Do you find yourself wanting to write more about your ancestors but needing some motivation? It can seem challenging to write a full history or biography, but what about small bites? If you could write a little each week, at the end of a year, you’d have 52 small bites. This year I’m committing to the 52 Ancestors in 52 weeks yearly challenge.1 Each week brings a new prompt and an opportunity to explore an ancestor’s life more fully. I’ll share a tip at the end of each post for writing ancestor stories.
The prompt for the first week of 2023 is “the ancestor I’d like to meet.” This was an easy choice for me. I never met my paternal grandmother, Ettie Belle Harris Shults, who died before I was born. Ettie was born on 28 March 1907 in Marietta, Love, Oklahoma, and died on 22 May 1954 in Sanger, Fresno, California, at age 47.2 She contracted rheumatic fever as a child and, as a result, suffered from a rheumatic heart for the rest of her life. From family stories and historical research, I’ve learned that her life was full of challenges, but she seems to have met each one with grace. Whenever I asked my dad about his mom, he’d comment on her good cooking and her kindness. He never spoke of her complaining despite moving often to find work, living through the Depression of the 1930s, and sending her boys off to war.
Nicole surprised me with a portrait she commissioned of Ettie painted by our second cousin, Johnny Bone, a descendant of Ettie’s grandparents. I treasure this view of Ettie as a young woman. In 2001, Nicole wrote letters to Ettie’s two surviving children, Bob and Helen, and a niece, Christine, to learn more about her life, her likes, and her personality. Those responses provide a look into Ettie’s heart.3 Several themes come through – Ettie’s warm, generous nature, her devotion to God and family, her lack of complaining amid serious challenges, and more. Those three are now gone, but their words remain, as do the treasured photos we have of Ettie and her family. Census, marriage, and death records provide structure for her life – but she has only become real to me through the remembrances of those who knew her best.
Ettie’s china bowl is the only belonging I have of hers. When I hold it in my hands, I like to envision her dishing up something delicious to feed her family. Maybe she used it to take a meal to a neighbor in need. The dish is well-worn and a little chipped. It serves as a symbol to me of this grandmother whose hands, I imagine, were also well worn and her nails a little chipped from a life of hard work and service.
Ettie was born in the Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory, just six months before the Indian and Oklahoma Territories were united as a state on 17 September 1907. Her parents, Dock Harris and Alice Frazier, had been born in Texas but moved north to Love County, just over the Texas and Oklahoma border, by 1900. Ettie grew up surrounded by extended family in the Burneyville and Washington townships of Love County, where her father farmed.4 The earliest photo we have of her shows her with her grandmother, Nancy Briscoe Frazier, probably about 1913. Ettie’s doll must have been a treasure for it to have been included in the photograph. I loved dolls as a child as well – another connection to the grandmother I never met.
Ettie was young, just barely 17, on 23 April 1924, when she and my grandfather, Charles Leslie Shults, were married in Lubbock, Texas.5 They spent their honeymoon on the LFD ranch, where Leslie worked riding pasture, greasing fifty windmills. Their first child, Claude Houston “C.H.” Shults, was born a year later in Lubbock; then, the family moved to Imperial Valley, California, to find work – the first of many moves.
My dad, Bobby Gene Shults, was born on 16 March 1927 in Sanger, California, and the only girl in the family, Helen, was born on 30 August 1929. Charles farmed cotton, and Ettie worked in the fields alongside him.6
The family moved back to Texas, and with very little work available, Charles changed jobs often, trying to put food on the table. In 1934, the drought caused the loss of their crops, and Charles and Ettie took their young family on a covered wagon trip north to Oklahoma, where they lived off an Indian lease in Cherokee country. Ettie cooked a lot of black-eyed peas and cornbread during this era, with the occasional wild game Charles provided. The family lived in a log cabin with a dirt floor. Thankfully, a storm cellar provided shelter during a tornado that came through, flattening trees in its wake. The dust storms of the 1930s caused more challenges for Ettie as the cabin did little to keep out the dust that would seep in through every crack. The family would cover the food and their noses and mouths to keep out the sand. When it was over, there would be the job of cleaning dust off every surface in the cabin.
