When I was a child I often heard it said that the Roberts’ were God’s Chosen People. I don’t know who the originator of the statement was, but that conclusion was drawn, in jest of course, from Deuteronomy 14:2 where it is said of the Children of Israel: “For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto Himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth” (KJV). No one, the saying goes, is more peculiar than a Roberts.
From the things I heard as I grew up, I never knew exactly how to feel about my Roberts heritage. Should I be proud of it, should I take it as a joke, or should I simply try to ignore the fact that I was one of them? I leaned toward the first option, in part because my mother tried to instill in us the value of independent thinking, just as her Roberts mother had taught her. Independent thinking can often be associated with stubbornness and determination and sometimes standing alone rather than following the crowd. All these are Roberts traits.
The most authentic Roberts relative I knew as a child was my mother’s Uncle Tom. He was the last survivor of Grandma Sabory’s siblings. He and Aunt Laura lived on the original Roberts homestead in the shadow of Bald Rock, a huge granite outcropping on the side of a mountain in Roberts Cove in Grayson County, Virginia. Our parents occasionally took us to visit them. My Dad liked to visit Uncle Tom and had great admiration for him. After a visit, he would talk about him for days. Dad was impressed by his persistence and his industriousness. Though an old man at that time, he was still farming, even though he had to work the fields leaning on a cane. One year, after the wheat threshing was completed, Dad related that Uncle Tom had the highest yield per acre of any farmer in the area. To Dad that was the equivalent of winning a farming trophy.
I recently received an article about the Roberts’ that set me to studying all that I could find about them. Who were they? Where did they come from? What made them stand out from all the other settlers in that part of southwest Virginia? Some stories about them are legends I’m sure. I will relate here what I believe to be true.
The first to settle in Roberts Cove was William Roberts with his wife, Lydia Lewis, and their family. William was the son of John Roberts, who migrated from Brightfield Town, County Cork, Ireland. John settled in Surry County, North Carolina. William found the Bald Rock while on a hunting trip and he liked the area. He applied for a homestead grant and settled there with his family in the early 1780’s.
The area that came to be known locally as Roberts Cove is remote even today. It is accessible by only one road that goes from the Central Community, past the Bald Rock Methodist Church and winds through the Cove. Modern houses now stand on some of the original farm sites. The road crosses Bald Rock Ridge and emerges on the other side in the Comers Rock Community. The top of Bald Rock Ridge was an extensive flat open meadow the last time I visited it. One could find unusual rock formations there as well as numerous wild native plants. In my childhood, this area was untouched by human activity and it was unbelievably beautiful.
William had four sons. The one who concerns our family was Jonathan, whose son, Daniel Freeland, was Grandma Sabory’s Father. Jonathan was a surveyor, familiar with the land in the Cove. He applied for and received homestead grants for about 1,370 acres between the years 1843-1856. He built his home and raised his family on the land familiar to me as Uncle Tom’s place.
Although the members of the Roberts family were the main inhabitants of the Cove, there were other settlers also, such familiar names as Newland, Long, Parks and Phipps. The people of the Cove were self-sufficient, having their own school and church. The Bald Rock Methodist Church chose to remain a Northern Methodist Church when the split in the denomination occurred during the Civil War. It remained affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church until the Methodist unification in 1939.
The one thing that set the Roberts clan apart from the rest of their world was their reaction to the Civil War. As a child, this was always an enigma to me. Were they Blue, or were they Gray? I grew up thinking that they were Yankees or at least Yankee sympathizers, but it was never clear to me if they really were, and if they were, why? I found answers in the article referred to above. It was written by Ginger Ballard and titled “The War of the Rebellion in Grayson” (2003).
Ms. Ballard wrote a moving account of the Roberts family’s struggle to live according to their beliefs during this national crisis. Jonathan and Matilda Perkins Roberts were the parents of seven sons and three daughters, the oldest of whom was Daniel Freeland, my Great-Grandfather. They were prosperous by the standards of the day and enjoyed living their own lives as they pleased, in the freedom of their peaceful Roberts Cove. But that all changed in 1861 when Grayson County voted in favor of secession from the union. The Roberts of Roberts Cove chose to remain neutral. According to Wiley Winton Roberts (1841-1937), one of the sons, it wasn’t that they thought the north was right and the south was wrong, but that both sides were wrong to be fighting each other. Jonathan Roberts and his family owned no slaves; therefore they had no reason to secede from the union. They had no quarrel with anyone. They just wanted to live their lives in peace.
At the time the war started six of the seven brothers were of age to be drafted into the Confederate army. They attempted to remain neutral for a very trying two years. Confederate soldiers often came looking for them. The family maintained a lookout so that when soldiers came spying, the young men would hide out in the woods. Food would be smuggled into their hiding places when it could be done safely, sometimes by the younger brother, Jarvis, dressed as a girl. It has been said that the women were harassed because they would not tell where the men were. Once Jonathan was arrested and held in an unheated cell in the Independence jail for refusing to divulge information to Confederate soldiers. He suffered frostbite in the ordeal.
