Cultivating Character Through Family Stories

By Angela Wittman

For my dear friend Dee Galyon who recently reminded me the importance of keeping our loved ones memories alive and my dad who patiently cultivated a love of family history in me.

My soon to be 80 year-old father called me yesterday and while his reason was to relay some family news, he soon began reminiscing about his years in the Air Force and travels to England and Scotland while in the service. And even though I was right in the middle of preparing dinner, I didn't mind the call or the stories. You see, I love my dad and my earliest memories are of him telling me family stories.

I cannot help but think that the stories of my grandfather and his family helped shape my character. My grandfather was the "black sheep" of his family due to a tragic divorce between his parents and the circumstances of his father's accidental death. My grandfather blamed his mother, (a strong, independent woman), for both the divorce and death of his dad. So, while Grandpa and his mother were distant emotionally, Grandpa and Grandma moved her into their modest home and took care of her in her later years.

Seeing Grandfather's family loyalty, even to those he didn't much like, made an impression on my father who was one of the younger sons in a family of 12 siblings. While others might tell of my grandfather's faults (he was quite head strong and didn't take too kindly to Government intrusion into his family's life or farm) my dad saw the man as a human being who did the best he could in the circumstances he was born into. And I strongly suspect Grandpa's family stories helped shape my dad's character.

So, in honor of Dads everywhere, let me share a bit of the Somers' family story*:

Our story in America began in the mid 1700's when a John Somers came to America and settled in Caswell County, North Carolina. His family was from Warwickshire, England, and my dad is convinced our Somers line originated in Scotland before settling in England.

John must have been an adventurist as well as a Patriot because he was right in the thick of the action during the War for Independence. It's believed he was at Valley Forge with George Washington and he was taken as a prisoner of war during the battle at Williamson's Plantation. ** For his service during the war, he was given 4000 acres in Eastern Tennessee instead of monetary payment. Records show that at John's untimely death he owned 8000 acres in North Carolina where he lived with his wife Catherine Arden Somers and their children. His oldest son is my 3rd Great Grandfather,  John Somers. Jr.

After John Sr.'s death, John Jr. helped settle his estate and left North Carolina for Eastern Tennessee. He married Rebecca Wright and they gave birth to a son named Abraham. Abraham settled in Gainsboro, Jackson County, Tennessee with his wife Dorcas, who I suspect was Cherokee. My Great Grandfather, Henry Francis was their 5th child and born in 1860 approximately one year before Tennessee seceded from the Union.

Little is known of Henry's childhood except two of his older brothers fought in the War for the Union. I'm certain the circumstances and timing of his birth helped shape him into the man God used for His Glory as a "circuit rider" or traveling evangelist for the Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri boot heel area. 

Family stories are told of how much his family and step children loved him and looked forward to his visits home to the family farm near Stringtown, Mo. It was said Great Grandma Cotney would celebrate as though it were Christmas and they would feast including roasting a hog for his homecoming, while enjoying stories Great Grandfather shared of his family and travels.

I can imagine my Grandfather, (William Henry, the oldest son of Henry and Cotney), sitting near his father and listening with rapt attention as his dad related stories of being Cherokee and having to hide one's identity to avoid persecution and the family members who traveled on the Trail of Tears. It's said there was a set of twins who were orphaned and a white family took them in and raised them as their own. Then there was the story of two brothers who differed on theology so much, one even changed his last name from Sommers to Somers.

I know these stories influenced Grandfather's character - he was a man's man and from what I've read of the Cherokee culture, he lived it with my dear Grandmother Lillian and their 12 children; he was fiercely independent, knew how to hunt and trap his own food and wouldn't take a dime of Government money, nor tolerate their imposing some foolish rule on how much cotton he could grow on his own land, mind you! Dad tells the story of a Government official coming out to the farm during WWII and checking Grandpa's crops. It seems he had planted a few rows of too much cotton which was already in bloom and wanted Grandpa to destroy it. Grandpa pulled out his shotgun and the government agent took off lickity-split never to darken the Somers' doorway again! Grandma was afraid they would put Grandpa in jail, but they didn't.

Now, dear friends, if you are in Christ you also have a treasure trove of family stories to share. Let's not forget the stories of valiant men and women, who though imperfect, were used mightily for God's Glory. Hebrews, chapter 11 is a good place for you to start learning your family His-Story in order to tell character building stories to the next generation.

May the good Lord bless His people as they tell their children and grandchildren of their rich Christian heritage found in Holy Scripture. In Lord Jesus' Name I pray, amen.

* Much of this is oral tradition and while I haven't been able to document all, I trust that the stories told to me are based upon fact, even though some details are missing or faded by memory.

**Capt. John Somers (or Summers) fought at the battle at Williamson's Plantation where it is believed he was captured and held as a POW.


  1. Please know I have a treasure trove of family stories and plan to share more as time and memory permit. :)


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