Most sources state that US outlaw, Charles E. Boles aka ‘Black Bart’ was born in Norfolk, England in 1829 to John and Maria Bowles. John left a will which mentioned a number of family members and they can be traced through the US censuses. These records tell us that John was born c. 1789 England, Maria was born c. 1793 England and they had children: Harriet (c. 1812), William (c. 1815), James (c. 1818), John Jr. (c. 1819), Robert (c.1822), Lucy (c. 1824), Charles (c. 1829) all in England, then Maria (c.1832) and Hiram (c.1834) in Jefferson Co, NY, USA. There has been some discussion about the change from Bowles to Boles, but the name is spelled in several ways in the censuses, so this is just another spelling variant. Norfolk was not recorded in the censuses, but much of what is known about Black Bart came from people who knew him and there is a further piece of compelling evidence. Leonard Bowles born c.1792 England also came to Alexandria with his wife Mary Ann and family at the same time as John and Maria and there is a surviving naturalisation intention for Leonard stating that he was 44 and had been born in Shelfanger, Norfolk, England. It is very likely that Leonard and John were brothers.
It is commonly stated that John Bowles and Maria Leggett married in Great Yarmouth in 1807 and there is such a marriage in the Great Yarmouth St Nicholas Marriage Register (NRO, PD 28/71) (in the name of Ledgett), but if Maria’s ages in the census and on her gravestone are correct, she would only have been 13 in 1807, which while legal with parental consent, was fairly uncommon and the marriage does not record consent. The children born to this couple in Yarmouth were listed in the Great Yarmouth St Nicholas Baptism Register (NRO, PD 28/30) as being Thomas William (1811), Mary Ann (1814) Harriet Maria (1816) John Ledget (1819), Robert Cropley (1821), Joseph (1828), Harriet (1830) and Richard Leggett (1835). They do not fit with what is known of the family and crucially, their last child was born in Yarmouth long after we know the family were in the USA. They can also be seen in the 1841 (HO 107/794/38/20) and 1851 (HO 107/1806/163/3) censuses in Yarmouth, so they cannot possibly be Charles’ parents. (N.B. They had lost track of their true ages, but are living with two of their known children and a Mary and Charlotte Leggett in 1841, so it is surely the same couple).
As Leonard Bowles reported that he was born in Shelfanger, those parish registers were searched, but neither John nor Leonard’s baptisms were found there. There was just a burial of a William, son of James and Rebecca Bowles, in 1795 (NRO, PD 80/4). Were John and Leonard baptised to this couple before the family moved to Shelfanger? Various genealogy websites were searched for other children baptised to James and Rebecca, but none were found.
The marriages of John and Maria Bowles and Leonard and Mary Ann Bowles were also looked for without success. However, in Bressingham -just 4 miles from Shelfanger – baptisms were found for John (1824), George (1824) and Eliza (1827), the children of Leonard and Mary Ann Bowles, late Stone (NRO, PD 111/4). This must surely be the couple who emigrated with John and Maria. Burials for a Sophia Bowles, aged 14, Martha Bowles, aged 10 and John Bowles, aged 6 were also found in the Bressingham burial register, in 1827 (NRO, PD 111/9). The baptisms of Sophia and Martha were looked for in the Bressingham registers, but were not found. However, on 6th September 1818 Sophia (born 1813), James (born 1815) and Martha (born 1818), the children of Leonard and Mary Ann Birch, late Stone, were all baptised together. So we have a Leonard Birch and a Leonard Bowles both married to a Mary Ann Stone, both in Bressingham and with children seemingly in common. Could Leonard Birch and Leonard Bowles be one and the same man?
A marriage for Mary Ann Stone and Leonard Birch was looked for and found in Fersfield, which lies between Bressingham and Shelfanger, in 1812 (NRO, PD 144/4). Also found there was a baptism of Sophia, daughter of Leonard and Mary Ann Birch, in 1813 (NRO, PD 144/3). Thus it appears that Sophia was baptised twice in the name of Birch, but buried in the name of Bowles.
