As children we aren’t usually much interested in learning about relatives from long ago. Thus it was with me. My father died long before I began to have questions about his grandparents and aunts and uncles. I imagine that he had a wealth of information but that went away with his death. His mother, my Grandma Minnie, sometimes attempted to provide me with a few details about her heritage but I much preferred her stories about birds and the other critters that she understood so well. The result was that I grew up knowing very little about the people who had come before me.
I had a first cousin named Howard who was one of my Aunt Opal’s sons. He and my dad had actually been quite close. They were only a couple of years apart in age even though my dad was Howard’s uncle. They both became mechanical engineers and they shared a number of interests, thus my parents often visited Howard and his wife. I was fascinated by this cousin of mine who was old enough to be my father. He had a collection of arrowheads that he had found along White Oak bayou before someone had the questionable idea of pouring concrete along its banks. He also raised baby alligators and collected all sorts of wonderful things. Visits to his home were always a ton of fun.
Once my father died we saw less and less of Howard but he always stayed in touch with our family. He eventually became obsessed with genealogy and evidently found out about many exciting branches of our family tree. Sadly he shared very little of what he learned perhaps because it wasn’t particularly meaningful to my mother since the relatives were not hers. I was so much younger that I suspect that Howard felt that I held little concern about such things and for a time he was absolutely correct.
Howard traveled all over the United States to the places where our kin had once lived. He found the old homestead where our great grandfather, John William Seth Smith, had tended the land and was ultimately laid to rest. At one point Howard learned that our great great grandmother, Biddy Ann Fitzsimmons Smith, was also resting eternally in the same place. Her grave was marked with only three stones. Howard decided to purchase a more fitting monument for her. He and his wife lugged it up a steep and narrow path until they found the field where our two ancestors lay. It was one of the last things that he did before he became sick and died.
Once I retired I suddenly began to wish that I had more information about my family tree. I knew that I would find little about my maternal grandparents since they had immigrated from the Austro-Hungarian empire and none of my aunts or uncles appeared to even know the names of their grandparents. My paternal grandfather had been as sketchy about his own past as they were. I realized from the bits and pieces that I had learned from Howard that the information about my paternal grandparents on Grandma Minnie’s side of the family was there if I was willing to do a bit a research.
It didn’t take me long to locate a wealth of information and to connect with relatives that I had never known to exist. I’ve gone way back in history with those folks and it is quite exciting to verify that I didn’t just pop up in a cabbage patch one day. I began to focus my attention on my great grandmother and great grandfather.
Great Grandpa John William Seth Smith was born in Virginia, the eldest son of the twelve children of Austin Boley Smith and Biddy Ann Fitzsimmons Smith. He eventually moved to Indiana were he was briefly married to a woman who bore a child. Both of them died just before the Civil War began to rage across the land. I suspect that John was heartbroken and uncertain about his future. He enlisted in the Kentucky Volunteer Infantry as a Union soldier and was quickly advanced to the rank of Lieutenant. He fought throughout most of that terrible war. After it was over he briefly served as a riverboat captain along the Ohio River where he eventually met and then married my great Grandmother, Christina Elizabeth Rowsie.
The two of them moved around quite a bit until they finally settled down on one hundred sixty acres of land in Scott County Arkansas, near what was then the town of Tate. They had a large number of children including my grandmother, Minnie Bell. The land that they farmed was isolated and even back then considered to be rough and rather wild. John suffered from chronic illnesses that had resulted from the harsh conditions of his service in the war. He died rather young, given the family tendency toward longevity, leaving Christina to fend for herself and the children who were still living at home. She stayed on the old homestead until her own death in 1901. She was buried in the churchyard of the Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Abbot Arkansas which is very near the land where she and John had lived and worked.
Eventually the old John Smith homestead became part of the massive Ouachita National Forest. Lieutenant John William Seth Smith’s burial site is marked with a stone from the federal government that notes his service to the country in the Civil War. Sadly it is a very difficult place to find. Using the information that we had and maps from the Internet Mike and I attempted to locate his resting place but knew from the start that it would be quite difficult in a place that had reverted to its natural state. We believe that we were in the correct area but we never actually found the field in which he and his mother lie. Still, because the land has been so well preserved and untouched by humankind for many years, I was able to get a real sense of what life must have been like for John and Christina and their children.
Their home was located in a rocky area between two small mountains. The forests are thick with pines and filled with wild blackberry vines and colorful wildflowers. Small creek beds babble with the sound of crystal clear water that no doubt rages and floods during heavy rains. All sorts of critters roam through the area. We spotted deer, roadrunners, wild turkeys, and a profusion of birds and insects. The only sounds are those of the wind and the warblers living in the trees. It is a peaceful place but would have been difficult to cultivate. I imagine that life was never particularly easy for them.
After leaving the national forest we traveled about ten miles down the road to Abbot. There in front of the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church lay a small cemetery where I had learned that Great Grandmother Christina was buried. Mike and I walked along the grave sites reading the sad history of families who lost child after child in infancy. The messages left on tombstones were touching. Even more heartbreaking were the graves marked only by a small slab of stone without name or date or any other indicator of who lay below the earth.
I doubt that I would have found my great grandmother’s grave were it not for the lucky coincidence that I spotted a name from my past that was familiar to me. It was on the tombstone of my great aunt Kate. I remember visiting her on the last vacation that I took with my father before he died. We had a fun afternoon with her and I was instantly taken by her inviting personality. She was quite old by then. She was the eldest of the Smith children, quite senior to my grandmother who was already in her eighties by then. Aunt Kate must have been well into her nineties but she was energetic and so lovely with her snowy white hair. She had such a delightful laugh and she kept insisting to the chagrin of my mother that I looked exactly like all of the Smith children.
Once I found Aunt Kate’s grave it only took a few steps to the right to locate my great grandmother Christina. There next to her was a tombstone for one of my Grandma Minnie’s brothers, John Martin Smith. He had died in nineteen twenty eight so I suspect that my Aunt Kate had been the one who buried him properly. His marker bore the enigmatic statement “Only you and God will ever understand.”
My kin lived in a beautiful but rugged part of the the United States. They had to have been quite tough to deal with the day to day challenges that faced them, particularly my great grandmother who bore and buried so many children and yet remained quite strong. She appears to have been a rather liberated woman in a time when that was an uncommon quality. I suppose that she had to be independent and strong or die based on the environment that I saw. I feel much closer to John and Christina now that I have seen the place where they lived out their lives in such communion with the land. It is little wonder that my Grandma Minnie was so familiar with the ways of nature.
I dreamed of my ancestors last night. I saw them hunting, fishing, and tending the land. I imagined how proud they must have been to have a place of their own. I thought of the times when they endured harsh winters, summers of drought, and frightening illnesses. I think that they would be quite happy to see the legacy that lives on in the spirit of countless grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great great grandchildren. I suspect that they would be happy to know that we have all done so well.