After two years of hiding and resisting, it became clear to the brothers that they could no longer remain neutral. After what they had been through, it isn’t surprising that two of the brothers, Elbert and Byrom, went to West Virginia in early 1863 to join the Union forces. A few months later (Daniel) Freeland and Wiley made a pretense of going off to join the Confederate forces, then changed direction and stealthily journeyed at night to Ohio where they tried to join the Union Army. The Union officers were not convinced of their intent and so they sent the two to Kentucky. They were finally able to enlist in the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry. Tradition has it that two other brothers, Arad and David, served as scouts for the Union army and were imprisoned for a time in Richmond.
Freeland and Wiley suffered from disease and exposure during their terms of service and Wiley was injured in the battle of Strawberry Plains, Tennessee, when his horse fell on him. A forced march through the night caused further damage to his leg and hip. He was discharged in September 1865 and was disabled for the rest of his life. Freeland was discharged about the same time because of complications from a case of measles that left him disabled as well. In September of 1864, Byrom was killed in the Battle of Winchester and is buried in the National Cemetery there.
Elbert also died at the hands of the Confederates, but how is not known for sure. It is generally accepted that he was sent with a detachment of thirty soldiers to burn the railroad bridge in Marion, a mission that was extremely dangerous for him because he was close enough to his home that he could have been recognized and executed on the spot. He managed to escape, although most of the thirty were captured. He and another escapee, Ruben Cornett, traveled on foot by night to Johnson City Tennessee, to Cornett’s home. Cornett’s father took them in although he feared repercussions if he was found harboring Union soldiers. Elbert could not communicate with his unit in West Virginia and was, therefore, officially listed as AWOL. He told his situation to the recruiting officer for the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry. The officer could not help him connect with his own unit but authorized him to help with recruiting. After about three months he was discovered, arrested and taken to Taylorsville, where he was allegedly shot.
After the war ended, Elbert’s widow, Julia, applied for the pension due her, but was rejected because of Elbert’s being listed as absent without leave. It took several years and many depositions to convince the authorities that he had been a loyal Union soldier.
The war that they did not believe in continued to exact a heavy toll on the Roberts family even after it ended. Two sons were dead, two sons were disabled, and their father, Jonathan, had a long way to go to recover from the severe economic and financial hardship he was dealt for being the father of Union soldiers in a Confederate state. Wiley and Freeland applied for pensions because of their service-related disabilities but many years passed before they were finally approved. It was as if they had to fight the government they had risked everything to defend. When Wiley finally got the pension, it amounted to only $10.00 per month.
Life in Roberts Cove eventually settled down as the remaining children of Jonathan and Matilda married and raised families. Wiley and Freeland apparently held no grudges against either side. This probably accounts for my not having a clear understanding of their part in the war. Wiley became active in community affairs and served on the Grayson County Board of Supervisors. He was serving in 1908 when the courthouse was built. The historic building still stands and it is now used as a museum. In 1911 the county voted to erect a monument on the courthouse lawn to honor the soldiers of the Confederacy. Wiley was one of the first to make a donation toward the monument. Wiley always referred to the war as “The War of the Rebellion” rather than “The Civil War” because, he said, “there was nothing civil about it.”
My oldest sister, Winifred, tells of going with our Mother to visit Uncle Wiley when he was 95 and she was a high school student. Perhaps Mother wanted her to see first hand a part of the history of our country. Winifred described him as very courteous, alert, and interested in her studies at school. He asked about the other members of the family and spent an hour or so being the perfect gentleman when she would rather have heard stories about his adventurous life.
I don’t remember Grandma Sabory. She died when I was about a year old. As I listened to my parents and others talking about her, I drew my own conclusions. I know that she was tall and rather pretty, with red hair and piercing blue eyes. Her hair color continues to be passed on to fortunate descendants now into the fifth generation.
I imagine Grandma Sabory as a stern, no-nonsense lady, a contrast to her easygoing, often jovial husband, my Grandpa Carey Long. She was a deeply religious church and community leader and a strict parent. She had a strong sense of duty and she was fiercely independent. She was a true descendant of the Roberts’ of Roberts Cove, and I take pride in also being one of them — true red-blooded Irish-Americans.
“The War of the Rebellion in Grayson” by Ginger Ballard, July 2003
“Roberts Cove” by Pat Miles Burris and Anna J. Woods
“Grayson County: A History in Words and Pictures” compiled by
Bettye-Lou Fields, edited by Jene Hughes, Grayson County
Historical Society, Independence VA, 1976
“Roberts Forebears of Roberts Cove” compiled by Earl Roberts,
“Memories of Grayson County, Volume Two” edited by Clevie H.
Wingate, Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Inc., Charleston,
WV for Grayson County Historical Society, Independence, VA,