Nelson R. Wells and Julia Ellen Van Kleeck

(Orson’s parents, our 2nd great-grandparents)

Nelson has been an interesting ancestor to research - interesting and a headache. I have not found definitive proof of his birth or parentage. See the section "Clues about Nelson’s Parents" for why I believe that my assertions about his birth and parents are correct.

I believe that Nelson R Wells was born around 1816 in Onondaga County New York to Temperance Meacham and Judah Wells. Nelson married Julia Ellen Van Kleeck (daughter of Henry Van Kleeck and Ann Webster) in Dryden, Michigan, in about 1850. There is some evidence that Nelson was previously married in Erie County Pennsylvania as we will see below.

1820 and 1830 census records show Judah Wells & family (only the head of house was listed by name in the pre-1850 census records) living in Conneauttee, Erie County, Pennsylvania.

Land records show that Nelson was sold land in Washington Township of Erie County, PA 0n March 29, 1841 by his half-brother Johnathan S Wells. On May 15, 1845 Nelson R Wells and his wife, Mary Jane Wells, sold land in Washington Township. Mary was his first wife who must have died young.

Nelson had a daughter (also named Mary Jane Wells) born in Pennsylvania in September 1849. Nelson then shows up in the 1850 Dryden, Michigan census with that daughter (listed as one year old) and married to Julia Ellen Van Kleeck – living near where Julia’s father, Henry Van Kleeck, had a farm. This leaves us with several questions:

Nelson, Julia, and baby Mary Jane moved back to Erie County, PA soon after the 1850 census – as shown by the birthplaces of the kids:

  1. Mary Jane Wells
  2. Nelson Henry Wells
  3. Elva Wells
  4. Frances Wells
  5. Orson Roscoe Wells

Nelson purchased land in Washington Township, Erie County, PA as late as November 1855 but by later that year (and in 1856 & 1857) the sheriff was foreclosing on his land and selling it to pay debts. I would guess that PA farming wasn’t working for Nelson.

By the July 16, 1860 census, Nelson and his family were back in Dryden, MI with a farm that was near his father-in-law, Henry Van Kleeck, and near his brother Russell Wells. He was still farming in Dryden when, in June 1863, he registered for the Civil War draft.

The August 1870 census shows the family living in nearby Almont, MI where Nelson is listed as a hotel Keeper (maybe farming still wasn’t working out for him). The hotel was probably the Almont Exchange Hotel. The census also lists his future son-in-law, Henry Gutches, as the hotel clerk.

The August 1880 census shows Nelson as, once again, a farmer. This time living in Moore Township, Sanilac County, MI. The family was living there when the “Thumb Fire” of 1881 devastated the area. According to Wikipedia:

The Thumb Fire took place on September 5, 1881, in the Thumb area of Michigan in the United States. The fire, which burned over a million acres in less than a day, was the consequence of drought, hurricane-force winds, heat, the after-effects of the Port Huron Fire of 1871, and the ecological damage wrought by the era's logging techniques.

The blaze, also called the Great Thumb Fire, the Great Forest Fire of 1881 and the Huron Fire, killed 282 people in Sanilac, Lapeer, Tuscola and Huron counties.

Nelson’s obituary appeared in the Lapeer Democrat (Lapeer, MI) on Wednesday, Feb 1, 1882.

Nelson Wells, well known to the residents of this section, died on Monday last at the residence of his father-in-law in Dryden. Mr. Wells was living in Sanilac County during the forest fires that swept through there and that he and his family and others had to seek Cass River in order to save themselves. They remained in the river 12 hours, almost suffocated with heat and smoke, from the effects of which Mr. Wells never recovered. He was well known to the traveling public, being proprietor of the Exchange Hotel in this place from 1864 to 1866, and again from 1868 to 1870. His age was 56 years.

The father-in-law mentioned above was Henry Van Kleeck of Dryden. Nelson’s widow, Julia Ellen (Van Kleeck) Wells, married Eben Curtiss (sometimes with one “s”, often ending with two), an Almont, MI farmer, on February 26, 1884. Eben’s wife, Mary, had died in March of 1881. At the time of the marriage, Julia was 51 and Eben was 62. Eben died in 1898. For a time, Julia continued to live on the farm in Almont (then owned by her stepson, Milo Curtiss). But by 1920, she was living with her daughter Francis (Wells) Morton in Los Angeles Township in Los Angeles County, CA. She died on January 17, 1924 in Sherman, Los Angeles County, CA. Note: in 1925 Sherman renamed itself West Hollywood.