More Connections: Roberts, Smithson, Giles and Nichols

While researching my files for a series of posts on J.A. Roberts, I came across this in his father’s file. In 1838 John R. Roberts and his younger brother Newton bought a tract of land on Rutherford Creek in Williamson County, Tennessee.1838 Roberts, John and Newton land deed from William Tignor (2) W.O. Smithson and Paschal Giles serve as the the two witnesses to this transaction. Giles was the brother of John R. Roberts’ wife Rebecca Anne Giles. Smithson was the brother of John R.’s first wife Sarah B. Smithson (She died perhaps giving birth to their second child). William Overton Smithson was born, as was John R. in Lunenburg County, Virginia. Now, here’s the interesting connection. (I know, you thought I had already shared it.) W.O. Smithson had a son named W.O. Smithson. He was born in Williamson County in 1831 and died in Montague County, Texas in 1900. The surprise: He married Mary Jane Nichols, the sister of my 2 x great-grandfather Frederick Shaffer Nichols.  Both were born in Williamson County. And this reminder from a previous post, My father’s father Gus Roberts, grandson of John R. Roberts, married the granddaughter of Frederick S. Nichols and Sarah Elizabeth Neely. Her name was Emma Lee Ingram and they had to meet in a Children’s Home in Fort Worth to make it happen! I’m certain my grandparents Gus and Emma knew nothing of these earlier relationships in Lunenburg, Williamson or Montague Counties, but now we do!

Gary stands beside grave of W.O. Smithson in Starkey Cemetery in Montague County, Texas (September 2015)
Gary stands beside grave of W.O. Smithson in Starkey Cemetery in Montague County, Texas (September 2015)

Burton Lee Roberts: A Tip of the Cap

My dad was born in the small Texas Hill Country town named after his grandfather, a grandfather he never knew.  He knew neither of his grandfathers.  His father knew neither of his grandfathers.  His grandfather John Anderson Roberts knew only one of his grandfathers, his mother’s father.  I assume he knew him because they lived in the same part of Williamson County, Tennessee for the first fourteen years of my great-grandfather’s life and the last fourteen years of my 3 x great grandfather William Giles’ life.  He died in 1844.  There weren’t many models for parenting and grand parenting in our Roberts line.

Burton Lee Roberts was born in Ingram, Texas on February 24, 1919.  It was a Monday.  I doubt Dad ever knew that.  I wonder if it surprised Dad to discover he wasn’t given a name on the day he was born?  My grandfather had to apply for the following amended certificate in 1977.  My Dad’s original name?  — Roberts.  No given name.

B.L. Roberts ammended birth certificate

That’s one reason I’ve titled these most recent posts using Dad’s full given name.  His

Burton and BG Chessman
Burton and BG Chessman

name was Burton Lee Roberts.  He was, to the best of my detective work, named after his mother’s sister BG Chessman’s husband and his mother Emma Lee Ingram Roberts.  I suspect his naming was delayed because my grandfather Gus was not in attendance at Dad’s birth and probably not even in town.

Ingram is a small town in western Kerr County located about 83 miles northwest of San Antonio, Texas.  My great-grandfather J.C.W. Ingram located his store and post office on the original wagon road from San Antonio to San Angelo in 1883.  The historical markers all say he bought the land from the Morriss family in 1879 but the recorded deed is clear, it was 1883.  The six acres were part of the original Francisco Trevino land grant.  The Ingrams could not have been there in 1879 because they didn’t leave California for Texas until December of 1881.  I’ve documented and written more about that in an earlier post.

In the times in which Dad was born, it was common for expectant mothers to temporarily move in with or very near their mother or other female relative who would assist with the birth and/or after-care.  My widowed great-grandmother’s name was Sarah Alice “Sally” Ingram.   She was the offspring of a Nichols/Neely union from Williamson County before their families migrated to Texas.   She would later accompany her pharmacist/preacher husband to Carrizo Springs, Texas where my grandmother Emma was born in 1898.  She returned to her home in Kerr County after J.C.W.’s death.  Great Grandmother Sally’s presence was no doubt the reason Grandmother Emma Lee was in Ingram the day my dad arrived.  So, where was his father Gus?  I suspect he was 83 miles away, a two or three-day journey, in San Antonio, Texas.  It’s all supposition on my part.  Gus Roberts registered for the World War I draft in September of 1918.1918 Gus Roberts WWI Draft Reg. side 1 only  The war would end two months later and another two months later my dad arrived.  Gus and Emma were newlyweds living in San Antonio according to his registration.  They lived at 2118 Nebraska St.  He worked for Otis Elevator Company and was probably at work the Monday morning his firstborn child arrived – OR, he joined the service and was away.  There are some unknowns here I have yet to uncover – a matter of an early photo of a young granddad Gus in a military looking uniform.  (???) I love a good mystery!

My Dad answered to several names.  According to Veteran Affairs records (Ancestry.com. U.S., Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, 1850-2010[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011) he was Burton Roberts.  According to the Social Security Administration record “Nov 1938: Name listed as BURTON LEE ROBERTS; 11 Mar 1988: Name listed as BURTON L ROBERTS”.  (Ancestry.com. U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.)  Thus the S.S. Death Index list him as Burton L. Roberts.  (Ancestry.com. U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2011.)  He often signed his name B.L. Roberts.  Therefore, when I wrote or spoke of him through the years I’ve referred to him as “B.L.” or “Old B.L.”  His friends and family of his generation called him “Bob”.  My children call him “PawPaw”.  These were some of the names of Burton Lee Roberts.

