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.

I’ve Been Nominated!

Leibster AwardI’ve been nominated for a Liebster Award.  Don’t worry Mom, it’s better than it sounds.  In fact, it’s something quite wonderful.  The Liebster (from the German word for dear, beloved or sweetheart) Award is an award given to bloggers by bloggers.  It’s a pay-it-forward-way to encourage fellow writers to keep writing.  Given to bloggers with less than 200 followers (Boy can I meet that threshold!) the award’s origins are clouded in mystery.  To receive the award you must answer your nominator’s questions on your blog and then nominate three bloggers to receive the award.

Thank you Melissa from Finlay Family. org for my nomination!  Here are my answers to her questions:

1. Why did you decide to start your blog, and what is the emphasis of your blog?

Two reasons:  I wanted to use my blog to encourage me to write about my family research, to put my research in a form my family and others could enjoy.  Secondly, I was so new to genealogy and making so many mistakes that I hope to write some research tips to save other new family historians some time, trouble and money.  I focus on the four main lines of my parents’ parents and all the offshoots of these four people.  I also throw in tips for other family historians.

2. What is your favorite post that you have written? (include a link, please!)

The one I’m writing NOW about my great-grandfather’s death.  I hope to post the first installment in a few of days.  This is actually a hard question because I get excited about most things I decide to write.  I suppose “Happy Trails” was as enjoyable to me as anything I’ve written to date.

3. What goals do you have for your blog in the next year?

Like most bloggers, I would like more consistancy.  I want to research better and write better.  I want to publish at least twice each week.  I want to know my blog is helpful and entertaining.

4. How long have you been interested in your family history?

I’ve always had an insatiable curiosity, which at time has gotten me into trouble.  I’ve also enjoyed history and love the large nuclear family God gave us.  I suppose all of this comes together to “create” a family historian.  But honestly, it’s only been a little more than three years that I’ve taken a real interest in documenting our family’s past.  I think my age may have something to do with that!  I wish I had started earlier.  I wish I had asked more questions, sooner.  I’m happy I can do it now.

5. What do you enjoy most about blogging/writing?

Two things: it forces me to put into words and on “paper” the things I’m learning.  And, it allows me to leave behind something for my children and grandchildren.

6. List a few of your favorite blogs.

Here are three of my favorite genealogical blogs:

7. If you could choose any vacation destination, where would you go, and why?

When I find the origin the first Roberts in my family line to imigrate to America, I would like to go there.  And/or any place my wife wants to go is fine with me!  Good answer!

My nominations for the Liebster Award Are….

Each of these nominees easily exceeds anything I have accomplished and are worthy of your consideration.

  1. Jake Fletcher at Travelogues of a Genealogist
  2. Michelle Ganus Taggart at A Southern Sleuth
  3. Larry and Gayle at Family Roots and Branches

Should they choose to accept my nomination, they will need to post their answers to the following questions and nominate three other bloggers for the award.

  1. What are your top two motivations for blogging?
  2. Describe your early attempts at blogging?
  3. Describe your immediate family and share how, if in any way, they influence your blogging?
  4. What is the favorite blog you’ve written and please share a link to it?
  5. Describe how your research and blogging influence each other.
  6. If you had only one thing to say to your readers, what would it be?

I look forward to reading my nominees’ responses.  Congratulations!

Is DNA a genealogical miracle?

DNA imageIs DNA a genealogical miracle?  Is DNA the answer to all your genealogical problems?  No. And no.  So, why send your DNA sample off and pay someone to work-up your profile?  Because DNA is solid science and fast becoming an invaluable option in the genealogist/family historian’s toolbox.

I sent my DNA samples off last January.  I did some research first.  I decided on an autosomal test and chose two companies.  One sample went to Ancestry.com.  The other went to Family Tree DNA.  The results reached my inbox about eight weeks later within a few days of one another.  Here are some benefits I experienced in the first week of having the results:

  • Confirmed the family identity of the male DNA contributor to my grandfather and therefore confirmed my suspicion of who did not contribute DNA to him.
  • Confirmed we have yet to identify a family surname in another line of our pedigree chart. (Some researchers think they know but the DNA says it isn’t so.)
  • Confronted (and for me settled) the family lore of having Cherokee descendants in our specific family lines.
  • Confirmed my connections to cousins I met in “the old fashion way” of doing genealogy AND connected me to new cousins across America.

