Hamilton County Pioneers - the Roberts Family

Sunday, May 20, 2007 - by John Wilson

Dalton Roberts, who served as county executive for Hamilton County from 1978 to 1994, once wrote a song entitled “River Rat,” and his father, Roy Roberts, said that is exactly what one Roberts ancestor was. Isaac Roberts, “a strange and peculiar man,” lived in Roane County, Tenn., until a marriage gone sour led him to pile his belongings on a flatboat and ride the Tennessee River to Decatur, Ala. His son, Robert Zacharius Roberts, was a likable free spirit who was “a woodsman deluxe” and “the community veterinarian.” His son (Dalton's grandfather), Isaac Bailey Roberts, was a restless man of many talents who studied to be a lawyer, then a doctor and ended up as a preacher, chiropractor, farmer and furniture assembly worker.

Roy Roberts, who finally retired at age 75 and then spent much of his time in his woodworking shop at his home on Harrison Pike, researched the family lines. He found quite a few Tennessee connections, including the Hill, Means, Kennedy and Cantrell families. And it was learned that at least three of the ancestors of Dalton Roberts fought during the Civil War at Chattanooga.

The Roberts family is originally from Wales, according to Roy Roberts. It is believed that an Edward Roberts went from Wales to Pennsylvania, then came south. He may have been the father of brothers Elias and Zacheus Roberts, who went from South Carolina to near Kingston, Tenn., in the 1790s. Both Elias and Zacheus named their eldest sons Edward. These brothers married Brashears sisters, daughters of Robert Samuel Brashears and Phoebe Nicks. Robert Samuel Brashears was the son of Robert Brashears, who was born in 1731 in Prince George County, Md., and later moved to Fairfax County, Va., and on to the present Greensboro, N.C., where the Brashearses were active in the Buffalo Presbyterian Church. The Nicks family was also from around Greensboro. The Brashears home was built on a 640-acre tract in Sugar Grove Valley five years before Kingston was formed.

Zacheus Roberts, who lived from 1756 to 1826, also settled in Sugar Grove Valley near his father-in-law. He had fought through the Revolutionary War, taking part in the major battles in South Carolina. It was said of the Robertses in Roane County that “generally speaking, they have never been brawlers, but have been known to fight if their mother has been called a bad name, or if a bully chased them home, they would take a stand between the gate and the front door, and fight until the last dog was dead.” Sheriff John Brown of Roane County was said to have been “a fearless man and a man of war,” but Zacheus Roberts “whipped him within a inch of his life.” The Grand Jury indictment read that “on Dec. 14, 1802, Zacheus Roberts then and there being an assault did make on him the said Sheriff John Brown, did then and there beat, wound and ill treat so that his life was greatly despaired of, and other wrongs to the said Sheriff John Brown against the peace and dignity of the state of Tennessee.” Zacheus Roberts was required to pay “a whopping big fine.”

Zacheus Roberts and Nancy Brashears had 12 children, with the youngest Isaac being born in 1814. He was married in 1832 to Elizabeth Liles of his home county, and he later went off to fight in the Black Hawk Indian War. Roy Roberts said that Isaac was away from home for a long period, and that when he returned “something had happened.” He said one story goes that his wife thought he had been killed so she had married another man. He said that the other account given is that Isaac Roberts found his wife was pregnant when he returned to Kingston. At any rate, Elizabeth took a second husband in 1835, and Isaac located a flatboat. He took with him two of his sisters. Mr. Roberts said these sisters married a Nesmith father and son, with the youngest Roberts sister marrying the father and the older sister marrying the son.

Isaac Roberts then became a “river rat,” working on the Tennessee in Alabama and his former home state. Near Huntsville, Ala., he is said to have espied Elizabeth Dunaway while she was milking a cow. She became his second wife and the mother of his two sons and three daughters. Her parents, Joseph Dunaway and Frances Frost, were married at Huntsville in 1811.

Roy Roberts said Isaac Roberts was called “Black Isaac.” He said the apparent reasons were that he had a very dark complexion and that he would often get into a stormy and dark mood. He said he was told that children were afraid of him. Black Isaac was a talented woodworker, making many beautiful objects out of walnut.

His son, Robert Zacharius Roberts, never learned to read and write until he was at least 50 and he never attended school. Roy Roberts said he “never owned a home. He just lived in tenant houses as a sharecropper. He never worried; he just took life as it came. He didn't care if he had one meal ahead. He lived from hand to mouth. Money meant little more to him than water.” But he was a talented woodsman who “could take a double bit ax and chop down a tree and hew the sills of a house almost as smooth as a sawmill.” He was also handy as an animal doctor, and the neighbors often brought their sick livestock to him to tend. Robert Z. Roberts was also a talented fiddler. In his
younger days he was a “car knocker,” repairing wooden railroad cars for the L&N Railroad at Decatur, Ala. He also ran a streetcar in Decatur at one time that was pulled by two mules. He lived to be 95, while residing at “The Barrens,” where Black Isaac had settled. This is a sandy on the way to Molten, Ala. His wife was Mary Elizabeth Hill, whose family originally lived around Winchester, Tenn. Her father was A. Bailey Hill, who moved near Molten, Ala., before the Civil War. He was married once before, then he was wed in 1845 to Malissa Neal Kitchens, whose first husband had died.

