Before I get started, though, let me tell you to whom she is related. Martha was Blanche Branch's great-great-great-great-grandmother, one of a succession of Grandmother Marthas: Blanche's own grandmother Martha Burrow Vermillion, her grandmother Martha McGee Burrow, and finally her grandmother Martha Bell, the spy herself. (Martha Bell was also the mother of the revival preachers John and William McGee, who I wrote about a while back.)
Martha McFarlane was born in Alamance County, N.C. in 1735, and we're told she was from a Scottish Presbyterian family. I haven't ever read anything about her family's social or economic position, but she married a well-to-do widower named John McGee and had five children with him before he died in 1773, leaving her "the richest widow anywhere in that region," according to Eli W. Carruthers, whose biographical sketch of her from 1854 is the earliest source for most of the lore about her. Carruthers goes on to say that she was "much sought after, especially by the young widowers and middle-aged bachelors; and it was then said that she was a 'little haughty,' but this probably originated with those who could not succeed in gaining her affections."
She married another wealthy citizen named William Bell in 1779 and moved to his home on Deep River, where he operated a mill and store. (A historian found ruins of the mill a few years ago—see photo above—but the site is now covered by a lake.)
Her biographer Carruthers goes into some detail in trying to describe Martha's looks, personality, and character, obviously walking a tightrope to make her at once boldly heroic yet acceptably feminine. His awkward attempts to justify her assertive and decisive actions suggest how difficult it must have been to reconcile those traits with femininity in the 19th-century South:
"She was not, at any time remarkable for personal beauty nor for the opposite, but was what, in common parlance, is called a good-looking woman.’ There was nothing about her that could be regarded as masculine and nothing in her deportment, ordinarily, that was at all inconsistent with the modesty and delicacy of her sex; but she was a woman of strong mind, ardent in her temperament and remarkably firm and resolute in whatever she undertook, which just fitted her for the trying scenes through which she was called to pass."
"If this should appear to the reader inconsistent with the modesty and delicacy of her sex, he must recollect that 'circumstances alters cases.' At all times, there may be occasions, and they were of almost daily occurrence at that period, when those qualities, so becoming ordinarily, must be subordinate to the higher principles of self-preservation and the public good. . . . the woman whose energy, prudence and dignified firmness were adequate to any emergency was sure to command a respect which would not be shown to more lovely or attractive qualities."
Carruthers is also curiously reluctant to say it outright, but it appears that Martha was a practicing midwife, albeit one who did not charge for her services until late in her life. He refers to her as "a sort of 'professional character'" who would travel throughout the county to attend to her duty "no matter what hour of the night the call was made"; he also alludes to her "medical skill" and even says she went on one of her spy missions "in the character of a midwife" but never says specifically what her profession was.
At any rate, it was not long after she married William Bell that she earned her fame. The Revolution was on by that time, and in 1781 Lord Cornwallis's British troops were trying to hold onto the Southern colonies, having taken Charleston, South Carolina, in the previous year. The area where Martha lived was divided between Patriots and Tories, and there was a great deal of violence off the battlefield as well as on. William Bell was a well-known business and political figure in the area who was also a prominent patriot. He spent a good deal of time away from home during the war, not as a soldier but under the protection of local militias, as his life was in danger from the local Tories.
In March 1781, Cornwallis and his troops faced the Americans at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, which is seen by history as a costly pyrrhic victory for the British. After the battle, Cornwallis's army sought to regroup and set up camp at Bell's Mill, where Martha Bell—but not William—was living. The locals must have enjoyed the idea of Cornwallis and his Redcoats meeting their match in this"woman of strong mind," for they told all kinds of stories about this brief encounter. The most repeated of these stories was told to Carruthers by a General Gray, who knew Mrs. Bell after the war. Cornwallis, after inquiring about the whereabouts of Mr. Bell, told Martha:
"‘Madam, I must make your house my headquarters, and have the use of your mill for a few days, to grind for my army while I remain here.'
'Sir, you possess the power, and, of course, will do as you please without my consent; but, after using our mill, do you intend to burn it before you leave?’
'Madam, why do you ask that question?'
‘Sir, answer my question first, and then I will answer yours in a short time.’
His lordship then assured her that the mill should not be burnt or injured; but that he must use it to prepare provisions for his army, and further added, that by making her house his head-quarters, he would be a protection to herself, her house, and every thing that was in or about it; for, said he, ‘no soldier of mine will dare to plunder, or commit depredations near my quarters.’