My dad had one more name I’ll mention.  It was a name few called him.  In fact, I’m the only one I remember ever calling him by this name.  In my precocious teen years, I began calling my dad “Pop”.  I doubt many even noticed, but he did.  We talked about in one day.  I brought it up.  I asked him if it was okay with him.  His response, “I don’t care what you call me.”  But I think he liked it.  I know I did.

"Charlie and Lee Chan"
“Charlie and Lee Chan”

The idea came from the old Charlie Chan mystery movies.  Actor Keye Luke played Lee Chan in the majority of those old black and whites.  He was the oldest son of the main character, detective Charlie Chan.  In the series he called his father “Pop”.  He was the first one I remember using the term and the only one of the Chan children (ten or eleven I believe) who called their father by this name.  It could have been seen as insolent in their culture (or mine for that matter); but it felt endearing to me.  It must have felt that way to the writers of the series because Charlie never corrects his son.  Dad never corrected me.

Grandparents don’t always have a say in what their grandchildren eventually call them – but they generally try.  The fact is most of us are stuck with the name our first grandchild can pronounce.  When my wife Dee (MeMaw) and I were discussing what we wanted our first grandchild to call us, I said I wanted to be called “Pop”.  It stuck.  It’s my tip of the cap to “Old B.L.”.

Burton Lee Roberts – 1st Census 1920

Always check the census records first.

Burton Lee Roberts’ military records say he was born in 1917.  His amended birth record says 1919.  The 1920 census supports his birth record of 1919  as the correct date.  Here is part of the census record from Brownwood, Texas and what we learn about my father and his family in 1920.

1920 Burton Lee in US census

The household record actually begins on the previous page.  It is probably difficult for you to see this page (and you certainly can’t see the previous page because I haven’t included it), so I’ll try to accurately relate the information.  This information is available at Ancestry.com and the National Archives.

Edward and Grace Mohn
Edward and Grace Mohn

Gus and Emma L. Roberts are living at 1009 Booker St. in Brownwood City (Today called simply Brownwood), Texas.  They are living in the household of Edward  and Grace Mohn.  Gus is Edward’s brother-in-law.  We know from other sources that Grace is Emma’s sister.  The Mohn’s have two sons, Edward age 4 and John age 2 1/2.  Edward Sr. is working as a machinist in an auto shop.

Gus Roberts is a 21-year-old married white male.  He is able to read and write.  He was born in Texas.  He, or whoever spoke to the census taker that day, gives his father and mother’s birth place as the United States. (I don’t believe Gus, my grandfather, knew the birthplace of his father or mother.  Therefore he could not have told his wife or a census taker. He’s able to speak English, works as a machinist helper in an auto shop as a wage earner and is enumerated on the farm schedule at #620.

Emma L. Roberts is a 21-year-old married white female.  She is able to read and write. She was born in Texas.  She, or whoever spoke to the census taker that day, gives her father’s birthplace as California and her mother’s as Tennessee.  (I tend to believe she was the source of this information.  What’s interesting is she was wrong about her father and right about her mother.  Most “tree builders” online are usually right about her father and wrong about her mother.)  Her work is listed as “none” and that makes me laugh.

Burton L. Roberts is enumerated as the only child of Gus and Emma living in the household.  He is the nephew of Edward Mohn, the head of the household.  He is a ten month old white male who was born in Texas, as were his parents.  He could not read, write or speak English.  Awww, those were the days.  And while he did not work according to the census, I bet he kept his mother busy!

This census record supports Burton Lee Roberts’ birth year as 1919.  His amended birth certificate supports this.  His Social Security records support this.  He told me this was his correct birth year and that he had lied about his birth date to enlist in the Army.

After you interview all of your living relatives, begin your next research with the U.S. Census.  Happy backtracking!

 

 

 

Burton Lee Roberts – Runaway

My father ran away from home in 1935.

A young Burton Lee RobertsMany of us consider running away from home.  We struggle against the milieu of adolescence while facing the hard headwinds of coming adulthood.  Some of us just want to run away.  Some of us think about it.  Some of us plan to do it.  Not Dad.  He did it!  Burton Lee Roberts “ran away from home”!  Aided and abetted by his mother he bolted at the age of sixteen.

Here’s the story I “pestered” out of him back when I was just a teenager myself.

Barber strap 2
Barber strap

My dad thought his father, Gus Roberts, was a hard, stern, difficult man.  He told me he never got along with his father.  He used to discipline Dad with an old leather strap like the ones used by barbers to hone their razors.  His sister Elizabeth shared the same sentiments in my presence on a couple of occasions.  She once told my mother their father beat them with sticks.  Now, I considered both my dad and aunt to be strong-willed, stubborn people.  I understood why they might clash with their father but I could never excuse Grandad’s harshness.

It happened one Sunday.  The family returned from church and were small Mulesitting at the lunch table-No, I shouldn’t write that-What happened had been building for a long time.  On this day it erupted like a volcano.  Grandad Gus told Daddy to finish his lunch and go hitch-up the mule to the plow.  He was to plow their field in preparation for planting a fall crop.  This was apparently a departure from what my grandparents would normally allow to be done on a Sunday.  Perhaps Dad was being disciplined.  But my dad and some older teenage boys had made plans at church to enjoy the cool waters of the swimming hole after lunch.