Sound like a miracle?  Maybe, but it’s not.

Here are some things DNA cannot do for you.

  • Build a family tree. (At least not yet!)  If you’re hoping to use DNA to breakdown your genealogical brick walls, you had better get to work on your tree!  Your DNA results may tell you you’re related by DNA to another contributor but good luck on knowing who, how, when and where without doing the hard work of genealogy.  I’m amazed at the number of people I match and they have no tree uploaded.  I can see some applications of DNA which would not need a tree but not if you’re doing genealogical/family history work.
  • Go to the library, research center or courthouse for you. Your DNA results can’t travel on your behalf and make the connections that help tell your story.  Where did the people with my DNA live?  Who were their neighbors?  When and where did these DNAs “marry”?  How did somebody with my DNA get where I am geographically?
  • Fill in the gaps and make your family history rich. Your DNA results cannot interview family members.  They cannot take you to a home place and fire your imagination.  They cannot show you a picture to put a face on that contributor.  They can’t tell you the stories of a 95-year-old great-aunt.
  • They can’t do the footwork of emailing, messaging or calling the other matches to compare notes. And if the two of you don’t have well-built trees, you may not accomplish much when you do visit.
  • They can’t interpret themselves. You or somebody else must interpret your results if you’re going to get the most out of them.  For me, this has been a steep learning curve.  I’m in my 8th month and some days feel as if I haven’t learned a thing!  DNA results 100.  Gary 0.  I like learning new things.  I like a challenge. But, honestly, I’ve got my hands full with this one.

And so you ask, would I do it all over again?  Would I spend about $100 per sample to have my DNA tested?  Absolutely!  As I write this post, I can’t wait for my sister’s mtDNA test results to come back!  It’ll be a wonderful addition to our research.  I just have to do the hard work of understanding and using the depth of knowledge and insight it provides to better tell our family’s full and fascinating story.

Here are some steps you can take if you are serious about using DNA.

  • Go online and do a search using the terms “Genealogy” AND “DNA”. Do it just like I typed it with the quotation marks.
  • Go to the YouTube site and plug in the same terms. Watch a couple of videos on the basics.  (BTW, if you’re not using YouTube in your genealogy “how to” learning, you’re missing a great tool.)
  • Now, spend some time. Do some research.  Don’t be discouraged by the complexity.  Visit with someone who loves the science and technology of it.
  • Find and read blogs specific to the subject of DNA testing. Most of the people on my Blogroll (to your right probably) have written on this subject.  Go to their blog and plug the letters “DNA” into their site search box.

Once you get your tree built, gedcom file ready to upload and DNA results available, use these two other wonderful free online tools:  Gedmatch and Genome Mate Pro.  The future is here.

Here’s how I could use your help.

  • If you have family with the surname “Roberts” who’s ancestors have lived in Lunenburg, Charlotte or Mecklenburg Counties, Virginia since the 1760s please put us in contact with one another. I’m laughing as I write this.  It sounds so crazy and presumptuous!
  • If you know a family with the surnames “Wray”, “Ray”, “Rhea”, “Whitson” or “Eagan” and they had relatives in or around Wilson County, Tennessee ca 1799 – 1840, please put us in contact with one another. (Use the comment section.)
  • And, if you have old family photos, please do not destroy them before some family member can identify them and get them up on the internet to bring joy and context to some future researcher. You may possess the only “bread crumbs” leading to your family’s past.  Treat them as treasure.

Happy Hunting!

Now, where is that Genome Mate Pro instructional video…?

What Do You See In this 1860 Census Image?

How’s your eyesight?  What name is given for the the head of this household in the 1860 Federal Census in District 1, Williamson County, Tennessee? (The Image mirrors the quality of the original.)
1860 Roberts, Anderson G. Federal Census for Williamson County, TN

Source Citation

Year: 1860; Census Place: District 1, Williamson, Tennessee; Roll: M653_1279; Page: 170; Image: 346; Family History Library Film: 805279

Source Information

Ancestry.com. 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

Original data: 1860 U.S. census, population schedule. NARA microfilm publication M653, 1,438 rolls. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.

