The Reluctant Genealogist Writes Again

I didn’t just jump into genealogy.  Perhaps you can identify with my struggle.

In my first post I shared how a wonderful couple, virtual strangers to me, introduced my family to my dad’s deceased grandfather whom we had never met.  Lawrence and Juanita Uhl of Jacksonville, Texas did their work the old fashion way.  They got in their car, drove to a courthouse, a library, a newspaper, a cemetery, made some calls and dug out the information, documented their research, made copies on bad copy machines and took Polaroid pictures.  After all, it was 1985.

What they did was to spark my interest and provide the foundation on which I now build my family’s history.  What they began continues through this blog and other efforts in the works to assist beginning genealogist and family historians.  I would not be writing this today if it were not for their efforts.

So, what took so long?  Their work on my behalf ended thirty years ago this fall.  Why has it taken me so long to shake that genealogical tree?  Well, that’s why I call myself the reluctant genealogist.

In 1985 my wife and I were 11 years into raising a large family.  We would eventually enjoy 7 children.  We were part of a growing church in a great community.  I was the lead pastor.  We were busy.  We were forward looking.  The only past I paid much attention to was biblical past and cultural past.  I wanted to bridge that past with the present and move into the future.  In most ways I still feel that way.  But not when it comes to family history.  My mortality was showing.  My family’s past was still clouded in the mist of the unknown.  No one could pass this on to my children and grandchildren like I could…and no one else should.

I began slowly, as time allowed, to collect facts, photos and do more and more research.  Dee and I began to use our away time to travel in and out of state to research the Roberts and the Ingram side of my family.  We shifted our focus this past year to the Byrds, Horns, Riggs, and allied families while my mother could enjoy our discoveries.  The Burns, mom’s mother’s family, is on our radar as well.  For three Christmases our large and growing family has played a game using PowerPoint slides.  We bring our family history to the present in a competitive format.  We spiced it up this past season with a few Riddles, Harrisons, Burges and Jordans (Dee’s family).   We call it Family Feud!

We’ve only scratched the surface in our research.  I hope to continue for many years to come.  I expect my children and grandchildren to read every post on this blog (Are you paying attention Roberts, Armstrongs, Collins and Willifords?).  I expect them to invite their friends to read it.  (Ok, maybe just their old friends).  I expect them to join the coming Facebook page and follow me on Twitter.  I…oh well, that’s enough dreaming.

Thanks for reading my ramblings.  I hope you’ll come back often, join the conversation, share how you research your family history and then share it with others.  I’ll talk about my family and in the process hope to help others research theirs.  Welcome.

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Tip #1: Fact or Fiction

Beginning genealogistsfamily historians – are truth seekers.  They are fact finders.  The stories they tell may be wonderfully crafted (Some do this better than others and that’s okay.) but, these stories are always shaped and supported by the facts.  Aunt Sally’s story may enhance the family’s prominence or save the family’s “face”, but the historian in you must always discover the facts.  Once those facts are known you may tell them in your unique voice and by doing so bless your family, community and world.  What would have been lost history is now recorded history.  Thanks!

Decide now beginning genealogist, family historian – fact or fiction?

The Reluctant Genealogist

I guess you could call me a reluctant genealogist.  The craft/hobby/obsession has been trying to draw me in for half my life. I finally capitulated these past two years.

Here’s how it all started thirty years ago this fall.  I had just finished conducting a graveside service outside of Fairfield, Texas when I was approached by a couple who appeared to be in their late forties or early fifties.  They introduced themselves as Lawrence and Juanita Uhl.  They thanked me for the service and my kind words and then asked me a question I had never been asked before or since at a funeral service.  “What do you know about your father’s family?”   That’s where it all began.  I didn’t know it then, but I know it now.

The truth was, in spite of my insatiable curiosity about most things, I knew nearly nothing about my father’s family.   It wasn’t because I didn’t want to know.  It wasn’t because I hadn’t asked.  I think I can sum it up in two ways.  First, my dad and his dad knew nothing about their family and its roots.  Second, unlike a good genealogist, I took their “No” for an answer.  They had nothing to tell me and I accepted their lack of information as the final say on the matter.  I lived with this false reality until the fall of 1985.

The Uhls were professors at a small college in East Texas and they both had been bitten by the genealogy bug.  They were passionate amateur sleuths, using most of their free time in the hobby (read obsession) but had hit a roadblock in following Lawrence’s father’s line.   They lost the trail in Virginia.  They later confessed to me they hoped by helping a minister that God would help them get past their brick wall and pick up the trail.

I told them only a few things at the cemetery that day.  This was all I knew.  My dad was raised in the Ft. Worth, Texas area by Gus Roberts.  While badgering my dad one day for information about his family he blurted out that all he knew about his dad’s family was that they were from a small community outside of Paris, Texas.  That’s not much to go on.

Lawrence and Juanita Uhl took those crumbs and went to work.  Two weeks later I received a call.  The Uhls asked permission to drive to our home in Nacogdoches and share what they had found.  In a few days they arrived with a notebook and large envelope in hand.  They weren’t sure how I would take the news they had to share and thought it would be better delivered in person.

Here’s what I heard and saw that day.  My grandfather, the man I knew as “Papoo”, was the offspring of his father’s second marriage.  Great granddad John A. Roberts had a nice farm in Lamar County and he worked it with his son and son-in-law from his first marriage.  His wife had been deceased for a few years when he married one of his farm workers.  She was about 29 and he was 66.  My granddad arrived in 1898.  In 1901 my great grandmother Mary Laningham Thompson Roberts and one of the hired hands named John Killian were accused and convicted of murdering my great grandfather.  They were sent to the Texas Penitentiary.  Witnesses claimed my grandfather Gus, then only three years old, was in the room when the deed was done.  He would be raised by the Masonic Home in Ft. Worth until he graduated their school at the age of eighteen.

In a flash I saw it.  I knew why my grandfather was the way he was.  I was moved with compassion for him and my dad.  My father had once described his dad as a “mean old bitter SOB”.   Dad would not escape the malaise.  He left home at 16 to wrestle with his own demons the rest of his life.  Now I understood.

My great-grandmother was convicted of murdering my great-grandfather in 1902.  Was this bad news?  Sure.  Was it sad news?  Yes.  A jury of 12 men said it was a fact.  They said it was the truth.  (I’ll have more to say about this on another day.  Hint:  They were both pardoned by two different governors!)  For now, all we had to work with was the decision of that jury.  Knowing the story allowed me to share with my father about a man he never met (his grandfather) and a man he never really knew (his father).  I saw a light in his eyes that day and an emotional expulsion from his chest.  He would live with these liberating facts for less than three years.  They were good years.

I think often of a pair of dedicated amateur genealogical detectives who made this possible in our family.  I never really properly thanked them.  I’m just now, after thirty years, understanding the impact of what they did for my family.  Thanks Lawrence and Juanita Uhl wherever you are!  May your tribe increase!  I dedicate this blog to you, your memory and people like you who are committed to the facts and will follow them wherever they lead.  I hope we all break down our brick walls together and continue to backtrack the common until we meet in a place where there is no sorrow.

Gary Roberts

March 2015