Friday, February 25, 2011

The Watts Graveyard at Oaklands, part 1

We have just sustaind a heavy affliction. Our little son Edward died last night of that dreadful disease the croup. He had had a cold for several days but it was only on Thursday night we apprehended any serious attack and all our efforts were afterwards fruitless. We have the consolation of having used all our efforts aided by all the medical skill we could command. The blow is a very dreadful one. He was most dear to us, how dear we ourselves did not know until he was gone from us. He was in beauty, temper, and sprightliness all that fond parents could desire. My wife is borne down by the shock and I am but little better. It seems like a hideous dream that he who but a few days ago was in full life and health, the delight of our little circle should now be laid before us as still and cold as the clay which will shortly cover him.”

            Those are the words of Edward Watts senior, writing on November 11, 1827 from Oaklands, to his father-in-law, General James Breckinridge at Grove Hill. He asked Gen. Breckinridge to have a gravestone carved at Grove Hill, with the inscription:

“To the memory of Edward the son of Edward and Elizabeth Watts who was born on the [blank space] day of September 1825 and died on the 10th day of November, 1827”

The exact date of the child’s birth was apparently never supplied, and remains unknown. This heart-rending note is among the Watts Letters at the Historical Society of Western Virginia, and can be viewed online in the Virtual Collection as #2007.32.008.
            Little Edward was the first member of the Watts family to die at Oaklands and the first person to be buried in the family cemetery. All told, twenty-six burials took place at Oaklands, including Edward senior and his wife, seven of their ten children, six grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, six husbands or wives of descendants, and a few more distant relatives or family friends. The last burials took place in 1953 and 1963.

The blogger’s mother, sister, daughter, and niece, beside the headstones of Elizabeth (Watts) Preston, d. 1843 (on the left), and of Edward Watts, d. 1827, in the old Oaklands graveyard, 1976

            In 1977 the cemetery was decommissioned and the grave markers moved to Fairview Cemetery in Roanoke, Virginia, where most of the photos on this page were taken. The land around Oaklands was about to be chopped up for an interstate highway, residential developments, and commercial buildings. The graveyard had fallen into disuse and was difficult to maintain. A table monument to John Allen Watts, erected in 1904, had already become so dilapidated by 1953 that it was replaced with a single stone. Two remaining table monuments commemorating Letitia (Watts) and her husband Francis Sorrel, and a few others, were too deteriorated to be moved in 1977, and were replaced at Fairview by simple uniform flat stones.

The blogger’s niece and son on the table monument to Letitia (Watts) Sorrel, with a corner of Francis Sorrel's monument visible at the right, in the old Oaklands graveyard, 1976

            After little Edward, the next three deaths at Oaklands were also children of Edward and Elizabeth (Breckinridge) Watts: Elizabeth Breckinridge (Watts) Preston, whose body was brought back to Oaklands for burial after her death on 21 Feb 1843 in Abingdon, Virginia, only months after her marriage to Thomas Lewis Preston; then James Breckinridge Watts, who died 20 Aug 1846 at Red Sulphur Springs, Virginia (now West Virginia), probably of tuberculosis, after an exhausting effort to set up a law practice in New York City; and finally Henrietta Carter Watts, last born of the ten children, who died 12 Nov 1848, not yet twelve years old. Here are their gravestones, with the inscriptions:

Edward / son of / Edward & Elizabeth / Watts / Born Sept. 1825 / Died Nov. 1827 / They shall all  bloom in fields of light / Transplanted by my care / And saints upon their garments white / These sacred blossoms wear.

In memory of / Elizabeth Breckinridge / Preston / daughter of / Edward & Elizabeth Watts / wife of / Thomas Lewis Preston / Died / Feb. 21, 1843 / Aged / 21 years / He giveth his beloved sleep.

In memory of / James Breckenridge / son of / Edward & Elizabeth Watts / Died / Aug. 20, 1846 / Aged / 34 years / God's finger touched him / and he slept.

Henrietta Carter / daughter of / Edward & Elizabeth Watts / Born May 1837 / Died Nov. 12, 1848 / She is not dead,--the child of our affection,-- / But gone unto that school / Where she no longer needs our poor protection, / And Christ himself doth rule.

