Looking Back

In bygone days, when life was simpler, joy and happiness were found closest to the home and family.  Home dwellings were usually small and families large - ideally as large as the surrounding land and the need to work it.  When the sun went down and the workday abated, lamps were lit and parents told stories to their children.  They dressed in whatever was comfortable for the season and, of course, winter time meant tending the fire constantly for warmth.  If one could read, then the Bible was opened and favorite stories of faith were recited.  Indeed, the heart of American culture was found in the humble surroundings of little family rooms scattered across the frontier.

Family stories were surely passed down of preceding generations.  Stories of honorable people who carried on with the ordinary, daily tasks of raising families and civic duty.  Stories of people who rose to high ranks in their communities.  Stories of special names bestowed on children to honor others who were held in high esteem.  Stories of crop failures, gunslingers, Indians, horses, religious revivals, courtships and friendships.  Certainly, if these stories were told, they were told with dignity, pride and perhaps a bit of reverence.  Alas, if only some of these stories were written, they could inspire later generations...

Biggs Families

John Henry Biggs was born March 12, 1856 into the family of Henry H. & Sarah (Roberts[1]) Biggs in east Texas.  John was a first generation Texan and a ninth generation American - roots in America don't grow much deeper.  John's grandparents, Asa and Winifred (Wilson) Biggs, were from Martin County, North Carolina, the stomping grounds of many Biggs generations.  As a young family, Asa and Winifred left North Carolina for Tennessee, where John's father, Henry, was born and raised.

Over 200 years earlier, Asa's 4th great grandfather, Richard Biggs immigrated to America.  He may have been an "Ancient Planter"[2]"Ancient Planters" were English colonists who arrived in Virginia before the Mayflower and worked off their debt of passage by farming and planting.  Many of these colonists were slain in the Jamestown Massacre of 1622, so, to be counted as a descendant of the survivors today is a great honor.

Asa was a clergyman of the Regular Baptist faith[3], professing the Predestinarian doctrine.  He, Winifred, and others chartered the Saline Creek Baptist Church in Stewart County, Tennessee in 1810.  Early church minutes say that Asa was "possessed of gifts"[4].  His children were likely raised and taught in congregations that he ministered.  Then, sometime in the late 1830's, the family started moving out of Tennessee.  Asa, Winifred and most (if not all) of their children[5] relocated to the new Republic of Texas.  They arrived to find a Baptist church was already established in East Texas.  A gentleman named Elder William Brittain was one of its founders.

Initially, Asa and some of his children settled in the Shelby and Rusk County areas, but at least one went as far south as Austin.  Later, the family would spread out to other parts of Texas.  While other unrelated (or distantly related) Biggs families can be found throughout Texas, Asa and his descendants were among the first to arrive and constituted the largest block of Biggs families in Texas at the time.  In general, East Texas was settled in the early 19th century by people from Tennessee and as they arrived, they brought Southern culture, farming practices and slaves with them.  Slaves were present on the Biggs farms in both Tennessee and Texas[6].  Preceding the Biggs arrival, East Texas and West Louisiana contained a lawless strip of land known as the Sabine Free State where neither the U.S., France nor Spain could effectively govern.  Consequently, this area attracted anarchy and trouble.

The effects of this anarchy grew into a local war known as the Regulator-Moderator War.  Shelby County was the center of this conflict between 1839 and 1844 which was exactly the timeframe of the Biggs arrival.  Whether our Biggs families took sides, or had an opinion at all, is not known.  The Texas Republic sent a militia of 500 men to quell the conflict, but its efforts were ineffective and even its leader was captured.  Then, Sam Houston himself rode in from Austin to negotiate with the disputing factions.  He succeeded, but opposing sides continued feuding for years, even after the “formal” end.

Tumult escalated in 1846 when Texas was annexed by the U.S. Government and resulted in the war with Mexico.  Henry and his brother William both served in the Mexican-American war[7] and were part of the 2nd Texas mounted volunteers.  They left Shelby county in May 1846 for a six month assignment, but two months later, Henry was discharged for disability in Point Isabel, on the mouth of the Rio Grande.  Even as the war continued, Henry returned home to Shelbyville (the county seat of Shelby County at the time) and began a family.  The first was born in 1847 - her name was Willy.

