Searching For My Roots

It seems these days just about everyone is searching for their past; digging through tombs of dusty books, searching for old deeds or wills, thumbing through faded photographs and reading headstones in weed-grown cemeteries. At least I had a place to begin my search.

A bicycle is the ideal vehicle for searching for your roots, no matter where they might lie. Makes it a lot more fun it they are in some great cycling locales such as Germany, Ireland or France but my search took me to the piney woods of east Texas.

My Great Grandfather migrated to Texas, or Tejas del Norte, as it was known when it was part of Mexico. He actually spent a couple years in the San Augustine Strip, the sort of a no-man's land between the Neches and Sabine Rivers. The US contended that everything east of the Neches was part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase while Mexico claimed all the territory west of the Sabine. However, it was so remote that neither country bothered to defend their claim it.

After Texas won its independence from Mexico and established the Sabine River as the actual boundary, land grants were offered to all residents who had arrived prior to 1840. Being single, my Great Grandfather was given 320 acres where married men got 640 acres. All they had to do to complete their claim was locate land, have it surveyed and register it in Austin.

He got married in February of 1842 and soon headed west on El Camino Real, the old Spanish road that branched off the Natchez Trace at Vicksburg and ran all the way to Mexico City. After traveling about 75 miles, he found a place for their new home in Cherokee County and that's what brought me to the small east Texas town of Rusk.

I parked our motorhome in the Palestine State Park and set out on my bicycle early the next morning to search for 150-year-old land records. I rolled into Rusk and circled the courthouse square. All county seats look the same; harsh gray building with far more columns across the front than necessary. It's usually the largest building in town. It usually sits on the town square with all the businesses clustered on the four adjoining streets, facing the courthouse. The rest of houses stepped down in size and quality as they moved outward from there.

The old hotel occupied one corner and cornerways across the intersection is the bank with the Rexall Drug next door. A long since closed Studebaker dealership leaned askew on another corner. It now houses a flea market. The furniture store was closed, as was the hardware and the clothing store. The Abstract Office and two lawyer's offices were directly in front of the big columns. A small replica of the Statue of Liberty guarded one side of the portico and an old WW-I artillery piece the other.

Nothing around the square seemed to be open except the cafe, which had to be open to serve the courthouse crowd before they went to work. There was a Golden Arches and a DQ out on the highway which now circled around town but why bother going out there when you can just walk across the street.

The City Cafe was in the middle of the block, facing the side door of the courthouse. Every small town has a City Cafe. I suppose if someone opened a second cafe on the square around the courthouse, they would have to call it The Other City Cafe. I locked my bike to a post supporting the porch and walked inside. In a town where only questionable women wore shorts and no man would even consider it, I suppose I did look a bit odd when I entered, took a seat and laid my helmet on the counter. The white noise of busy conversation stopped like someone had pulled the plug.

The usual courthouse crowd was there, three deputies at one table, the women from the county clerk's office at another and a couple local characters who look like what you see on TV telling how they had been abducted by aliens. Of course, there's the Old Farts table at the back. I could tell without looking that every eye in the place was focused on me. After all, a stranger doesn't come to town every day.

I accepted the cup of coffee and waved off the menu. One of the deputies, the one with the gold badge, eased his considerable girth onto the stool next to me. He turn to face way from the counter which placed the cannon on his hip away from me. "What brings you here?" he asked.

"That bicycle out there," I replied.

"I mean, what are you doing here?"

"Having a cup of coffee."

He let out a long breath. I could tell that I had kindled a slow burn, which was rapidly turning into an inferno, and I had better not push things any further if I didn't want a trip across the street with this fat cop. "I'm here looking for someone," I added.

"Who are you looking for, I probably know him," said the deputy.

"I doubt that," I replied.

"What makes you think I wouldn't know him? I'm the Chief Deputy and grew up in this county, so I know everybody here."

"Well, I doubt that you know him; he died nearly a hundred fifty years ago."

I heard a snicker from the overalls and Red Man chewing tobacco group at the back table and someone said, "Hey Clarence, you reckon you know people who've been dead a hundred fifty years."

I heard chairs scraping on the floor behind me and looked up at the clock; it read two minutes to nine. It was time for the clerk's office to open. I pushed three quarters across the counter and got up to follow the courthouse bunch as they left, leaving the deputy to simmer in silence.

A gold leaf sign on the door marked the county clerk's office and I recognized the lady behind the counter as one who I had seen in the cafe. "I liked the way you stood up to Clarence," she said. "He is an absolute idiot and the only reason he's a deputy is because his dad is the sheriff and his uncle the county judge. You said you were looking for records going back a hundred fifty years. Those will be in the basement."