Here’s what the indexer saw.

Name: Anderson F Roberts
Age in 1860: 53
Birth Year: abt 1807
Birthplace: Tennessee
Home in 1860: District 1, Williamson, Tennessee
Gender: Male
Post Office: Franklin
Value of real estate: View image

Did the indexer see it correctly?  Is it what they “saw” or could it have been “what they typed”?  Look at your keyboard next to the “F” key.  What do you see to the right?  Yes. That’s what I think this indexer did.  They made a typographical error.  They typed an “F” rather than a “G”.  They also failed to separate the Roberts family from the previous family in the column even though the original record clearly separates them.

What do we learn?

  • View the original when you can.  Don’t just take my word or the word of any other well-meaning person.  You are ultimately responsible for what you put on your tree.  Our lack of caution may confuse other online friends trying to “fill in their blanks”.  I found this relative in several other trees as Anderson F. Roberts when he is clearly Anderson G. Roberts here and in other documents.
  • Recognize your fallibility and the fallibility of others.  We all make mistakes.  Try to catch as many as you can.  Be open to correction.  We just want to get it right.
  • Take the time to put alternate information into the record when given the opportunity.  Remember, only put in what you see in the original document, not what you think or know it should be based on other research.

Can you Help!  Anderson G. Roberts is my 2 x great grand uncle.  Do you know anything about the Roberts or Tatums from Williamson County, Tennessee?  I would like to hear from you.  We may be cousins!  Also, if you enjoy this post or other posts on my blog, please share this blog with others.  You may also sign up to receive notice when new blogs are posted.  Use the “Follow” button on the Home Page.

Thanks for your help!

Dealing with Death Certificates

I love death certificates.  I sort of collect death certificates, well, at least for family history purposes.  They’re a wealth of information – and some of it is good!

Like all documents, the information contained on a death certificate is only as good as the informant. If the informant knows the correct dates, names or spellings, the document MAY be correct IF the document transcriber records it correctly.  As I wrote in an earlier post, good genealogists are good skeptics.

What can we learn about our ancestors from their death certificates?  What is the most valuable information found in these documents?  How should we approach them?  What cautions should we consider?

Consider the certificates of three brothers, three of my great grand uncles.

William F. Ashlock died 12 October 1922 in Wise County, Texas.  These facts and the cause of death are the most reliable facts on a death certificate.  Why?  Because they are the facts provided by an attending physician who is aware of the date, time and place of this event.  This information is found on the right side of the three samples we see here. We look here at only the left side of these samples.

1922 Ashlock, William F. Death Certificate

  • Place of death:  Decatur, Wise County, Texas
  • Name:  William F. Ashlock
  • Sex:  Male
  • Race:  White
  • Marital Status:  Widower
  • Date of birth:  March 18, 1837
  • Age:  85 yrs. 7 mo. 25 days
  • Occupation:  Farmer
  • Birthplace:  Illinois
  • Name of Father:  Joe Ashlock
  • Father’s birthplace:  Kentucky
  • Name of Mother:  Miss Elizabeth Norman
  • Mother’s birthplace:  Kentucky
  • Informant:  W. H. Ashlock
  • Address:  Decatur, Texas
  • File date and official who filed it:  November 6, 1922 by Carla Faith

Joshua Middleton Ashlock died 17 March 1923 in Wizard Wells, Jack County, Texas.

  • 1923 Ashlock, Joshua M. Death CertificatePlace of death:  Wizard Wells, Jack County, Texas.
  • Sex:  Male
  • Race:  White
  • Marital Status:  Married
  • Birth date:  March 27, 1848
  • Age at death:  74 yrs 11 mo 19 days
  • Occupation:  Farmer and Carpenter
  • Place of birth:  Dallas County, Texas
  • Father’s name:  Josiah Ashlock
  • Father’s birthplace:  Illinois
  • Mother’s name:  Elizabeth Nobles
  • Mother’s birthplace:  Illinois
  • Informant:  Mrs. Dora Crabb of Jean, Texas
  • Information recorded by Hattie E. Worley (I think.) on March 28, 1923

James Wesley Ashlock died July 23, 1936 in Wise County, Texas.

