Let's Reminisce: What we owe to our ancestors
By Jerry Lincecum
Mar 12, 2019
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One of my favorite TV programs is the “Finding Your Roots” series, hosted by Professor Henry Louis Gates on KERA.  What I like about the show is that it goes far beyond providing the names and dates of ancestors, enabling his guests to learn some of the life stories of their great-grandparents and earlier generations.  It gives me a profound appreciation for how much we often owe to ancestors whom we know almost nothing about.


For example, one guest on a recent program learned that one of his great-grandparents immigrated to this country from Russia, traveling by himself at the age of 15 and speaking no English at all.  The challenges facing a teen-age boy arriving by boat to a port in New York City and having to figure out how to find a place to live and get a job, without speaking any English, was overwhelming to contemplate.  Many of us have ancestors who had to deal with similar challenges, and if they had not managed to cope, we would not be here.


Another guest had a grandmother whom she and other family members were uncomfortable with because the woman always exaggerated when describing her social standing and accomplishments.  This behavior became understandable when it was shown that when the grandmother’s father immigrated to this country he had to leave the daughter and her mother behind, and they lived for seven years in a state of extreme poverty.  No wonder this woman grew up to feel so insecure that she had a tendency to make exaggerated claims about her social status.


One guest discovered that he had a great-grandfather who initially earned a living by selling pots and pans as an itinerant peddler.  He was known to walk up and down the roads in rural areas with a large sack of merchandise on his back.  Proving to be very successful as a salesman, he went on to establish a hardware business in a growing city and become prosperous.


I am fortunate to have a great-great-great grandfather who loved to write and left behind an autobiography that has taught me a great deal about the challenges facing my early ancestors in this country during the late 18th and the 19th centuries.  Gideon Lincecum wrote that both of his parents were illiterate (like most of their neighbors on the Georgia frontier), and he himself received no schooling before the age of twelve.


Realizing how important literacy was, Gideon read voraciously and taught himself how to practice medicine.  Living among the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes in Mississippi, he observed that botanical remedies used by their medical men were often superior to anything he had learned from books.  Therefore, he apprenticed himself to a Choctaw physician and thereafter limited his practice to botanical medicine, renouncing the strong drugs that too often killed patients.


Today my ancestor’s Herbarium, with over 300 plant specimens, has been preserved in the Center for American History of the University of Texas and given its own webpage to enable medical researchers to study it.  To access it, do a web search for Gideon Lincecum Herbarium.


I am confident that any one of you who could access a detailed family history, like the ones Prof. Gates provides his guests on “Finding Your Roots,” would join me in feeling that we owe a profound debt of gratitude to some of our early ancestors.  If they had not struggled and persisted under trying circumstances, we would not be here.


Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: