The Ambrose Bierce Site
the AMBROSE BIERCE site
MY QUEST TO FIND THE BIRTHPLACE
OF AMBROSE BIERCE
Call it "caution," call it "just wanting to be accurate," or call it "just not willing to take somebody else's word without documented proof," but for many years I had a gnawing suspicion about the claim that Ambrose Bierce was born in Meigs County. Many easily proven mistakes in biographies, genealogies and other "stories" written about him made the claim questionable, and with no documented proof to the contrary, I could not give credence to their correctness. Many stories, biographies and genealogies that are generally believed to be correct are quoted as sources for factual information. However, unless there is documentation of facts, even the most renowned source for information can be wrong.
My quest began several years ago after hearing a local account of the Bierce family history. Wondering if there were a connection between the present day Bearhs family and the Ambrose Bierce family, I checked the Meigs County census looking for the Bierces. However, there were no Bierce to be found in the Meigs County census. The account I heard said they left here and went to Athens County, but the family of Ambrose could not be found in Athens County either. This was when I began to question "was the story of his birth here correct?" I voiced my concern to local researchers, Joyce Davis and Karen Werry, who both had been searching for the Bierce family for several years, and we began to dig deeper into the legal records in the courthouse, but we could find no record of the Bierce family. No voting record, no property record and we weren't finding any personal tax records. Stories we read and heard indicated the Bierces were a poor family and probably didn't own anything. So, we thought, this might account for no records being found.
Photo by Paul Tople, Akron Beacon Journal
Some biographers and genealogists said that Marcus Bierce came from Connecticut straight to Meigs County (prior to 1820 the family was in Portage County (census records prove this) - a part of the religious settlement in the Western Reserve); that he and Laura Sherwood were married before they left Connecticut (however, their 1822 marriage is recorded in Portage County, Ohio); that they moved to the Circleville area (we've found nothing to indicate this); that they started a religious settlement at Bashan (none is mentioned in early histories, nor recorded at the courthouse - so this has not been proven); and most biographers completely ignored the fact that the Bierces even lived in Portage County. Then we have the story of a Meigs County man, quoted in a 1950 newspaper article at the age of 90, stating he and his brother often went to Bashan to visit with Ambrose Bierce. Wait a minute - this man wasn't born until 1860 and even the biographers had it right that Ambrose was in Indiana by that time. There were other stories told of families who had known the Bierces, etc., and many of them probably did. However, as you'll see later, the Bierces couldn't have lived here more than four years at the most, and probably less - sometime between 1842-1846 - so definitely some stories are exaggerated . Since I was finding no documented proof presented by the biographers and we could find no local records, my concern became greater as to whether or not Meigs County's claim to the birthplace of Ambrose Bierce was correct or not. Wanting to be historically accurate, I felt something was needed that would prove whether they ever lived here or not. I had found some biographies that stated the Bierce family had lived in Portage County, Ohio.
So, one Saturday, my husband, Leland, and son, Mike, spent the afternoon going through the census at the Ohio Historical Society. We found William Bierce (father of Marcus) in Portage County in 1820 and then Marcus Aurellius Bierce living in Portage County, Nelson Township, Ohio in 1830 and 1840. In 1850 he appeared in Summit County, Portage Township, Akron, Ohio, with an 8 year old Ambrose in the family. Checking other information available for Portage County, we found a school enumeration for 1838, with the school age children of Marcus Aurellius Bierce listed, including the daughters. This did not sound to me like a poor man, who was made in many accounts to sound like a vagabond or squatter. This, instead, sounded like a proud man and one that was not necessarily poor. Finding them in Nelson Township shed light on another misconception - the biographers and genealogists that had said Marcus lived in Nelsonville or Nelson Township, Athens County - (there is no Nelson township in Athens County) were probably confusing it with Nelson Township in Portage County. And, so that is where it rested, as I still didn't have proof to say he was or was not born in Meigs County, or if the family ever lived here.
In my research, I had found enough information to validate the stories that two of Ambrose Bierce's sisters lived in Gallia County. Although, I have not found where the marriages took place, both women were living in Gallia County by 1850, married to men from Washington County. However, the marriages, ca 1846-1848 did not take place in any of the surrounding counties, and do not show up on the Ohio marriage index. Some biographers say they were married in Indiana. These sisters raised their families in Gallia county and are buried there.
But, this still didn't tell us where Ambrose was born. So, when the Ohio Bicentennial Commission said they were going to place a marker [to honor Bierce] in Meigs County, I asked that they please wait until we could find proof one way or the other as to where he was born, or if he ever lived in the county. At about the same time, Don Swaim, who has an extensive Ambrose Bierce internet website, contacted me and asked why there was no marker to Ambrose in Meigs County. I answered with my concern about whether he [Bierce] ever lived here or not, and Mr. Swaim asked if he could put this on his website. I told him I did not want to go public until I had undisputable proof, but with the pressure of the Bicentennial marker, I let him place a story on the website. This caught the attention of Paula Schleis of the Akron Beacon Journal and she contacted me to do a story. Her story was picked up and carried in the local newspapers, as well as other papers throughout the state. Mike Lackey of the Lima News contacted me and also did a very nice article. Ms. Schleis and Mr. Lackey both understood that I was only wanting history to be correct and either prove or disprove the seemingly inaccuracies of many of the published biographies. They understood I was not against the marker being placed in Meigs County, but only wanted it placed where it belonged.
