tree of life

I cannot stop grooving to this.
I devoured this book in less than 24 hour. I had this entry planned out for about a month, and this story is what compelled me to finally write it here. This will be nowhere near as lyrical.

My father’s side of the family is small. I always wondered why I didn’t meet more of his family, and the answer was that I had essentially met all of them. There are some cousins through the siblings of my great-grandparents I have’t met. My grandfather left behind a young widow and three children in 1954 when he died in a crash so major, my mom said it was on the front page of the Daily Press. (I’ve always meant to look it up, but I’m never in Hampton for enough consecutive weekdays to do all the research I want to do.) Grandma Pearl, who died 10 years before I was born, never remarried. Other than my dad, my aunt had children.

But I have gotten as far back as Alfred and Mary Robinson, born around 1840. I know this because my great-great-great grandfather, the first of four Samuel Robinsons, was born in Isle of Wright County in 1860.

* * *

On my mom’s side, it’s an adventure. The joke that I’m related to everyone in Hampton has some truth. And the story of how they all wound up in Hampton — which is between the lines of census data and marriage, birth and death records — probably was a sort of Virginia version of the Grapes of Wrath.

But before we get to the an Elliott meeting a Robinson in the oldest continuous English-speaking settlement in the United States, we start in the former Norfolk County and, in the next paragraph, Mecklenburg County.

Asa and Nancy Terry. I’ve mentioned them before. (This is a variation of that entry.) That’s all I know about them. Their son, William, was born in 1858. In 1880, he married Helen Coleman, born in 1864. She was the daughter of Robert and Sarah, born in 1840 and 1836, respectively.

In 1882, that Southside Virginia county welcomed another William Terry. My great-grandfather. His life began near the town of Boydton, and it ended 80 years and 70 miles later at the other end of Boydton Plank Road in Dinwiddie County. But, before then, he headed toward the coast.

After the 1900 census, he left home. In 1910, he wound up on a farm in what is now Western Branch in Chesapeake. Back then, it was a part of Churchland in Norfolk County. In the city’s records, the specific neighborhood is called Saint’s Delight. In her old age, Grandma Elliott, the only grandparent alive in my lifetime, so she is the Grandma when I only say Grandma, called the place of her birth St. Montclair.

* * *

Armentress Trotter, born in 1885 in Churchland (for clarity’s sake, I’m calling Saint’s Delight/St. Montclair/modern day Western Branch Churchland), was the daughter of Levy Trotter and Mary George. Levy was born in 1854. Mary was born in 1863. Her parents were William, born in 1832, and Rosetta, possibly born in 1850.

Levy’s father, Charles, was born in 1819, and was free as of the 1850 census. His wife, Violet, was born in 1828. There is a white family’s Bible that also has the genealogy of the Trotters in it. It says that my great-great-great-great-grandfather, also named Charles Trotter, was born in 1799. I haven’t seen it for myself. The woman sent me a photo of a page of that Bible but it was the page of Charles the first’s children. She was insistent that we weren’t related. I want to press her for the other page, but I also don’t want to contact her again. She did, like the census data, note that the Trotters were free.

William and Armentress lived on land off Taylor Road. And around the time of the Great Depression, they lost it. They then moved from Churchland to the town of Phoebus in what is now the city of Hampton. They went on to buy a house there. Armentress’ two sisters and brother also moved in and around Phoebus. My Great-Great Uncle Perry didn’t have any children. I’m related to the Mitchells and Askews of Phoebus and Buckroe through my great-great aunts. My mom grew up with people who called her “cuz,” and she thought for all those years that it was a colloquialism.

Armentress died in 1939. William eventually gave his house to his firstborn daughter, Mary Jane, who in 1934 married George Elliott Jr. (who possibly actually was George Elliott III), who was born in 1893. William remarried in 1942, and moved a few blocks away. Grandma, born in 1910, outlived all her siblings.

* * *

Grandma had a hand in raising the children of her sisters Nealious (pronounced Neola) and Helen. (Only one brother survived to adulthood, and he didn’t have children of his own.) Nealious, who was only three years younger than Grandma, died in 1939. It was not long after having her only child, Sylvester Simpkins. (In a weird chain of events, James Simpkin’s stepmother-in-law wound up living in an accessory dwelling unit on his property. I met Ms. Lee, as everyone called her, and I had no idea until a few years ago that she was my step-great-grandmother.) Sylvester, who was known as both Seal and Bear, didn’t have any children.

So, how do I have 10,000 cousins on my mom’s side? Well, Grandma’s sister Helen died in 1955, and her husband James Walker Sr., died in 1953. Before they left this Earth, they had five children, and four of them and their progeny were quite fecund. All of my close cousins called my grandma Aunt Mary because of that.

Eventually, it was time for Grandma to decamp from the old home William and Armentress bought. Grandma’s new house in 1973 became my mom’s house in 2008. It becomes my house in 2021. I like to think that the $200 worth of real estate near Western Branch my great-great-great-grandfather, Charles Trotter Jr., had in 1870 was the source of money for the 1973 house. Or at least that I’ll be a sixth-generation landowner. My primary residence will be an apartment in Albemarle County, but I’ll be in the company of a forebear, a man whose name I know only because I was able to push past my Grandma’s memory.

I’m still in awe of how far back I could get. The things those people who have blipped back into existence through my research endured in the antebellum years. How my birth and the birth of the hundreds of cousins who can say my grandma was their Aunt Mary would not have happened if William Edward Terry didn’t venture 150 miles away from home at the turn of the 20th century. I can’t believe that just four years ago that if my mom and my uncle didn’t recall that their grandfather died in 1963, I might not have figured out anything else about him beyond his name.

All of those people whose names were forgotten. I found them. I keep trying to push farther back into the past, but that might be a solid wall. My oldest ancestor beyond what was in that Bible comes from 1819. He’s not on paper until 1850. I’m branching into cousins in part because some of my living cousins want to know about the people who married into the family and the Terrys and Trotters and Elliotts and Robinsons now scattered across the globe. I feel like bringing them all home.

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