I now wish to present to readers the following article, several years in preparation and only 2500 words in length, not counting footnotes, as the best probability to date for my American patrilineal ancestry. I ask anyone interested in this problem, my “greatest brick wall,” for comments or suggestions. I hope to hear from the following four groups especially:
I should also note that Todd and I are well aware of Roberts-Allen Families and Related Families Davis-Highfall-Rogers (Los Olivos, Calif.: Olive Press Publications, 1985) by the late Merritt E. Roberts, whose guesswork pedigrees are laughable. “C.H. Roberts” appears, probably correctly (as it happens), as a grandson of Britain Roberts on p. 84, and “Calvin Roberts” on p. 85 as a separate grandson; both are given wives and some children, all of the same names. Britain is given (pp. 83-84) as a son of William Roberts, b. ca. 1724 (on p. 82), ca. 1719 (on p. 83). This William Roberts of contradictory birth years is claimed as son of another William Roberts, b. ca. 1704, “placed as the fifth son of John Roberts, page 19.” This John Roberts is “deemed to be the eldest son of Andrew Roberts” (ca. 1657-1722) of the Craven precinct of Albemarle County, “considered to be the progenitor of this clan.” Despite the same names as Todd gives for the father and a possible grandfather of Britain, and even though a review of some of the records Merritt Roberts mentions (but does not abstract) might be useful—even so, Todd has concluded, and I agree, that Merritt misinterpreted most of the records he saw. Thus Roberts-Allen Families, sadly, so misconnects the North Carolina Robertses as to be almost useless.
I hope for a lively discussion and perhaps an extended article—on either the whole descent or simply Brittain, we think John, and Calvin Henderson Roberts. I can be contacted by email at email@example.com, by telephone at 617-226-1273 or 617-226-1234 (NEHGS; late afternoon and evenings; no messages please) or 617-227-5855 (home; mornings and early afternoons; leave messages here) or by letter to NEHGS. Thanks in advance! –GBR
Toward a “Brick-Wall” Solution:The Elusive Patrilineal and Native American Ancestors of Calvin Henderson Robertsby K. Todd Johnson
Gary Boyd Roberts has traced the ancestry of British royalty and American presidents, First Ladies, and hundreds of other notables, yet his own patrilineal descent stumped him for decades. All he knew through the 1970s was the following brief statement about his great-great-grandfather, Calvin Henderson Roberts (ca.1827–1892): “He was born in Indiana, was one time a sea captain. He was about 69 at his death.”1 Gary knew his great-grandparents moved to Fannin County, Texas, in the 1890s from Johnston County, North Carolina, so he visited the Public Library of Johnston County and Smithfield in the late 1970s in hopes of learning more about his backwoods southern pedigree. I met Gary then and discovered we were related in several ways. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge, so joined the search for Calvin Roberts. A quarter century passed with this genealogical brick wall intact. I had almost forgotten “dear old Calvin” until about three years ago when I discovered his name by accident in Wayne County tax records at the North Carolina State Archives. My latent interest was again aroused. Thanks to twenty-first century technology and two decades of refining my problem-solving skills, I was able to make a breakthrough, albeit on indirect evidence. Oral tradition and documentary sources provide the following data:
A New Clue
In 1852 a Calvin Roberts was listed as an insolvent taxpayer in Fork District, Wayne County, North Carolina, immediately east of Johnston County.11No other record of Calvin has been found in Wayne, but this one obscure listing was enough to lead the search for Calvin’s origins in a new direction. The 1860 census of Fork District, Wayne County, North Carolina shows a Roberts enclave with four of the same names Calvin and Mary Elizabeth would later give their children. Polly Roberts, aged 75, the matriarch, resided with daughter Edith Brown, son-in-law Needham Brown, and grandchildren Martha and Sim(e)on Brown. On a nearby farm were Joseph Roberts and Amanda Roberts Radford, now thought to be Calvin’s first cousins. Assuming common naming conventions (i.e., first son for his father or paternal grandfather), Calvin’s father’s name likely would have been John, the first name of Calvin’s oldest son.
