Who We Come From, Who We Are

Susan Page
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Wednesday - February 23, 2011
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Who do you think you are? We used to say it as smart-aleck kids, but today it’s the name of a television series on NBC about celebrity genealogy.

So, who do you think you are? I - perhaps like you - am too busy living today to dwell much on yesterday. Though I’m a huge fan of the History Channel and American history non-fiction, my own history just hasn’t been a priority.

But then last week during one of my obsessive closet clean-outs I discovered a stack of notebooks and old papers - ancestry research and family anecdotes - retrieved from Mother’s house after her death. I’d get around to reading it someday.

Then, I thought, Oh, what the heck, I’ll just sit for a minute and read a page or two.

Three hours later and still reading, I was on my way to discovering “who I am.”


No shocker that none of my family - four grandparents’ lineages - were from aristocracy, just plain, God-fearing, tough folk looking for a place to settle unfettered by a ruling class or rules. The farm land they chiseled out and worked, they could keep if they could survive the dangers ... and many didn’t. They were true pioneers forging westward from Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina to Texas, Missouri and New Mexico. My great-grandfather Button Nelson literally pushed west until a mountain range, the Sacramentos (near Cloudcroft, N.M.) pushed back. He settled in an uninhabited, isolated valley (still called Nelson Valley) with no roads, schools, churches, doctors, friends, mail or stores. (As I get in my car, I think about my grandmother in a two-horse wagon.)

My great-great-great-grandmother and -grandfather Walker left Virginia because they disliked slavery. When given slaves as a wedding present, they “promptly freed their two new slaves,” who moved with them to Tennessee anyway. During the Civil War when, because they were anti-slavery, their home was burned down, their freed slaves “invited the family to live with them until a new house could be built.”

Many of my family’s men, however, fought and died for the Confederacy in the Civil War, though none owned slaves. In January 1864 my great-great-grandfather Andrew Jackson Standlee died at age 44 from bushwhacking (Wikipedia: guerrilla warfare common on both sides during Civil War). A.J. had secured an Army furlough to visit his family in Arkansas, but because of poor mail delivery they didn’t expect him. However, family members noticed “the strange ... antics of their dog, Old Tyler.” Absent for two or three days, Old Tyler only returned to quickly eat, then immediately leave again, starting slowly, then stopping and looking back with pleading eyes and whines. They finally followed the dog “some distance away to the dead body of his master, who had been waylaid, killed and robbed ... either by Yankee deserters or by bushwhackers.” Tyler had beaten out a circular path in the snow around his dead master’s body while standing guard night and day.


My great-grandfather, J.C. Roberts, rugged and self-taught, lived a varied life as a farmer, rancher, journalist, ordained minister, Civil War veteran, Realtor, abstract business owner, lawyer, judge and a Texas state legislator. While away at war, Comanche Indians slaughtered and scalped two families (Keenans and Paschals) sharing a log cabin nearby. (His brother Van had just recently been slain by Indians). His father Stephen received the bodies into his own cabin, where Mrs. Keenan survived, scalped, for 12 days.

By two wives, J.C. had 21 children, the last being the only child ever named by legislative resolution (after House Speaker Pat Neff). Mathilda bore her first child at 17, who died, then soon three more. The next five, including two consecutive sets of twins, died (all between ages 1 and 6) of flux (dysentery) within a year. Mathilda, 35, died shortly thereafter of “exhaustion.” His next wife, my great-grandmother, Malinda, was from hardy stock. She first bore eight sons, then two daughters (finally help!), then son Pat Neff. She lived into her 80s and sweetly chided one daughter-in-law who complained about raising children; at least she didn’t have to fight off Comanche, rattlesnakes and cougars. At one time, she and J.C. lived in a dugout to protect the family from the wild.

Who do I think I am? Like most of us, I am tougher than I’ve ever been challenged to be. I am the daughter of brave pioneers. I am the recipient of the incomparable gift of freedom from tyranny. I am grateful for no snakes or cougars or scalping Comanche, and especially thankful for modern medicine. I think I’m most like great-grandfather J.C. in spirit.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten. It may be enough.

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