Willy's birth undoubtedly brought joy to the Biggs household, but that joy was tempered due to an awful crime committed close by in Hamilton (just a few miles from Shelbyville).  Probably a carry-over from the Regulator-Moderator War, the infamous "poisoned wedding" of 1847 killed upwards of 40 guests at a wedding party.  Elder William Brittain lost several members of his own family in that tragic event.  Some believe he even officiated at that wedding.

The years rolled on and Henry and Sarah's family grew with the arrival of more girls - Mary and Eliza who came in 1850 and  1852 respectively.  In 1854, the first boy was born.  Family records say his name was Edward.  But Edward "...died early..."[8]. John was next in order, born in 1856[9].  Sarah came last in 1858.  Sarah was probably named after her mother, but her familiar name was Sally.  With 11 years separating oldest from youngest, Willy probably helped her mother raise Sally.  But in not too many years hence, Sally's relationship to Willy would be significantly redefined.

At this time, the Lincoln/Douglass debates were beginning and Texas was soon to secede from the Union over the issue of slavery.  Shelby County's white citizens overwhelmingly supported the secession movement and the voting measure was approved by a margin of 333 to 28.  Henry was the only Biggs of the family to cast a vote in Shelby County.  Asa and Wilson had moved their families away to Rusk County by then.  Henry and his family would stay in Shelbyville for just a few more years.

In 1862, Willy married Thomas "River Tom" Brittain.  She was only 15 years old, but 19th century farm culture was different in those days.  Having children early and raising them quickly was beneficial to home and farm production.  The marriage was probably cause for high celebration in the Biggs family because the Brittains were prominent citizens of the area - Thomas was Elder William Brittain's grandson.  Sadly, the honeymoon didn't last long because the Civil war had started and needed soldiers right away.  Thomas served in the Confederate cavalry for 3 years, from the spring of 1862 to Lee's surrender.

The Civil War's calamity was felt throughout America, including Texas.  It often split families and pitted neighbors against each other.  Women and children suffered greatly as husbands, fathers and brothers left home to serve.  As news trickled in from the battle lines, silent prayers probably pounded in each heart as names of the fallen were read.  Sarah was more fortunate because Henry didn't serve in the war.  But Henry's brother, Benjamin, did serve and likely occupied a place in their thoughts and prayers.  Sometime during or after the war, Henry and Sarah said good-bye to Shelbyville.  Unlike the rest of the family that moved around within Texas, they moved their family east to Cloutierville, Louisiana[10].

The Herrings

Although not "Ancient Planters", the Herrings came from England to the Virginia Colony in the 1600's.  They next settled in Duplin County, North Carolina for many generations and spread out from there.  A large number of Herrings moved to Illinois in the 1830's and some of the first to arrive were David Herrin and Sarah Herring.  These two people with similar surnames married and settled in southern IllinoisEventually, more Herrings and Herrins moved into the area and the region became known as Herrin's Prairie.  Today, the town of Herrin, Illinois has about 11,000 people and traces its beginnings to these earliest settlers.

Mattie's grandfather, Isaac Herring, may have followed this migration, however he settled farther north in Greene County, where he met and married Nicey Hearn in 1839.  Their first two boys, named Joseph and Daniel, were born in Greene County.  Curiously, there was another Herring family living in adjacent Scott County and they shared some interesting similarities: the family's head was also named Isaac and he hailed from North Carolina as well.  Its also remarkable that both families arrived and left Western Illinois about the same time.

1839-1845 were the years Western Illinois became host to an historical event.  These were the years the Mormons arrived and built Nauvoo, a city that (in its day) almost surpassed Chicago in size and influence.  The Mormons arrived as refugees, driven out of Missouri by executive order.  They collected on the swampy banks of the Mississippi River where they built their new home.  The Scott County Herrings were devoted followers of Joseph Smith and they followed the Mormons from Missouri to Illinois and ultimately to Utah.  They even named one of their sons Joseph Smith Herring.  Today, it is not known if Isaac and Nicey were sympathetic with the Mormons nor if they were acquainted with the Scott County Herrings.

But all was not well between the Mormons and the locals.  Their sudden influx into Illinois tilted the socio-political landscape too quickly.  Social unrest increased sharply and soon the region became polarized.  Ultimately, the Mormons were driven out in 1846 and began their epic trek westward into what would become Utah territory.  How deeply were Isaac & Nicey affected by these events?  Did they take up sides, or did they manage to stay out of the way?  All that is known is they relocated south to the Dallas area of Texas.  Isaac acquired 625 acres of land, surrounding Rowlett Creek[11] about 11 ½ miles South of McKinney in “Peters Colony”[12].

