Sullenger on 26 Aug 1885. Martha Bess Cox died in Oaktown, Indiana. This information is from two letters Susie wrote to step-siblings in the late 1800s.

In a letter dated February 4, 1887, Susie Sullenger told of being a school teacher in Oaktown, Indiana, until she married and was forced to quit because married women were not allowed to teach. She also wrote "Well all the folks live in MO but brother Will (Wm) and Uncle John. Will lives at Portia, Lawrence Co. Arkansas. John lives at Patoka, Ill. The rest live at Cobalt, Howell Co., Mo or near there. Will has been married 6 years." The Uncle John might be John Bess found with the Bess family in the 1870 census. This is still to be ascertained.

In 1880 census, Wm Jasper, wife, Mary E (West), son, John and mother, Ann Underwood, are living Howell County, Missouri. Mother, Mary Ann Bess, evidently is the Mary Ann Bess that married Joseph Underwood, 16 Aug 1871, Vandalia, Illinois, since she is listed as "mother" on the census listing in Missouri. Wm J Bess married Mary E West, 24 Dec 1871, Vandalia, Illinois.

James Monroe Adams later wrote that the family "freed their slaves, packed all they could into covered wagon or wagons, and started for the North. During the day their sons hiked through the woods, coming out only to eat. At night valuables were hidden under the wheels of the wagon in ruts made by rolling the wheels back and forth, then placing their valuables under the wheels. When they reached Vandalia, Illinois, they settled there and the men went into the army of the North." (There is no record of this).

Further, James wrote "Sara Janeís brothers and sisters moved to Missouri about the time the Evans family moved. Jasper lived nearby with his first wife Julia (incorrect, first wife was Mary Elizabeth) and their children: Fate, Troy and Delia (Cordelia Elzora Bess married Frank Augustus Bay, thus we have a cross of our Bay and Bess Families). Julia died and Jasper married a woman named Jane ( Julia was the second wife and Margaret Jane, nee, Porter, Williams was the third wife). Nan (Bess) married Jeremiah Flood a widower with four children. They had no children of their own. Nan visited us many times when we lived in Fairdale."

Just a comment, there is no evidence of the family owning any slaves at the time they left Alabama or in any of the censuses. William Jasperís service records and pension request are one of my sources. Also Nancy Bess Flood widowís pension request has alot of information in it.

Jasper was a minister in the Baptist Church and as such it was he who married Jennie (Genevia Catherine) Evans and James Monroe Adams. James Ray Evans was moderator for some time in the Baptist Church.

James Smith Bess was born 1804 in South Carolina. The only Bess in the 1800 census is John Bess in Spartanburg Co., South Carolina. 1810 census also has a John Bess, 21010-1101000, meaning that there were 2 males less than 10 years of age, one male 10-16, 1 male 26-45, and so forth for the females. The connection with the parents of James Smith Bess has not been made.

Vera Bay Reh (Mrs. Rex Reh) of Farmington, New Mexico, was a wonderful source for this Bess family. Vera is the daughter of Jasper Bessí daughter Cordelia Bess Bay. Vera is living now, March 2000, in Farmington, New Mexico.


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