            There is an anomaly about these markers, which was not immediately apparent to me.  The inscription on Edward’s stone is from a poem by Longfellow, “The Reaper and the Flowers”, not published until 1839 in Voices of the Night, twelve years after the little boy’s death. Moreover, Edward’s stone is very similar to Henrietta’s, and she did not die until 1848, twenty-one years after Edward. The inscription on her stone is from another poem by Longfellow, “Resignation”, published in The Seaside and the Fireside in 1849. The shape of the stones, the floral motifs at the top, the style of the lettering, and the wording of the inscriptions suggest that the two stones were carved at the same time to make a pair, and it cannot have been earlier than 1849.
            The stones for Elizabeth and James are also very similar to each other. The rounded tops (not shown in the photo of Elizabeth’s inscription, but visible in the first photo above), the clasped hands motif  at the top, the pattern of the inscription, the wording of the text, and the style of the lettering are the same on both. The final phrase in Elizabeth’s inscription is from Psalm 127, and offers no clue as to the date of the monument; but James’s comes from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”, published in 1849, three years after James’s death.
            Furthermore, these four stones have some similarities among themselves not found in others, such as the rounded tops and the images. These resemblances are not striking enough to lead to the conclusion that all four were carved at the same time by the same hand, but they suggest that all four followed a common style and were probably roughly contemporary. Because two of the four, one of each pair, must have been carved in 1849 or later, it is probable that the graveyard was reorganized and the original stones replaced in the 1850s, although no documents have yet been found to confirm that hypothesis.
            The remaining gravestones will be included in my next posts.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Showalter Reunion in 1906

            Josiah Thomas Showalter’s entire family assembled for a reunion in the last week of August 1906 at the Snowville, Virginia, homestead. The event was unusual enough to warrant a story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch a few days later, and a photographer from near-by Christiansburg took pictures of the group. As the reporter says, there were 49 around the table, including Josiah Thomas and his wife, Sarah Catherine Vaden; their 12 children, ranging in age from almost 45 to 24; the 9 spouses of the children who were married by that date; and 26 grandchildren, the youngest about 8 months old, the eldest about 18 years.

Front Row (left to right): Sarah Katherine Dudley, Josiah Thomas Showalter, Sarah Catherine (Vaden) Showalter, Julia Rowlett Massie, Benjamin Winthrop Showalter. Back Row: Jennie Taylor Showalter (later Randolph), Milton Vaden Showalter, Edward Thomas Showalter, Annie Beatrice Showalter (later Brown), Chester David Michael Showalter, Josiah Wesley Showalter, Alexander Merle Showalter, Amanda Louise Whitt, George Henry Pryor Showalter

            My father was one of those youngsters; he was 8 at the time, but I do not remember him ever talking about the reunion. I haven’t found many references to it elsewhere, either, although some of my cousins may have letters or diaries from their parents that I don’t know about. One of the spouses, Walter Lee Dudley, published a memoir in 1943, called Footprints on the Sands of Time. He was married to the eldest child of the twelve, Sarah Katherine, and he relates their life together in somewhat tiresome detail, yet he omits this reunion altogether. In 1982, one of my father’s cousins, Celia Whitt, wrote to my parents from Kentucky about a planned visit to southwestern Virginia. My mother sent her a copy of the reunion photo, and she replied: “The family group portrait of the Showalter family brought back memories. I was there for that. I remember as a child I was quite proud of myself when I could name the members in order of age, giving the entire name.” Celia was 16 at the time, and almost 92 when she wrote to my mother.

This photo above shows the spouses and grandchildren at the reunion, gathered on the front porch; there should be 35 people, but I can count only 31, and none can be identified. The three photos below show the house and some of the surroundings as they appeared in 1981.