  • 1936 Ashlock, J Wesley death certificatePlace of death:  Wise County, Texas
  • Sex:  Male
  • Race:  White
  • Marital Status:  Married
  • Date of birth:  July 31, 1850
  • Age at death:  85 yrs 11 mo 22 days
  • Occupation:  Farmer, Retired
  • Date he last worked:  Dec. 1926
  • Years he worked at this occupation:  50
  • Birthplace:  Dallas, Texas
  • Father’s name:  Josiah Ashlock
  • Father’s birthplace:  Unknown
  • Mother’s name:  Elizabeth Norman
  • Mother’s birthplace:  Unknown
  • Informant:  G. C. Ashlock
  • Burial place and date:  Anneville Cemetery on July 24, 1936
  • Undertaker:  O.L. Christian of Decatur, Texas.
  • Filed July 28, 1936 by J.A. Chandler

Josiah Ashlock was born in 1814 in Anderson County, Tennessee.  He married my great, great grandmother Elizabeth Norman in Greene County Illinois in 1833.  She was born in Kentucky.  They began their family in 1834 with the birth of their daughter Nancy.  Their oldest son William F. arrived in 1837 followed by two daughters and a son. They arrived in Texas in about 1844 as part of the Peters Colony and settled on land along both sides of the Denton and Dallas County lines.  The original grant would be mostly north of the President George Bush Freeway east of where it intersects with with Stemmons Freeway (I – 35).  Joshua Middleton was the first of this Ashlock family to be born in Texas in 1849.  His younger brother James Wesley was born in July of 1850 also in Dallas County.  Josiah would die around 1852.  Elizabeth Norman Ashlock married my great, great grandfather Stephen Riggs.  He also had Peters Colony land surveyed in southeastern Denton County.  His first wife had died sometime before 1850.  My great grandmother Rachel Marinda Riggs would be born in Denton County in 1855.

So how did our three death certificate informants do at the death of these three Ashlock brothers?

The informant for William F. Ashlock was W. H. Ashlock.  I’m not sure who he was.  He may be a son or a grandson.  He knows his family.  He gets William’s birth date, birthplace, mother’s name and birthplace all correct.  He names William’s dad as “Joe” Ashlock.  While I can understand the 1820’s use of this name, I doubt I’ll ever find it in any official documents related to Josiah Ashlock.  He missed the place of William’s father’s birth.  All-in-all it’s not a bad performance.

The informant for Joshua M. Ashlock was Dora Crabb.  I’m not sure who she was. She gets Joshua’s name, place of birth, and father’s name correct.  She misses by one year the correct birth date.  She is also incorrect about Joshua’s father and mother’s birthplaces.  She also gives the wrong maiden name for Elizabeth.  This might confuse a well intended family historian.

The informant  for James Wesley was his son G.C. Ashlock (That’s Grover Cleveland).  He’s right about his father’s birth date, birthplace and name.  He gets his mother’s name correct.  He doesn’t know his father or his mother’s birthplace and he doesn’t guess.  He doesn’t know everything but he won’t confuse you with what he doesn’t know.

What do we learn from these death certificate examples and how we can use death certificates in our genealogy research?

  1. Death certificates are very reliable for the date and cause of death.  I will take this date of death over what is on a headstone or in a family bible.  Why?  Think about it.  Use the comment section.
  2. If the date on a death index is different from a death certificate, I’ll give more weight to the certificate.
  3. The information on any document is only as good as the informant and as reliable as the transcriber.  I like the information from an attending physician and treat everything else with less weight.
  4. What do we do with the other information on a death certificate?  Use it to corroborate other information you have.  Use it as clues on where to research next.

I love death certificates and what they provide family researchers!  I’m just a little skeptical and you should be as well.

Happy Hunting!

Something for my grandchildren and a reminder for my fellow family historians

It happened on April 23, 1973.  Forty two years ago today Dee and I had our first date.  We refer to it as “the deal”.  We’ve had many dates since that day but never another one just like the first one.  I’ll explain in a minute.100_6530

I thought about that first date Tuesday night.  We had tickets to attend a classical piano concert at the Bob Bullock State History Museum in beautiful uptown Austin, Texas near the University of Texas campus.  The concert was part of the Texas Art and Culture Series.  Renowned Texas pianist and director of the Round Top Festival Institute James Dick performed.  Dick is a graduate of the University, winner of the Texas Medal of Arts, the Chevalier des Arts et Letters, and an Honorary Associate of London’s Royal Academy of Music.  He played several classical pieces from French composers in honor of the Museum’s new La Belle exhibit.  Dee and I particularly enjoyed the pieces composed by Claude Debussy.

