Tarbell Sisters’ Civil War Feud Finally Ended—in 1922!

While many genealogical records can provide names and dates for your family tree, newspapers give you something more: actual stories about your ancestors’ lives, so that you can get to know them as real people and learn about the times in which they lived.

Here’s an example of a newspaper preserving a remarkable family story: the two Tarbell sisters, although they dearly loved each other, carried on a feud for 61 years sparked by a disagreement over the American Civil War!

Hatchet Buried by Oldest Twins, Lexington Herald newspaper article 11 June 1922

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 11 June 1922, page 1

Mae and Bell Tarbell were twin sisters born in Camden, Maine, in January 1839. The girls remained deeply attached to one another—and nearly inseparable—for the next 83 years. In the late 1850s, when the sisters were teenagers, the family moved to Missouri—at a time when pro- and anti-slavery violence along the Missouri-Kansas border was so extreme that people referred to the conflict as “Bleeding Kansas,” a precursor to the Civil War.

The differences tearing the nation apart almost separated the Tarbell sisters as well. Mae married a Virginia man who joined the Confederate army, while Bell married a Connecticut man who fought for the Union. This difference in allegiance began the feud between the twins, even though they continued to live together throughout the long war—as they have their entire lives. Their two husbands went off to fight the war, “leaving the twins at home”:

Hatchet Buried by Oldest Twins, Lexington Herald newspaper article 11 June 1922

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 11 June 1922, page 1

As Mae explains in this historical newspaper article: “Bell is a mighty sweet girl, always has been, and we lived together fine, or did until that horrid war came along. We were both from Maine, but we stuck to our husbands’ states. Bell and I would not be separated from each other and yet we would not agree on anything in that war. Only once were we apart, and that was when Bell’s husband was captured. She went to the Southern camp and, although officers there tried to get her to come home, she wouldn’t do it without her husband, and, being persistent, she finally got him. Well, the war ended and our husbands came back, and we all went together to California, but Bell and I still argued about the war. That was the only thing we did argue about. Our husbands said they wished there never had been any war, if it was going to result in such a long quarrel, but what could we do? We’re from Maine, and neither of us would give in.”

And so it went, this long family feud that stretched over 61 years between these two stubborn yet loving sisters, long after the Civil War had ended and both of their husbands had passed away.

Then one day in 1922, the 83-year-old sisters were out in the yard making a kettle of lard when they had the following conversation. Mae again tells the story:

“‘Bell,’ I said, ‘I believe we’re getting old.’ ‘Yes, Mae,’ she said, ‘I suppose we are getting along.’ ‘How long ago did this here Civil War begin?’ I asked. ‘Just tell me that,’ and Bell added a minute or two and said: ‘Sixty-one years ago.’ ‘Seems to me that you and I have said about all there is to say about that war,’ I declared. ‘Doesn’t make any difference if we are from New England. Life’s too short to worry over something that happened that long ago. I want to take things quietly from now on, and besides the papers say there ain’t going to be any more war. If you’ll stop and not mention the war again, I’ll do the same. I think you’re part right anyway.’

“Well, Bell looked at me kinda funny and smiled, and said: ‘Why, Mae, I’ve been wanting to stop talking about that blamed war all these years, but I just hated to give in. One side was about as right as the other anyway, and I’ll quit if you’ll quit. There’s nothing in war anyway.’”

What a great family story! Can’t you just see the two elderly sisters, out in that back yard stirring a pot of lard, smiling at each other and finally agreeing to bury the hatchet? A marvelous moment in your ancestors’ lives, captured and forever preserved in an old newspaper article, just waiting for you to discover and add to your family history.

Along with the emotional satisfaction of this story, look at all the important genealogical information we get from this one old newspaper article:

  • The twins’ names: Mae (Tarbell) Peake and Bell (Tarbell) Billings
  • Their birthplace and date: Camden, Maine, in January 1839
  • Mae’s husband: Dr. W. Peake, from Virginia, a Confederate veteran, who died in 1904
  • Bell’s husband: John Billings, from Connecticut, a Union veteran who was a prisoner-of-war held in a Southern camp, who died in 1906
  • The twins’ movements throughout their life: from their birthplace in Maine to Keokuk, Iowa, in 1854; to Missouri in the late 1850s; to California after the Civil War; to Clint, Texas
  • Mae has 13 children and 26 grandchildren
  • Bell had no children
  • The twins’ mother lived to be 103
  • They trace their ancestry back to the days of the witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts

If you are related to the Tarbell sisters, this historic newspaper article has not only given you a great family story but lots of genealogical clues to continue your family history research.

There are a lot more family stories like this one in GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives. Search now, and find the tales about your Civil War ancestors and more!

GenealogyBank’s Online Montana Newspaper Archives

Montana—“Big Sky Country”—is also known as “The Treasure State.” Montana officially became our 41st state in 1889, but there were newspapers published in Montana Territory decades before it achieved statehood.

photo of the Sun River in Montana

Photo: Montana’s Sun River. Credit: Wikipedia.

GenealogyBank has coverage of Montana’s newspapers spanning 1866 to Today. Dig in and find the stories about your family as they pioneered early America, including cowboys, miners, teachers and kids. Discover the truth about your Montana ancestry in news articles, obituaries, historical documents and more in GenealogyBank’s vast online newspaper archives.

Use this handy list of Montana newspapers to quickly navigate to your title of interest:

City Newspaper

Coverage

Collection

Anaconda Anaconda Standard

1/2/1898 – 12/31/1922

Newspaper Archives

Big Fork West Shore News

3/24/2009 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Bigfork Bigfork Eagle

7/16/2004 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Billings Billings Gazette

10/2/2009 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Bozeman Bozeman Daily Chronicle

6/4/1996 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Butte Butte Weekly Miner

1/2/1896 – 5/23/1901

Newspaper Archives

Columbia Falls Hungry Horse News

7/13/2004 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Helena Helena Independent

1/1/1898 – 12/31/1900

Newspaper Archives

Helena Montana Herold

5/4/1893 – 7/11/1901

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Helena Helena Weekly Herald

11/15/1866 – 11/25/1869

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Helena Montana Radiator

1/27/1866 – 10/13/1866

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Helena Independent Record

10/2/2009 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Kalispell Daily Inter Lake

9/23/2004 – Current

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Libby Western News

8/6/2004 – Current

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Missoula NewWest

3/10/2005 – Current

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Missoula Missoulian

10/2/2009 – Current

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Plains Clark Fork Valley Press

1/8/2008 – Current

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Polson Lake County Leader & Advertiser

12/3/2008 – Current

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Sidney Sidney Herald

1/12/2001 – Current

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Whitefish Whitefish Pilot

7/13/2004 – Current

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