Monday, April 13, 2009

Uncle, Uncle - William Henry Lewis: A Little Man Who Stood Tall

As I trace my family lines and occasionally find illustrious forbears and well-to-do descendants of common ancestors, I often make the half-joking comment to distant cousins who are fellow researchers: “I’m from the poor, anonymous branch of the family.” Taking my cue from the poverty of my parents’ families, I have a tendency to expect to find ancestors who are, well, poor and anonymous. This is also known as “making assumptions” or “jumping to conclusions,” and we all know that it is a counterproductive approach.

This, probably my greatest weakness as a researcher, may be counterbalanced by my stubbornness and drive to turn over every stone to find out everything I can about my ancestors.

And in the case of my great grand-uncle William Henry Lewis, this stubbornness was a good thing.

William Henry Lewis was in some ways the first of my Lewis kin that I “met” in my research. He was one of the witnesses on the Confederate Pension application of my great-grandfather Harlston Perrin Moore. One of the other witnesses was H. P. Moore’s wife, Martha “Mattie” Moore. At the time, I had not yet learned her maiden name. A first-cousin on my Moore side who also does family research wrote to me that an older relative had said that her maiden name was Lewis, so I figured the odds were good that Henry was probably a relative. I used their names and a few other bits of information I had on Martha to find their family in South Carolina and Georgia on the censuses, and from there went on to do as much census work and basic research as I could on Martha Lewis Moore’s siblings.

Using Henry’s age from previous censuses and his birth in South Carolina, I was able to find him and his wife Julia Mister Lewis on the 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 censuses. Something was a bit strange on the last three censuses, however. On the 1910 and 1920 census, Henry and Julia were listed as roomers in the household of Virgil Rosser (Sr.), a manufacturer. Henry’s occupation was given as real estate agent. The assumption I immediately made was that he was not very successful; otherwise, wouldn’t they have been living in their own home? This was before I had done a lot of census research and had not seen how many people listed as “boarders” or “roomers” are often family members.

It was the 1930 that set me to wondering, however. On that census, Henry had sole listing as head of household at the same address, and Virgil O. Rosser Jr. was described as a “lodger” (Rosser Sr. was not listed; I did not know whether it was because he was absent or had died). To try to solve this mystery, I checked the Rosser discussion boards and found a message from a gentleman named John Hornady who descended from Virgil Rosser Sr. through Virgil’s daughter Julia Lewis Rosser. To me, this indicated a family relationship, but it seemed strange to name a relative after her married name, and the birth states for the Rossers did not match up sufficiently with either of the Lewises for there to be anything but a distant family relationship. I replied to the message and also wrote an e-mail to Mr. Hornady.

Two months later, I received a reply from Mr. Hornady (I had used an old e-mail address that he rarely checked). It was a doozey:

“When my grandmother, Bettie Curtice Rosser, died in 1908 (when my mother was eight), her close friends and mother’s godparents, the Lewises, agreed to move in and raise the four children. Virgil O. Rosser Sr. was traveling a lot on business.

“Henry, as he was called, and his wife Julia Lewis raised them and remained very close until they, the Lewises, died. They were called Duse and Dearest, and one of my aunts took care of him at the end.

“My sister and her daughter were named Julia Lewis as well.”

I was flabbergasted and delighted; this was a wonderful story I might have missed had I not tried to find out who the Rossers were and had Mr. Hornady not taken the trouble to reply. I loved Duse and Dearest already. And then, because Henry and Julia had had no children of their own, Mr. Hornady went beyond ordinary generosity and began to send me what had been left to his family from among Henry and Julia’s personal effects: letters, pictures, and a partially filled out DAR application of Julia’s cousin. Most surprising was a testimonial written in Henry Lewis’ honor by Mr. Hornady’s father, who upon his marriage to Julia Lewis Rosser became one of Henry’s biggest fans. I’ll never forget picking the document and starting to read:

“Texas was a legend and an adventure to Henry Lewis from his earliest childhood in South Carolina and he lived long enough to see some of the adventures of his early years in the state become a part of that legend.

“An extremely modest man, Mr. Lewis rarely talked of his public life in Dallas before the turn of the century but many stories of his remarkable character and simple bravery were told by his contemporaries of those two-gun days, most of whom passed from the scene many years ago.

“There was the story told about him by the late [Edwin J.] Keist, publisher of the Dallas Times-Herald. Mr. Kiest related how when he first reached Dallas as a young newspaperman out looking for a career, he got off the train and saw a large crowd surrounding the courthouse and jail. He worked his way through the crowd until he reached the gate to the jail yard. By then he realized that this was a mob bent on taking a prisoner from the jail and lynching him.

“Mr. Keist saw a slender little man sitting on the jail steps with a rifle across his knees. Then he heard this man say to the crowd: “I will shoot the first man who comes through that gate – even if he’s my brother.” And no one dared go through the gate because they knew he meant it. Soon the crowd dispersed. ‘That was my introduction to Henry Lewis,’ said Mr. Keist. ‘He was sheriff of Dallas County.’