Earlier in the evening we took advantage of our museum membership, parked in the parking garage and walked to dinner.  El Mercado provided the perfect fix for a couple who had a taste for Tex-Mex.  After dinner we strolled by beautiful old homes and gardens in the early cool of the evening.  We eventually found ourselves seated under the giant Star of Texas in front of the museum, talking while waiting to go inside.  I think she mentioned the approaching anniversary of our first date and it raised a question in my mind.  How many times had I taken her to a classical music concert?  She said this would be the first.  Surprised, I asked if she were sure.  (I think our memories are a little faulty these days.)  But I agreed it could have been me and the girls at those Stephen F. Austin concerts.  (No, wait a minute, I’m sure our whole family went to at least once.)  Well, it’s a good thing her favorite music’s not classical!

I thought about how much I enjoyed our conversation and how much I always do.  We spend more time together now than we ever have and would not want it any other way.   We enjoy being together and never have to force ourselves to find something about which to talk.  I’m glad.

Now about that first date.

I was a senior in high school in Denton, Texas.  Dee was a freshman at Texas Women’s University.  We met through friends at church.  I never really gave her much thought because she was “so much” older than me.  But one night she pulled me aside at the

Yes, those are the same two people.
Yes, those are the same two people.

Christian Student Center and asked if she could ask my advice.  That conversation, hearing her heart, opened my heart to hers that night and boy did I take notice!  About two weeks later, while working on a class project, I decided to use it as an excuse to ask her out.  I told her I would make a deal with her.  Help me on my project and I’ll take you out for pizza.  I’ve been asking her ever since and she’s been saying, “Yes”.  But, I’ve never asked her to help me on a high school project.  That was a one of a kind date.

We saw each other almost every day for four months and then I was off to school.  We would spend very little time together the next two years.  We were both very busy.  We “dated” long distance which I think helped my grades but wasn’t nearly as much fun.

Less than a week after my 20th birthday and at a time of the year when we were the same age, we were married.  It hasn’t always been easy or fun but it’s been a lot more fun than it’s been uneasy.  I think we would start it all over again today.  Who knows, with a little bit of experience, it could be even better.

Now, you’re wondering, why this story?  Why all the detail?  Well it’s like this.  As a family historian I’m sure some of you have regretted not asking you grandparents more questions or listening to their long-winded details?  My hope is that when one of my grandchildren ask the questions, I wonder where Pop and Memaw met or I wonder what they did on their first date, they will find this firsthand account.  What I would give for some firsthand accounts.  How about you?

 

Samuel Byrd and the Texas Taxman

You can learn a lot from tax records.  Consider Samuel Byrd.

This Samuel Byrd was born in Tennessee on April 14, 1814.  He was the son of David Byrd and Jane Morehead.  His grandparents were Richard and Elizabeth Buster Byrd.  He (this Samuel Byrd) is one of my great, great grandfathers.  I say “this” Samuel Byrd because he’s often confused with his son Samuel Zedock Byrd (1852 – 1938) by people building online trees.  We know much about this son.  I visited his and his second wife’s grave a few weeks ago in Collin County, Texas.  I also, quite by accident, came across his first wife’s grave in a Hunt County, Texas cemetery while looking for another great, great grandfather.  His death certificate records his name as S.Z. Byrd.  There’s a good article about him and his family in a book on Collin County families.   (Collin County Texas Families, Alice Ellison Pitts and Minnie Pitts Champ; Cutis Media, Hurst, Texas; pages 69, 70.)  The article was written by Bryan Vicars, a proud family descendant.  I can’t prove some of the statements in the article (In fact, I can disprove some and doubt others.), but I do know “this” is Samuel Zedock Byrd, the son of my great, great grandfather Samuel Byrd.

I’m very interested in “my” Samuel Byrd.  I know so little about him.  I know more about his wife Elizabeth Horn Byrd.  I know a lot more about his other children.  I’ve spent considerable time trying to know him yet he remains distant and illusive to me.

