Become the Expert – Then, Collaborate

Burton Lee Roberts

Burton Lee Roberts

If anyone knows more about Burton Lee Roberts than me, it would be my mother – and I’ve told her things over the past five years she didn’t know about him.  He was my father for thirty-three years before his death in 1988.  While free with his opinions, he held his secrets close.  I peppered him with questions all my life about his family, growing up, military service and the medical profession.  He and I cleared land together, did electrical trim work over one summer and fished on a few occasions.  I got to know him better (understand) through my psychology and pastoral counseling studies.  He and I spoke of spiritual things on only a couple of occasions.  We later had our goodbye conversation when it became clear he would not live much longer.  I believed we were ready.  I was wrong.

My 2012 budding interest in genealogy, and Dad’s family in particular, brought multiple new facts and affirmations about his life to light.  And with those discoveries many more new questions I wish I could ask.  I peppered Mom and one surviving aunt with some of those questions.  I so wish I had become interested in genealogy earlier.  My dad’s sister would have been a gold mine of information.  She died in 2010.  Missed opportunity.

Now what?  I still know a great deal about him and continue to pursue missing information and historical tidbits.  I will tell his story – and stories.  As I’ve explained, I’m in the best position of perhaps anyone to do so.

What about you?  Whose life or family line do you know better than just about anyone else?  This makes you the closest thing to an “expert” on that line.  (Tread lightly here.  One definition of an expert is “a has been under pressure”.)  You have something significant you should consider giving it to the greater genealogical community.  How do you share it?

Collaborate

I use online trees and DNA to find new cousins.  My online tree is bigger, more expansive and less documented than the one I’m building offline.  It’s only a tool to find those new cousins.  These cousins know more about a particular part of a family line than I do.  They have access to documents and therefore documentation I do not have.  They often have photos and family lore.  This is when I let them “straighten me out”.  I’m ready to consider their facts and hear their arguments.  Trust, but verify.  When I find a researcher (cousin) who will not turn and run the first time we disagree, I find a jewel.  I treasure these people in my genealogical research and my life.  I could not know what I know today without them.  May their tribe increase.

My appeal to you

  • Do diligent research.  Follow genealogical proof standards.
  • Write and post stories to your online trees.
  • Find other researchers interested in your family line through online trees and DNA results.
  • Be ready to collaborate.  Be generous with your research.  Be open to having your work questioned.  If you’re right, best genealogical research practices will confirm it.  If you’re wrong, you’ve found what you’ve wanted all along – a more accurate representative tree of your family lines.

TIP:  When you’re contacted by another researcher and told you may be wrong (or often just told you’re flat-out wrong!), receive it and let them know you welcome their input.  Consider them a research partner in this branch of your research.  Check out their documentation.  If they’re right, admit it.  Tell them how right they are and how much you appreciate their work.  Right or wrong, let them know you appreciate their effort to assist you.

A cousin once contacted me and told me I might need to check a part of my tree.  They believed I was wrong about who and how I had a branch configured.  They shared with me their understanding of that branch.  Here’s the first thing I thought.  It’s unlikely I would know more or be more accurate than this cousin about this part of our shared tree.  I listened.  I considered.  Of course, she was right –  and of course I wish I always thought this way!

A “new cousin” recently contacted me and said I might want to reconsider some children I had attributed to a couple in my tree.  He sent me transcriptions of two legal documents with source citations.  He was right.  I did want to reconsider it.  His information introduced me to a new person in my tree previously unknown and resolved some conflict in my research.  Collaboration.

Become the expert in your branches of the family tree and then freely, willing, joyfully collaborate with others.

 

Family Research + Found Cousins = Fun!

Research and Cousins

I love “new” cousins!  I especially love new cousins pursuing their family’s genealogy/history.  They’re like gold to me – and should be to you as well.