In 1937, Charles went west to California to find work and sent for Ettie and the children a few months later. Things were looking up until World War II erupted and Ettie’s oldest son, C.H., enlisted. Bob followed suit, and during this time, she had a nervous breakdown worrying about her sons. She recovered by the time the boys came home from the war, but by then, Ettie’s health had deteriorated. Her rheumatic heart caused her continual pain, and she was hospitalized often with breathing problems. The years of hard work took their toll, and she died on 22 May 1954. She lived long enough to see her oldest grandchildren and loved having them around her.
Ettie’s funeral program gives additional insight into her life. The two songs, “In the Garden” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” speak to her love of God and country music.7 Ettie’s daughter Helen remembered they occasionally went to different churches: Baptist, Church of Christ, and Pentecostal. Helen wrote:
I know she believed in God and prayers. Our friend (Baptist preacher) came to our house a lot- the day before mama died, he talked with her for a long time.
Although I never met Ettie, studying her life and writing about her makes me feel that I know her. She is a gentle reminder to live life to the fullest, don’t complain, serve others, and above all, be kind.
Tip for Writing Ancestor Stories
Interview Family Members
Having the written remembrances from Bob, Helen, and Christine added much to the story of Ettie’s life. Use whatever media works best – voice recording, video, or simple letters.
Start with a Timeline
I created a timeline for Ettie Belle of the records, complete with source citations. In the process of reviewing each census, interview, etc. I discovered several new information items that helped put the story in context. I use Airtable for the timeline, but a piece of paper, a document table, or a spreadsheet works well, also.
Download all Documents
Although I had Ettie’s tree on Ancestry and FamilySearch fairly complete, I had neglected to download for myself the various documents. I have a Google Drive folder for each ancestor with their documents labeled by date, type, name, and location. This way, they line up chronologically, and I can see where there are gaps I need to fill.
Best of luck as you write your own ancestor stories!
- Hosted by Amy Johnson Crow on her Facebook Page, Generations Cafe, and website, https://www.amyjohnsoncrow.com/52-ancestors-in-52-weeks/
- “California State Department of Health, death certificate, registration district 1054, registrar’s no. 970, 22 May 1954, Ettie Bell Shults, Sanger, Fresno, California, photocopy in files of Diana Elder [Highland, Utah].
- Bobby Gene Shults [Burley, Idaho], Helen Shults Jensen [Bozeman, Montana], Christine Shults Becker [California], memories of Ettie Belle Harris, 2001, original and transcription by Nicole Elder in the files of Diana Elder [Highland, Utah].
- 1910 U.S. Census, Love County, Oklahoma, population schedule, Burney Township, enumeration district (ED) 166, sheet 8A (stamped), dwelling 144, family 146, Dock H. Harris; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 7 January 2023); citing NARA microfilm publication T624 roll 1261. 1920 U.S. Census, Love County, Oklahoma, population schedule, Washington Township, enumeration district (ED) 131, sheet 5B, dwelling 68, family 78, D.H. Harris, digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 7 January 2023; citing NARA microfilm publication T625, roll 1467.
- Lubbock County, Texas, marriages 1891-1951, Leslie Shults and Miss Ettie Harris, 23 April 1924, digital image, 922, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QK8B-W7PH : accessed 7 January 2023); FHL microfilm 2,032,224, dgs film 005017010.
- 1930 U.S. Census, Merced County, California, population schedule, El Nido, precinct 2, enumeration district (ED) 24-6, sheet 6B (stamped), dwelling 107, family 94, Leslie C Schultz; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 7 January 2023); citing NARA microfilm publication T626.
- Funeral Program, Ettie Belle Shults, 1907-1954, Sanger, Fresno, California, Creager Funeral Chapel, photocopy and original in the files of Diana Elder [Highland, Utah].