The search then began for a John Roberts and wife Mary or Polly who went to Indiana, where Calvin was allegedly born about 1827. Only one couple in Johnston County fits this profile: John Roberts and Polly Snipes, married in 1816.12 John Roberts (born ca.1790/1793) was a landless white pollholder in the Boon Hill area of Johnston (adjoining Wayne’s Fork district) from 1814 to 1826, when he was dropped from tax rolls. Nearby were John Snipes and Jesse Snipes (thought to be brothers or uncles of Polly), also landless.13 Jesse Snipes (born ca.1780) married Sally Roberts in 1802 (kinship to Calvin unknown), was living alone, apparently widowed, in 1810, and remarried in 1811 a Clary Roberts (kinship to Calvin or Sally uncertain).14
Born a Hoosier, Raised a Tar Heel
For some reason, cheap land that afforded prosperity, or at least independence, to many yeoman families eluded the Robertses and Snipeses. Marriage ties connected them to several landowning families, especially Stricklands and Howells. Members of these four families migrated to Bartholomew County, Indiana, in 1826—the same year a severe drought in Johnston and surrounding counties sent many other farmers looking “for greener pastures.” Three sources pinpoint the year of the move, thereby supporting the claim that Calvin Roberts’ assumed 1827 birth took place in Indiana.15According to court records, Jesse Snipes was in Bartholomew County by 1830, but in Jennings County, Indiana, by 1840, according to census records. If John and Polly (Snipes) Roberts joined the caravan in 1826, they were somehow compelled to return to Boon Hill before the 1830 census.16 In 1833 John was baptized into the family church, Union Primitive Baptist, although his membership privileges ended within a few months after a bout of drinking.17 He apparently died propertyless within the decade.
In Search of Indians
And what about the Native American connection? Polly Snipes Roberts consistently passed for white, at least in the eyes of census-takers.18 While she was not likely a “squaw,” her family migrated from the Tidewater region where racial intermixing between British settlers and native peoples such as the Tuscarora, Meherrin, and Nansemond was common. A marriage between a Robert Snipes of Northampton County, N.C., and Susannah Bass, descendant of a Nansemond chief, has been noted.19
Indian ancestry, while possible via Calvin Roberts’s mother, is more likely in the Roberts line. The surname appears to have originated in North Carolina with a Thomas Roberts who took over a lapsed land patent in the tidewater county of Chowan in 1719.20 He is thought to have been the Thomas Roberts who, along with Edward and Elizabeth Roberts (perhaps siblings), left Denbighshire, Wales, and entered into indentures with William Webster in Liverpool in 1698 (to serve in either Virginia or Maryland for five, six, and seven years respectively)21— and the “Welshman” Thomas Roberts whom Virginia Governor Francis Nicholson reported in custody in James City County, Virginia, in 1699 for running away from his master, Rev. John Bernard.22 By 1704 Thomas and Edward Roberts had fulfilled their agreements and appeared on a quitrent list in Nansemond County, Virginia, adjacent to Chowan.23 Thomas Roberts’s land in Chowan County, North Carolina, was granted only about five years after the Tuscarora War (1711–1714), which ended in Indian defeat. Tuscarora who fought against the colonists either fled the colony or were killed or sold into slavery. Some found refuge in Pennsylvania for several years and ultimately joined the Iroquois Confederation in New York. Meanwhile, about 1,000 mixed-race Tuscarora along the Roanoke River who had refused to take arms against their white neighbors and kinsmen were rewarded with reservation lands in that part of Chowan County that became Bertie County in 1722. By the mid-eighteenth century some of this Tuscarora remnant had adopted the surname Roberts. Billy Roberts and Tom Roberts, Jr., were among the Tuscarora elders who each signed their “X” on long-term leases for tribal lands in Bertie County, N.C., in 1766 and 1777.24 William Roberts (ca. 1732–after 1796), possibly a son or nephew of one of the Tuscarora signers, was the first Roberts to appear in the Boon Hill district of Johnston County; in 1760 he was chosen road overseer between Bay Branch and Polecat Creek25(not to be confused with Polecat Branch of Black Creek, where Calvin Roberts settled a century later), near the 1922 birthplace of film actress Ava Gardner. This William’s birthplace is not documented, but many of his neighbors — Stricklands, Howells, Jernigans, Smiths, and Bryans — can be traced to Bertie County. Pioneer Johnston County planter Needham Bryan owned property adjoining the Tuscarora Reservation there before 1752.26 Possibly Bryan recruited William Roberts and other Bertie County neighbors to oversee his sizable landholdings in Johnston County. Tuscarora histories reveal increasing pressure by the 1750s and 1760s to vacate prized lands. By 1766 the Bertie County reservation had been abandoned by all except about 100 elderly Tuscarora. Some received sponsorships to travel to New York and join their kinsmen, but others stayed behind and were eventually assimilated into mainstream culture, as was likely the case with the Roberts clan of Johnston County. The scant surviving records reveal a legacy of poverty and alcoholism for three or four generations.