Gary with Bill Wright

Gary with Bill Wright

Last week my friend Bill Wright and I were in middle Tennessee attending a non-genealogical conference.  This small detail didn’t keep me from sneaking into Williamson County after the conference and spending last Saturday doing family research.  I planned half a day in the archives and half a day with cousins.  Don’t you love it when a plan comes together?

Plan Your Work

  • What do you need to further your research? Are any of these records available?
  • What records are housed in the county and where? Are they available on the day(s) you will be there?
  • What time will the records be available to view?
  • Does the repository have an online index? Search capabilities?
  • Are you allowed to take photos? Make copies?  What’s the cost?
  • Once you’ve decided to go, ask yourself IF you want to spend time with “new” cousins. If yes, contact them to check their availability and arrange times and places.
  • Pack your “research bag” with all your tools and don’t forget to take it!

The Williamson County, Tennessee Archives are a tremendous resource for families researching middle Tennessee ancestors.  It’s located in Franklin.  This was my second visit.  When my wife and I visited in 2013 I was only aware of my Roberts and Giles lines in the county.  I’ve since discovered my Neelly (Neely), Nichols, Sammons, Smithsons, Tatum, and possibly Rivers lines in the county.  Using the Archives online search capabilities, I was able to locate around ninety documents available on microfilm of interest to me.  There’s no way I would be able to view or collect them all in half a day.  I prioritized them, printed out a list and put it in my bag.

I contacted two of my cousins from two different family lines and asked about their availability to meet Saturday afternoon and evening.  These are two very busy women and of course they both had plans for the day.   But due to circumstances and their sheer determination, they graciously made a way for us to meet for the first time and share some family research.  The bonus?  I also met some of their wonderful family members and visited three family history sites!

Work Your Plan

Bill and I were at the Archives in Franklin when it opened at 8 am Saturday morning.  He began to enjoy the museum housed in the building and I headed for the microfilm files.   Bill would later slip away to visit the many Civil War sites in the city while I would stay focused on my list and pulling the microfilmed documents I wanted.

I was able to collect just over one-third of the documents on my list.  This would include over 150 printed pages and three pages of hand written notes primarily from tax documents.  I specifically targeted wills and specific deeds first.  Then moved on to tax records.  I didn’t spend time viewing and trying to analyze them.  I only viewed them long enough to know I had the right one – hit print – and kept moving.  Like long-lost friends, we’d spend time together in the days to come.

Family  

Gary with Pam and Gary Fisher

Gary with Pam and Gary Fisher

I packed up my bag as the noon hour approached and made a restroom stop.  As I came back into the main hall of the building I was approached by a soft-spoken southern lady and asked if I was Gary.  My cousin Pam Fisher and I were meeting in person for the first time in person.  She’s lived in Williamson County all her life.  I joke that she’s related to most of the families in the county.  If you have family from Williamson County, you may be kin to Pam.  We share 3rd great-grandparents William Cleaton and Lucy Standley Giles and met online through a DNA match in November of 2015.  She’s also related to my 2nd great-grandfather Roberts by his first wife who died as a young mother.  Pam introduced me to her husband Gary and over lunch we discovered that he and I also share a family surname.  Small world.

I can’t tell you how fortunate I feel to have family in the county of my ancestors.  I look forward to collaborating with them for the rest of our lives!  Imagine how fun it was to share a meal with Gary and Pam and a waitress they’ve known for over twenty years!  Now that’s what I call service – and great food.  Thanks guys for including me in your lives.

Gary and Pam lead tours to Israel.  If you’re interested in booking a tour, let me know and I’ll connect you with them.

