If your last name is Bonnell or Bunnell and your family has Doddridge County roots, then you almost certainly descend from the subject of this article, John Bonnell. Not much is known about where he came from, but through official government documents we learn how this pioneer went from serving as a soldier in the elite Continental Line in the Revolutionary War (featured photo) to life as a pauper striving to survive on the remote western Virginia frontier.
John Bonnell was born in New Jersey in 1761. Exactly when he came to Harrison County is unknown, but he married Hannah Smith in Clarksburg on May 8, 1792. Rarely do we have an opportunity to read first-hand accounts of someone’s personal life from so long ago, but we found a 1796 Virginia Legislative Petition by John Bonnell that explains his marriage and ultimate divorce from Hannah Smith Bonnell:
Soldier, Settler, Cuckold, Pauper
The Tumultuous Life of John Bonnell
Abandoned by Wife - Remarries
“Your Petitioner was joined in Marriage on the 8th day of May 1792 to Hannah Smith, Daughter of Ephraim Smith of Harrison County, and by the said Hannah has two children and that your Petitioner lived in Satisfactory Union with the said Hannah until about the fifteenth of April last when to the surprise of your Memorialist he intercepted Letters of Criminal Intent from a certain John Asa, a married man, who wrote in criminal language to said Hannah.
“...She has eloped from him and their two small children and has for some months lived with the said John Asa.
“...being fully assured that the said Hannah and John Asa live in the State of Adultery, I consider myself Divorced from her by the Divine Law and it is to you and you only that I have to look up to for a Divorce by the Municipal Law.”
Shortly after his divorce from Hannah, John Bonnell married Rhulana Fitz Randolph in about 1797. Rhulana, born in 1773, was the daughter of Samuel Fitz Randolph, founding father of New Salem, Virginia (now Salem, W.Va.), and a member of the Seventh Day Baptist faith. Rhulana had been living in New Salem since 1792, when her family came to western Virginia with a group of Seventh Day Baptists from New Jersey.
After John married Rhulana, he moved with her to one of the remotest areas that he could possibly find, where Rhulana was sure to never run off with another man. For a few years he and Rhulana, and possibly one daughter [Sarah] from his previous marriage, lived in complete isolation in the area that would later become the village of Pennsboro. The following comes from a historic marker in Pennsboro:
“Settled by John Bunnell, a veteran of the Revolution, near the salt lick which attracted great game herds. ..”
Minnie Kendall Lowther on John Bonnell
Famed local historian and author Minnie Kendall Lowther wrote in her 1911 book History of Ritchie County the following:
“The first one of these cabins that came within the present boundary of Ritchie county was built by John Bunnell, near the beginning of the year 1800, on the site that is now marked by the thriving town of Pennsboro. Hence the origin of the name of the stream near by, ‘Bunnell's run,’ which serves as an enduring memorial, although we have been unable to learn ‘from whence he came or whither he went.’ Mr. Bunnell sold his possessions here to John Webster, of New England, who, early in the nineteenth century, built the ‘Stone house’ at the western end of Pennsboro,...”
Bonnell vs. Bunnell
Since John Bonnell was first a Gunner and later a Bombardier in New York’s 2nd Artillery Regiment Continental Line, we have access to some of his military records. Upon reviewing his pension file we learn that Petitioner John Bonnell and Minnie Kendall Lowther’s John Bunnell are one and the same person. There are witness depositions that testify that John Bonnell, who served in the Revolutionary War, once lived on the waters of the Hughes River and left there sometime between 1806 and 1809. Even within the same pension file, the spelling of John’s last name goes back and forth between Bonnell and Bunnell, although more often than not, it’s spelled Bonnell.
John Bonnell was enumerated in Harrison County in 1810, so that proves that he did indeed leave his cabin on Hughes River, in present-day Ritchie County, prior to 1810. If he were still living on the Hughes River in 1810, he would have been enumerated in Wood County, not Harrison County, since that part of Ritchie was formed from Wood County in 1843.
John Moves to Ten Mile Creek
In his pension application dated May 19, 1818, John Bonnell said, “I am by occupation a farmer, but affected with the rheumatism and unable to work. I have no family residing with me, excluding myself, viz my wife, aged 48 years and my children, Charles, aged 12 and Margaret, aged 3 years, not able to earn their living.”
John Bonnell was able to prove his military service and was granted a pension on January 28, 1819.
Nine months later, in October 1819, John Bonnell purchased two land grants totalling 82 acres on the middle fork of Ten Mile Creek located on Bear Track run, which today lies between Dog Run and Cherry Camp in Harrison County, very near the Doddridge border. John Bonnell’s land bordered what used to be Nicholas Carpenter's property. Two of his nearest neighbors were William “Bottom Billy” Davis and Samuel Chana (Chaney), the colorful Doddridge-based Romney-to-Marietta horseback mail carrier who I’ve written about previously.
