Curiosity about shared ancestor has cousins delving into history

Their new book about Sarah Wells Bull, the result of painstaking research, gets at the fascinating truth behind the legend

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By Ginny Privitar

— Julie Boyd Cole had always been interested in the story of her ancestor, Sarah Wells Bull Miller. With the help of her cousin and fellow Bull descendant, Sarah Brownell, she has written "Sarah: An American Pioneer."

After a year of extensive research, the two have sifted through documents and family lore and have provided the most compelling information to date about Sarah's origins and unearthed new information about her second marriage, after the death of William Bull.

Cole and Brownell's interest started early, inspired by their grandfather, Henry Pierson Bull, who would take them for car rides around Orange County while telling family stories and pointing out places where their ancestors had lived and built homes.

"I was always interested, as a descendant, in trying to figure out Sarah's origins," Cole said.

They didn't have much information, but knew Sarah was an orphan. Her legendary hike to what is now Orange County as a 16-year-old indentured servant is the stuff of legend.

"We started to dig around a little bit and found some pretty cool things and before you knew it I had enough for a book," Cole said.

The families of both authors had long been involved with the Bull Stone House Association, and they grew up hearing family lore. Cole credits her grandfather as "the one who truly inspired me at a young age."

As adults, the two cousins valued their family history even more, and set out to find some definitive answers.

"We had heard a lot of stories and decided we would get back to the earliest versions we could find," said Cole.

The hunt and subsequent book were a natural for both.

The most challenging aspect of the project was the sheer volume of records to sort through.

"It was important to us to not add any bad information," Cole said. "In our family and in Orange County, it's just such an important story that many people hold dear, and we wanted to honor that."

The most exciting discovery, Brownell said, was the rediscovery of the "Goodwill notes," originally in the possession of the Goodwill Church in Montgomery. These included recollections of Sarah as told to her grandson.

"We hadn't gotten our hands on them," said Cole. "The transcript and original documents were at the Bull Stone House, and we just opened a drawer."

Finding other records would be not be so easy.

Brownell credits Cole's exceptional research skills for putting the pieces of the story together.

They read extensively about the period, searched library and historical records, visited gravesites, and interviewed genealogists, historians, family members and experts. They traveled in New York and to Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., for their research. The background information they found brings the story and time period into vivid focus.

"We had so many discoveries," Cole said, "but the overarching one was the perspective of the life that she led and how really remarkable it was."

Armed with copies of their book, they held a book signing at Linda's Office Supply in Goshen and sold out within an hour.

See related story, "A family takes root in the wilderness."

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