Tom Robertson: A Biased Appreciation
by Charles Oliver
“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
Many hypotheses have been advanced to discern precisely which characteristic uniquely separates humans from all other animals. We shall, for the moment, dispense with the extra- or super-natural views that we are unique because God made us that way, or that space aliens selectively bred us (or engineered our DNA) to be what we are -- not because such views are ridiculous, but because they are matters of faith and by definition untestable. It has variously been advanced that it is language or our propensity for tool-making which makes the critical difference -- except that recent science has demonstrated that non-human primates can be taught various forms of human languages, and that even insects have non-verbal methods of communicating specific information between individuals; and that the creation and use of tools among other species is not as uncommon as once thought. Robert Heinlein postulated in his novel Stranger in a Strange Land that humans were unique in their laughter, but other species also demonstrate evidence of what appears to be, if not exactly humor, then certainly an aptitude for pranksterism.
We search for such characteristics, in part because of our inquisitiveness (a trait we share with many other species, most notoriously felis domesticus); but also because of what I believe actually is the defining aspect of humanity: our propensity for pattern-recognition. This trait is essential for problem-solving, and in the human animal it is keenly developed -- so much so that we sometimes detect patterns in unrelated phenomena. The logical end-result of this process -- paranoia -- is a uniquely human disorder. An affinity for espousing conspiracy theories is a less dramatic manifestation of this talent.
Genealogy is dependent on this pattern-recognition trait. We use it so often that we almost never think about the mechanism itself. If we find a birth record that gives a date and place of birth and names the parents, and a separate death record with the exact same birth information, then we are comfortable in identifying the two records as pertaining to the same person (assuming the name is not one that is too common, such as John Smith -- but that too is a form of pattern-recognition). If the dates of birth differ, we can still conclude that they both describe the same event by applying certain rules of variation -- such as the date is precisely the same, but varies by exactly one year -- or by locating other records that assist in harmonizing the differences: we seek to fit the pieces into a larger pattern.
Tom Robertson, a dear friend and fellow researcher, devoted considerable time to sorting out various Robertson, Robinson, Roberson and Robeson lines, in many cases using sparse and imprecise records. When laying out his case, he chose to quote John Adams in his defense of the British soldiers being tried for the Boston Massacre of May 1770. I have chosen to quote Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional character Sherlock Holmes for several reasons: first, it sums up the unspoken creed of nearly all genealogical researchers that all problems can be solved eventually; secondly, that a researcher can assemble enough material to reach conclusions based on exclusion. When we follow the Holmes maxim, we enter troubled waters indeed.
I have read Tom’s numerous writings on the Rob*son families, both as early drafts and as finally published, and I spoke with him at great length during their composition. Much of our talk centered on pattern-recognition. I particularly recall one conversation in which I pointed out to him that in most contemporary documents concerning the children of John Robertson (the father of General James Robertson), Elijah and Eliza were mentioned together, and in that order. In one of those pattern-recognition moments, I thought that this (and their similar names) suggested that they were twins. Tom paused, then admitted that the suggestion was there, and subsequently noted the pattern in one of his commentaries on this family. Another researcher, upon reading Tom’s cautious notation of the possibility of twinship, turned hypothesis into fact in one of her own works -- thus demonstrating one of the short-falls of our innate ability to discern patterns.
The value of Tom’s contributions to research regarding this family cannot be overstated; but as he readily noted himself on many occasions, both in and out of print, he was building on the work of others. He prominently credited Mrs. Lolita Bissell, who first located crucial primary documents in North Carolina and published the evidence contained therein, and John Anderson Brayton, who incorporated that information into his own research into the lineage, and added to it, challenging the conventionally-accepted ancestry for General Robertson. He also noted the early contributions of Colonel William Curry Harllee in attempting to resolve the discrepancies, as well as providing proof that the exercise of critical thinking alone can identify flawed presentations -- decades before the evidence which suggested an alternative picture began to emerge. Harllee knew the right questions to ask, even if there were no immediate answers to them.
Without going into a great deal of depth, Tom, Mr. Brayton and Colonel Harllee collectively proved conclusively that the popular version of General Robertson’s ancestry was inaccurate. For those wishing to review the evidence, Tom’s series of articles on the subject is posted on his web site. The purpose of this piece is not to dwell on ancient history, so to speak, but to bring to light some previously unpublished thoughts Tom had, supplemented by my own views on the matter.