The Shelfanger baptisms (NRO, PD 80/2) were looked at again to see if any Birch baptisms were found there and the following was noted:
Leonard, son of James and Rebecca Birch, baptised 26th February 1792
Therefore, Leonard Birch was baptised in Shelfanger the very year that Leonard Bowles recorded he was born there. Also his parent’s names were James and Rebecca Birch and just 3 years later a William, son of James and Rebecca Bowles was buried in the parish. Therefore, it seems we have clear evidence that not only did Leonard use the names Bowles and Birch, but so did his father, James. Could John and Maria Bowles also have used both surnames?
There was indeed a marriage between a John Burch and Maria Hall, in 1811, in Shelfanger (NRO, PD 80/6). There were also marriages for Elizabeth Birch and Edward Bell and Martha Birch and Jonathan Bennett, both in 1800. Jonathan Bennett witnessed John and Maria’s marriage. In the Shelfanger Particular Baptist Birth Register (TNA, RG 4/1138) there were baptisms of children of Robert and Martha Birch and Robert Birch witnessed Leonard’s marriage in Fersfield (NRO, PD 144/4). It seems likely therefore that John, Leonard, Elizabeth, Martha and Robert were all the children of James and Rebecca Birch aka Bowles.
Could Charles Bowles aka Black Bart also have been baptised as Birch? The following baptism was located in Bressingham (NRO, PD 111/4), the same parish that Leonard and Mary Ann were living in:
Charles, son of John and Maria Burch, late M. Halls, labourer of Bressingham, baptised 25th October 1829
Thus we do find a baptism of a Charles Birch in exactly the year Black Bart is said to have been born.
A number of questions remain:
Firstly, why did the family use two surnames? The most likely explanation is that James was born illegitimately to a woman named Birch and his father was a man named Bowles. James Burch was buried in Shelfanger, in 1837, aged 86 (NRO, PD 80/9) which gives him an approximate year of birth of 1751. There was a James, the base born son of Sarah Birch, baptised in Wymondham, in 1753 (NRO, PD 184/3) and there were Bowles living in the Wymondham area at the time. James’ father may well have acknowledged him and so the family commonly used the name Bowles and took the opportunity of the emigration to take permanently the name they felt was their inheritance.
Secondly, where are the baptisms of the other children thought to have been born to James and Rebecca and the other children known to have been born to John and Maria? We do only have Leonard’s and Charles’ baptisms thus far. There are two obvious explanations for so many missing baptisms. The family lived in an area very close to the Suffolk border, so may have been living in Suffolk when the other children were born. Alternatively, the family may have been non-conformists. Norfolk was a hotbed of non-conformism and there is an established link between those communities and emigres to the US. Jonathan and Martha Bennet (late Birch) had several of their children baptised into a Wesleyan Church and recorded in the New Buckenham Circuit Wesleyan Baptism Register (NRO, FC 72/6) and Robert and Martha Birch had their children’s births registered with the Shelfanger Baptist Church (TNA, RG 4/1138), so other members of the family may well have belonged to churches whose records have not survived. Leonard and Charles may have been weak when they were born and so baptised into the Anglican Church as a precaution in case they did not survive until an itinerant dissenting minister could perform a ceremony.
Despite these questions there are some further additional pieces of evidence that the Birch family are one and the same as the Bowles family and these are:
- There is no trace of any of the people thought to have emigrated in Norfolk records after 1829.
- One of the few children born to Leonard in Bressingham who survived infancy was James Birch, born 1815. A James Bowles of that age born in England is found in Alexandria, Jefferson County in the 1855 New York State Census.
- A baptism of a Maria Halls in 1793 in Fersfield (NRO, PD 144/2) gives her date of birth within just 5 days of the date of birth which can be calculated from information on Maria Bowles gravemarker in the USA.
- The Bressingham Churchwarden’s Account (NRO, PD 111/70) for Easter 1830 – Easter 1831 records an interest payment for £300 borrowed “to enable certain paupers of the Parish of Bressingham to emigrate”.
The evidence all points to needing to add one more to the list of names that Black Bart was known by during his lifetime. Of course, there is at least one more left to discover: what was he know as after his disappearance from Vasalia in February 1888?
Researched and compiled by Professional Genealogist, Joanne Penn.