Now few places in America are hotter than North Texas in August.  This change in plans brought a strong response from Dad.  He told his father he had already made plans and did not want to take a Sunday afternoon, a day of rest, to go plow.  They disagreed.  It got heated and included the “if a boy is going to put his feet under my table then he’s going to do as I say” speech.  The threat of a “whipping like he’d never seen” got my dad out the door and into the field.  But he was furious.  He took it out on the mule.  He pushed that old black mule under the blazing sun at breakneck speed.  He was going to show his dad.  He would finish the plowing AND go swimming, if it killed him.

Finishing the field with a couple of good hours of daylight remaining, Dad unhitched the mule, put him in the pen, stored the harness gear and rushed by the house on his way to the creek.  He was no doubt pleased with himself.  But his dad wasn’t.  He had watched him and was not happy with his behavior.  His voice stopped Dad in this tracks.  “Did you water that mule?” Grandad asked.  The volcano began to rise once again as Dad made his way to the water well.  Back then he would not be able to turn a valve and run water in a trough.  He would have to drop a wooden bucket into their deep, cold water well, draw it up, carry it to the lot, and hand fill the trough.  It would take several trips to do it right.  But of course Dad was in no frame of mind to “do it right”.  As he reached the trough the old hard-working mule was waiting in anticipation.  In that moment Dad took out his anger toward his father on the poor old mule once again.  He told me he took the bucket of water and poured it over the mule’s head.  The mule fell dead!  Heat exhaustion and a bucket of cold water finished him off.  Well, what can I say, that’s the way my dad told the story.

Dad took off and hid from a sure beating.  Grandmother negotiated a “peace treaty”.  But it was done.  Dad said he pulled his feet out from under Gus Roberts’ table and never put them back again.  (He exaggerated that last part but that’s another story for another day.)  He “ran away” from home at sixteen, aided and abetted by his mother.

Uncle Sam Army Recruiting posterMy dad continues the story in this fashion.  His mother took him to the army recruiter in Fort Worth where he planned to lie about his age and sign up.  She would be complicit.  The recruiter, anxious to fill his quota, asked Daddy how much he weighed.  When he told him his guess (because Daddy had no idea), the recruiter looked concerned.  He told Daddy to do exactly what he told him.  These were his instructions.  Go find a half gallon of buttermilk and a handful of bananas.  Eat those bananas and drink that buttermilk in rapid succession.  Finish them off as you enter back through the door of this recruiting office.  Dad did exactly as he was told.  As he cleared the office door threshold the recruiter directed him to the scales.  Climbing on the scales, Dad held his breath.  He was so full he couldn’t catch his breath any way.  He made it, with an ounce or two to spare!  He was in!

I probably should add more context to Dad’s story.  The U.S. Armed Forces were not in very good shape as the year began in 1935.  The decision had been made not to provide military training to the thousands of young men working in the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC).  They would remain civilian.  So, their presence and availability would not add to the country’s military readiness.  Meanwhile, many of the enlisted men and officers had begun to cycle out of the military before 1935.  Numbers were down when they needed to be going up.   By August of 1935 the U.S. Congress accepted the recommendation of General Douglas MacArthur and appropriated much larger amounts of resources to build up the military, especially the air and naval defensive strength.  Mom and I talked about this story over the holidays and she added additional context.  She said the older dairy boys, older than Dad, also went and signed up for the Army at the same time.  Apparently all the boys had been discussing a way off of the farm and “into some money” and independence.  The Army’s stepped up recruitment provided them their opportunity.  A dead mule lit the fuse!  Mom said the dairy boys’ parents were not happy and were eventually able to buy their military obligation off and bring their sons home.  Dad was in for the duration.

My dad’s story reminds me of a joke I first heard over twenty-five years ago.  There was an eighteen-year-old young man exasperated by his parents.  He told them he was leaving.  When asked why, he told them he was tired of being told what to do, when to do it and how to do it.  He wanted his freedom.  He felt he was old enough to make his own decisions.  He was leaving.  They asked him what he was planning to do.  He responded, “I’m thinking about joining the Marines”!

Burton Lee Roberts Army
An “extra” young “18” year old Burton Lee

Burton Lee Roberts “ran away” from home when his was sixteen.  It was 1935.  He was in the Army now!

 

 

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Burton Lee Roberts and The Ghost of Christmas Past

“Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?” asked Scrooge.

“I am!”

The voice was soft and gentle. Singularly low, as if, instead of being so close beside him, it were at a distance.

“Who and what are you?” Scrooge demanded.

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

“Long Past?” inquired Scrooge; observant of its dwarfish stature.

“No. Your past.”

Perhaps Scrooge could not have told anybody why, if anybody could have asked him; but he had a special desire to see the Spirit in his cap; and begged him to be covered.

“What!” exclaimed the Ghost, “would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give? Is it not enough that you are one of those whose passions made this cap, and force me through whole trains of years to wear it low upon my brow?”

Scrooge reverently disclaimed all intention to offend or any knowledge of having willfully “bonneted” the Spirit at any period of his life. He then made bold to inquire what business brought him there.

“Your welfare!” said the Ghost.

Scrooge expressed himself much obliged, but could not help thinking that a night of unbroken rest would have been more conducive to that end. The Spirit must have heard him thinking, for it said immediately:

“Your reclamation, then. Take heed!”