A Thomas Roberts in colonial Johnston County — perhaps Boon Hill William’s brother — provides further connections to Native Americans and other free persons of color. His first appearance is a marriage in 1764 to Winifred Busbee, a possible descendant of the “Indian” Thomas Busby (b. ca. 1674) of Surry County, Virginia.27In 1781 a Thomas Roberts secured bond for Stephen Powell, a free person of color, administrator of the estate of Johnston County Revolutionary soldier Archibald Artis, also a person of color.28 In 1786, Thomas Roberts appears on an insolvent tax list and then disappears from Johnston County records, suggesting he may have followed the migrations to South Carolina, Georgia, or Tennessee.29
Britain Roberts (1760-1832/1840), thought to be father of John Roberts and grandfather of Calvin, was likely a son of the original Boon Hill William. A Revolutionary War veteran, Britain settled in Boon Hill by 1804 after failed attempts to become a yeoman farmer in western Johnston County in the 1780s and 1790s. He apparently died penniless in the 1830s, leaving no probate. His wife was an Ailse or Aly (maiden surname unknown), baptized into the fellowship of the Old Union Primitive Baptist Church in 1811. County court minutes show that Britain, undoubtedly destitute, was repeatedly sued for payment of debts. After he applied for a Revolutionary pension at age 72, his name disappears from local records.30
A Google search on Britain/Brittain/Britton/Briton Roberts yielded reference to a deposition he and wife Ailse signed in 1823 in the complicated estate settlement for Thomas Stillwell, son of Margaret “Peggy” (Brown) (Stillwell) (Tucker?) Roberts. Leaving no immediate family, Stillwell soon became “dear departed Thomas” to scores of alleged aunts, uncles and cousins clamoring for share in proceeds from the sale of slaves and other property. To protect her interests, the young widow Ellender Stillwell insisted her mother-in-law Peggy was related neither to Stillwells nor Browns, the latter a mixed-race family in Rowan/Davidson County, N.C. The widow claimed Thomas was illegitimate and that his mother had moved to Johnston County when he was small, marrying “a man by the name of Roberts” (most likely William Roberts — Sr.? — who married Margaret Tucker in 1782). Peggy, she deposed, was “known to be a woman of fair complexion & never suspected by her neighbors in Johnston County to be [of] mixed blood.” The connection to Britain Roberts, while not proving blood kin, is yet another possible link between Johnston County Robertses and persons not fully British or European.31
Named for a New Englander
Calvin Roberts, interestingly, was likely named for Dr. Calvin Jones (1775–1846), a Massachusetts-born physician who owned some 2,000 acres in the Boon Hill-Smithfield vicinity of Johnston County.32 Jones practiced medicine there from 1795 until moving to Raleigh in 1803, during which time he introduced the smallpox vaccine. Johnston County voters revered this educated, energetic planter-doctor, made him local militia commander, and sent him to the state legislature at age 24. After moving to the capital, Jones owned an interest in a prominent agricultural newspaper, the Star, from 1808 to 1815. He became a hero of sorts as commander of the state militia during the War of 1812. Likely, John Roberts named a son for someone who made an indelible impression on John in his youth. The doctor’s editor and partner at the Star was Thomas Henderson, Jr., perhaps the source of Calvin Roberts’s middle name.
