Digging for Gold

I didn’t intend to go so long between blog posts, but life happened. I’m writing this on the plane on the way home from a week-and-a-half of emergency Granny Duty in Austin, helping our daughter tend her tots after a serious knee injury, while her husband was out of town.

Chasing up and down endless flights of stairs after an 18-month old streak of greased lightening and her 3½ year old big sister is enough to fill nearly every minute, but I did manage to squeeze in some precious family history research time in Austin’s magnificent history centers and archives, and in my last hours there, I hit a vein of pure gold.

I’m blessed with a number of colorful ancestors, but the story of my mother’s mother’s mother Tilly has especially caught my fancy. Two months before she turned sixteen, Tilly married Robert Roberts, a thirty-nine-year-old widower with two young children. She bore him five more children before he died ten years later at the age of 49. Four years after that, she married my great-grandfather and her life underwent a radical change, sadly not one for the better.

In the past I’ve left the research on such matters to the team of cousins who have been doing genealogy research for decades. They have documented most aspects of her life with my great-grandfather. This time it was my turn. We’ve always known that Robert was the son of Texas Governor Oran Roberts, but we didn’t know much about that family, or about Tilly’s life during her years as part of the Roberts family.

I began by reading up on the Gov, finding him to be a remarkable man who instituted a “pay as you go” policy in Texas, restoring (or perhaps establishing) fiscal responsibility. He was instrumental in founding the University of Texas and vastly improved the state of education at all levels throughout Texas. When his terms were over, he founded the Law School at UT, and for ten years he served as one of the initial two Law profs there.

It’s easy to find out about the Governor, but his son Robert has always remained obscure. For decades the only information anyone could get was derived from his absence from the Austin City Directories and a couple of obscure news clippings that turned up in online searches.

This time I began searching indexes to find the record of a property transfer a cousin mentioned in an email. To my amazement, I learned that Robert was an active real estate trader. He bought and sold dozens of parcels, and he did it as R.P. Roberts and wife. As recently as the 1960s a married woman in Texas didn’t even own the clothes on her back, so the fact that he included his spouse, who was not yet legally an adult, is truly amazing.

I was not able to retrieve all the property transfer documents. That will have to wait for another trip. But I am totally hooked on this new level of mystery and piecing together her history from these obscure tidbits of information.

As I ponder the clues, I can’t help but think how thrilling it would be if she had left behind a journal, a collection of letters ― anything to give insight into the nature of her life and thoughts. It wouldn’t even need to be a polished story. Anything at all would be treasured by all of us. Please use this account of my search to encourage your family members to join you in creating a legacy of life history for your family.

Write now: jot down the facts you know about one of your favorite ancestors and make plans to acquire more information so you can write about this person before every information source is erased by the tides of time.


Pat's Place said...

Glad your research was so productive! Congratulations! I enjoyed our lunch together. Let me know when you come again!

ybonesy said...

My grandmother has always fascinated me. I don't know much about ancestors nor my father's parents' ancestors. The oral history, even, was quite sparse. I wonder if that's a function of poverty. So many died so young, and very little was passed down, even in memory.

Ritergal said...

Ybonesy, I don't think it's just poverty. Except for that brief period in that great-grandmother's life, my ancestors were far from wealthy. One branch made their way from Scotland as coal miners in the late 1800s and they were dirt poor. Most of what we know about them comes from genealogical records, probably compiled by the Mormons. Two of the women divorced their alcoholic husbands, and my mother dug up the transcripts of those proceedings in the Santa Fe courthouse a few decades ago. They read like a soap opera, and with very few changes, you'd think they happened last year.

I know much less about my father's family which was far more ordinary. Most individuals on my husbands family tree have largely passed without note.

If you lack stories, perhaps its because your family lived peaceful, responsible, functional lives, without disruptive incidents, and that is surely cause for thanksgiving!