A signature moment

Isabella in her own hand

There is very little in genealogy that compares to that moment when, for the first time, you see a document on which your own ancestor put pen — or pencil — to paper.

gb-irA signature, perhaps more than anything else, somehow provides a connection that no other piece of evidence quite equals.

Don’t get me wrong: I won’t give back any piece of evidence that crosses my path. I’ll happily “settle” for a marriage or death certificate, a listing in a city directory, an entry in a tax list.

But a signature… A signature is something special.

We don’t see nearly as many signatures in our research as we might like. In so many instances, the records we rely on are records created about our ancestors, rather than by our ancestors.

It’s the census taker’s hand that recorded all those lovely details we depend on in those every-10-years records. It’s the tax collector who prepared the tax list. All too often, what we see in the deed and will books are only the entries by the clerks; the original documents are long gone or, at least, not available to us yet.

So a signature… Yes, a signature is something special.

And it’s all the more special when it’s a signature you never expected to find.

Recently, I had the great good fortune to meet for the first time a third cousin from Texas. Cousin George Lowe, whose great grandfather George Galloway Robertson was the older brother of my great grandfather Jasper Carlton Robertson, brought me some notes of research conducted by yet another cousin, a second cousin once removed named Dorothy, whose grandmother was Fannie Boone Robertson Stroud Harrison,1 sister of George and Jasper Robertson.2

In those notes, cousin Dorothy noted that she had reason to believe that some members of our Robertson family had owned land in Hall County, Texas.

Now I knew that some of our Robertsons had lived in Hall County at some point. Mary Isabella Robertson Hendrix and her family lived there for a time in the 1890s and early 1900s.3 Children of Martha Wilmoth Robertson Crenshaw married and lived there.4

But we didn’t have any reason to think that my great grandfather Jasper had ever lived there, and none to believe that his parents Gustavus and Isabella Robertson had either.

No reason, that is, until we saw Dorothy’s notes.

Now Texas isn’t a federal land grant state. But it did have its own land grant system. So one of the first steps always in Texas research is to run the name you’re interested in through the search page of the land grant database at the Texas General Land Office.

“Robertson,” I typed. And chose Hall County from the dropdown list.

And there they were.

Hall County. File 029530. Grantee Robertson, G B.
Hall County. File 026139. Grantee Robertson, W M.
Hall County. File 036368. Patentee Robertson, G B.

So I asked Lynn Parent, a Texas researcher, to get me copies of those files, and two others under the name L.D. Crenshaw (a Robertson son-in-law). And the contents blew me away.

It wasn’t just that I was surprised to find that some of the land had briefly gone into the hands of my own great grandfather Jasper. Or that Gustavus and Isabella had been among those who sought to buy land under the Texas act of 1877.5

It was the signatures. Their own original signatures.

Now I’d seen Jasper’s handwriting before. He obtained federal land in the Big Pasture auction in Oklahoma some 16 years later.6 Still, it was nice to be able his adult hand from his 1908 Oklahoma affidavit with his not-quite-21-year-old signature on his March 1892 quit claim deed7:

Jasper in 1892

Jasper in 1892

Jasper in 1908

Jasper in 1908

And I’d seen Gustavus’ handwriting before as well, on a 1903 letter he’d sent to daughter Mary Isabella.

But I had never ever seen Isabella’s handwriting on any other document. And there it was, with Gustavus’ signature, on an 1892 deed selling their Hall County grant8:

G.B. and I.R. Robertson, 1892

G.B. and I.R. Robertson, 1892

It’s not as strong as Gustavus’ signature. It’s fainter, the letters less crisp. But it is unmistakably an original signature, attested to by Ben H. Kelly, a notary public, who said he was there and watched her sign it. Watched her write the only thing any of her descendants today has ever seen written in her own hand.

A signature… Oh yes. A signature is something special.


  1. For Fannie’s marriages see “Texas, Marriages, 1837-1973,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 28 Jun 2013), entry for Thendos Stroud and F B Robertson, 16 Mar 1887, Delta County. And see “Texas Marriage Collection, 1814-1909 and 1966-2002,” database, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 28 Jun 2013), entry for J D Harrison and Mrs. Fannie Stroud, 7 Aug 1890, Hall County.
  2. See 1870 U.S. census, Lamar County, TX, population schedule, Paris Post Office, p. 253(B) (stamped), dwelling 307, family 307, George G. and Fanney B. Robertson in “Gustavis” B. Robertson household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 9 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication M593, roll 1594. See also 1880 U.S. census, Delta County, TX, Precinct 3, enumeration district (ED) 20, p. 502(D) (stamped), dwelling 117, family 118, Fannie B. and Jasper “Robetson” in Gustavus “Robetson” household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 12 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 1300; imaged from FHL microfilm 1255300.
  3. See 1900 U.S. census, Hall County, Texas, Justice Precinct 2, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 2, p. 28(B) (stamped), dwelling/family 214, Amos M Hendrix household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 13 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T623, roll 1641.
  4. See e.g. 1910 U.S. census, Hall County, Texas, Justice Precinct 2, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 125, p. 53(A) (stamped), dwelling 310, family 317, Bill E Hughes household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 14 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T624, roll 1558; imaged from FHL microfilm 1375571.
  5. An Act to provide for the sale of all lands heretofore or hereafter surveyed and set apart for the benefit of the Public Free Schools, the University, and the several Asylums…,” Chapter 99, General Laws of Texas, 20th Legislature (1887); digital images, A Guide to the School Land Classification and Reappraisment Records, 1880-1950s, Texas General Land Office (http://www.lrl.state.tx.us : accessed 26 July 2013).
  6. Jasper C. Robertson (Tillman County, Oklahoma), cash sale entry, certificate no. 246, Lawton, Oklahoma, Land Office; Land Entry Papers, 1800-1908; Records of the Bureau of Land Management; Record Group 49, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  7. Proof of occupancy, 21 March 1892, L.D. Crenshaw (Hall County, Texas), school land sale, file no. 29531; Land Patents; Texas General Land Office, Austin, Texas.
  8. G.B. Robertson and I.R. Robertson to J.H. Davenport, 28 Dec 1892; G.B. Robertson (Hall County, Texas), school land sale, file no. 29530; Land Patents; Texas General Land Office, Austin, Texas.
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23 Responses to A signature moment