To which she replied: ‘Now, sir, you have done me a favor by giving me a satisfactory answer to my question, and I will answer yours. Had your lordship said that you intended to burn our mill, I had intended to save you the trouble by burning it myself before you derived much benefit from it; but as you assure me that the mill shall not be burned, and that you will be a protection to me, and to the property about the house, I will make no further objections to your using our mill, and making my house your headquarters while you stay, which, I think you said, would be only for a few days.'"
Among the other tales of Cornwallis's two-day occupation of Bell's Mill: Martha had hidden her cash under a rock and had to slip out to the yard to get it right from under the noses of the Redcoats camped there. When the Redcoats were trying to raid her cellar and steal her cider, Martha threw herself in front of the cellar door and dared them to come through her. When a soldier uttered something profane in her presence as he rode by on his horse, she wished for the horse to throw him and break his neck—and he did so only a few minutes later.
The story that made Martha a heroine of the Revolution, however, comes immediately after Cornwallis left Bell's Mill. Writes Carruthers:
In the evening of the day on which the British left her premises, she made a visit to their camp, for the purpose, it is said, of reconnoitering, but under some other pretext. What was her precise object, or what induced her to engage in the enterprise, no definite or reliable information can now be obtained; but the tradition has been so uniform and so well sustained, that there can be no doubt of the fact. . . . her familiarity with every road and every bye-path, with every plantation and hill and dale, in addition to her patriotism and intrepidity, just fitted her for such an enterprise; and she would be in no danger, for Cornwallis, having been so lately sheltered under her roof, could not do otherwise than treat her with courtesy and respect. . . . Equipped and mounted on a first-rate horse, she set off alone and fulfilled her mission with entire success. the object, was to ascertain, as far as possible, the condition of the British army, and especially whether they were receiving any considerable accessions of Tories. Under the pretext of making complaint against the soldiers for depredations committed on her property, which had not become known to her until after they were gone, she went into the camp and hunted up his lordship or requested to be taken to his tent, to whom she made her complaint, but in doing this she had her eye upon everything, and managed so as to get the information she wanted, when she returned home in safety and much pleased with what she had done.
Carruthers goes on to suggest that Martha made another reconnaissance mission by night to check out "an embodiment of Tories which was said to be forming on the other side of the river." On the pretense that she was making a call in the area as a midwife, she went around to various houses asking about the presence of Tories in the area, ostensibly out of concern for her safety. Armed with the information she passed on, Carruthers writes, Colonel "Light Horse Harry" Lee "took them by surprise and broke up the whole concern" the next night.
Martha lived nearly forty more years after the Revolution; she died in 1820 at the age of 85. Carruthers notes that she became a Christian early in the nineteenth century, at about the time the Second Great Awakening was sweeping the country—and her sons William and John McGee were preaching to nearly hysterical revival meetings on the Kentucky-Tennessee frontier.
Martha's fame seems to have a lot to do with Carruthers's recounting of her story. A monument to her (see photo at the top of this post) at the Guilford Courthouse battleground, erected in 1928, reads:
Mrs. Martha McFarland [sic] McGee Bell
Loyal Whig—Enthusiastic Patriot
We are indebted to E. W. Caruthers for the eventfull story of her life.
But the Daughters of the American Revolution, which had approved the 1928 monument, was less impressed with Carruthers as a source in 1997, when members of the local chapter wanted to erect a DAR marker at the site of her grave. The national organization at first turned them down, arguing that "no contemporary evidence can be found" to support Carruthers's stories. With a bunch of angry North Carolina Daughters on their hands, the national DAR finally compromised: on the basis of pay vouchers to Bell from the Revolutionary army (for unspecified goods or services) they allowed that she was in fact a patriot, even if Carruthers's tales could not be verified, and they gave her her grave marker (left). (There is also a highway bridge named for Martha just north of Randleman, North Carolina, on U.S. 220.)
More recently, a descendant of Martha's named Jennifer Wellborn wrote a book making the case for Martha's exploits. Unable to find further documentation, she instead took the tack of comparing the other Revolutionary stories in Carruthers's book with other contemporary documents. She argued that Carruthers was a reliable source in these other cases, and thus could be trusted as a source in the case of Martha Bell. She told the Greensboro News & Record that she wasn't surprised by the lack of contemporary evidence about Martha: "As a general rule, men of that era rarely wrote about women's feats of derring-do."
So here's to Carruthers, Wellborn, and especially to Martha Bell!