In early July 2002, I journeyed to Akron, Summit County, Ohio, believing that if I could find when Marcus first showed up there, that would tell me when he left Portage County, or, if sometime in the ten year period, he had indeed been in Meigs County. But, instead of answering questions, I only raised more. There was nothing in Summit County records except the 1850 census, which showed real estate value of $300.00. The Summit County deed records produced no land transfers and the tax records no payments. The University of Akron archives allowed us to search the Tax Duplicates for Portage County for the late 1830's through 1850 and we found Marcus paying taxes on land, and personal property taxes on cattle and horses through 1841 - then nothing. In 1840 he owned about 12 acres, but in 1841 he owned less than 2 acres. If he still owned land, why weren't any taxes paid in 1842? Did they leave Portage County and did they come to Meigs County? I knew I had to try and locate the deed transfers for Marcus's land in Portage County, so, with only a few minutes left before the courthouse in Ravenna (Portage County) closed, we went through the deed book. If nothing else is proven by my research, let this be known - Marcus Bierce was not a poor man, nor a squatter. He received his first property from his father, William, in 1818. From 1818 until 1838, the Portage County records show that at least 23 times, Marcus bought and sold property in Nelson and Freedom townships, sometimes nearly 100 acres at a time. But, then the land transfers ended, with him still owning almost 12 acres of land and no transfer being recorded. Although I knew there still had to be more information, time had run out and it was time to leave northern Ohio.
Returning home, I spent an afternoon going over materials at the Meigs County Museum library and found in the 1850 mortality schedule for Ohio, the death of a 2 year old daughter, Arelia J., in April 1850 in Summit County, Ohio, born in IA (which is the abbreviation for Iowa, but the Bierces went to Indiana, so, in this case, it may mean Indiana). Don Swaim quoted a biographer finding the Marcus Aurellius Bierce family owning property in Indiana by 1846, and the children were checking books out of the library in 1847. He also said Marcus applied for membership in the Mason's in Indiana in 1850, so the family may only have returned to Summit County, Ohio for a short time in 1850, since the child's death was in April and the census was taken in June.
An inventory done about 1990 of books stored in the Academy building by George Bain, Director of the Ohio University Archives and regional archivist at the time, assisted by myself (as president of the Historical Society), Karen Werry (then president of the Meigs County Genealogical Society), June Ashley and Rev. William Middleswarth does not list these early Meigs County Ohio Auditor Tax Duplicates, so why was the book there now and where are the other two? If these books had been in the courthouse with the others, or a record where they were stored, we would have had our proof many years ago. We checked 1842 and prior years and 1846 to 1850 at the courthouse. Without the 1843 book, we still don't know if they paid taxes for the year 1842 (which was the year Ambrose was born), but we know they paid taxes on land and livestock in Portage County in 1841. The gap in Meigs county tax records for this important time in county history can leave us with no proof for the time period, as evidenced by this incident.
My quest drew the interest of many in the Nelson area of Portage County, including several from the Bierce family. Jody Schroth of the Village Newspaper in Nelson Township, Portage County, recently contacted me. She said they had a lot of fun with the mystery - encouraging people to try and find proof whether or not Ambrose might have been born there. And out of this came more proof that the Bierces lived in Meigs County. An attorney in the area decided to see if he could find the missing land transfer and he found it (in records not included in the deed index we had checked) and on a transfer of property in April 1843, Marcus listed his address as Chester, Meigs County. So, we have several pieces of documented proof that the family of Marcus Bierce lived in Meigs County. It might have been safe to assume that they came to Meigs County a short time after they paid taxes in Portage County in 1841 and that they lived here until sometime before the records show them in Indiana. But, again, I'm not one that likes to assume. I've read too many historical accounts that "assume" and have often found the assumption to be wrong. The extra time spent in researching facts can save a lot of questions about the credibility of ones research and writings. It is for this reason that I was not willing to accept the undocumented stories that had been written, but wanted instead to see undeniable proof. With the documented proof that the Bierce family lived in Meigs County during a time after Ambrose's birth, and with his military records stating in his own handwriting that he was born here, we can accurately say this is true. The Ohio Bicentennial Commission will be placing a marker in Meigs County honoring Ambrose Bierce and now we have undisputable proof that it belongs here.
I wanted to share this story, so it will be written (with reference to proven facts) for the future and, hopefully, I have corrected some misconceptions about the Marcus Aurellius Bierce family.
Also published in the September 2003 issue of the Meigs Historian
Ambrose Bierce in the News
Ambrose Bierce on the Notion of God
Ambrose Bierce on Terrorism
Ambrose Bierce on Politics
Ambrose Bierce & Pancho Villa
The Wickedest Man in San Francisco, 1870
Love & Kisses: Bierce & Wilde
Bierce Duels with H.L. Mencken
Bierce & Jack London
Ambrose Bierce Resources on the Web
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