It put out its strong hand as it spoke, and clasped him gently by the arm.

“Rise! and walk with me!”

(Quote from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)

 

Skecth from The Project Gutenberg EBook of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
Skecth from The Project Gutenberg EBook of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Some people seek to extinguish the light of their past, when in fact, that light is the beginning of our reclamation.  Let us rise and walk.  Let us raise our past as a means to enter our future.

Photo from early 1960s Christmas card
Photo from early 1960s Christmas card

Everything about my dad’s behavior suggested he loved Christmas.  He became as giddy as a school child, something I think he missed growing up.  His involvement and participation in family activities virtually went “through the roof” at Christmas.  He secured the tree and set it up.  It was Mom’s and our job to decorate it.  He collaborated

Dad oversees the excitement.
Dad oversees the excitement.

with Mom to buy the gifts and selected many all on his own.  He really knew what a little boy wanted!  I think my mother did most of the wrapping but I wouldn’t be surprised if Dad helped.  He posed for Christmas picture postcards one year (See above).  He bought the long play Christmas albums that filled our house with seasonal cheer.  He was the last one to bed on the eve and the first one up on The Day.  Long before light he made sure no one else could sleep by pounding up and down the hall on those old wooden floors in our seventy-year-old pier-and-beam house.  One year he was so excited about an unknown

The Christmas watch stand
The Christmas watch stand

gift from our neighbor Colonel Garrison that he instituted, for the one and only time mind you, an “open one gift on Christmas Eve” policy.  His was a gold pocket watch stand.  It was meant to hold an old Elgin railroad watch he bought from me for $3.00 back in the 4th grade!  (That’s another story for another day.)  The watch and stand set on my desk for many years and now occupies the top of a foldout desk positioned behind my work area.  With the exception of one year, Christmas was my favorite time to be alive and belong to the Bob Roberts’ household.

My dad had ghosts from his Christmases past.  My older brother David observes the strain in his memoirs, “…I know that Dad and Grandpa didn’t get along very well and I never saw Dad show any affection toward Nanny…” [1][i](That’s Dad’s mother, our grandmother).  David makes this statement even though most of people thought of Dad as a “hugger”.  There was clearly some “history” in those relationships.

I was the middle child and the second child of the same sex in our little family.  I had all the symptoms.  I was a pest and had an insatiable curiosity (nothing to do with being a middle child).  I constantly peppered Dad with questions.  On the very rare occasion he allowed me to peak into his pain, it was hard for me to understand.  I remember pestering him one day about his dad.  I had spent so little time with Papoo and he was so reserved, I knew almost nothing more than what I observed.  So, I kept peppering Daddy, “What was your dad like?”   “What was Papoo like?”   Finally frustrated, he blurted out, “He was a mean, old, bitter, blankety blank!”  But he didn’t say blankety blank!  I backed off that day and later thought as I crawled toward adulthood, how much those very words could be used to describe Dad.  He had become what he perceived his father to be.  We both needed some understanding, some healing.

Dad’s “ghosts” from his past chased him into his future – and “haunted” him.  He had “demons” he allowed to control him.  He had an addictive personality.  He was angry and often depressed.  He was a binge alcoholic.  Once he started drinking he couldn’t stop.  He was one of those who had to stay completely away from alcohol.  If he chose to drink, it would eventually lead to the loss of a job and income for his family.  He joined Alcoholics Anonymous for a while and had modest success.  But the “ghosts” of his past drove him to the darkness rather than the light.  One year it would be on Christmas.  No season was immune from the “ghosts”.

Unlike his parents, Dad and Mom were not religious.  I’ve often joked that the only time I heard God mentioned in our home growing up was when it had a “damn” attached to it.  They allowed us to go to church but I can’t remember seeing them in a church service more than once or twice.  Dad had little time for religion or religious people.  Yet he was instrumental in my own salvation.  Here’s how.  (1) Dad taught me to respect and respond to authority.  He was a strict disciplinarian.  (2) I didn’t want to become like my dad.  So, when the Supreme Authority of the universe invited me into His grace through Jesus Christ, I responded in the affirmative.  Dad had taught me to respect and respond to authority.  Six years later I entered the ministry.  I eventually developed into a very religious person and I don’t mean this in a good way.

One week while attending a Christian conference the Lord helped me understand the principle and the power of a negative focus.  I had been so focused on not becoming like Dad that I became “just like” him.  Oh, I didn’t smoke, drink or cuss.  I didn’t have all of the same addictions.  But, I was proud, boastful, opinionated, angry, controlling and at times controlled by my own “ghosts”.  I had become like my dad.  I needed to be forgiven and to forgive.  And to top off the week, God impressed me to go home to Dad; not to confront him about the failures of his past but to ask his forgiveness! Honestly, I had already forgiven him for any real or imagined mistreatment in my past.  It was time for me to ask his forgiveness.  Here’s why.  For many years, through my relationship with Jesus, I had the power to respond correctly to my dad and any perceived wrongs.  I had not availed myself of His strength.  I too was angry and bitter.  I needed Dad to forgive me for my wrong responses.  So I made a trip home to see him.  It would be our third and final significant spiritual conversation.  He forgave me.

A few years before Dad’s death I learned something I believe eased some of his pain.  I’ve written about it previously.  I learned Dad’s grandmother had been convicted of participating in the murder of his grandfather.  Dad’s dad never really knew his father and was raised as an orphan.  Maybe this knowledge helped him understand Gus Roberts, his dad, a little better.  Maybe he knew that even though it did’nt excuse his dad’s misdeeds, it did help us to potentially understand them.  Maybe.