Before white settlers arrived to the Rowlett area, Caddo and Comanche Indians inhabited the region.  The Indian tribes migrated westward as the early settlers entered the area and were eventually removed to the Indian Territory, north of the Red River.  But distrust between settlers and Indians resulted in conflicts and constant danger.  In 1844, somewhere on, or near the Herring's property, Indians (most likely Comanche) ambushed and massacred a number of people along Rowlett Creek.  An historic marker stands today as a silent reminder of the vicissitudes of pioneer life.

Isaac and Nicey added 5 more children to their family in the years leading up to the Civil War.  As Texas geared for war, duty and social pressure were undoubtedly brought to bear on all young men to don gray uniforms and take up arms.  Although Joseph and Daniel were eligible by age, neither enlisted nor fought in the war.  This may have presented some practical difficulties because, living in the South, but hailing from Illinois (the "Land of Lincoln"), their loyalties were probably tested.  Were those loyalties in harmony with their neighbor Texans?

In 1863, the mood of the South was grim as the Confederates were defeated at the Battle of Gettysburg.  But this was also the year that Joseph Herring married Catherine Thomas.  To be sure, they were focused on happier thoughts, but their joy was not shared by everyone.  Catherine’s father, John Thomas, obviously had different feelings because 5 weeks after their wedding day, Joseph petitioned the state of Texas for protection against his father-in-law[13].  Were the Herrings still regarded as "Northerners"?  Or did religion have anything to do with it?[14]  In any case, Joseph & Catherine put some distance between themselves and their family homesteads.  They moved about 50 miles east to Black Jack Grove in Hopkins County.

Black Jack Grove had a reputation as a tough frontier town, where miscreants gathered and violent fights were common.  On Christmas Day 1866 a gun battle over a horse race resulted in the death of five men.  During the Civil War men from Black Jack Grove were fiercely effective and at the battle of Elkhorn, were the first to plant their flag on the Union battery.  Later, in 1886, steps were taken to clean up the town's tough image, and in the process, Black Jack Grove was renamed to Cumby (after Robert H. Cumby, friend of a local congressman).

Born on September 15, 1869, Martha Jane Herring was the 3rd of Joseph's 8 children.  She might have been named after her father's younger sister, but she went by Mattie.  If Mattie had a favorite brother, younger Joseph (Junior) would qualify.  A photo of Joseph's children (Mattie’s nephews and niece) has a hand-written comment on back saying “grandma Biggs family in East Texas”.  One of those nephews is Charles E. Herring.  Charles would later write a comprehensive family history of his Herring line that became published.  The title is "Herring Families" and it may be found today in libraries that have genealogical resources.

Changing Times

Meanwhile in Louisiana, the Biggs children are growing up.  John is a teenager and is also known as Jack (or Jackson as stated in the 1870 census).  His nieces and nephews call him “uncle Jack"[15].  In 1870, Mary met and married Charles Dowden.  Sometime before 1877, the Dowdens relocated to Texas and by 1880, they were living in Palo Pinto County (west of Dallas).  John followed the Dowdens and boarded with them, working on the railroad.  The Dowden's first child, Jeneva,  was probably a favored niece because John would later have a granddaughter born in 1923 named Geneva[16].

Sometime between 1877 and 1880, Willy died, leaving 6 children under the age of 15. Sally's grief over her sister's death was compounded over thoughts of the children, some of whom were not much younger than her.  Those feelings were probably still tender when Tom Brittain suddenly appeared at the Biggs doorstep in Louisiana.  His long ride on horseback[17] from Texas to Louisiana was not a trivial journey - he was on a mission...to marry Sally!  Sally Biggs quickly became Sally Brittain and instantly became step-mother of Willy's 6 children, thrusting her into mature roles beyond her years.  In time, she bore 6 more of her own.  Today, there are many Brittain descendants that share common genes with the Biggs family because of this unusual situation.

By 1880, Henry & Sarah's family was completely dispersed.  Willy and Edward had passed away, Sally was married and living in east Texas while John was single and living with his sister Mary in Palo Pinto County.  At this point, Eliza’s whereabouts are not known.  If she married, she assumed her new surname and moved on without trace.  Also, Henry and Sarah themselves are not traceable after 1870. Sarah probably died in Louisiana sometime before 1877 and it is not certain where or when Henry died[18].