John Ian Neely Home

John Ian Neely Home

The Fishers dropped me back at the Archives just in time to meet – again for the first time – my cousin Janice Mills.  She and some of her family had just wrapped up a yard/garage sale to clear out space for a classic car.  We met the rest of them at a wonderful New York style Italian eatery.  I really enjoyed meeting husband Denny, daughter Kelly and Kelly’s friend David.   Janice soon had me back in the car and headed south to see the house of our 5th great-grandfather John Ian Neely and his wife Suzanne Griffith Evans.  They built the Federal style home in 1813 on the Columbia Pike between Franklin and Columbia, TN.  I’ve blogged about it in the past.  It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Janice took a picture back then and sent it to me before I wrote about it, but this would be our first time to walk the property.  We were particularly interested in the rumor of a cemetery surrounded by a rock wall that no longer stood.  The owners were welcoming and informative.  They’d lived on property for forty-four years!  They were not aware of any cemetery surrounded by a rock wall but told us about a cemetery on the original property less than a mile from the house.  We found the cemetery (A funny story for another day).  We found grave stones with the family surnames of others who had lived in the Neely house but no stones with the name Neely clearly etched on them.  Janice plans to do further research to confirm if this is the original Neely cemetery.

I always enjoy walking the land of an ancestor.  Our footsteps meet for a moment in time with the hope we’ll spend eternity together someday.  Thank you Janice for taking time to carry me to this special place in Williamson County.

Gary between the headstones of Thomas and Elizabeth Gibson Blackwell in Franklin, TN

Gary between the headstones of Thomas and Elizabeth Gibson Blackwell in Franklin, TN

Like a flash Janice whisked me away to a subdivision near where she lives.  I had heard about this place and seen pictures of it online but this was my first visit.  Here among ranch-style houses on nice sized lots we parked in a driveway.  We weren’t here to visit the owner or his neighbors.  We were here to visit the cemetery in their back yards!  Tucked up under a tree in the back right corner was the final resting place of our 4th great-grandparents Thomas and Elizabeth Gibson Blackwell. The Blackwell’s son William, said to be one of the first physicians in Williamson County, is also buried here along with a few other family members and according to the property owner/caretaker about five beloved pets.  This land also once felt the fall of ancestors’ footsteps.  What a privilege for me to walk it as well.

Gary with the Mills

Gary with the Mills

Dennis Mills classic car and trophy from previous weekend.

Dennis Mills classic car and trophy from the previous weekend.

Janice and I actually met online this past March through Find a Grave.  She wasn’t raised in the county and isn’t kin to as many people as Pam, but I think she knows most of the people.  She met many of them serving for years as a school board member.  We share a rich heritage in the county through our Neely, Blackwell and Gibson families.  Now that Janice is retired, she has more time for genealogy.  She’s full of life and lives it to the fullest.  She and her family were fun and funny.  I enjoyed their hospitality.  I can’t wait to go back.

Genealogy Trip Tip   

When my wife Dee and I visited the Williamson County Archives in 2013, I found a deed abstract for some land on McCrory Creek between my 3rd great-grandfather John Roberts and Jesse Weathers in the year 1811.  Names were mentioned but like many genealogical abstracts, specific points and measurements were not given.  When I searched for a copy of the original I was disappointed to find it missing from the records.  I learned through others that this land was part of a land grant given to James Moore.  He was a Major General in the Revolutionary War and granted for his service 12,000 acres of land in today’s Williamson County.  That’s a lot of land in which to find my ancestors small parcel.  Why was it so important to me?  I believe this is the most likely burial site for my 3 x great-grandparents John and Rebecca Sammons Roberts.

While in the Archives last week I located and obtained a copy of an original deed which until then I had only had an abstract.  This was one of my top “targets” for this most recent trip to the Archives.  It was a deed gift from John Roberts Sr. to his son John Roberts Jr. in 1823.  It was made not long before Senior died.  He also gave a deed gift to his daughter Frances “Fanny” Roberts who would marry Alfred G. Tatum in 1824 within three months following her father’s death.  Based on later records, I believe these two children would assume the principle care of their mother and the original property.  These two deeds together described the property owned by John and Rebecca Roberts on the “headwaters of McCrory Creek”.  I found more records of James Moore, while living in Washington County, TN, assigning land to many people in Williamson County.  One of those men was Samuel Jackson, a distant cousin of General Andrew Jackson.  The cousins would later have a dispute over land and Andrew would run Samuel through with a cane sword.  (Another story for another time) I was then able to find a copy of an original deed between Samuel Jackson and Jesse Weathers from 1806.  Does that name sound familiar?  Based on the physical description of the land from the two gift deeds to the Roberts children and the description of the 1806 deed between Jackson and Weathers, I believe these two properties are the same property.  I do love it when a plan comes together.