For the last eight years of Dad’s life, he was as “sober as a judge”.  In fact, he was a judge!  I think Dad enjoyed those years and I know Mom did.  He was eventually named Citizen of the Year in Krum, Texas and buried with honors in 1988.

Rest in Peace Dad.  Your story will be told.

I share this because I can only share Dad’s story from my perspective.  I need the reader to understand what this perspective is.  I have the historical record.  I have my memories.  I have the relationship we shared.  I don’t have the final say.  I’m not the final judge.  I’m someone who believes in bringing the past into the light to propel us into a better future.  And dear grandchildren, never forget, I am the “teller of tales”.

______________________________________

“What!” exclaimed the Ghost, “would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give? Is it not enough that you are one of those whose passions made this cap, and force me through whole train of years to wear it low upon my brow?”

Scrooge reverently disclaimed all intention to offend or any knowledge of having willfully “bonneted” the Spirit at any period of his life. He then made bold to inquire what business brought him there.

“Your welfare!” said the Ghost.

(Charles Dickens from A Christmas Carol)

 

[i] My Journey:  The Autobiography and Family History of David L. Roberts by David Lee Roberts.  January 2015.

Merry Christmas to my gracious readers of this simple blog.  I’m grateful and thankful for you!

Burton Lee Roberts: Murder, mystery, mayhem and Burton Lee

Burton Lee Roberts in North Africa in 1943 (Standing back row right)
Burton Lee Roberts in North Africa in 1943 (Standing back row right)

Our lives are shaped by what happens before us, to us and through us – and, by our responses to these events.  Burton Lee Roberts’ life would be no different.  He would not escape.  Opinionated and politically incorrect, chased by his own personal demons, keeper of secrets, he was a mystery.  It’s left to me to backtrack the truth, unravel the tale and record the most complete explanation of his life.  He was my father.

I loved him.  I hated him.  I learned him.  I understood him (somewhat).  I love him.  And now I share him.  I share his story with my children and grandchildren.  I share his story with many other children who want to understand their own fathers, who long to make sense of their lives or at least, not to hate.  Some of you want to understand.  Like me, you struggle.  Most of you never met my dad.  Those of you who knew him knew little about his inner turmoil.  In sharing his life, I share me, because our lives are inseparable.  My responses to him shaped me.  I doubt you can fully understand me without knowing him.

Our DNA trickles to us from thousands of sources.   These millions of droplets collect and gush into our lives through only two — our mother and father.  Eyes, hair, facial features, size, muscle structure, feet, fingers, etc. passed down to us by our parents, a mix of what was passed down to them.  I sometimes debate with myself what is DNA and what is learned behavior.  After all, I not only look like my dad but I have some of the same facial expressions, stand and walk like him.  Like the father in the story of the prodigal who easily recognized his son’s gait from a considerable distance, if you knew my father, you can see him reflected in me.

My dad missed the reported murder of his grandfather but his father didn’t.  Only three years old at the time, dad’s father, my grandfather, was said to have been in the room when the deed was done.  My dad missed his grandfather’s murder (Was it really a murder?) but not the fallout.  Dad’s father was raised without a father or mother.  He never knew his grandfather.  His adolescence was lived through The Great Depression.  He experienced and participated in the mayhem of a world at war.  He would be shaped by it all and so would we.

I got into genealogy because I love history and a good mystery.  My family has both.  Once I discovered so many tales to be told, so many lives to be restored, so many dots to be connected, I knew it was my responsibility to be the “teller of tales”, to backtrack the truth.  But, where to begin?  I’ve been very “hit and miss” so far in my blog, Backtracking the Common.  My posts have been things that interested or challenged me.  I work better with structure.  I need a plan.  I want something more sequential.  My intent was to save dad’s story for last, less complicated, less painful that way, but I can’t.  His story is only explained by his father’s story.  His father’s story is explained by his father’s story, etc.  So we’ll begin to unravel their collective stories, unlock some mysteries, and tell their tales.  We begin with the life of Burton Lee Roberts and the murder, mystery and mayhem that shaped it – and me.

 

Genealogy Tip #9: Writing Family Stories and the Genealogical Proof Standards

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”?[i]

Writing Our Family StoriesMany family storytellers aren’t interested in genealogical proof standards.  They’re simply telling stories to entertain.  That’s their goal.  I applaud the storyteller.  I love a good story.  But, the family historian can’t afford to adopt this attitude.  Their goal must first be accuracy and then entertainment.  Otherwise, it’s not history and they’re not a family historian.  So, let’s be clear, this post is not about family stories vs. genealogical proof standards.  It’s about family stories and genealogical proof standards.  It’s about how we take well researched family facts and use them to tell accurately entertaining stories – and if we can’t, we should make it clear we’re only repeating a family tale.

I visited a “family history” website this past week that illustrates the clash.  The writer warned me in the first few lines not to trust all of the things written about their family on the internet (Sites and trees other than theirs is what they had in mind.).  One page later they inform us their ancestors welcomed Davy Crockett into their home in Tennessee as he made his way to the Alamo.  They further claim their ancestors were neighbors to another Republic of Texas history legend, Edward Burleson.[ii]  This is done without any reference to one scintilla of evidence supporting such claims.  Is this a problem? Yes? No? Maybe?  Tell the story.  It’s not a “crime”.  It’s not the problem.  To repeat it as historical fact or as if it were historically accurate IS a problem.