These were important years for Texas and the nation as a whole.  Post war Reconstruction was fueled by the installation of railroad lines, connecting cities of commerce to remote areas of the west.  By 1880, the Texas and Pacific (T&P) Railway had reached Palo Pinto county, tying the area to national markets and encouraging farming and further settlement.  Pastoral Palo Pinto immediately tripled its number of farms and cotton overtook corn as its most important cash crop.

John drew his paycheck from the T&P Railway company at this time.  He was part of a 300 man work crew.  These men were a rough and rowdy bunch who lived under primitive conditions[19].  They laid up to 12 miles of track per week through thick brush and trees while trying to avoid unfriendly Indians.  Herds of cattle traveled with the company and kept them well fed all along the way .  Their wage was $1.75 a day (fabulous earnings in 1880) but living and working daily in the wilderness afforded no convenient places to spend their hard-earned money.  With very little entertainment and pleasure, they either saved their earnings or squandered them away in games of poker.

A family story says that John served as an Indian scout for George A. Custer.  The likelihood seems small considering that John was too young when Custer served in Texas.  And by the time John was old enough, Custer was serving in the Northern Plains where he met his ill-fated "last stand".  However Custer's reputation was gained by protecting government interests from Indians, including railroad work crews.  If John really was an Indian scout, he likely scouted for the railroad as construction pushed through the untamed frontier.

John followed the methodical march of construction as the T&P Railroad expanded westward to meet a concurrent project from California.  As it reached Taylor county in 1881, the railroad began promoting Abilene as the "Future Great City of West Texas."  Auctioning of town space for new businesses began immediately.  Presumably, John accumulated sufficient money to open a business, so he left the railroad and opened a saloon.  It was located strategically - facing the main railway depot[20] where hot, weary travelers would step off the train and seek refreshment.  Cattle drives also passed through the Abilene area frequently and attracted the attention of opportunists, both legal and otherwise.  Indeed, the entire swath of country from Dodge City to the Mexican border bred numerous Western legends and characters including Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp.  Family lore insists that one such famous gunslinger passed through John's saloon, but falls short of mentioning who he was.

Here in Abilene, John fell in love with Mary Tipton.  Not much is known about their short relationship[21] because Mary lost her life bearing their first child and tragically, the baby died too[22].  Both were buried just above North 7th street in unmarked graves.  The funeral was probably well attended by members of the Tipton family, but John had no close kin in Abilene to comfort him.  How deeply John felt about this loss was manifest years later when he traveled back to Abilene to revisit his old town.  After arriving, feelings re-surfaced and he abruptly decided not to visit the cemetery.

The year of Mary's death was 1886 and John was 30 years old.  By now, the family name fell squarely on his shoulders alone.  A cousin named Robert Alexander Biggs lived just east in Erath County.  He was a "hard-shell" Baptist preacher, the son of Benjamin Franklin Biggs, of Collin County.  Just like Henry and Asa, Benjamin also passed through the Shelby and Rusk County area.  Benjamin moved on to Collin County around 1861 and settled in just north of the Herrings.  This close proximity suggests that the Biggs and Herring families became acquainted - an arrangement that would play into John's favor many years later.

If John & Robert were acquainted, its likely that they caught up with each other in 1880 as the railroad cut through Erath.  In 1881, its possible they saw each other when Robert lost his first wife and re-married.  Did John support the funeral or the wedding with his attendance?  And when Mary died, did Robert reciprocate and visit his cousin during John's time of grief?  Was Robert the caring cousin that also tendered an invitation to go back east and seek his family in Collin County?  With or without the invitation, that's exactly what John did; he left Abilene and went to Collin County in the Dallas area, just a little south of McKinney.

A New Biggs Family

The timeline of events from Taylor to Collin County suggests the year was 1887.  John was 31 years old, out of work and down on his luck.  Regrouping with family just might help to find strength and begin again...or perhaps, Robert had dropped a hint about a pretty, young Herring girl in the area.  We may never know exactly how it unfolded, but on April 2, 1888, 32 year old John married 18 year old Mattie Herring in McKinney.  Fortunately for us today, a portrait was created of the couple.  This is the only image that tells of what they looked like in their younger days.  Their first children were: Acy (probably named after John’s grandfather, Asa), Anna, and Walter Their first home was probably in Princeton, just outside of McKinney because family records indicate that Anna was born there.

