Actually I’m going to dinner at the home of my great-great grandmother, Matilda Manson, in Rockdale, Milam County, Texas, on a day in 1900. Grandma Mattie has been kind enough, at my suggestion, to invite her son Otis, and his wife Bettie Sanford, as well as Bettie’s 90 year old father, Billie Sanford. Bettie is pregnant with their fourth child, my great aunt Julia Mattie Manson. They’d left at home their three sons, seven-year-old Carl, six-year-old Otis Preston, and three-year-old Silas Leroy. I wonder who’s babysitting.
But most interestingly of all, Grandma Mattie has invited Otis’s father, 59 year old George Preston Birdsong, and his 55-year-old brother Albert Hamill Birdsong. Preston and his brother live in the nearby town of Cameron which is the Milam County seat.
To recap what will make this an interesting dinner, George Preston Birdsong is the son of the late George Lawrence Forsyth Birdsong and his wife Susan Thweatt. The Birdsongs were a prominent landowning and slaveowning family in Upson County, Georgia, through most of the 19th century. Larry Birdsong in fact was a deputy sheriff of Upson County and served as a captain in the local militia which was called to duty with the Confederate Army during the Civil War. The Birdsongs owned a number of slaves, but Matilda Manson was not among them. Matilda was a free woman of color who had been born in neighboring Talbot County. At some time during the 1870s, soon after Larry Birdsong had died in 1869, Matilda Manson and George Preston Birdsong found themselves living next door to each other. Preston appears to perhaps have been estranged from the rest of his family, who lived some distance away. In 1884, Preston, Matilda, her son Otis, and Preston’s brother Albert all took off for Texas.
The family lore about Matilda and Otis’s absconding to Texas is told here. That story is not true. Family lore also has it that every Sunday Otis would take his family down to the train station in Rockdale Texas where they would await a train from a neighboring town. When the train arrived a white man would get off the train visit with them and give them money. Then he would get on the next train going back until the following week. This appears to be true.
Preston and Albert worked in Cameron. Preston lived with a couple of brothers from what is now the Czech Republic. (At that time it was known as Bohemia). One brother was a bartender, and the other was a salesman, according to the 1900 census. Preston worked as a night watchman.
Dinner this evening should be very interesting. I don’t think Preston has ever met Otis’s wife Bettie. Likewise I don’t think Bettie’s father Billie knows anything about Preston. And I’m eager to hear some stories from all the parties concerned. For example, I want to know what it was like when Preston and Matilda got together in Georgia. I want to know exactly why they left Georgia. Where they run out of town as I suspect? Or did they leave of their own volition? Why did Albert come along? And why of all the places in Texas did they choose Rockdale? How did they get to Rockdale from Upson County, Georgia? According to the book, A Frontier Link with the World: Upson County’s Railroad, by historian David E. Paterson, Preston had been for a short while an engineer on the railroad in Georgia. Did they take a train from Georgia to Texas? What did it cost? How long did it take? What was their relationship like as they traveled and once they got to Texas? And what was Preston’s relationship with his family like after he left Georgia? Did he receive letters from them? Did he write to his mother? His mother died in 1892 while he and Albert were in Texas. Did they know of their mother’s death at the time? Did they return to Georgia for her funeral? And since this dinner takes place in 1900, I obviously know some things that are about to happen that they don’t know. I won’t tell them but Preston returns to Georgia in just a few more years, and he dies there in 1905. Albert also returns to Georgia but he lives until 1921.
And as for Matilda, I’m curious what became of her mother Jane. And what became of her sister Mary? Did Matilda and Mary know their grandmother, a Scots-Irish woman named Charlotte? What exactly was it like to be a so-called “free woman of color” in Georgia in the 19th century? What did Matilda and Mary and Jane do during the Civil War? Where were they during the Civil War? And for Billie Sanford, how did the Sanford family of Virginia into which he was born in slavery, treat their slaves? Billie followed the Sanford’s from Virginia to Tennessee to Texas. Where did he meet his wife Emily? Had he been married before? What did he think of Otis marrying his daughter Bettie? Who were his brothers and sisters? Did he remember his parents from Virginia? To what did he ascribe his long life? (Here in 1900, Billie doesn’t know that he will live another 16 years in die at the age of 106).
I’m interested in seeing Matilda’s dwelling. I’m wondering what she’s going to serve for dinner. Will it be a recipe from Georgia? Or perhaps it will be something she’s learned since she moved to Texas 16 years ago. What ever, I’m sure it will be delicious. After dinner if it’s not too late, maybe we’ll walk over to Otis and Bettie’s house. Perhaps they’ll invite Bettie’s sister Addie and her husband Abe White over for coffee.
Tomorrow if the weather’s good, I’ll do something really daring. I’ll stroll over to the home of Reuben Henry Sanford, the son of the woman who brought Billie Sanford as a slave to Texas from Tennessee. Now that will be interesting!
The other things that I know but can’t tell Otis and Bettie tonight are that their son Otis Preston and their daughter yet unborn Julia Mattie both will die of tuberculosis in 1912. So it will be an interesting joyous yet bittersweet evening.
February 2, 2008 Saturday at 4:55 am