            The journalist gave this account, focussing more on the old patriarch than on what went on at the reunion:
            One of the largest and most interesting family reunions held recently in this section was that of Reverend and Mrs. J. T. Showalter, of Pulaski county, which was celebrated the last week in August. It was the first in thirteen years, and was an occasion of much rejoicing.
            The family party numbered forty-nine: twelve children, six daughters-in-law, three sons-in-law and twenty-six grandchildren. There was not a single vacant chair. Mr. and Mrs. Showalter had reason to feel that the Lord has prospered them. Strong and vigorous themselves, they saw their children, grown to man's and woman's estate, well educated, prosperous, and holding positions of trust, and their acres have increased with the years until now they own a number of good farms, instead of the one with which they entered on married life. This has been due to good management, and industry on the part of both parents, principles in which the children were trained.
            Mr. Showalter is a minister of the Christian Church, but has held personal views in regard to certain matters pertaining to church management at variance with most churches. One of these was his opposition to Sunday-schools and to organs in church, on the ground that they were not advocated in Holy Writ.
            Mr. Showalter has been an apostle of the strenuous life. He run [sic] his farm and taught school during the week, and on Sunday took his entire family and drove to some neighboring church, or went horseback to some distant church, where he had an appointment to preach. The distance was never too great, the roads too rough or the weather too severe to keep him at home, and he never asked any money for his ministerial services. His appointments extended over a large section of country and he had a considerable following in the peculiar doctrines which he advocated. He had the Bible at his tongue's end, was a fluent speaker and strong debater.
            At the reunion Monday this worthy couple gathered together nearly half a hundred of their own flesh and blood, and looking back over the past and forward to the future had only happy memories and anticipations. The party was photographed by Mr. W. H. Jewell, of Christiansburg, who came out for the purpose.
            The names of the children are Professor and Mrs. Dudley, of Oranda Institute, VA; Mr. and Mrs. C. D. M. Showalter, of Roanoke; Mr. and Mrs. W. L. Whitt, of Montgomery county; Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Showalter and Mr. and Mrs. E. T. Showalter, of Snowville; Mr. and Mrs. G. H. P. Showalter and Mr. and Mrs. M. V. Showalter, of Lockney, Texas; Mr. and Mrs. Massie, of Clifton Forge; Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Showalter, of Gordonsville; Mr. A. M. Showalter of the University of Virginia; Misses Jennie and Beatrice Showalter, of Snowville.
            A pleasant feature of the reunion was the presence of a bride and bridegroom, Mr. and Mrs. M. V. Showalter, who were married in Texas just before starting for Virginia.

            Besides the group portrait of the parents and the twelve children, the photographer took shots of Josiah Thomas with his sons and Sarah Catherine with her daughters. In both pictures, the subjects arranged themselves in order of age, beginning with the parent on the front row at the left, the eldest child and the others in descending order to the right, then continuing on the back row from right to left. Josiah Thomas wore a full beard and mustache, his three oldest sons sported mustaches, and the four youngest were clean shaven; I assume that reflects changing styles. I’ve pondered whether there is any significance in the fact that the youngest son, Alexander Merle, was wearing a white or very light-colored tie, while all his brothers had dark ones; or that he, Edward Thomas, and my grandfather, C. D. M. seated beside the old man, were wearing long ties, while the others had bowties. So far, I have reached no conclusion. The women are more uniformly dressed, although Sarah Catherine is all in black, her youngest daughter Annie Beatrice is all in white, and the four in between have white blouses and black or very dark skirts.

Front row, left to right: Josiah Thomas Showalter, Chester David Michael, Josiah Wesley, George Henry Pryor; Back row, right to left: Edward Thomas, Benjamin Winthrop, Milton Vaden, Alexander Merle.

From left to right front row: Mrs. Josiah Thomas Showalter (Sarah Catherine Vaden), Catherine (Kate) Dudley, Amanda Louisa (Minnie) Whitt; Back row, right to left: Julia Rowlett Massie, Jenny Taylor (later Randolph), Annie Beatrice (later Brown).

            My grandfather’s expression  intrigues me. As in most photographs of the era, no one is smiling; in fact, they all look very stern. I have two theories about this: one is that film was slow then so the pose had to be held for a long time and it was easier to look glum; and the other is that most people had bad teeth which they preferred not to expose for posterity. So they all stare rigidly at the camera, as befits the family of a man who disapproved of organ music in church. Except for my grandfather, who has just the hint of a smile and is looking off into space. I’m sure he was dreaming of how far he had come from this austere rural home, and how far he was hoping to go yet. By 1906 he had moved his family to Roanoke, at that time a rapidly growing city, and he was in the insurance business, on his way to founding a fire insurance company and a bank.
            It was an impressive feat to draw all forty-nine of the family members to the reunion. It’s clear in retrospect, though, that the family unity was fragile. The twelve children went their own ways; half of them moved to other states, and those who stayed in Virginia were fairly well dispersed. As I said in an earlier post, my father seemed to have lost contact with all his first cousins. I know that some of the others maintained closer contacts, but this moment of union was a tribute to a fading past, not the natural expression of an ongoing relationship.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

“Who Do You Think You Are?”

