A question of place

Whence Opal?

If you accept the record evidence, she was born on the same day to the same parents in two different towns, in two different counties, a little more than 42 miles apart as the crow flies.

Sigh… it’s enough to make a genealogist cry.

My grandmother Opal E. (Robertson) Cottrell was born on the 21st of August 1898, the first-born child of Jasper Carlton Robertson and Eula Baird. That’s the easy part. Everything we have that in any way suggests her birth information says the same thing.

Exactly where she was born isn’t quite so easy.

There are six pieces of record evidence that we’ve found so far:

    • (1) The 1930 birth certificate of son Donald Harris Cottrell in Midland County, Texas, filled out by the attending physician Dr. Tom C. Bobo.1

    • (2) The 1931 birth certificate of daughter Carol Rae Cottrell in Midland County, Texas, filled out by the same attending physician.2

    • (3) The 1934 birth certificate of son (Jerry) LaStone Cottrell in Midland County, Texas, filled out by the same attending physician.3

    • (4) The 1949 handwritten notes of daughter Hazel (Cottrell) Geissler recording and correcting family information in a baby book.4

    • (5) A computer-generated abstract of the 1966 SS-5 application for a social security number filed by my grandmother (the original SS-5 having been “unavailable” each time it’s been requested).5

    • (6) Her 1995 death certificate with information provided by my oldest cousin, her oldest granddaughter.6

And the record evidence does not agree.

Two of those six documents — Donald’s birth certificate and Opal’s death certificate — say that Opal was born in “Sugarland, Texas.”

The other four — Carol’s and Jerry’s birth certificates, the baby book, and the Social Security abstract — say that she was born in “Eagle Lake, Texas.”

There isn’t any town with the exact name of “Sugarland” in Texas. The closest is Sugar Land, in Fort Bend County, an unincorporated company town until 1959.7

Eagle Lake is an older long-established town in Colorado County,8 just a little more than 42 miles to the west of Sugar Land.9

From what we know of the family history, either location is possible — she often spoke of being born and spending her first years on a sugar plantation and both areas were major sugar-producing areas at the time — but my vote at the moment is in favor of Eagle Lake.

First, while we don’t have the original SS-5 application for a social security account, the abstract should reflect what was recorded by my grandmother when she applied. In other words, the SS-5 should have contained her own account of her own information and the abstract should reflect what she said.

Second, the baby book information recorded by her daughter, my mother, has a number of handwritten corrections from information we know to be incorrect to information we know to be correct where the likely source of the correct information would have been my grandmother. So we can hope that all of the information about my grandmother’s side of the family was checked with my grandmother and the correct data recorded.

Third, the one birth certificate that records my grandmother’s birthplace as Sugarland has incorrect information for my grandfather’s place of birth that was then crossed out and corrected. That could suggest that my grandfather, and not my grandmother, was the final source for that certificate. By contrast, one of the birth certificates that lists Eagle Lake as my grandmother’s birthplace has my grandfather’s birthplace wrongly recorded. That could suggest that my grandmother, and not my grandfather, was the final source for that certificate.

Finally, tipping the scale in my mind towards Eagle Lake is the combination of family stories and the 1900 census. The family stories are that my grandmother was born on or near the sugar plantation where her father, my great grandfather Jasper C. Robertson, was working. The plantation was run with convict labor and Jasper was one of the guards.

The 1900 census records a Jasper C. “Robinson,” born in the same month, year and state as my great grandfather, as a guard of convicts at Dunovant’s Camp No. 1, located in Eagle Lake, Colorado County.10

Now if I could just find my not-quite-two-year-old grandmother or her mother on that 1900 census… or come up with that darned time machine…


  1. Texas State Board of Health, birth certif. no. 27578, male infant of C.R. Cottrell and Opal Robertson (5 Mar 1930); Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin.
  2. Texas State Board of Health, birth certif. no. 107064, Carol Rae Cottrell (20 Dec 1931); Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin.
  3. Texas State Board of Health, birth certif. no. 54941, La Stone Cottrell (10 Jul 1934); Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin.
  4. Geissler family baby book (1949); entries in handwriting of Hazel (Cottrell Geissler); privately held by author.
  5. Opal E. Cottrell, 1966, computerized abstract, application for account number (Form SS-5), Social Security Administration, Baltimore, Maryland.
  6. Virginia Department of Health, Certificate of Death, state file no. 95-011808, Opal Robertson Cottrell (1995); Division of Vital Records, Richmond.
  7. Bettye J. Anhaiser, “Sugar Land, TX,” Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook : accessed 24 May 2013).
  8. Rosanne Harrison, “Eagle Lake, TX,” Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook : accessed 24 May 2013).
  9. Distance from Sugar Land, TX to Eagle Lake, TX,” DistancesCalculator.com (http://www.distancescalculator.com : accessed 24 May 2013).
  10. 1900 U.S. census, Colorado County, Texas, Justice Precinct 8 (Eagle Lake), population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 26, p. 224(A) (stamped), dwelling 81, family 83, Jasper C. “Robinson;” digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 24 May 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication T623, roll 1622; imaged from FHL microfilm 1241622.
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4 Responses to A question of place

  1. Jill says:

    Some day I’ll present a very similar problem for some researcher. There are several documents stating I was born in Akron, OH, one hand-corrected to state en route to hospital in Akron, OH, but the truth (and what I tell people) is that I was born at home in a neighboring town before the ambulance even arrived.

  2. Toni says:

    Even though I am new at genealogy, I have found out sometimes it’s better to just stop when I’ve found one or two documents rather than keep going and going and going! If you look and find long enough, you will get more than two conflicts! Lesson learned early on! Hard to believe there were two Alonzo Baileys, each a tailor, living in the same town at the same time born within 5 years of each other but it happened! And I never did find that they were related.

  3. Let me know if you find that time machine. :-) Interesting problem.

  4. Wow. You definitely need a jury to rule on the “weight of the evidence.” At this point, using your own discretion is the very best you can do.

    This conundrum reminds me of the trial scene in “Alice in Wonderland,” at which, if I remember correctly, the jury added up all the conflicting evidence, took the average, and reduced the answer to shillings and pence. Or something like that.

    So your great-grandfather was one of the guards of the convict labor on a sugar plantation. That must have been very stressful.

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