Hunting for Lost Ancestors in my Campervan

 Hunting for Lost Ancestors in my Campervan

Over the holidays, I talked with my father about his family and early memories he had, and rummaged around online to find corroborating information to share with him. We got interested in his grandmother and whatever happened to her.

His father and grandfather are buried in the family plot in Mississippi, but his grandmother Nannie had gone back to Houston County, Texas after her husband had died and was out there – somewhere. Nobody alive in the family that we were in contact with knew where. I resolved to find her, since as a retired person with a campervan it would be much easier for me than anyone else in the family. I drive all over the place anyway with nothing to do, might as well put this to some use.

This is the oldest part of Texas, as far as Anglo settlement goes.

One of the things I can do more easily than most travelers is show up in out-of-the-way places and have all my resources with me – that’s the beauty of a campervan. So I set the GPS for Lovelady, Texas as I headed west. That’s where Antioch Cemetery is. I had managed to find Nannie’s death certificate online, and it listed Antioch Cemetery just outside of Lovelady as her intended burial place.

This took some work – they have to transcribe all these ancient handwritten documents into a database to be searchable online, and “Nannie” had become “Mamie” during the digitizing thanks to the flourishes the person filling out the paperwork 90 years ago had added to their writing – capital Ms had three loops, and capital Ns had two, so they looked like Ms. But I found her, and I was going to stop by the cemetery on my way west to see if I could use local resources to pin down the exact location in the cemetery where she was buried. There was nothing online to help me.

What I did know is that she didn’t have a grave marker – she had the misfortune of dying in 1930, hard times in east Texas. People were lucky not to run out of money before they got the basics of food, clothing and shelter covered, and the family always intended to get a headstone when times got better, but they didn’t really get better. East Texas never flourished even after the Depression – the original small plot farmers got out-competed by the agribusiness that sprang up after World War Two. Lovelady and the small towns around it have many empty buildings.

I knew about the map thanks to the Find a Grave website, but the book was an added bonus.

I knew that there was a map of the plots in the cemetery, and that there was a directory of known burials, but I had to show up onsite to use these. As we pulled in, it was getting close to sundown, and I parked and went over to the large map of plots and sure enough, there was a book in front of it, indexed by last names.

And there was Nannie, listed in the index. I was so happy that I hadn’t driven out here for nothing. I had been driving all day, and it was getting dark, and I couldn’t figure out how the plot numbers in the book corresponded to the ones on the map, so we headed into the nearby town of Crockett, where there was a Walmart, and overnighted there. Thank goodness for Walmart.

The map and book are in that pavilion on the left.

After a good sleep and some coffee, we came out early the next day to take a fresh look at the puzzle. It was a Sunday, so we had to get finished and clear out before people started showing up for church service at the church by the cemetery.

I quickly figured out how the plot numbering system worked – there were a couple of dozen cemetery sections, and each had rows of graves, with the rows and graves numbered consecutively. God bless the Antioch Cemetery Association, who made this map and book, based on who knows what ancient records.

The Houston County Courthouse kept burning down with regularity, so it was a miracle that Nannie’s information didn’t get lost. She was next to one of her sons, who had died in adolescence and did have a marker, so I knew if I could find him I could find her. And that’s what I did.

I took these photos and informed my father, aunt, uncles, cousins, and siblings that we had finally found Nannie, so now that times have finally gotten better we’re going to pass the hat, and next spring I’m going to stop by again and arrange with the cemetery association to have a grave marker placed for her. She raised ten children through hard times, and their descendants want to acknowledge that accomplishment and show their respects.

So, at least for her and for us, this lonely hilltop in east Texas will be a little less lonely. 


"campskunk" is a blissfully retired former public servant who has left the challenges of how to run the government to younger and less cynical hands, and wanders the continent in his Roadtrek Class B RV with his wife and cat. In addition to his work in the public sector, he has also at various times been a mechanic and delivery driver, skills which come in handy in his new role. Because his former job involved the forensic evaluation and sometimes the subsequent detention of some not-so-nice people, he uses the name campskunk instead of his legal name on the Internet. His was not the type of job where customer service feedback would be welcome.