Depositions Paint a Picture
In order to continue receiving his pension, John Bonnell had to establish his residency and prove that he was not able to financially support himself and his family. From his deposition, and those of his acquaintances, we learn the following:
June 22, 1820: John Bonnell said that he owned 78 acres in Harrison County; that he held title to 450 acres on the Hughes River in Wood County (present-day Ritchie), but it was in dispute and he feared that he would not get it back; that he owned three cows, two pigs, ten hogs, one horse, household furniture and farming utensils worth $17.00; and that he was also $65.00 in debt.
August 30, 1820: John Webster testified that John Bonnell never had possession of the 450 acres on Hughes River. (This is the same John Webster who Minnie Kendall Lowther mentioned in her book.)
October 22, 1821: Richard Dotson said that he was well acquainted with the 450 acres John Bonnell supposedly purchased. The 450 acres was part of a 23,000 acre survey held by Joseph Spencer and that even if John Bonnell held the rightful claim to the land, that it was not worth more than one cent per acre.
November 1, 1821: William “Bottom Billy” Davis said that John Bonnell lives in his neighborhood and is a poor man, nearly blind. (Bottom Billy lived in the area now known as Bristol in Harrison County.)
November 3, 1821: David Wolfe said that John Bonnell was insolvent and had left the Hughes River community twelve or fifteen years ago and is thought to never return.
January 5, 1822: Edward B. Jackson wrote from Washington DC (House of Representatives) and said that he was acquainted with John Bonnell and knows that he suffers from a chronic inflammation of the eye and is deserving of a bounty from the Government.
John’s Ex-wife Claims His Pension
John Bonnell died in Salem in 1823. Since his wife Rhulana was a member of the Seventh Day Baptist Church in Salem, he was most likely buried in the adjacent cemetery. This is where the story takes an odd turn. Rhulana never applied for John’s military pension, but oddly enough, his first wife Hannah did.
At the time of John Bonnell’s death, Hannah had married a man named William Byers and was living in Ohio. In 1844 Hannah boldly applied for her ex-husband’s pension, never mentioning the fact that they had divorced in 1796. Hannah was granted a widow’s pension and started receiving an annual allowance for her deceased ex-husband’s service in the Revolutionary War. From what I can tell, Rhulana never applied for a widow’s pension or contested Hannah’s claim.
One possible reason that Hannah was granted her ex-husband’s pension was because a very wealthy and prominent individual spoke on her behalf. Hannah’s brother-in-law was Joseph Johnson, who later became the 32nd Governor of Virginia, serving from 1852 to 1856. By 1844 Johnson had already been a Captain in the War of 1812 and a Congressman. Joseph Johnson testified on Hannah’s behalf, not once mentioning the divorce.
McWhorter Speaks Up
On December 13, 1847, Dr. Fields McWhorter (son of author Henry McWhorter) wrote a letter to the pension office stating the facts as he knew them:
“I will give you a brief history. She was married some fifty years ago since to a Mr. John Bonnell, the name by which she is now known in the War Department. At the end of about three or four years she absconded with (?) Asa to Cincinnati, with whom she lived for some years until he was drowned. She afterwards married a Wm. Byers, whose name she now bears where she is known. After his death she removed from Cincinnati, Ohio to Cardington, Marion County, Ohio, where she now resides. Although I am not personally acquainted with the above circumstances, they are well-known to the many. This history I have from her daughter [Sarah] by her first husband Bonnell. Honorable Joseph Johnson, I presume, is perhaps as well acquainted with the facts as any other individual. The widow [Hannah] is his wife's sister.”
Even though the pension office was made aware of Hannah’s duplicity, I found no proof that her widow’s pension was ever revoked.
Both Bonnell & Bunnell in Doddridge
The Bonnell/Bunnell surname in Doddridge County was passed down through John and Rhulana’s two sons, Jonathan and Charles. It was not until the fourth generation that the spelling Bunnell officially appears. Even within the same household, some siblings went by Bonnell and others went by Bunnell.
Rhulana Fitz Randolph Bonnell died in 1865, at the age of 93, while living with her grandson John Bonnell in Sedalia, Doddridge County. John’s father was Charles Bonnell, who obtained land grants for 256 acres located on the right-hand fork of Skelton’s Run in Doddridge County. Charles died sometime after 1880, burial location unknown.
John and Rhulana’s son Jonathan moved to McClellan District, Doddridge County, sometime between 1870 and 1880. There he died in 1885. He is buried at the Seventh Day Baptist Cemetery in Salem.
Regardless of the spelling or pronunciation, it’s clear that all Bonnells and Bunnells in Doddridge County descend from this same John Bonnell. The twists and turns that his life took, and the obstacles that he met along the way, make him a very sympathetic character in my eyes. I hope this brief account of his life gives his descendants a better appreciation of “whence they came.”
If you think you or someone you know might be related to John Bonnell, check out this list of his descendants.
(NOTE: This article, written by Heritage Guild member Jennifer Wilt, originally appeared in The Doddridge Independent as part of her weekly column “Our Heritage: The REAL History of Doddridge County.”)