  1. I found a great aunt’s handwriting on a census form. She was the enumerator! Just by chance I noticed her name at the top of the pages. Now I always look to see who was the enumerator, because maybe I’ll find another relative! — and yes, signatures beat out all other forms and documents every time!

  2. Paula Williams says:

    We also had Jasper’s signature on a couple of Odd Fellows documents, but, not G.B. or Isabella, of course.

    Another thing limiting the number of signatures we’ll see is the literacy of the ancestor. All too often, it’s “his mark.” So it makes this find all the niftier!

  3. Mary Ann Thurmond says:

    I think it’s because we know that they have physically touched and written on the paper that makes it feel so much more emotional than their name, for instance written or typed by a clerk. I have my grandmother’s crochet hook with the last piece of crochet she had started still on it and a few pieces of her work (unfortunately I didn’t get a bedspread), and those, along with the signed names are real treasures. Unfortunately I don’t think my children or grandchildren will ever have the same emotional attachment. I’ve talked about her and shown her handiwork but none of them knew her—and therein lies the rub.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I think you’re exactly right, Mary Ann: it’s the fact that their hands touched this paper. But I’m not sure how much the knowing-the-person matters. I mean, I understand that something belonging to my grandmother, whom I knew and loved, will always be more important to me than something belonging to my other grandmother, who died before I was born. But once bitten by the genealogy bug, that document signed in 1892… well, just plain wow. We need to get one of your kids or grandkids bitten!!

      • Mary Ann Thurmond says:

        Well, I’d like to get several people in my family—even my husband!!—bitten but, so far, no luck! Two of my sisters are slightly interested—when I show them things I’ve worked to find. The other one—not. I thought my oldest daughter would be really interested (she and her husband had done some research on his line shortly after their marriage) but she recently commented, without being asked, that I shouldn’t count on her to “take up where I left off.” My middle daughter and my son are capable and well-suited to take up the torch but I just know they won’t. My youngest daughter isn’t ever going to sit still long enough to do it—at least, coming up on 40, she has shown no signs of doing so. The grandkids seem to be mostly interested in their electronic gadgets and the siblings in fighting with each other!! I just keep plodding along, filling out the charts to the extent possible, and trying to get things in orderly files so things can at least be found—if anybody wants to see them!

  4. I agree entirely that signatures are special. One of the most exciting finds I’ve had in my research is holding in my hands the original piece of paper that my third-great-grandfather signed, allowing his underage son (my great-great-grandfather) to enlist during the Civil War. I wanted to do the genealogy happy dance, but I figured that might be frowned upon at the National Archives. :)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I’ve seen people laugh out loud, cheer — and even cry buckets — at the National Archives, Janice! I suspect the records room has seen a few genealogy happy dances over the years!

      • Mary Ann Thurmond says:

        I will never forget the first time I actually saw a census record of my great grandfather, Gustavus B. Robertson, and his family on the screen in from of me. I was very new to genealogy research and was in the genealogy section of the Huntsville, Texas, library. I gasped and clapped both hands over my mouth to keep from shouting out. I think I was the only visitor in the library and one of the ladies working there saw me, and came over to me and said, “You know, this is a library but we don’t mind hearing a “whoop” or a “holler” once in a while. We absolutely understand.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          I’ve gasped — and a whole lot more — the only thing I haven’t done in a library or archives is cry!

          And I’m also smiling because I was about to say, “Wait a minute, he’s your great great grandfather,” and then I remembered that even though we’re close in age, you’re a generation above me thanks to your Dad being the youngest and waiting so long to marry your Mom!

  5. Judy Webster says:

    It certainly is exciting to find examples of our ancestors handwriting. If I do not have a photograph, I make a special effort to find a signature. One of the archival sources I indexed was an original petition from the 1870s, with signatures. Descendants of those people may struggle to find handwriting examples from that era, so I listed all the names on my Web site. I intend to index more petitions when I have some spare time.

  6. Susan Clark says:

    So true! I gasped, wept and danced when I found a petition signed by oodles of relatives. To have my Mulkey, Duncan and Stephenson kin all on one page – it was the best feeling.

  7. Yes. With a signature, it’s as if you are almost touching your ancestor’s hand. The hand that was so close to the letters it was forming as the signature was being made.

    It’s as if the physical distance has collapsed (almost completely), and only time is separating you from the writer.

    Almost eerie.

  8. Kat says:

    The thrill of being in the courthouse and holding the marriage bonds with my ancestor’s signature and that of his father-in-law (who obviously was my ancestor, too) was almost more than I could stand. They were dated that historical year 1776!

  9. Jana Last says:

    Seeing our ancestors’ signatures is such a special thing. Those signatures are the next best thing to seeing a photo of our ancestors. I was ecstatic when I happened to come across the signature of my 4th great-grandfather, who was a surgeon in the Revolutionary War. And the document was dated 1776.

    I’ve even dedicated a page on my blog to sharing my ancestors’ signatures.

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