In 1893, Oklahoma Territory's most significant “land run” was sweeping the area up north. All a homesteader needed to do was make a claim to a U.S. district land office to legitimize their land deal.  John & Mattie moved their young family north to Lexington, Oklahoma during this time.  They were part of the throng of thousands moving to Oklahoma.  John needed a career change now to take care of his growing family.  He turned to farming, the profession that sustained so many generations before him.  He farmed all kinds of things, but mainly cotton[23].  The next 6 children, Mollie, Claude, Guy, Phoebe, Johnny and Ruth were all born in Noble, Oklahoma Territory.  The last two, Nadeen and Gabe, have the distinction of being born in the “official” state of Oklahoma[24].

Much time passes now as John & Mattie’s children grow up and marry off.  The two oldest boys, Acy & Walter continued the family farming tradition and established farms of their own.  Tragically, Acy had an accident that left him crippled in 1925.  While working on the farm, a heavy wagon fell on him, broke his back and left him paraplegic.  He was 37 years old with a wife, 3 small boys and 160 acres to take care of.  Most men would have resigned all their dreams of success.  Instead, Acy built a unique cart that he hitched to his horse and carried on with his farm duties.  Although he sold off some property and equipment , he never backed down on his most important goals.  All his sons went on to successful careers (one sustained through college), he paid off the farm, never went into debt and never accepted monetary help.  The Daily Oklahoman wrote a multi-page article about his courageous life in 1949.  Naturally, some heroes come in pairs and Cassie was Acy's faithful source of strength throughout their married lives.

Walter William Biggs was a baby when John & Mattie left Texas.  For a long time, he didn't know he was born in Texas because Oklahoma was all he knew.  When he was 26 years old, he met and married 15 year old Effie Mae Cable who was literally born on the trail between Texas and Oklahoma in a covered wagon.  Her birth certificate had to be created after arrival and so it was done.  Norman, Oklahoma became Effie's official (albeit incorrect) birthplace.  Walter & Effie didn't have children until 10 years later and they were blessed with a daughter, Gearldine.  Only one more child came who they named Edwin but he died in infancy.

Jewell, the daughter of Henry and Anna Lee Biggs Huffman, was John & Mattie's first grandchild in 1910.  She was likely the recipient of much doting and attention.  Her birthday came two days after her uncle Gabe, which meant her mother Anna and grandmother Mattie were pregnant at the same time and almost gave birth on the same day.  Anna was not only the first to marry and have children, but the first to move out of Oklahoma.  The Huffmans moved to Wilmington, California in 1922 where they raised Jewell, and sons, Floyd and Orval.  Jewell grew up quickly and married George Cassell on her 17th birthday.  They had two children and named them after themselves - Jewell and George.  When Jewell (the younger) was born, Anna (who also married at 17) became a grandmother at 37 years of age and Mattie became a great-grandmother at 58.

After all the Huffman children grew up and moved out, Henry and Anna relocated to Beaumont, about 80 miles east of Los Angeles towards the desert.  Anna loved Beaumont so much that she once declared she "would not live in any other place".  Henry owned and operated gas stations to take care of his family.  Unfortunately, he died early (57 years old) and Anna remarried in 1948 to Robert Senter.  Right about this time, US Army General and war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower was rising in political prominence.  After his election to the office of President, Anna became aware that they shared the same birthday.  So, as was common in her day, she sent a birthday wish to the President of the United States.  Days later, she was surprised to receive a personal response from the White House!  Not only were Anna and the President born on the same day and year, but also in the same state of Texas just 40 miles away from each other!

John & Mattie's 5th child Claude, enlisted in the army during WW1, but the war ended before he was deployed.  He had a creative talent and expressed it frequently by carving wooden toys and knick-knacks, almost always with crude tools that he fabricated himself.  Today, many of these adorn the shelves of his children's homes.  When he was 24, Claude married Lillie Ann Hurt and fathered 10 children, more than any of his siblings by far.  Claude's brother, Guy, married Lillie's sister, Grace - that's 2 Biggs brothers who married 2 Hurt sisters.  The Hurts were a family of taller and larger people (unlike the Biggs).  Consequently, many of Claude's and Guy's offspring were bigger than their cousins.

