My 3xgreat-grandfather Richard Grafton Belt; and The Bordley and Belt Families, Based on Letters Written by Family Members, assembled and annotated by Edward Wickersham Hoffman

This is another of the volumes put together by my cousin Edward “Wick” Hoffman, drawing on the family letters left by his mother in a vodka box. This time he looks at his great-grandmother, my great-great-grandmother, Frances Wyatt Belt (1837-1912), and her ancestors – previous volumes looked at her relationship with her husband, Samuel Morris Wickersham, before and after their marriage. This includes Frances’ great-aunt, Elizabeth Bordley Gibson (1777-1863), who was friends with George Washington’s foster-daughter Nellie Custis and featured in contemporary art, but lived long enough to mentor her great-niece, whose grave I recently visited.

The early letters are really social chitchat from the first part of the nineteenth century. But we soon get onto the intriguing figure of my 3xgreat-grandfather, Frances’ father Richard Grafton Belt (1784-1865). For reasons that I will come to, I have been delving into his early life recently. His father, a farmer in the neighbourhood of Baltimore, died when he was 12, leaving him the oldest of five or six surviving siblings. In the Federal Gazette and Baltimore Daily Advertiser for 18 December 1807, we find this notice:

I haven’t been able to track this location down directly, but thirteen miles out of Baltimore on the York Road, now Route 45, gets you to the area now known as Cockeysville.

Leaping forward a couple of decades, this page on medicine in Maryland lists Richard Grafton Belt as an “M.D., apothecary and druggist” in 1827, a “doctor and druggist” in 1829, and an “apothecary” in 1833, all at 13 Market St (not Baltimore St) in Baltimore, a really central location. In 1843 he is at 125 Fayette St, not quite as central, listed as a “doctor” and, intriguingly, “Spanish consul”. I have no idea where he got his medical qualifications.

In 1831 he had married Sally Rebecca Heath Sims Bordley, who was at least twenty years younger than him, born around 1805 as far as I can tell. They had half a dozen children, my great-great-grandmother Frances (“Fanny”) somewhere in the middle. Wick’s collection of letters to and from him and his daughters dates from the 1850s. By this stage Richard Grafton Belt had rejected conventional medicine and taken up homeopathy. He completely failed to make it pay (not surprising, since homeopathy is bullshit), and basically had no money at all.

His daughter Fanny started working in a textile factory in Rhode Island at the age of 15 to keep the family going. Her father’s letters are full of the “it’s-really-going-to-work-this-time” narrative to the point that you can feel his teenage daughter shrugging her shoulders; what, again?

As well as being a rabid homeopathist, Richard Grafton Belt was also mawkishly religious and urged his children to get confirmed and attend church regularly in his absence. His grandson, Francis Sims McGrath, reflects on him thus in his book Pillars of Maryland:

So. DNA analysis reveals that there may have been more going on. There is a particular group of people on AncestryDNA who have a common link with me and each other. Most of this group appear to be African-American, or at least to have a large part of their heritage from that source. A lot of them also seem to have ancestry that can be traced back to Annapolis and/or Baltimore in Maryland. The link is sufficiently close that an early nineteenth-century common ancestor is plausible.

I am inclined to think that Richard Grafton Belt had a relationship with an African-American woman in Baltimore, and that the children of that relationship have many living descendants who are cousins of mine. I conjecture that Richard Grafton Belt’s relationship with the mother of his black child or children ended badly, causing him to seek redemption in religion and homeopathy, and leaving DNA that endures in my own body and in the bodies of dozens of Marylanders. (And a few in Alabama, for reasons we can only speculate about.)

There are of course other possibilities. But Richard Grafton Belt had only two sons; one died aged 16, and the other spent most of his adult life in Philadelphia (and is not known to have married or had children), so neither seems likely to have left DNA traces in Baltimore’s African-American community. He had several brothers, and one of them, Thomas Hanson Belt, could be a possibility as he too lived most of his life in Baltimore; his wife, Elizabeth Key Heath, was the aunt of Richard Grafton Belt’s wife Sally Rebecca Heath Sims Bordley. (The other brothers all seem to have moved away as soon as they were adults.) Still, the strength of the DNA connections points to Richard Grafton Belt rather than his brother as the most likely common ancestor.

Anyway, if you want to try your own psychoanalysis, you can get Wick’s book of family letters here.