Family stories are told in many forms all over the world.  This isn’t a problem.  If you’re telling family stories, you’re not in trouble – even if they’re speculative and knowingly or unknowingly inaccurate.  However, if you tell these unsubstantiated stories as if they’re historical facts and you expect other family trees to reflect your “notion of the truth”, this is a problem.  And if you’re reading and repeating these stories as “gospel truth”, you’re participating in and propagating a problem.

Family stories and genealogical proof standards are not incongruous.  You need not decide one or the other.  You can choose both.  Here are some suggestions.

First, Understand the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Genealogical Standards book cover“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; and
  • a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.

Each element contributes to a conclusion’s credibility in a different way, described in the table below, but all the elements are necessary to establish proof.

Element of the GPS Contribution to Credibility
Reasonably exhaustive research
  • Assumes examination of a wide range of high quality sources
  • Minimizes the probability that undiscovered evidence will overturn a too-hasty conclusion
Complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item
  • Demonstrates the extent of the search and the quality of the sources
  • Allows others to replicate the steps taken to reach the conclusion. (Inability to replicate the research casts doubt on the conclusion.)
Tests—through processes of analysis and correlation—of all sources, information items, and evidence
  • Facilitates sound interpretation of the data contributed by each source
  • Ensures that the conclusion reflects all the evidence
Resolution of conflicts among evidence items
  • Substantiates the conclusion’s credibility. (If conflicting evidence is not resolved, a credible conclusion is not possible.)
Soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.
  • Eliminates the possibility that the conclusion is based on bias, preconception, or inadequate appreciation of the evidence
  • Explains how the evidence led to the conclusion “

(The previous quote is taken from the Board for Certification of Genealogist blog[iii])

This should be the standard for our family history research.

Need more information?  Consider these excellent resources:

Next, Understand the Purpose(s) of Our Stories

Why do we tell our family stories?

  1. Inform and Encourage. Knowing our family’s history helps us find “our place”.  We gain a sense of belonging and find value in our family members’ accomplishments and place in history.
  2. Inspire. We tell our family stories to inspire family members and others to greatness.  “Common people” accomplishing uncommon things inspires us to rise to a greater finish.
  3. Warn. We share our family’s stories as a warning to ourselves and others.  We all have “black sheep” in our families.  (They’re some of my favorites.)  Telling their stories in our “tales” warns us about our present path or our possible future.  Someone will tell our story one day.  Will it inspire or warn off a future generation?
  4. Entertain. Our stories may inform, encourage, inspire or even warn.  They should also entertain.  Think about it.  If our goal is to inform and inspire, aren’t we more likely to accomplish this if we’re also entertaining?

What makes our stories entertaining? 

I would be the last person to tell you how to write.  I’m woefully inadequate.  I do, however, have a fair ability to recognize a good story and a good storyteller.  They can articulate or at least know intuitively their story needs three parts.  (Don’t think beginning, middle and end.)  Think instead of your favorite stories/movies.  What do they have in common?  Every good story has three ingredients:

  • Origination. The listener/reader needs to be drawn in and at the same time oriented to the main character and crisis in the story.  It grabs, excites, introduces, informs and compels the reader/listener forward into the story.  The first part of a good origination could be a sentence, paragraphs or chapters in length.  For example, “James Williams was short in stature but he was guaranteed another inch or two from the hangman’s noose.”  Conflict (inner or outer) in one form or another is always introduced in this first part.  To have a story, something has to go wrong.
  • The conflict escalates. Things may get better, but they eventually get worse.  There may be a series of improvements but if there is, things continue to get worse after each one.  It’s a roller-coaster of emotions as you learn more and care more about the main character and feel stronger angst toward his combatants.  Impending doom is approaching.  “…James’ attorney had located his third potential witness to alibi his client and save him from the gallows, but like the previous two, he too disappeared.”  The tension builds.
  • Resolution.  The story is brought to a conclusion when the initial conflict is brought to a resolution.  In the fictional stories I used to tell my children, the hero always won.  But, that’s not always possible when telling historically accurate stories.  Sometimes James Williams is hung.

There is a wealth of information on “what makes a good story”.  Google it.  Read a book about it.  Take a course.  Practice. Practice.  Practice.  But never stop learning or trying to make your stories entertaining.  Our improving ability to tell our stories will increase the likelihood our family histories will be known, cherished and repeated.

Use the comment section to share any “what makes a good story” material you know of to help family history writers.

Now, Combine the two disciplines.

Here’s how we transform our family research into entertaining, historical, uncompromised family stories.

  1. Use the Genealogical Proof Standards as a guideline in your family research. Have a story to tell based on historical facts demonstrated by historical, genealogical evidence.  Catalog and save your documentation.  Use endnotes to share your sources.
  2. Write or tell your story based on the facts you’ve uncovered and documented. Write your story using the guidelines on what makes a good story.  It will take time and practice but you can do it.  Make it a good story.  Make it a true story.  Use accurate, documented facts.
  3. If you feel you must tell your relative’s tall tale (or short tale) about your ancestor, or you just want to tell it, clearly identify it as a historically unsubstantiated tale.

