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Knoxville couple return nearly 200-year-old Bible to family after years of searching

200-year-old Civil War-era Bible engraved with names of original owners
200-year-old Civil War-era Bible engraved with names of original owners(WVLT)
Published: Jun. 4, 2019 at 12:05 PM EDT
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Mary and Robert Kelly fill the pages of their photo books with memories they've created traveling around the world.

"We were in Yellowstone for memorial day and it snowed," Mary remembered. "These were in Taiwan," replied Robert while the couple looked at pictures. "Here we are eating ice cream in Fairbanks, Alaska."

Even after Robert retired from the military in 1987, the couple enjoys road trips around the country. But there is something pulling them to one place. The problem is, they don't know where.

"We would like to see how it all unfolded," said Mary. "We went through photographs and tried to match the people."

They have been searching for the rightful owners of a family heirloom the East Tennesseans have been protecting since 1987.

"Someone somewhere is a descendant and we want to get it back to them," said Robert. "We knew it would mean a lot to the ancestors of these people and I would love to give it back to them."

A Bible dating back to 1870 with two strangers' names on the cover, Robert and Sarah Smith, have become like family to the Kellys. The Bible was a gift from a neighbor while the couple was living in Pennsylvania. Now it's time to give it back.

"We were just fascinated with that aspect of it," said Mary. "That entire area -- people were deeply involved in the Civil War," added Robert.

The Kellys have studied the notes and lists of hand-written names, births, deaths and weddings in the front pages.

"The cover of the bible is pretty worn but the rest of it is in pretty good shape, the penmanship is fantastic," said Robert.

They tried to pick up on clues that would lead them to descendants of the original owners.

"Well, you've got two Roberts, the first dies here - October 1917 that must have been the son. They were married about 30-40 years," the two read aloud.

They often ran into more questions than answers.

"Does it say when they were married? Does it have a record of their marriage?" They asked one another. "Could be on her side of the family? Could be her brother?"

More often, they ran into dead-ends.

"You go one way and you can't find anything and you go another way and you can't find anything," said Robert.

The couple used the White Pages, Ancestry.com, even called churches listed in the Bible trying to track down living relatives. Nearly two years into their search, it ends with starting over.

Until finally. A name.

"It's a perfect, perfect match so it has to be him," said Robert.

The Kellys tracked down Edward Carlson, out of West Virginia.

"I would lay at night thinking I've got this guy, I can finally get it back to the family," said Robert.

The great, great, great grandson, four generations away from the original owner.

"I couldn't believe it after all these years, it just made me feel so good to know that I was going to be a part of someone's history," said Robert.

The Kellys made the 500-mile trip to West Virginia, to finally hand off what they have so carefully protected all these years.

"It's amazing. Totally unexpected," said Carlson. "The probability of tracking down all these people is almost Herculean."

"You didn't have any idea who they were or where they're from. You didn't have anything but a name but you've latched on to it until you find it," said Robert.

The pages are closed on this nearly 200-year-old mystery.

"I can rest now, I can relax knowing that I made the right decision," said Robert.

But a snapshot of this adventure is one the Kellys will add to the photo books.

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