I’m prepared now to work my way forward through the deed records with the hopes of finding the exact location of this parcel of land in today’s records.

A Small Sample                 

These few deeds represent a small sampling of the documents I collected from my half day in the Archives.  I left feeling thoroughly blessed.  Plan your work.  Work your plan.

This post represents a very small expression of my appreciation for “new” cousins and the fun I had with the Fishers and Mills.  I’ve told you only a small part of it.  Some because of time and space and some because my cousin Janice said, “Remember Gary, what happens in Franklin stays in Franklin!”  I can’t wait to get back.

Janice Mills and Denny's other ride.

Janice Mills with Denny’s other classic.

Family Traditions: Fact or Fiction?

The family historian and family storyteller are not always the same person.  Family traditions are not always family fact.  Traditions are not always historical and family stories are not always factual.  Does it matter?  Only if you’re claiming or implying yourself a historian, a reporter of historical facts.  Then it matters.

If we claim to be writing or telling history, never be surprised nor offended when our statements are challenged.  Most people will not care if we tell our tales as tales, but more than a few may object if we rewrite history.

The genealogical proof standards are exacting for a reason.

Consider this quote from a 1913 Roberts family genealogy book available from the Internet Archive website.[i]

“Three brothers by the name of Roberts came to America from Wales in the year 1700.  One brother settled in New York.  One went south.  The third brother, Robert Roberts, bought considerable land in Gloucester County, New Jersey, two miles from Swedesboro, on Oldmans Creek and Coons Creek.

His wife was from Holland.  He was an Episcopalian.  He lived to be over eighty years old.”[ii]

Now, consider another quote from one of my prized possessions, another self-published Roberts family genealogy.

“Three brothers, John, James, (George?) came to this country, United States, from Wales about the year 1600 and settled in Virginia.  Best I can gather one of the brothers went to the North and others stayed in the South.  The Roberts family is of Welch Baptist Stock, Primitive faith.  Great Great Grandfather John Roberts, moved from Virginia to Williamson County Tennessee when Great Grandfather John Rivers Roberts was three years old, 1803.  They later moved to Calloway County Kentucky near Murray.”[iii]

The document credits these words to William Penn Roberts, my second cousin once removed.  My cousin Deborah Outland assures me her aunt Verna played no small part in the research of this Calloway County, KY Roberts goldmine.  We’ve since confirmed the document I have is only part of a collaborative work between Penn and Verna which was over twice the size of the work I possessed.  Verna focused on the Owen family and Penn on the Roberts.

What do you observe in these two quotes?  Do they contain facts?  Yes.  Are these facts historically demonstrated or documented?  No.  Do these quotes contain family traditions?  Yes.  Does this mean they’re not historical events?  No.  Our family traditions may contain historical facts.  As family historians we take our family traditions and document the facts and distinguish for our readers between fact and fiction.

“Proof is a fundamental concept in genealogy. In order to merit confidence, each conclusion about an ancestor must have sufficient credibility to be accepted as “proved.” Acceptable conclusions, therefore, meet the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS). The GPS consists of five elements:

  • reasonably exhaustive research;
  • complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item;
  • tests—through processes of analysis and correlation—of all sources, information items, and evidence;
  • resolution of conflicts among evidence items;
  • anda soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.”[iv]

I’m related to John Rivers Roberts and his second wife Rebecca Ann Giles.  Penn Roberts was related to John Rivers Roberts and his first wife Sarah B. Smithson.  On a page with the heading “Facts of the Roberts Family” he repeats this tradition – or perhaps, begins it.