Writing our family’s history is fun and entertaining.  To be history, it needs to be accurate.  We’re not creating fictional families.  We’re family historians.  We’re uncovering history.  We tell the rich story of our ancestors.  Knowing their true stories adds richness to our lives.  Telling their stories well adds richness to the lives of others.

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Now, let’s go write those entertaining stories!

[i] According to Barry Popik this phrase or a form of it is often credited to Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie but it appeared in print as early as 1882 or six years before Dobie was born.

[ii] The website mentioned in this example is real but being withheld in order to…well, protect my possible cousin!

[iii] Board for Certification of Genealogist.

[iv] Available at Amazon.

[v] Available at Amazon.

[vi] Available at Amazon.

Genealogy Tip #8: Power Researching!

Here’s the situation.  You’re researching multiple family lines.  You have an opportunity to visit an excellent genealogical library or research facility miles or even days away from where you live.  You’ll have limited time, a day or two, to be in the facility.  How do you maximize your time and carry home the most amount of information?  Try what I call power researching.

Here’s what you need:

  • A small camera or phone camera with plenty of photo file storage capability and/or scanning capability. It must be able to capture excellent images without a flash and have a removable battery that can be easily changed.  I use a Cannon Power Shot A4000 IS.  You’ll waste valuable time if you have to stop to charge your phone or tablet.
  • Photo software with editing capability on your computer, laptop or tablet.
  • An extra battery for your photo/scanning device
  • A charger to recharge your spent battery while you continue to work with your fresh battery.
  • You may want to use a tripod or other device for you photo work. They just slow me down.
  • Pen and paper
  • A flash drive.
  • The research guide you’ve prepared. (Explained below)

Here’s what you do before you go:

  • Prepare a simple research guide. What surnames are you researching, in which locations and for what date ranges.  Know the counties’ histories and boundary changes and remember, your ancestors often registered documents in adjacent counties because it was more convenient.  For example, my Horn or Horne relatives arrived in what I believe is current day Wilson County, Tennessee sometime after 1791 (Wilson county did not exist in 1791) and had, to my knowledge, moved on by about 1836.  I would need to research no fewer than seven counties:  Sumner, Davidson, Wilson, Smith, Rutherford, Warren and Cannon for those early date ranges!  So I would write down the main target surnames, their known allied surnames, the county names in which I may find a record of their presence and the date range I may expect to find them there.  Don’t forget alternate spellings.
  • Go online and search the target library or research center’s catalog. Prioritize the order of your search by the roadblock you are trying to remove or most coveted surnames.  Put in the search query.  For example, I would put in Wilson County, Tennessee and look for deed books, will books, histories, tax lists, etc. all in the appropriate date range.  I would copy and paste the catalog information, especially the call numbers, into a document in my word processor.  I would then repeat the process for each potential county.  Remember to prioritize.  You’re preparing the guide you will use when you visit the facility.  You need your list to be progressing from most important in your research to least.  Only you can determine this order.  If I’m visiting a good facility for the first time, it’s not unusual for me to have eight to ten pages in my guide.
  • Print out the guide you’ve built. Then write the appropriate surnames beside each document title on your list.  This will be critical in getting the most out of your time.
  • Charge your camera battery and your spare battery. Have an extra data storage disk.  Pack your charger!  When you change a battery out, put the used one in the charger.
  • Make certain you know the location and times the facility will be open. Don’t trust the times you find on a website!  Call the week before you go and confirm with a person their times and policies concerning non-flash photography (By the way, if your camera has a “silent” mode, please use it.)
  • Take a flash drive with you. (sometimes called a thumb drive or memory stick).  If you find data on a facility computer/microfilm reader, you may be able to simple plug in your flash drive and download the information to take home with you.  This saves you the time and expense of copying.
  • Plan your meals. I usually pack a lunch (or dinner depending on the hours the facility is open).  I want to control and limit my time away from gathering “gold”.

Here’s what you do when you arrive:

  • Be at the facility when it opens.Gary power researching in San Antonio 2015
  • Proceed through any check-in process necessary for the facility, get oriented, select a research table nearest your work and head to the stacks with the research guide you prepared.
  • Find and collect the first five or six books and/or documents from the top of your list and return to your table.
  • On a sheet of paper, you brought with you, write down the title and author of the first book. Under this write the surnames appropriate to this book down the left side of your paper allowing room between each surname and alternate spelling.  I try to do this in alphabetical order to hasten the later process.
  • Search the index of the first book. (If your document does not have an index, you’ll need to determine if you should take the time to research it the “old fashioned way”, photo or copy the entire document now or take time to search it or copy it later in the day.)  Now, use the names you wrote on your paper.  These will be your family surnames and allied families from the appropriate county and times.  Beside each name found in the index, write the page numbers where these names appear in the book.  You are preparing your “photo guide”.  Do this for each name on your paper for this specific book.
  • Begin photographing. I do it in this sequence.  Photograph the outside cover of the book, then the title and copyright pages.  If you like, photograph the forward or introduction.  Photograph any explanations of abbreviations, etc.  which may later assist you.  Photograph the hand written page you have just prepared.  Now, begin photographing each page number beside the names you have written down.  Save time and trouble by photographing both pages facing you.  Don’t peak at the information.  It’ll slow you down.  (OK, I confess.  If it’s a brick wall subject, I always peak.)  Continue this process through each of the names and pages on your list.  Photograph maps or diagrams you stumble across in the volume.  Then repeat the process for each book on the table preparing and photographing a page for each one.
  • When you’re finished with the first five or six books, place them on the return carts (do not re-shelve them) and find the next five or six books on your list. Repeat the process as before until you finish your entire list or have to go home.