To say that Tom’s opinions on the Rob*son families “stirred up a hornet’s nest” (to use the phrase of the publisher of one of his articles) is to engage in monumental understatement. It is no secret that his continued publication of material that was disharmonious with the popular version was deeply offensive to Sarah Foster Kelley, the primary purveyor of that lineage, though she had no compunctions about selectively mining Tom’s letters and articles for new information she found acceptable for uncredited incorporation into her own work. Another researcher, William Evan Timmons, vigorously defended the conventional view, reiterating Mrs. Kelley’s telling of the story. Tom took such lack of respect for his findings far more personally than he should have, re-learning the lesson of many brilliant and insightful minds (and, to be fair about it, more than a few crackpots) whose work was not immediately accepted. It is another sad commentary on the human condition that we become so invested in the views we have publicly embraced that it becomes all but impossible to retract or modify those views, or even remain silent in the face of challenges. Sad to say, the stress Tom experienced because of these conflicts contributed to his health problems, and ultimately to his death at the bitterly unfair age of 59. It is wryly humorous that we get so twisted over the affairs of people who are long dead.
History will be the ultimate judge of the facts in this matter, and those facts are stubborn things, after all. Just as water seeks its own level, the genealogical endeavors of Mrs. Kelley will eventually be relegated to their proper place in the world of family research. Mr. Timmons, wholly unintentionally, performed for Tom one of the greatest services possible: he challenged Tom at every step, made him hone his arguments, forced him to seek out new and better documentation, forced him to examine every aspect of his analyses. There is no honor in facing an opponent when one is assured of victory. Tom got his nose bloodied a couple of times, but he walked away unbowed and undefeated.
While the jury is still out on some aspects of Tom’s research and published findings, there is no doubt that he has forever changed how this family will be viewed by future generations of researchers. There is no longer any question about the parentage of Colonel Charles Robertson of Watauga: the documentation proves to a reasonable certainty that he was the sixth son of Israel Rob*son, who was himself almost certainly the son of Nicholas Rob*son. There is no longer a basis for any serious researcher to credit General James Robertson’s descent from “John Robertson” and “Ann Elizabeth Randolph” through their fictitous son “John Randolph Robertson”. The patterns do not permit it.
When all the dust settles, all we can say for certain about General Robertson is that we know the name of his father, the first name of his mother, and the siblings named in his father’s estate records, and the ensuing and related guardianship records. There is no documentary evidence conclusively proving earlier ancestry. If General Robertson’s father is not the son of Israel Rob*son, and identical with the John Rob*son whose birth is recorded in the Bristol Parish register, then the verifiable line ends with the General’s father. Tom thought the evidence sufficient to make this identification. I am not so sure that such a conclusion can be reached without systematically accounting for all John Rob*sons in the vicinity, though I am tentatively inclined to accept his hypothesis, pending the discovery of further evidence. While not definitive, the pattern is intriguingly similar. Regardless, this is the real world of rigid scholarship, not a Disney-inspired story where wishing will make it so.
And it is always -- always -- more evidence that is needed. Tom’s most controversial findings were the result of his challenging a view that he accepted -- that he believed -- until he sought out and discovered the evidence which made such belief impossible. It is never enough for the serious researcher to accept without question the conclusions of others, and we should never be offended when our research is challenged. If we have done our work diligently and conscientiously, then our conclusions will stand up to critical scrutiny. If new information is uncovered, then our work will be built upon and refined by others. Erroneous conclusions, honestly reached, will ultimately be forgiven. Sloppy research techniques and addle-headed romantic constructions masquerading as serious scholarship will certainly be viewed unfavorably. Above all, dishonesty will be the death-blow to any reputation. To quote Shakespeare, “at length the truth will out.”
Genealogical research is, in many ways, akin to the scientific method. Based on the evidence we have, and using that pattern-recognition knack of ours, we construct a model of what the shape of a family appears to be. By doing so, we also make certain implied predictions of what any as-yet undiscovered evidence will show. The integrity of any given proposed family model is either strengthened or weakened as more information comes to light. And, if we have done our work well, the new information will be harmonious, acting merely as refinement on what was already known. But the scientific method also requires that we discard our theories – our models – when the evidence no longer supports them, no matter how attractive they are, or how fond of them we have grown.