Isaac Bailey Roberts, son of Robert Z. Roberts and Mary Elizabeth Hill, “never stayed put at any one place.” He “got a hankering to be a lawyer and read law books at home, then he got a yen to be a doctor and got some medical books. He finally decided to become a Methodist minister.” His first assignment was in the Phil Campbell Circuit in Franklin County in Western Alabama. Roy Roberts said it is “not the end of the world, but you can throw a rock off the end of the world from there.” Isaac B. Roberts decided he wanted to live in Florida and was transferred to the Methodist circuit there for seven years. Later, he took a correspondence course and became a chiropractor in Ashland County, Ala. He was a Congregationalist preacher before the Methodists took him back in, then he farmed and later worked in a furniture assembly plant in Florida. He died the same year as his father (1952) and is buried in Florida. The minister who preached his funeral described him as a “silver-tongued orator.” It was remembered that Isaac B. Roberts “preached with great intelligence and logic” and was “intelligently conversant on almost any subject. “

Isaac B. Roberts was married to Idella Brown. Her father was Lewis Martin Brown, who was with the forces around Chattanooga. It was related that he was with his brother fixing supper at Chickamauga when there was an explosion. The brother was killed, but Lewis M. Brown was not harmed. Lewis M. Brown was “a jolly Irishman” who homesteaded 160 acres at the Barrens when land cost a dollar an acre. He was the son of Allen Brown, who was from Early County, Ga., and had married Isabel Dyall. The wife of Lewis Martin Brown was Louisa Martha White, who was a “stern disciplinarian.” She was a midwife who birthed some 1,000 babies in the Morgan County and Lawrence County area.

Roy Roberts became a Methodist minister himself, shepherding three churches at Arkadelphia, Ala., then overseeing five congregations at Scottsboro. He left the ministry and farmed two years in his home county of Morgan at Decatur, making a crop one year with his father and another year with his father-in-law. In 1931, he hitchhiked to Gadsden, Ala., looking for work, but the Goodyear plant was not hiring. He thumbed his way on to Chattanooga where a member of his old Scottsboro congregation told him of a possible job at the Davenport Hosiery Mill on Eleventh Street. He was hired by J. Tally Johnston at $10.60 a week. The family lived at Avondale at first. Roy Roberts worked at the hosiery mill for 28 years and six months and later drove a freight truck, worked for an oil company in Florida and was a Volkswagen mechanic in Chattanooga for two decades. The family bought a house on Harrison Pike in 1935.

Roy Roberts married Nora Velma Woodall, whose family dated back to the earliest days of Alabama. Her father was Daniel Washington Woodall, a farmer and coal miner in Alabama who married Josephine Layton. The Laytons were in Spartanburg, S.C., before moving to Carroll County, Ga., at the time of the 1830s gold rush. When the prospecting fever subsided, they moved on, along with the Cantrells, to St. Clair County, Ala.

Josephine Layton was the daughter of Lewis Rice Layton, who married Mary Cantrell in 1852. His brother, Joshua Simpson Layton, married another Cantrell sister. Six Layton brothers served in the Civil War and all survived, though two were wounded. Lewis Rice Layton was captured during the Union charge up Missionary Ridge and was taken as a prisoner to Nashville. The Laytons were originally from England, coming to Barbados in the 1600s and on to Virginia and the Carolinas. The Cantrells lived after the war at Fayetteville, Tenn. William Woodall, father of Daniel Washington Woodall, served throughout the four years of the war, including the action at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. He told of riding on horseback from Lookout Mountain to Missionary Ridge and was stopped by a Yankee who cursed him but let him ride on. He fought in one of the last major battles of the war near Richmond for 20 straight hours and had a number of horses shot from under him. A naturalist and animal lover, he bemoaned the loss of each horse. He hid in a tree at the end of the war to escape capture and walked toward Decatur for three months until his shoes had worn away and his clothes were in tatters. William Woodall married Ellen Means, whose father, John Means, was born in Tennessee and married Dorcas Ann Kennedy, another Tennessee native. The Means family was originally from near Charlotte, N.C. William Woodall was a son of John Woodall, who was born in Georgia in 1799. John Woodall and his brother, Zephaniah Woodall, came to Alabama at about the time it was being formed into a state (1819).

They hailed from near Milledgeville, Ala. The Woodall brothers married two Vest sisters, who were believed to be the daughters of Valentine Vest, who lived near Milledgeville. Mrs. Roy Roberts said the Woodalls had Indian blood.


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