When you arrive home:

  • Download all of your images. Hopefully your photo editing software collects your download/upload dump into one file.  (I believe the most I’ve collected from one facility is 996 over two full days.)
  • I name this one file with the name of the city, facility and date of the visit.
  • I create sub-folders within this one main folder. The sub-folders are named according to the titles of the books from which I gathered the images.  These images should be numbered in sequential order by your camera and/or photo software.  Keep those image designations.  Do Not Change Them.  Do not rename them.  Now, simply collect the proper images for each titled folder (the title of a book or document) and deposit them in the folder.  I now possess the images pertinent to my research in the proper folders for each book I photographed.
  • NOW the work begins! I must, at my own pace, go through each page and mine out the “gold” for my research while carefully documenting my sources.  Then I can analyze the data and better tell my family’s story.
  • Backup! Backup! Backup!  Backup all data using multiple resources.
  • Finally, I prepare a hard copy file folder for the trip and place the research guide and name pages I prepared for each book or document in this file.

I’m fortunate to live “down the street” from some excellent genealogical research resources.  But, they don’t have everything I need and I can’t get everything I need online – not even barely.  If I’m going to go through the time and expense to travel to a research facility, I want to gather as much “gold” as I can.  I’m sure you feel the same way.  This is just one idea how you might do it.

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Happy backtracking!

A Genealogical Thanksgiving

I’m thinking of a Genealogical Thanksgiving and wondering why I’m only now, today, thinking of it.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

James 1:17 NIV Bible

 

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—

1 Timothy 2:1 NIV Bible

 

…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 NIV Bible

Sarah Hale wrote to five presidents seeking to have a day of Thanksgiving recognized by all citizens of all states of the United States on the same day.  Here is part of her letter.

“You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.”[i]

Abraham Lincoln received her letter in the middle of a war threatening to tear the union apart.  He established our tradition of a national holiday for giving thanks in 1863.  (The Confederate States waited until 1870 to join the fun!)  We’ve been, since then, celebrating the fourth Thursday of November as this singular national day of giving thanks in America.

I wonder why we feel the need to choose one day or why we feel we have to “order” proper behavior.  But, that’s another discussion for another day.

The fact is, it is more consistent with the teachings of the Bible and healthier to be thankful every day.  And genealogists and family historians have much to be thankful for every day.  Here are a few reminders, some things for which I am thankful as a family historian.

  1. A rich and varied family history with which I never bore. I’m about to begin my 4th year of research in my family history.  (I know; it seems like forever for some of my poor living family members.)  I’ve discovered the men and women in both of our family lines were all here before the Revolution.  All of my ancestral lines where in America 100 years before Lincoln “ordered” thankfulness — and some earlier.   Their stories illustrate the very fiber of this nation and are revealed one fact at a time.  Simple, common things fire my imagination.  I found my great-great-grandfather Riggs in the 1860 Federal Census from Denton County, Texas.  His occupation is “Master Cabinet Maker”.  His immediate neighbor’s occupation is given as “Cabinet Maker” and no doubt was my relative’s apprentice.  Stephen Riggs’ name appears in a recent book on early influential Texas furniture makers.  I know it’s crazy but uncovering these simple details still excites me and for such a rich family history, I am thankful.
  2. Family research facilities. There are sections of libraries and a growing number of stand-alone facilities for researching family history.  These include national, state and local centers.  Billions of clues and facts about families can’t be found online.  They are more available and accessible now than ever.  I am thankful.
  3. Friendly staff in county courthouses. If you’re going to research your family, you’ll need to be in county courthouses.  I always appreciate it when I meet courteous and helpful clerks.  I’ve met a bunch of them over the past three years, but the best example so for are the ladies in the county clerks’ office in Lamar County, Texas.  When I meet people like these folks, I am thankful.
  4. The Internet. You can’t do all of your research online but you can do more now than ever.  And you can do it in your pajamas!  (Only if you’re at home.  Don’t do it when you’re using the computers in a library or research facility.)  Family Search, Ancestry and a growing number of business minded companies are offering services to family researchers that can be accessed from home.  Add to this the Internet Archives and the millions of pages of others’ research now available online and you see why I’m thankful.
  5. Genealogical Proof Standards. The practice of these standards by family researchers is what keeps the sanity in the genealogical universe.  It also helps me know I’m on the right “trail” as I backtrack the common.  I am thankful.
  6. Helpful fellow researchers. They’re everywhere in the genealogical community.  Their clues are invaluable and their information is sometimes right!  I am thankful.
  7. DNA testing is available and cheap. The use of DNA for genealogical purposes is exploding.  The testing is simple.  The results and the software to help you understand and keep track of your results are improving.  You can now find cousins without doing the hard work of building an accurate family tree.  I don’t recommend it.  You’ll get much more out of your DNA results if you’ll build a five generation deep pedigree chart and then have your DNA tested.  I am thankful.
  8. I am thankful for all of the new cousins I’ve found through research and DNA. If you’re one of them, I want you to know I’m thankful!
  9. I’m thankful for my wife Dee who supports and assists me in my research.  We’ve been traveling together now for over 40 years and I am thankful.

Have a great Thanksgiving everybody!

[i] Sarah Hale’s original letter to President Lincoln is in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

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