“The Smithsonian Institute of Washington D.C. was founded by one of our forebears according to best information we have.”

Well, we needed better information.

James Smithson portrait image from the Smithsonian Institute website. See it and others at https://www.si.edu/

James Smithson portrait image from the Smithsonian Institute website. See it and others at https://www.si.edu/

According to the Smithsonian Institute’s website[v] James Lewis Smithson (c. 1765-1829) was “the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, the first Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, a wealthy widow who was a cousin of the Duchess of Northumberland.”  He used the name James Lewis Macie until his parents’ deaths and in 1801 had it changed to Smithson.  He never actually visited America.  He never married.  He never, to our knowledge, had children.  He could not be one of ours or anyone’s “forbears”.

When Penn Roberts wrote his family tradition (perhaps the 1950s) he did not have the internet and its research capabilities.  It’s truly amazing, a glut of information at the click of a mouse.  This may be a good time to remind ourselves.  Everything reported on the internet is not necessarily true or accurate.  “I saw it on the internet” doesn’t make it so.  Like the print media which preceded it, it may disseminate lies and misinformation or truth equally well.  And as we also know, just because something is written in a book doesn’t make it so.  Our information is only as good as the source of that information.   It must all be weighed, tested and documented to be confirmed.

This is where I add to our family tradition and show you a portrait of James Smithson from the Smithsonian website.[vi]   It’s reported to be a 1786 portrait done at Oxford upon his graduation by the English portrait artist James Roberts.  We must be related!  (I write with tongue firmly in cheek.)

James Smithson portrait image from the Smithsonian Institute website. See it and others at https://www.si.edu/

James Smithson portrait image from the Smithsonian Institute website. See it and others at https://www.si.edu/

Family traditions do not begin with a “reasonably exhaustive research”.  This is, however, the beginning of the genealogical proof standard.  We have much information at our fingertips today, but it’s common in genealogy or writing family history to do “reasonably exhaustive research” away from our computers.  We may need to exhaust ourselves in courthouses, libraries and research centers to begin the process of writing a “a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion”.

Here’s another family story shared by Penn Roberts.

“One of my father’s sisters, Amanda Jane, married Dr. Felix Winters, a Dentist.  She took up the practice of Dentistry and it is my understanding that she was the first woman Dentist in the whole Country.  Medical Journals had write-ups concerning her as a first woman Dentist.”

In his “Facts of the Roberts Family” Penn reports Amanda Jane Roberts’ birth date as March 22, 1861.  According to Elizabeth Neber King’s 1945 article entitled “Women in Dentistry”[vii] and printed in the Washington University Dental Journal, the first female to practice dentistry in America was born a Roberts.  Her name was Emeline Roberts Jones.  She assisted her husband prior to taking up the practice of dentistry in Connecticut in 1855, six years before Amanda Jane Roberts was born.  Ms. King also reports the first female to actually graduate (You have to be accepted before you can graduate.) from a dental school in America was Lucy Hobbs Taylor in 1866.

I celebrate the accomplishments of these women in dentistry, especially my relative Amanda Jane.  In spite of the difficulty of getting into universities and professions in the past, I suspect women have been finding ways to soothe men’s toothaches and other ailments long before the 1850s.

Family traditions become a problem for family historians when they’re stated as proven facts when in fact, they are not.  I never easily dismiss family traditions.  They often contain a germ of truth which must be explored and confirmed or disproven.  I never want to dismiss a family member’s claims without an examination.  I encourage this behavior for all family historians.  I thought several stories my Dad told me were “just stories”.  I’ve been able to confirm the factualness of some of them.  You may discover the same in your research.

Enjoy your family traditions.  Explore your family traditions.  Before your write them up as history, examine them.  Use the genealogical proof standard to separate your family’s facts from fiction.