Some say Samuel Byrd migrated to Texas in the middle 1850’s.  Someone reported on Find a Grave that he died September 11, 1857 and is buried in historic Pecan Grove Cemetery in McKinney, Texas.  I cannot confirm either of those statements.  The cemetery association was “officially” formed in or after 1870.  It is believed however that people have been buried in those grounds since the 1850’s.  According to land records, the land was originally owned by the McFarland and then fairly soon purchased by the Davis Family.  Both of these families previously lived in Wilson County, Tennessee before migrating to Texas.  It is believed by some that both Jeremiah and Elizabeth Horn were born in Wilson County.  Could their families, the Horns, McFarlands and Davis’s, known each other in Tennessee?

I know my great, great grandmother Elizabeth is buried in Pecan Grove.  I know her second husband Thomas Rodman is buried beside her.  I once thought my 2 x great grandfather Samuel was buried there in a vacant space on the other side of Elizabeth.  I no longer do.  Here are some reasons.

  • There is no record of his burial there. He is not in any plot records including the hand written originals in the cemetery’s safe.
  • The cemetery personnel believe someone may be buried in that vacant space but have no way of knowing who. It’s not in the records.  The plot is actually still for sale.  I give more weight to Samuel and Elizabeth’s six year old son Jeremiah David Byrd being buried there in 1861 and may explain Elizabeth’s decision to return here to bury her second husband and later have her children bury her there.  The name on those occupied plot deeds is Elizabeth Rodman dated from the 1870s.  She only purchased 2 plots when she certainly could have afforded 3 and a headstone for her first husband.  (BTW, my “abt” and “aft” date of 1855 for Samuel’s death date on my family tree is based on Jeremiah David’s 1855 birth date.
  • There are no records of any kind for “this” Samuel Byrd in the State of Texas.   No census.  No probate.  No obituaries.  No bank records.  No land records.  No tax records.  There is nothing you would expect from a man settling in to a new place…or dying!  And, I can find some or all of these for Elizabeth and her children in Texas beginning in 1860.

Death and taxes are the two certain things in life.  The tax man always cometh.  When I thought about this, I decided to firm up my suppositions with “negative proof”.  I would need to show myself there is no evidence “my’ Samuel Byrd ever arrived in Texas –  tax records.  Samuel Byrd was never to my knowledge, and I searched four likely counties, charged a tax in Texas. That means no taxes for land, occupation, income, etc.  None.

But, here’s something interesting.  I began tracking Samuel’s father-in-law Jeremiah Horn and his sons George and John’s tax records.  They began paying taxes in 1846 in Collin County and continued to pay taxes through 1857.  These included taxes on their wagons and we know they were teamsters and had a freight business.  Then in 1858, I lost them and did not pick them up again until 1860.  Why?  I don’t know.  Perhaps it was an oversight on my part.  But it wasn’t just Jeremiah, it was Jeremiah and George and John.  All three owned original survey land in Collin County.

OK, I don’t know what happened.

Here’s something I know.  In the 1860 Federal Census, Elizabeth and her children are living in Collin County near the Lebanon Post Office.  She is the head of her household and works as a weaver.  The community of Lebanon was named after Lebanon, Tennessee the previous home of many of the early settlers in this part of Collin County.  That’s Lebanon in Wilson County, Tennessee.  She lived about nine miles south of her father’s home place and about five miles west of another property once surveyed for him.  She was about nine miles north of her “missing” husband’s cousin James Byrd in north Dallas County and about eleven miles east of her son Pleasant Wesley’s future wife’s family in Denton County.

What if Samuel Byrd, yes “that” one, died in Alabama?  What if the Horns made the trip to where Elizabeth was living in order to help her, her five girls and young sons, finish crops, sale land, pack up and make the move to Texas in 1859?

I don’t know.  I really don’t.  I’m open to new documented evidence.  But here’s what I know so far…the Texas taxman never came for Samuel Byrd, but death did.


Have you ever used tax records in your family history research?  Interested?

Check out Susan Jackman’s great article on using taxes in your genealogical research.

http://www.archives.com/experts/jackman-susan/tax-records-in-genealogical-research.html