Understanding and Interpreting Birth Certificates

For fifty-eight years my father had no official given name.  He was simply “Roberts” on the birth record tucked away in Kerr County, Texas.

Genealogists love birth certificates!  They’re informative, sometimes puzzling and can even be intriguing. Like his father before him, Burton Lee Roberts had to go back many years later to the county of his birth and have his certificate amended.  

What can we learn from the birth certificate of B.L. Roberts?

  1. Some birth certificates are incomplete.
  2. Birth certificates provide facts and clues for the diligent family historian.
  3. Birth certificates are not always correct.
  4. Birth certificates are always specific to a person.  

Incomplete Birth Certificates

The blanks are not always filled in and when they’re not, the certificate is incomplete.  In the enhanced image of my dad’s certificate there are several blank spaces.  These include the specific address of his birth and his given name or names at the time of his birth.  On the space after “FULL NAME OF CHILD” there is simply the word “Roberts”.  This would remain so until it was amended in 1977.

On other certificates, I’ve seen the space for the father’s information left blank.  When it is, the blank under the term “Legitimate” is often left blank or filled in with the word “No”, but not always.

When you find a blank on a certificate, ask yourself, why it’s blank?  The answer may or may not be obvious.  The answer may or may not be that significant.

Birth certificates provide facts and clues

Some documents are better sources of information for specific needs.  Keep this in mind as you do research.  I like death certificates for the date of death better than a headstone and I like birth certificates to establish the date of birth better than a headstone.  Yes, I know, I wish we could always find one too!  Whatever you find that provides evidence for your work, remember, the information is only as good as it’s source.  If the mother is the source and she doesn’t know where her husband was born, the information will most likely be incorrect.

Birth Certificates provide facts.  On Dad’s certificate we learn he was a male child considered legitimate and born on February 24, 1919 at around 4:30 pm.  His father was Gus Roberts a white male living in San Antonio, TX aged 20 years on his last birthday and was born in Paris, Texas.  His mother was Emma Ingram a white female living in San Antonio, TX aged 20 years on her last birthday and born in Carrizo Springs, Texas.  Gus is a laborer and Emma is a housewife.  The attending physician was J.L. Fowler.  He lived in Ingram, TX.  The Kerr County Clerk at the time was Jno. R. Leavell.  Dad was the sixth birth registered in Kerr County!

Birth certificates may also provide clues.  Dad’s certificate states his parents’ residence at the time of his birth was San Antonio, but his place of birth is given as the city of Ingram in Kerr County.  What’s up with that?  Were they on a trip when she went into labor?  That’s possible.  We know they resided in San Antonio, Texas on or near the time of Dad’s birth.  His father worked for Otis Elevator and when he filled out a World War I draft card he and his wife Emma lived on Nebraska St. in San Antonio.  We know Emma’s mother lived in Ingram, TX. (If we hadn’t, Dad’s certificate would have been a good clue.).  That’s about 85 miles west of San Antonio.  We know other Ingram girls (Also Emma’s maiden name) delivered their babies while visiting their mother in the town of Ingram.  Here’s where another clue is presented to us.  Why was there no given name on Dad’s original birth certificate?  Perhaps his mother had traveled to Ingram from San Antonio weeks or even a month before Dad was due.  Perhaps his father was in San Antonio working and not in Ingram when his first child arrived.  This may explain the missing given names on the certificate.  Perhaps Dad’s mother wasn’t sure what her husband wanted to call his son.   

Birth Certificates Are Not Always Correct  

As previously stated, birth certificates are only as good as their source.  Therefore they’re not always 100% correct.  Be aware.  Having said that, they’re still our best source for an accurate birth date.

While my dad’s original certificate is incomplete, it appears to be accurate with the information it provides.  That’s not totally true about the side notes attached to the amended certificate.

I believe Dad and Mom must have decided to get an official birth certificate on the same trip to the Texas hill country, Dad’s from Kerr County and Mom’s from Bandera County.  They were both in for surprises.  Dad discovered he didn’t have a given or middle name.  Mom discovered she was a year younger than she thought she was.  I wish I could have seen their faces.  How does someone in their late fifties not need an official birth certificate before then?  How does someone in their middle thirties lose track of their age?  Dad would later obtain an affidavit from his father and return it to Kerr County in order to amend his birth certificate.  Here’s a photo image of the amendment.

The top part of the document is the clerk’s recording of what she sees in the original document.  The bottom part is the amendment to the original document.  Here’s  where I suppose Dad officially receives his full name Burton Lee Roberts.  Burton was after Burton Cheesman, the husband of his mother’s sister B.G. They were very close.  Lee was his mother’s middle name.  My dad would later name his firstborn David Lee Roberts.

But not all of the information on this amended document is correct.  The clerk misread the original and put down the father’s name as “Geo.” rather than “Gus” in the information she recorded at the top the the page.  So, if you’re looking for a George Roberts living in Texas during the early part of the 1900s, here’s your “proof”.  (I type laughing.)  Add it to your family tree!

The next image is the photo of the back of the previous image and dates when the amended certificate was recorded in Kerr County.

Birth Certificates Are Specific to a Person

These are useful photos of two documents containing wonderful information about Burton Lee Roberts.  I’m grateful to have them and seek to collect birth certificates for all of my family research subjects when they’re available.  I’m sure you do as well.

One more reason these are so valuable to me, some people still question my dad’s birth date.  He did this to himself.  He joined the army when he was sixteen but lied about his age to do so.  He has a military birth date of February 24, 1917 and an actual birthday of February 24, 1919.  Confusing?  Sometimes.  But that’s why we do reasonably exhaustive research.  Happy backtracking!

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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.

 

Burton Lee Roberts ca 1938

Burton Lee Roberts ca 1938 near Fort Sill, Oklahoma.  Dad joined the Army Air Corp in 1935.  He served as a DI for the 26th General Hospital Group's military training in 1941.  He then joined the unit and trained with them in their hospital/medical training eventually serving in North Africa and Italy during WWII.
Burton Lee Roberts ca 1938 near Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Dad joined the Army Air Corp in 1935. He served as a DI for the 26th General Hospital Group’s military training in 1941. He then joined the unit and trained with them in their hospital/medical training eventually serving in North Africa and Italy during WWII.