The model proposed by Brayton et al. has, since 1986, seen several refinements -- but the basic structure has not been challenged by new documents which have since come to light. By comparison, the popular version of this family’s origins has not fared nearly so well. From its beginnings, with the reminiscences of Felix Robertson and his sister, Lavinia Craighead, in the Draper Manuscripts, that version has faced questions ranging from the innocuous (such as placing events in locales using modern boundaries and namings -- which I consider an understandable occurrence) to the serious, to the laugh-out-loud ridiculous.
One of Bill Timmons’ arguments in defense of Felix Robertson’s credibility is that he was an educated and respected man who had held several positions of responsibility, and that these qualifications make him reliable for every statement in the Draper letters. However, as Mark Twain would certainly remind us, even honest men will tell a stretcher or two from time to time. The story Felix recounts of visiting a strange city for the first time and being mistaken for another “Mr. Robertson” by one who knew the other gentleman well is, quite simply, on its face, ludicrous. It is a variation of a common story in genealogical publications of the late 19th century (one variant of this story in my possession appears in Joshua Bailey Richmond’s volume on the Richmond family, and details a general of French origin who bears an almost identical resemblance to the author’s family members, and upon inquiry, he is told that it was General le Richemont), in which the author floats the romantic notion of a family’s noble visage being capable of withstanding generations of dilution by the features of lesser families. Everyone finds such stories remarkable, but few stop to ask themselves why the person relating the story didn’t chase down the other individual and solve the mystery. Was Felix Robertson so hurried that he could not even inquire as to the name and address of this other “Mr. Robertson”, whom he himself said he suspected was a descendant of Charles, the brother of his own grandfather? Who among us, when presented with an opportunity of this nature would pass up the chance to connect in a meaningful way with another branch of our family, and be left holding only a handful of questions?
Significantly, not one new piece of independent primary or secondary evidence has surfaced to support the popular version. That version, specific in many details, may be said to make certain “predictions”. When the estate papers of John Robertson, the father of General James, came to light, there was no coat of arms, no little gold dagger. Both of these items figure prominently in the popular view; and those estate records -- forgotten for all those years -- should have served as corroboration. The story is quite specific that “John Randolph Robertson” and his brother Charles were born in Scotland, fled with their parents to Ireland, and arrived in this country from Belfast via the port of Philadelphia; yet a systematic search of the records in Ireland and the United States has yielded no support for these assertions. As has been stated many times, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but when added to everything else, it does tend to suggest a pattern. A more recent version of the tale specifically ties “John Randolph Robertson” to the Robertsons of Guay, but the primary records relating to the estates of these men disprove that relationship conclusively.
In the end, judgment of what constitutes sufficient evidence for proof is both an individual and collective one. Each day, Tom (through his well-reasoned presentation of his research) adds to the individual count, and I suspect that he will eventually sway the collective opinion.
We all like the idea that our ancestors were in some way important. But it has always been a peculiarly American concept that greatness is defined by what an individual accomplishes, not the station to which one is born. The question posed to the descendants of General James Robertson, is a simple one: would his accomplishments in any way be diminished if he were proven to be the grandson of commoner Israel Rob*son, rather than a descendant of Scottish rebels? If, in fact, he was not (as one author described him) “from the family cradle ... ordained by Almighty God to be the Advance Guard of Civilization in pushing westward from the colonies and extending the boundaries of early America”, but achieved these things through his own talents, abilities and sheer force of will, are those deeds any less significant?
Perhaps none of us can ever fully escape our biases and prejudices, but the rules of scholarly research -- if followed -- make it less likely that the final work will be hindered by those handicaps. If you admire and appreciate the work that Tom did in the field of genealogy, then do him and me a favor: review all of the evidence, seek out new evidence -- better evidence, test his hypotheses and prove him wrong -- if you can. I guarantee you that he would be the first to shake your hand and congratulate you for finding and presenting more information, for shedding more light on the subject. Even if he were ultimately to be proven wrong in his analyses, it would not detract from his stature. Tom did his work honestly, and when the information was insufficent, he sought out more. In the end, all we can do is our best with the materials we have, and in that Tom was unmatched.
1 June 2011
Last updated: Wednesday, June 1, 2011
All original material Copyright © 2011 The Estate of Tom Robertson. All rights reserved including those of electronic transmission and reproduction of the material in any format.