Select Wells Miscellany

Here are some Wells stories and accounts over the years:

Wells and Variants

The old Anglo-Saxon word waella meant spring (rather than a well) and probably a spring associated with a holy place.  In Kent and East Anglia this word seems to have been pronounced "wella," from which has come the surname Wells and, in Sussex, Atwell (at the well).  However, in the old Mercian kingdom in the Midlands it sounded more like "walla" and the resulting surname was Wall.  Then in the west country the West Saxon "wiella" produced Will and Wooll surnames.  

Wells in Early Kent Wills

The table below shows some early Wells records in Kent (from the Kent Index of Wills).  Wells sometimes was written Welles and sometimes Wellys. 

John Wells
his death at Southfleet
Sir John Wells
death of the vicar of Wilmington
John Wells
his death at Leybourne
John Wells
his death at Tonbridge
John Wells
his death at Chislehurst
William Wells
his death at Tonbridge
John Wells
his marriage at Gravesend
William Wells
his marriage at Swanstead

Wells Name Distribution in England

The table below gives the distribution of the Wells name within England in the 18th century and at the end of the 19th century.  The first comes from the distribution of Wells apprentices by county (which total overall 350, probably a large enough sample to give a representative picture); and the second from the 1891 census.

18th century
End 19th century

East Coast



Home Counties

  North of London *
  South of London **




*   Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, and Oxfordshire.
** Kent, Sussex, Surrey, and Hampshire.

These tables show that Wells is very much a name of the East of England.  The largest Wells numbers were in London (and coincidentally the same percentage level on each of the two data series).  The other Wells clusters in the 18th century were Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire, and Kent.  The Gloucestershire and Lincolnshire shares dropped in the 19th century and more Wells were to be found in Kent and the surrounding counties in the southeast.

Sister Janet Wells

In an age when convention dictated otherwise, Janet Wells from London (or Sister Janet as she became known) embarked on two perilous ventures.  Remarkably she was only 18 years old when decorated for her nursing service during the 1878 Balkan War.  Undeterred by this experience, the following year she became the only nurse to serve at the front during the Anglo-Zulu  War.

Following a period in Northern Zululand, she arrived at Rorke's Drift shortly after the legendary action. Revered by the soldiers, she worked tirelessly in appalling conditions with minimal medical supplies. Undaunted she refused to bow to either these difficulties or the prejudice that her gender and youthfulness provoked.

On returning to England, Sister Janet was awarded the Royal Red Cross, the highest nursing accolade and equivalent to the VC, by Queen Victoria.  She earned the nickname "Angel of Mercy" and was spoken of at the time in the same breath as Florence Nightingale.  

William Wells of Southold, Long Island

William Wells died in Southold in 1671, leaving a widow and two sons William and Joshua.  His tombstone at the Presbyterian churchyard in Southold read as follows:

'Here lies the body of William Wells of South-hold, Gentleman, Justice of the Peace and first Sheriff of New York shire upon Long Island, who departed this life on November 13, 1671, aged 63.

"Yes, here he lies, who speaketh yet though dead,
On wings of faith his soul to Heaven is fled,
His pious deeds and charity was such
That of his praise no pen could write too much.
As was his life so was his blest decease,
He liv'd in love, and sweetly died in peace."'

The tombstone inscription was re-cut by some of his descendants in 1857 as it was becoming illegible.

Big Wells and Little Wells

There were two Wells families of note in the Baltimore area in the early 1700's, the "Big Wells" and the "Little Wells."

Charles Wells married Sarah Arnold in 1722 and through them came all the known descendants of the Big Wells.  Both the men and the women of this family were said to be very tall and very heavy.  The story goes that when a group of the Big Wells family were seen it was not uncommon to hear the remark: "Here come the Big Wells."

James Wells, the progenitor of the Little Wells branch, had been brought to Maryland on the Nightingale of York in 1669.  His descendant Colonel Richard Wells married Nancy Brown and it was from this family that the Little Wells came.  The members of the Little Wells family were smaller in stature, probably more of what might be termed normal.

These two families did intermarry and some of them migrated together to West Virginia and Ohio.

Jefferson Wells and Lecomte

Historians agree that the town of Lecompte in Rapides parish, Louisiana was named after the world-class racehorse Lecomte who was arguably the fastest colt in the world in 1854.  Lecomte was given his name as a compliment by local breeder Jefferson Wells, who received the thoroughbred as a gift from his friend and fellow planter, Ambrose Lecomte.

raced and frequently won at the Fairgrounds racetrack in New Orleans.  His maiden victory was reportedly in 1853 at the Metairie Race Course, winning at mile heats, the second heat being the fastest run to that date.  A rivalry grew between Lecomte and another thoroughbred, Lexington, who defeated Lecomte in 1854.  Lecomte later avenged his loss and handed Lexington his only career defeat.

Jim Wells and DNA Testing

Jim Wells, a longtime University of Kentucky mathematics professor, went to bed one night pondering a maddening and fruitless decades-long search for the origins of an ancestor.  He woke up the next day to have his history handed to him in an email.

"It's astonishing," said the 70-year-old Mr. Wells of the recent revelations regarding his fifth great grandfather, John Wells, who turned out, as Mr. Wells had suspected but could never prove, to be a Pennsylvania Quaker with British roots.  "It just didn't seem possible we would ever learn his origins."

Mr. Wells of suburban Lexington, Kentucky was part of something called the Wells Family DNA Project, organized by a determined armchair genealogist named Orin Wells.  It enlists an intriguing new tool called surname DNA testing.

The technology, built on advances in the science of DNA over the past 15 years, rests upon research showing that the Y-chromosome element of DNA passes from father to son basically unchanged over the generations.  Hence it serves as a highly accurate marker of paternity.  In Jim Wells's case, by volunteering a blood sample to a testing lab, he threw his DNA into a test pool of scores of other Wellses, many of them from 24 American Wells branches that have kept meticulous genealogies going back to the 1600's.

The idea: "Orphans" such as Mr. Wells might make a genetic match with one of these families and, by comparing what he knows of his genealogy with the new data, fill in missing pieces.  By doing that, Mr. Wells not only verified his theories about John Wells but found out his roots actually go all the way back to one Henry Wells, an English Quaker who immigrated to Pennsylvania around 1684.
Surname DNA testing used to be the province of universities and research laboratories but not commercially available.  Now, three for-profit labs, Relative Genetics Inc. of Salt Lake City, Family Tree DNA of Houston and Oxford Ancestors of Oxfordshire, England, have sprung up to serve a growing consumer interest.  The Wells project, with more than 250 participants, has been the largest to date.

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