By the 1850s Calvin Henderson Roberts began to break the cycle of poverty by marrying well and investing in productive farmland. His descendants continued to prosper and have included my favorite teacher of all time, a North Carolinian, and a Texas-born writer on royal descent and presidential genealogy. Perhaps DNA evidence may prove or disprove Calvin’s descent from a Tuscarora elder and a runaway Welshman. For now, based on the foregoing indirect evidence, the following conjectural descent must suffice:
K. Todd Johnson, former executive director of the Johnston County Heritage Center, is a free-lance public historian and genealogist who lives in Smithfield, N.C. He and Gary Boyd Roberts are fourth cousins and several times fifth or sixth cousins once or twice removed through the Stephenson family of Johnston County, N.C.
2 Edith Roberts Clifton (1878-1951), daughter of Calvin H. Roberts, quoted by niece Ada Clifton Johnson, Garner, N.C., to author, 1978. Edith’s granddaughter, Neta Clifton Jones, also remembers the tale of an Indian. She recalls that Edith had some peculiar customs that set her apart from her neighbors (and which Neta thought denoted Indian heritage), such as saving blood from hog-killings for pudding. Neta Jones, Clayton, N.C., interviewed by author, Nov. 11, 2007.
3 Minutes, Johnston County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, November Term 1844, N.C. State Archives, Raleigh, N.C., transcribed and indexed by Weynette P. Haun.
4 Marriage bond, dated Aug. 8, 1854, with Ephraim Page bondsman, Johnston County Register of Deeds, Smithfield, N.C., the only known use of Calvin’s middle name exclusively in a public record (motive, if any, unknown).
5 Deed, dated Feb. 18, 1856, David Parrish of Johnston to C. H. Roberts of Johnston, Book S5:42, Johnston County Register of Deeds. For $350, Calvin purchased one hundred acres between Middle and Black Creeks. However, this sale was not recorded in the Register of Deeds office until Oct. 1889 (reason unknown).
6 1860, 1870, and 1880 Censuses, Pleasant Grove Township, Johnston County, N.C., plus tombstones in several Johnston County cemeteries. The tradition of descent from a Britain Roberts was told to me by Penny Roberts Phillips of Dunn, N.C., who has undertaken much research on Calvin H. Roberts descendants who remained in Johnston County.
7 Weymouth T. Jordan, Jr., North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865: A Roster, vol. 6 (Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, 1977), 387.
8 Marriage bond, dated 5 Mar. 1851, New Hanover County, N.C. State Archives.
9 Record of Deaths, Johnston County Register of Deeds.
10 Edna Alford Caudill, Cemetery Records of Johnston County (Smithfield, N.C.: Johnston County Genealogical Society) [need vol., date, and pages]; 1978 interview with Ada Clifton Johnson [note 2], born 1902, who recalled the reburial of Calvin Roberts as a sensational event in her small farming community of Coats Crossroads, especially among schoolchildren at Rehobeth School, only a few yards from the cemetery. The coffin lid was lifted to allow curious onlookers, including herself and several classmates, to see the sunken corpse.
11 Wayne County Taxables, 1852, N.C. State Archives. Since appearing on an “insolvent” list often meant the taxpayer had left the county, Calvin had probably departed for a teen-aged bride and maritime opportunities in Wilmington, N.C.
12 Marriage bond, dated Feb. 6, 1816, Johnston County, N.C. State Archives. James Roberts, whose marriage bond to Nancy Bodiery was dated May 5, 1816, with Britain Roberts as bondsman, was probably Calvin’s uncle. In the 1830 census James is listed with two white males age 5–10 and one 10–15(order reversed?). These three were Elbert W. (called the elder son of James and Nancy in Johnston County deed book P2, p. 60, and dated Jan. 29, 1830). Joseph (named as son of Nancy in deed book A3, p. 104, deed dated Jan. 28, 1864); and almost certainly James, age 33 in 1850 (with wife Nell, 33, and three children), whose marriage bond to Nicey Milliner was dated November 24, 1838, with Elbert W. Roberts as bondsman. In 1850 Elbert (age 34) and Joseph Roberts (age 27) lived in Wayne Co., N.C.
13 Weynette P. Haun, Johnston County Taxables, 1784-1820, [need place of publication, publisher, & date] passim; Johnston County taxables, 1820-1830, N.C. State Archives.