An unmarked steel door with huge deadbolts stood open and inside I could see rows of stacked books. The lady hung up the phone as I entered and said, "Doris said you were coming down, who are you looking for?"

"I'm looking for records on a Green Lucas Foreman," I replied. "But I have no idea where to start."

"Try those two books on that table over there," she said with a smiled. "A lady was in here last week looking for the same thing and I just haven't had a chance to put the books back up. His records are mostly in Volume I; the index is in the front. There are also a few in Volume II. I can make you copies of any you want for fifteen cents each."

When I was ready to leave, she suggested that I check with the Abstract Office across the street. "They actually have better records than we do. They also have maps. Mr. Sturdivent knows the county like the back of his hand."

When I told the ancient little man with the green eyeshade that I was looking for a map showing where my great grandfather had filed his claim, he went to a cabinet which must have contained a couple hundred rolled maps and pulled one out. "Copies are five dollars, and a county road map is a dollar." he said.

He fed the map into an old Ozlid blueprint machine the likes of which I hadn't seen since I was in the army in Korea. They were obsolete then.

As the copy came inching out of the slot, the smell of ammonia took me back to the days when I stood in front of the same machine waiting for a blueprint to come out. He ripped it off, turned it around and pointed to a rectangle with my Great Grandfather's name and survey number on it.

"You can't drive to it any more. When the last people down there sold out to the lumber company, the county quit maintaining the roads and they grew up in trees," he said.

"I'm on a bicycle," I replied.

He squinted at me from beneath his eyeshade, "Then you damn sure can't get there on one of them things."

According to the survey map, my great grandfather's place was located three miles south of the village of Maydelle. The county road map showed a road running straight south from Maydelle for two miles, jogging around a strangely shaped piece of property and finally joining another road that ran along the north edge of his property; should be easy to find. Then I looked at the date on the map, 1953. The city limit sign at the edge of Maydelle says the population is 250, which might be true if four busses with fifty people each unloaded at the country store that composed the entire business section of town.

I followed a dirt road for about half a mile until it ended at a shack set back in the trees. A pair of mongrels came bounding toward me but skidded to a stop when someone in the house yelled at them. You could see that the road had continued on to the south but trees up to six inches across were growing in the middle of it. A sign which read, "Weyerhauser Corp." was nailed to one of them. I rode past the sign on a carpet of pine needles.

It was easy to follow the old road because the trees in it were only half the size of those on either side but the layer of pine needles made for very difficult riding, especially on a touring bike with thin tires. I had to get off and walk at the slightest grade because the rear wheel would spin on the slick surface.

The further I went, the tougher it got to ride and I was soon pushing the bike through the thick carpet of leaves and needles. I finally came to the place where the road jogged to the west. I figured it was perhaps half a mile in a straight line or over a mile if I followed the road so the decision was made. I'd go ahead on foot instead of pushing the bike. I hadn't seen any signs of anyone but the place reminded me of scenes in Deliverance.

I couldn't put my finger on it but I had the strangest feeling that someone was watching me. I was about to walk away when my old saying that one of three things should be on your bike at all times; you hand, your butt or a good lock. It seems like overkill in such a remote place but I wrapped my cable lock around the tree, through both wheels and snapped it shut.

I took my water bottles, camera, cell phone, a couple candy bars and set a compass course through the woods for my destination. It's almost impossible to judge just how far I had walked in through the trees but I finally came to the old east west road that must have been the north border of the property. I followed it until I came to a small hill that had I been looking for a place to build a house, that would have been it. Sure enough, there were the remains of a rock foundation and nearby was a small circle that must have been a well. I have no idea if this was the home of my ancestors but I can always think so. I found nothing else so I took a few pictures and headed back. I was certainly glad that I had a compass because it would have been very easy to get totally lost in such a place.

As soon as I got in sight of my bike I knew something was wrong. It was leaning away from the tree, held up by the cable lock. Then I noticed the handlebar bag was missing, as was the tool kit that I kept in the third water bottle cage under the downtube; so was the pump. The panniers were open and a spare tube, first aid kit and my raincoat were gone. Strangely enough, the tires hadn't been slashed and my helmet was still strapped to the handlebar.

There was a sheriff's car at the store when I got back to the main highway. Clarence, the deputy who had given me a ration in the City Cafe that morning was inside drinking a pop. When I noticed that he wasn't writing anything down as I told him about the theft, I handed him my business card. He glanced at it and began to pick his teeth with it. He was either getting in his licks for my embarrassing him at the cafe or else he knew a lot more about the theft than he let on. I've often suspected the latter. I was just relieved that I had taken the time to lock my bike.

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Copyright 2000 by Jim Foreman