Vanessa Williams
            The American version of “Who Do You Think You Are?” just began its second season on February 4, with a show based on Vanessa Williams. If you’ve never heard of it, “Who Do You Think You Are?” is a television series that explores the genealogical background of a different celebrity guest in each weekly episode. It runs on the NBC network on Friday evenings, and it’s well worth watching.
            Vanessa Williams was the first black Miss America, and she went on to have a very successful career as a singer and actor. In a way, it does not matter who the celebrities are, except to attract their fans as viewers. It helps, obviously, if they have strong personalities and use their charisma to dramatize the search for their ancestors. But the heart of the series is the search itself and the history lessons that flow naturally from delving into the past. 
David Carll’s grave marker
            Vanessa’s “journey”, as current jargon calls it, led her to two great great grandfathers, one on her mother’s side, one on her father’s side. The former, David Carll, was a free colored man in New York, who enlisted in a colored regiment in the Union army during the Civil War, fought in South Carolina, and remained in service there after the war to maintain order and ensure that the defeated states of the Confederacy abided by federal law. 
            The latter, William Fields, became a schoolteacher in Tennessee after the Civil War, and was elected to the state legislature. Later he was a highly respected justice of the peace. Both were admirable and even heroic figures, and it was moving to observe Vanessa rediscovering her roots. There’s an interview with her and informative article on the show from the London Daily Mail, available online. 
William Fields
British DVD cover
            Judging by this episode, the producers of “Who Do You Think You Are?” have learned from a lot of mistakes in the first series, and improved the second one significantly. Like many American TV hits these days, this one is a remake of a British show. It even has the same title and logo. Perhaps I was spoiled by having first seen the program in London a few years ago. 
            The BBC has one big and insuperable advantage over NBC: no commercials. In the first American series, the producers began each post-commercial segment with a lengthy recap of what had happened in the previous segment. It wasn’t necessary; Americans have long since shortened their attention spans to accommodate the mass media. The recaps just ate up the time. In the new format, just before each commercial break we see a quick preview of what’s coming; the pace is much snappier. homepage
            The sponsorship was another problem. The program is partly produced by, and that seems like a match made on But went too far in its product placement, at least in my opinion; several times in each show, the star would go to the computer, and do a search. I don’t mean to criticize the website and what it offers. I’ve used it for several years, and it’s a fabulous resource for research on families and their history. If you’re interested in genealogy, you should subscribe. But it’s not the only place to look, and on television it lacks visual and dramatic appeal. The company forgot that one of the really exciting moments for the website users is the sight of an ancestor’s name in an actual handwritten document, like a census-taker’s form or a ship’s passenger list. Watching someone else watch a computer screen weakens the impact. In the British model, they went out of their way to pull the dusty volume off the shelf and let the camera zoom in on the crucial lines. In last Friday’s show, there was only one brief session with, completely adequate to make the point without upstaging the people and the subject. 
David Carll’s enlistment papers
            The British producers used the supporting cast much more effectively than in the first U.S. series. Most programs began with a visit to the subject’s parents or other close relatives, followed by a parade of librarians, curators, archivists, and local history buffs – there is no topic in British history too obscure for someone to develop a passion for it – and all these experts had their own quirky charm. Cutting back on the recaps and the demonstrations left room for many more experts to contribute to Vanessa’s quest, and that was a plus.
            The extra time also makes it possible to introduce more historical background. The British version introduced fascinating bits of history in every show, whether it was the Inclosure Acts, or the Dardanelles campaign, or the tobacco industry, or the French police – the list is endless. Vanessa’s family led to discussions of the colored regiments in the Civil War and the rise of segregation after Reconstruction. More depth would be welcome, but it was a good start.
            About the only thing remaining that I’d like to change is the over-hyping, summed up for me in the catch phrase, “This is where it all began.” Vanessa intoned it solemnly when she found out about her great great grandfathers. Last year Brooke Shields spoke it outside a house in France where an important ancestor lived. But those ancestors had parents, who had parents, and so on back into the mists of time where we can no longer find the traces, and even that is not where it all began. Like the website blurbs about unlocking mysteries, learning tragic secrets, and discovering relationships that could change everything, the evocation of a spurious point of origin is meant to raise expectations. It may just obscure the real delight of finding forgotten truths about one’s past, however humble they might be.
This is not where it all began.
            Well, that’s a small complaint alongside the many virtues of “Who Do You Think You Are?” Actually, the British version got better from season to season. The supporting characters and the drama of visiting the archives were used much more effectively in the sixth and seventh series than in the first and second. It looks as if the American version is following the same path toward improvement. If so, the program deserves to draw bigger and bigger audiences, and last for many years.