After I picked my jaw up from the floor, I read to the end of the testimonial. There were descriptions of further heroics and Henry’s honorable career as a lawman, public servant, and active participant in the development of Dallas County, including the following:

“Another story is told of the time one of the infamous Starr brothers, notorious killers and badmen of those early days, was drunk and “shooting it up” in the local saloon. Starr, a giant of a man, ugly and especially reckless while drinking, was preventing from leaving the saloon and frightening half to death those he forced to stay there. Someone slipped out the back door and ran for Sheriff Lewis. After being apprised of the situation Mr. Lewis said mildly that he would go down and get Starr and lock him up. His informant was horrified. “But Mr. Lewis,” he cried, “where are your guns?” They’re at home,” said the sheriff. “I don’t think I’ll need them.” Mr. Lewis then walked to the saloon, entered it, stepped up to the swaggering Starr, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Come on with me, Starr.” Wheeling about Starr confronted the little sheriff half his own size, hesitated a moment and said, meekly, “All right, Henry.” With that he followed Mr. Lewis off to jail.

“Many other such stories have been told and retold about Mr. Lewis who for more than seventy years was closely identified with the growth and development of Dallas. Arriving here in 1873 from South Carolina at the age of 22 he soon became one of the leading citizens of the little pioneer western town, and in his latter years he yielded to no one in his pride in its achievements. In his middle nineties he went regularly each day to his office in the Praetorian Building where he spent most of the day talking to his friends about his beloved city. He was always much more interested in its present and its future than in its past in which he played such an important part.”

The testimonial also told of his youth and adventures in striking out on his own from South Carolina to come to Texas, and a lot of information was provided on Henry’s (and my great grandmother Martha Lewis Moore’s) family in South Carolina. There were letters written by Henry to Mr. Hornady’s father during the Second World War commenting on current events; there were love letters from Henry to Julia from the 1890s and early 1900s in which he affectionately addressed her as “My Dearest Darling Little Woman,” "My Sweet Little Woman," and -- well, you get the picture. There were letters from admiring relatives in Iowa (abolitionists from the Dalrymple side of the family who had left South Carolina) and Hawaii.

And equally important, Mr. Hornady himself provided me with information and anecdotes about Henry and Julia during the days they had helped to raise Virgil and Bettie Curtice Rosser’s children. I was awed and humbled by Mr. Hornady’s generosity and knew that telling the story of Duse and Dearest would be one of the most enjoyable research projects I would ever undertake.

I learned that Sheriff Henry Lewis had actually stopped two lynchings and that both instances had involved racial aspects. The prisoner in the first case had been a black man and the prisoner in the second had been alleged to have a black mistress. The materials provided by Mr. Hornady included a letter from a representative of the black community of Dallas County expressing gratitude for Sheriff Lewis’ actions in “suppression of the mob.”

The two pictures on the ends in the banner for this blog are Henry and Julia Lewis. Below is a picture of Henry and Julia which must have been taken in the early 1940s (Julia was born in 1868 and died in 1945; Henry was born in 1851 and died in 1946). It is obvious from the descriptions and pictures that Henry was indeed a “slender little man.” It tickled me when I learned that Henry’s younger brother John Sloan Lewis, who served as a deputy Sheriff of Dallas County, was a strapping guy of 6’4” and more than 250 pounds; the “little sheriff” and his “little” brother must have looked like Mutt and Jeff together.

Henry may have been a “slender little man,” but he was a towering figure of courage and integrity. He lived through the Civil War and through the Second World War. Equally as remarkable as his career was his loving 52-year marriage to Julia Mister and their affectionate relationship with the children they helped to raise.


  1. Duse and Dearest - this was wonderful!

    I always enjoy stopping by to read your blog, because it's like having a conversation with you.

    You tell your stories just as I think you would if we were talking. That kind of writing is a gift.


  2. As always, a delightful story. Isn't it so wonderful to run into folks that lead us in the right direction and then continue to send the additional information that fills in all the blanks.

  3. Thank you both for your very kind comments!

    fM, In a deliberate effort to get away from the kind of academic writing that constituted the bulk of the writing I have done to this point, I have tried to write as though I'm talking to someone. Funny thing, though, that after I do that I have to edit out a lot. So that must mean ... I talk too much .... Oh, well.

    Linda Lee, You know, if there were such a thing, I would actually nominate Mr. Hornady for "genealogy sainthood."

  4. Greta, what a wonderful story! My tea got cold this morning because I had to go back and read it twice out of delight. I too have a rather "anonymous" family, and I feel your delight in discovering your own family was perhaps not quite so shy and retiring after all.

    And a real "Wild West" story to boot! This was a perfect way for me to start my day, and I thank you!


  5. I really loved your posting, you do such a good job with your writing and it is always interesting. Thanks so much also for your kind comments on my new blog "Those Old Memories". It means so much that you read them.

  6. Amy, Sherry, and Brett - Thank you so much for your kind words and also for the education and wonderful writing in your blogs. I always have the fun of reading these blogs to look forward to when I get home from work, and I always learn something, too.

  7. Pretty cool. I heard that story, in rough outlines, while growing up, but learned a few things in this telling.