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[i] https://ia902606.us.archive.org/14/items/genealogyofrober00cowa/genealogyofrober00cowa.pdf

[ii] This genealogy of the Roberts family appears to be a self-published work dated 1913 in Chicago.  “Genealogy of the Robert Roberts Family in America”, compiled by Maude Roberts Cowan and printed by Joseph Samuel Roberts.

[iii] This quote is taken from a copy of a document entitled “The Roberts Family History”.  The top of the third page includes these words, “Compiled by Wm. Penn Roberts”.  I received my copy from Rudy Roberts Holland in 2013 while visiting him in Murray, KY.  He is my 3rd cousin once removed.  I suspect he received his copy from Nancy Roberts Thurman whom he referred to as the “expert” on our Roberts family.  There are copious corrections in this work and I suspect they were done by Nancy or perhaps Penn’s wife Virginia “Verna” Roberts.

[iv] http://www.bcgcertification.org/resources/standard.html

[v] https://www.si.edu/About/History

[vi] http://siarchives.si.edu/history/james-smithson

[vii] http://beckerexhibits.wustl.edu/mowihsp/health/womenindentistry.htm

Gus Roberts: Aftermath

I wish to write of grace – a common grace which is shown to all and a specific grace expressed in the limb of one family.

Gus Roberts (2)Gus Roberts was the last chance to carry on his father’s line.  What chance did he have?  His father died violently in his bed when Gus was only three.  The story says he was in the room when the deed was done.  His mother was convicted of complicity in his murder and went to prison.  Gus went to an orphan’s home.  What chance did he have?  What would happen to Gus? Continue reading

One of My Favorite Documents In All the World

How can one of my favorite documents be a tax document? Please allow me to demonstrate why family researchers should pay close attention to tax documents. Surely you’ve heard… Continue reading

My Grandfather Gus

The death of my great-grandfather John Anderson Roberts in 1901 would deprive my grandfather Gus of ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­the guidance of a father, the nurture of a mother and the knowledge of a heritage.  The seeds of disaster were in the ground.  Our family needed a crop failure!

Gus Roberts as a child in about 1905 or 1906The sudden and violent death of three-year-old Gus Roberts’ father would prevent him from working beside his father in the field, riding with him in the wagon, hunting with him in the woods and sitting with him at the table.  He would miss the stories of his father’s youth in Williamson County, Tennessee and his family’s migration to Calloway County, Kentucky.  He would never know of the Roberts of Virginia or be able to claim their heritage his heritage.  The later decision of a jury to convict his mother of murder for her part in his father’s death would deprive Gus of the comfort and encouragement of a mother, the steady hand of someone who believes in you.  What would happen to this little boy “orphaned” by the death of his father and the conviction of his mother? Continue reading

Paying Attention to Details in Your Family Research

“God is in the detail” or “The devil is in the details”.  Both expressions infer the same thing.  Details are important and those attentive to them are rewarded.  The details of our family history research are a rich source of information and clues to find additional gold. Continue reading

The Tragic End to the Life of John Anderson Roberts: Final Chapter

And now the end has come.

John Anderson RobertsJohn Anderson’s downward spiral began with the tragic death of his wife Lavina.  He eventually dies in his own bed, but it wasn’t a pleasant passing.  Some claim it was suicide.  Twelve of his neighbors decide it’s murder and assess blame.  A judge determines the penalty.   Lives are forever changed.  So horrific was the tale, one journalist remembers and writes about it over thirty years later.  Family members still speak of it in hushed tones. Continue reading

What do you see in my only photo of John Anderson Roberts?

What is the value of a photograph?  Can you value something you don’t possess? The value of a photo can only be assessed once we possess it. Only then can we know its real worth to us and us alone. Continue reading

Where was Newton Roberts in the 1860s and 1870s? Or, When Census Records Wont’ Tell Us What We Want to Know

Are you trying to find an ancestor in the census but can’t find their record?  There is more than one way to resolve this issue and find your ancestor.  Interested? Continue reading