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Without exception, every member of my family who ever lived can be described with this phrase: “He/she never let the truth interfere with a good story.” Which can make it a wee bit tough to separate the wheat from the chaff in the “facts” handed down in family oral tradition. Sometimes, though, the reason why the story is a story, and not history, can be a story all by itself.

Donald (Dooter) Cottrell, 1930

Case in point: my uncle Donald Harris Cottrell, born 5 March 1930, Midland County, Texas, the seventh child and fourth son of Clay and Opal (Robertson) Cottrell.1 My Cottrell grandparents had lost their first child, daughter Ruth Marie, as a six-month-old,2 but the next five were hale and hearty at the time of the 1930 census, which explains in part why this little boy — nicknamed Dooter — shows up on that census, enumerated 17 April 1930, as “Cottrell, # Six.”3 (Knowing my grandparents, the reason why his name isn’t on that census has nothing to do with concerns over whether he’d survive infancy. More likely, they were still, how shall I put this…, discussing what they wanted to name him.)

Dooter — as you can see, a beautiful baby — in fact did survive infancy, and was a beautiful little boy. And he was just two years and five months old when he died, at home, in Midland, on 12 August 1932.4

My grandparents went on to have five more children; they raised 10 to adulthood in all.5 Nine of those children were still living when my grandmother died in 1995,6 a quarter century after my grandfather’s death.7 And if you had asked those nine surviving children in 1995 what their brother Dooter died from (and I did), you’d have gotten nine at least partially different answers.

One swore up and down he’d died from polio. Another said he’d drowned in a drainage ditch down the road. And some — Dooter’s oldest brothers and sisters, the ones really old enough to remember him — were absolutely convinced that, yes, he’d fallen into that ditch but hadn’t drowned; he’d actually swallowed some farm chemicals mixed into the runoff water and he got sick and died from the chemicals. All of the answers had some elements in common, and all of those folks said they knew what they were saying was true because “Mama told us.” And not one of those answers was right.

Death certificate, Donald Harris Cottrell, 1932

The fact is, Donald “Dooter” Cottrell died of smallpox. It’s right there on his death certificate, and the cause of death was certified by a medical doctor. Now the one thing no medical doctor in 1930 was going to put on a death certificate as the cause of death unless it really WAS the cause of death was a communicable killer like smallpox. Some 50,000 people died of smallpox in 1930,8 and Texas in particular had very strong quarantine laws.9 My grandmother knew the terrors of smallpox first hand. She herself, as a child, had been quarantined with her family in the brand new State of Oklahoma just after her father had homesteaded as a successful bidder in the Big Pasture land sale there.10

You can just picture the scene, now, can’t you? In that tiny farmhouse just inside the city limits, a desperately sick two-year-old and five wide-eyed older children — the oldest barely 12 — looking on, and the mother remembering her own quarantine as a child.

I can hear her, now, can’t you? “No, children, it’s not catching”, she would say. “He’s just sick from that bad water. No, you can’t come visit him now. Just stay in the other room so he can sleep.”

And later perhaps, to the oldest ones, “No, I’d rather you stayed home from school. All you children should stay close by, in case I need your help.”

And later still, perhaps, “No, children. You won’t die. Oh, no. No. No. No.”

Not letting the facts get in the way of a good story, yes. A good story, by a good mother, to protect her children from fear.


  1. Texas Department of Health, death certificate no. 35631, Donald Harris Cottrell (1930); Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin.
  2. Dutton Funeral Home (Iowa Park, Texas), Record of Funeral, Baby Cottrell, 22 February 1918; digital copy privately held by Judy G. Russell. Also, interview with Opal Robertson Cottrell (Kents Store, VA), by granddaughter Bobette Richardson, 1980s; copy of notes privately held by Judy G. Russell.
  3. 1930 U.S. census, Midland County, Texas, Midland City, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 2, p. 247A (stamped), dwelling 287, family 317, # Six Cottrell; digital image, ( : accessed 13 Jan 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 2376. Note that the family is wrongly indexed by Ancestry as “Cathell.”
  4. Texas death certif. no. 35631, Donald Harris Cottrell (1930).
  5. Interview, Opal Robertson Cottrell, 1980s.
  6. Virginia Department of Health, Certificate of Death, state file no. 95-011808, Opal Robertson Cottrell (1995); Division of Vital Records, Richmond.
  7. Virginia Department of Health, Certificate of Death, state file no. 70-026729, Clay Rex Cottrell (1970); Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics, Richmond.
  8. Lawrence K. Altman, William J. Broad and Judith Miller, “Smallpox: The Once and Future Scourge?,” The New York Times, 15 June 1999, online edition ( : accessed 13 Jan 2012).
  9. “Public Health,” Texas State Historical Association, “The Handbook of Texas Online” ( : accessed 13 Jan 2012).
  10. Homestead Proof–Testimony of Claimant, 29 August 1908, Jasper C. Robertson (Tillman County, Oklahoma), cash sale entry, certificate no. 246, Lawton, Oklahoma, Land Office; Land Entry Papers, 1800-1908; Records of the Bureau of Land Management; Record Group 49, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
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