14 Johnston County Marriage Bonds, N.C. State Archives. One marriage abstractor incorrectly interpreted Clary as “Ceasy.”
16 1830 U.S. census, Johnston County, N.C., shows John Roberts as a head of household with one male under 5 (Calvin?), one male 10-15, one male 30-40 (John), one female under 5 (Edith?), one female 10-15, and one female 40-50 (Polly?).
17 Old Union Primitive Baptist Church Minutes, 1800–1876, on microfilm, Johnston County Heritage Center, Smithfield. John Roberts was “received to baptism” Aug. 10, 1833 and “excluded” Feb. 12, 1834 for “drinking to excess.” The interrelated Roberts, Strickland, Howell, Braddy, Herring, Thompson, Hughes, Ingram, and Stevens families were associated with this congregation. The absence of the name Snipes (including Polly Snipes Roberts) from early nineteenth century Union Church rolls also suggests family migration.
18 1850 U.S. census, Johnston County, N.C.; 1860 U.S. census, Fork District, Wayne County, N.C.; 1870 U.S. census, Fork Township, Wayne County, N.C.
19 Paul Heinegg, Free African Americans of North Carolina and Virginia from the Colonial Period to About 1820, 5th ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2005), 2:118. The work also includes Native Americans.
20 William L. Saunders, ed., Colonial Records of North Carolina, vol. 2, 1713 to 1728 (Raleigh: State of N.C., 1886, reprint Wilmington, N.C., Broadfoot Publishing Company, 1993), 355.
21 Peter Wilson Coldham, Complete Book of Emigrants 1661-1699 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1993), 689.
22Saunders, Colonial Records [note 19], vol. 1, 1662 to 1712 (1886, reprint 1993), 515.
23Alphabetical Rent Roll of Virginia, 1704/05 (Houston: Wright Electronic Genealogy Project, 1994), showing Charles, Edward, and Thomas Roberts in Nansemond County, 1704.
24 Saunders, Colonial Records [note 19], vol. 7, 1765 to 1768 (1890, reprint 1993) 360-61; Vol. 25, Laws: 1789-1790 (1906, reprint 1994), 507-9.
25 Minutes, Johnston County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, Oct. 1760, transcribed and indexed by Weynette P. Haun [place of publication, publisher, and date needed].
26 Bertie County, N.C., Deed Book G, 423. Deed from Needham Bryan to Aaron Ellice, dated Jan. 7, 1751, for land “across the neck down to Rocquist.”
27 Thomas Busby, a 10-year-old “Indyan boy,” was bound to Robert Caufield of Surry County, Va., in July 1684. Weynette P. Haun, Surry County Records 1682-91 [place, publisher & date needed], 444.
28 Minutes, Johnston County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, Nov. Term 1782, N.C. State Archives, transcribed and indexed by Weynette P. Haun.
29 Thomas Roberts appears on insolvent tax list in William Fish’s district, May 31, 1786. Haun, Johnston County Taxables, 1784-1820 [note 13], page.
30 Haun, Johnston County Taxables, 1784-1820 [note 13], page; Johnston County Deed Book T-1, 404; Haun, Johnston County Court Martial Minutes, [pub, place, date] 61, 69; Minutes, Old Union Primitive Baptist Church, 1800-1876; Virgil D. White, Genealogical Abstracts of Revolutionary Pension Files, vol. 3, (Waynesboro, Tenn.: The National Historical Book Company, 1992), 2904, 2911; Minutes, Johnston County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, 1790-1830.
31 Randolph County Estates, N.C. State Archives; Johnston County Marriage Bonds, N.C. State Archives. Oddly, even though Stilwell lived in Johnston County, his estate was filed one hundred miles away in Randolph County, residence of an alleged heir’s creditor. Note also that Peggy’s alleged nephew, Capt. James Brown (1801–1863), Mormon founder of Ogden, Utah, made a missionary journey to North Carolina in 1844, the year Calvin Roberts was bound apprentice to a James Brown in Johnston County. However, biographies of Brown, the Mormon pioneer, state he returned to Illinois before the court appearance, so cannot be the same James.
32 Calvin Jones’ birth is recorded in both Sheffield and New Marlborough, Massachusetts.