The True Identity of Black Bart – Part 3 – DNA

Below is a reproduction (with minor edits) of a blogpost originally published in 2021 on

Birch alias Bowles in England

After the parts 1 and 2 were published, I was contacted by Mr Jim Birch from Cincinnati, Ohio and he was to provide further evidence which proves that the family known as Birch/Burch alias Bowles from the Shelfanger area of Norfolk were indeed the family of US outlaw Charles E. Boles aka Black Bart. Jim is a direct line descendant of John and Leonard’s brother, Robert. Robert was born around 1784 and like the rest of James and Rebecca’s children, excepting Leonard, his baptism has not been found in a Church of England parish register. However, as with other members of the family, there is clear evidence of him using both surnames throughout his life. He married Martha Thirston (or Thurston) in Carleton Rode in 1809 as Bowles (NRO, PD 254/8), but they had most of their children baptized into the Shelfanger Baptist Church as Burch (TNA, RG4/1138). In the 1841 census, the family was listed as Bowles (TNA, HO107/758/17/6/7), in the 1851 census as Burch (TNA, HO107/1822/148/21).

Unlike his brothers John and Leonard, Robert stayed in England and Jim had two crucial pieces of evidence that the family were well-known to use both surnames. Firstly, Robert and Martha’s daughter, Mary, married in Shelfanger in 1832 and the marriage register names her as “Mary Burch commonly called Bowles” (NRO, PD 80/7). Secondly, at the County Quarter Sessions held in Norwich on 7 January 1835, Robert and Martha’s daughter, Sarah, was sentenced to 6 months at Wymondham Bridewell for larceny. The sessions book records her as “Sarah Burch als[o] Bowles”(NRO, C/S 1/24).

Sarah was Jim’s direct line ancestor. In 1839, she had an illegitimate son, named Charles. Sarah married in 1852 and remained in East Anglia, dying in 1897 in Walsham Le Willows, in Suffolk. Her son Charles sought new opportunities and wider horizons. By 1861, he had moved some 250 miles north to Shildon in County Durham where he was working as a coal miner. He married a local girl, Margaret Watson, and they had seven children, before Margaret died in 1881. In 1882, Charles married Margaret’s half-sister, Elizabeth Watson, and they had a further five children in County Durham. In 1889, Charles and his family boarded the British King at Liverpool and travelled to Philadelphia and then onwards a further 700 miles to Glenmary, in Tennessee, where Charles continued to work in the mining industry. There they had a further nine children. Late in life, Charles moved further north, and he died in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1917. As an adult, Charles appears to have only used the surname Birch and thus gave rise to the Birch line in Cincinnati where Jim still lives today.

DNA Matches

Interestingly, Jim had taken an autosomal DNA test with Ancestry® and he identified two distant matches of great interest to this enquiry. The first is another Jim, Jim Bowles of Oregon. Jim is a direct line descendant of Leonard Bowles, through his son Robert, born around 1819, probably in Bressingham, Norfolk. Leonard and his family emigrated to the US at or around the same time as Black Bart’s parents, John and Maria and their family, and both families initially settled in Alexandria, in Jefferson County, New York. Robert married Susannah Stevens and, like his father and uncle, farmed for a living. In the 1870 US Federal Census, 78-year-old widowed Leonard Bowles is recorded living with his son Robert and his family in Theresa, Jefferson County (1870 U.S. Federal Census, Theresa, Jefferson County, New York, p. 36, Dwelling 286, Family 300, Robert Bowles). In March 1872, tragedy struck. The house of Robert Bowles was consumed by a terrible fire. In an attempt to save all his children, Robert was so badly burned that he died the next day. Leonard, fell down the stairs while making his escape and never recovered, dying a few weeks later. Susannah and the children did all survive, including 6-year-old James Appleton Bowles, who was to become the great grandfather of Jim Bowles. After the death of her husband and father-in-law, Suzannah moved to Wisconsin to be near her family and eventually this branch of the Bowles family settled in Oregon, where Jim lives today.

Not so much is known about the family of the other DNA match of interest, however, I have verified her Bowles connection. She is a direct line descendant of John Bowles, the brother of ‘Black Bart.’ John Jr. as he was known, was born in Norfolk, England around 1819. He married Martha E. Wood and, like his father John Sr and his uncle Leonard, he also farmed, first in Alexandria and then in Theresa. His first child was named Mary D. Bowles. Mary married Lewis Cuss Goodrich and had just one daughter, Martha Mary, before she died, aged only 28. Martha Mary moved to Washington state which is where this branch of the family still live.

Both Jim Birch and Jim Bowles kindly gave their permission to use their family trees in this reconstruction, but their fathers have been anonymized the in accompanying tree for the sake of privacy. Likewise, as we have been unable to contact the Washington cousin, both she and her mother have been anonymized.

The tree shows that Jim Birch and his Washington Cousin are 6th cousins, and that Jim Birch and Jim Bowles are 5th cousins once removed. The amounts of DNA shared by Jim with each of his cousins fits perfectly with these relationships and we have here a clear example of what a useful tool DNA can be to the genealogist, even when dealing with such small, shared amounts. Jim has provided both documentary evidence and DNA evidence which surely establishes beyond all doubt that ‘Black Bart’ was Charles Burch, baptized 25 October 1829 in Bressingham, Norfolk, the son of John Birch also Bowles and his wife Maria Hall. I am enormously grateful to Jim Birch for all his assistance and also to Jim Bowles for his willingness to share his branch’s story in this fascinating family history.


Birch Bowles Family Tree