Coming to Grips With My Ancestry

12 Mar

I’m not sure if I mentioned it on the blog before, but within the past couple of years, I’ve discovered some interesting things about my ancestry. Through the web, I found a cousin who created a genealogy website … our respective fathers were brothers, so we share a common lineage through our grandfather Cox.


A replica of the Godspeed … can you imagine crossing the Atlantic in THAT small ship?

Anyhow, she has posted ancestry records going back thirteen generations and has discovered that our great-many-times-over grandfather arrived in America on the 3rd sailing of the Godspeed to Jamestown, the first English settlement in the U.S.

William Coxe was 12 years old when he arrived in 1610, accompanied by his sister Elizabeth, who was sister-in-law to Thomas West, better known as the 3rd Lord de la Warr. You guessed it, he’s the fellow who gave his name to the state of Delaware!

It was tough times back then. Starvation, Indian attacks, disease, all took their toll on those settlers. When the first census was done in 1625 (it was called a “muster” because it was as much about counting arms and ammunition reserves as it was counting people), William was one of the only men from the 3rd sailing that was still alive.

Since he arrived before 1616, William was accorded “Original Planter” status, which means nothing today (except that I am eligible to be a member of the Jamestown Society). Back then though, it meant that he was given 100 acres of land along the James River. He received another 150 acre grant later on for bringing three people over to join the settlement in the New World.

That’s where my American roots started. The Cox family (the “e” was dropped by William’s son, John) continued to grow on the Virginia Peninsula, moving northwest into what is today Henrico County. Five generations later, Henry Cox moved his family to Blount County, Tennessee in 1796, but not before his son, Curd, joined the Virginia militia and fought in the pivotal Battle of Guilford Courthouse. The British outnumbered the Revolutionary forces two-to-one and were the tactical victors, but the battle inflicted heavy casualties on General Cornwallis’ army. They were slowed down enough to lose their foothold and seven months later, Cornwallis surrendered in Yorktown.

After coming to Tennessee, Curd moved his family north into the Knoxville area, which is where his descendants … at least the ones that are part of my lineage … remained into present time. My grandfather’s farm (which I’ve mentioned in another post) was located just outside of Knoxville.

Curd Cox gravesite

Curd Cox was the first of my ancestors to settle in the Knoxville, Tennessee area

Curd’s grandson, Charles … my great-grandfather … fought in the Civil War, and this was a bone of contention between some members of my family. A large percentage of the population in Knox and nearby Anderson counties were opposed to secession, and there were a lot of skirmishes between their residents and those of bordering counties. Confederate military records indicate that a Charles Cox deserted his post in Memphis. My grandmother insisted that “No Cox ever deserted!”. Others suggested that upon hearing how bad things were at home (with most of the crops being confiscated to feed soldiers), Charles might have been one of the many soldiers that left their posts to take care of their families. I’d like to think that Charles and his family were against the war and that he might have been conscripted into the army against his will. Who knows?

The Cox family stayed in Tennessee until the Depression, when my grandfather moved his family north, first to Steubenville, Ohio and then to Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, looking for work in the paper mills. That’s where my father and mother met. My grandparents later moved back to Tennessee, to the farm I mentioned earlier.

I’ve been giving serious thought to changing my vagabond plans for 2016 so that I’m spending the bulk of the year in Eastern Tennessee and Virginia. I had already planned on heading through those two states, on my way up the East Coast.  But maybe I’ll dawdle a bit and spend some time tracing the path of my ancestors. We’ll see

That was a pretty roundabout introduction to the title of this post – “Coming to grips with my ancestry.”

One of the things that stood out to me as I read through the life stories of all my ancestors – they were slaveowners. On reading the wills that were part of the genealogical records, I saw how one Cox bequeathed a slave or slaves to his children … and that happened numerous times down the line, starting with William Coxe. Given how they were large landowners, I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. But I have to say that I was impacted by actually seeing the proof. It’s not that I feel “white man’s guilt” – I don’t. More than anything, I feel sad.

It explains a lot though … it explains the attitude of other members of my famiy. I know my grandfather and his father were Klan. I remember how my cousin was sent home from school one day for calling another kid in school a n—-r, being told that the proper word was “negro”. My great-grandmother, with whom he was living at the time, sent him right back to school with a note saying, “You don’t call a chigger a chegro!” And my family laughed about that – the story was told repeatedly at family gatherings and became part of the “Cox lore” (which included stories such as my grandfather beating up bus drivers that had cut him off in traffic, and various other relatives getting into brouhahas).

That … the pride of ignorance disgusts me. It did back when I first heard the stories as a boy and it does today. As someone who grew up during the civil rights decade of the 60’s, I’d like to think that prejudice is dying in this country, but then comes the news report about the incident at the University of Oklahoma this past week. And I have to wonder, what will it take before we see Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream come true?

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

At least the first part has come true.  I know that first hand! Hopefully the second part comes true soon. I don’t think we’re there yet and I don’t know if it’ll happen in my lifetime. But I can hope.



Posted by on March 12, 2015 in Musings


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2 responses to “Coming to Grips With My Ancestry

  1. centerforcreativework

    March 14, 2015 at 7:26 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this post, your genealogical narrative plus observations on your family’s story alongside American history, and within it, make for a very compelling voice. I too have been giving much thought on the constant state of racism in this country (Ferguson, Oklahoma, and so on) and also how so many citizens in the south are embracing all the cultures, races, etc. Food, drink and storytelling can make that happen. Thanks for sharing your story.


    • ustabe

      March 14, 2015 at 10:19 pm

      Thanks for your kind comment. And I think you’re right about “embracing all the cultures, races, etc.” as the goal. It seems easy to embrace the aspects you mention … at least it seems that way to me. Hopefully that leads to more.

      Take care,



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