The 1930's were tough times.  The United States was struggling to climb out of its worst economic depression in history and if things weren't bad enough, the Midwest was worse.  Years of drought, coupled with overuse of the land produced an ecological disaster known today as the "dust bowl".  Only a few years earlier, Oklahoma was a beacon of opportunity and masses migrated there.  But during the 1930's, Oklahoma's population fell 15% and the term "Okie" became an epithet to describe any person who fled the area (whether he actually came from Oklahoma or not).  Route 66 became the popular path of choice to the "Golden State" of California.  Right out of a Steinbeck novel, most of John & Mattie's children relocated to the Los Angeles area except for Acy's and Walter's families who remained in Oklahoma.

Keeping contact with loved ones in faraway places was quickly becoming a dilemma.  John and Mattie's sibling families were in the South but their children and grandchildren were flocking West.  Driving wasn't an option because John either didn't own a car or didn't know how to drive.  So he hitch-hiked.  Had this been an isolated event, Mattie might have been less concerned when John disappeared the first time.  But his solo adventures repeated.  He was hit by cars several times and once, he landed in the hospital.  After one of his travels, John arrived home to find that Mattie’s bed was not welcome to him[25].  After much pleading and penance, Mattie finally softened and forgave him.  Whether this incident cured him of his "itch" to "hitch" is not known, but his love for family was never held in question!

In 1939, Germany was invading Poland when John and Mattie decided to move to California.  John & Mattie moved to 1321 Carson Street in Torrance.  This residence placed them close to many of their children and their growing flock of California grandchildren.  This also afforded time for candid encounters.  Granddaughter Norma, remembers that John "liked a little coffee in his sugar".  In fact, the sugar was poured so "you could almost stand a spoon up" in it.  Granddaughter Geneva, attended Torrance High School during this time and remembers John to be a happy person.  She told of how he would walk up and down Carson street just to greet her when she walked home from school.  He would jokingly feign walking like a crippled, old man just to get laughs from her.  But quite to the contrary, John and Mattie were very mobile and walked everywhere in Torrance.  They never needed to get into a car if their destination was within a few miles - they would always walk.

Johnny & Mabel Biggs lived on 229th street in Torrance where they raised their 2 girls during WW2.  Johnny worked in the oil refineries close by and tended a Victory Garden[26].  Victory Gardens gave American citizens a morale boost and a practical means to help the Allied soldiers. The idea was to grow vegetables and fruits, be self-sufficient and free up resources to the troops overseas.  Johnny and Mabel planted and took care of a 5 acre plot.  While Axis powers struggled to feed their troops, the Allied soldiers were well fed thanks to the sacrifices of patriotic Americans who planted Victory Gardens.  At the same time, the war with Japan led to the detention of many people of Asian descent in California.  Older daughter, Norma, had a best friend in high school who was Japanese-American.  One day, her friend didn't show up to school.  Sadly, Norma was informed that she was taken to a detention facility, along with many others and she never saw her friend again.  In 1949, Johnny & Mabel relocated to 221st street.

Gabe Biggs was John & Mattie's eleventh and last child.  Some say he was their favorite.  By the time he was 20, Gabe was living in Los Angeles with his sister, Ruth (who was married to Floyd Tucker and had a young daughter, Noryne).  He married Alta Mae Hickson and they were a very handsome couple, but many years passed and they never had children.  Nevertheless, they noticed and gave special attention to a poor, young unwed mother and her son living next door.  Discarding traditional definitions of family, Gabe and Alta Mae took them under their wing, providing parental nurture and love.  This woman eventually secured her own independence, married and moved to Tucson, Arizona with her son. The son grew up, married and had a son of his own whom he named Gabe - in honor of the man that blessed their lives. Then, in their twilight years, Gabe and Alta Mae also relocated to Tucson and spent their remaining years there.

The California years for John and Mattie were often spent visiting Mabel Biggs and Ted Parr[27].  It wasn't long before John’s health started to wane in 1942. Dr John Beeman certified John's medical care to the day of his death, Apr 2, 1943[28].  Mattie's grief had to be punctuated with irony - it was the day of their 55th wedding anniversary.  Little attention was given to the headlines of a new Broadway hit named "Oklahoma" which debuted just 2 days earlier.  After John died, Gabe sold the Torrance house on Carson street, so Ted and Mabel traded off caring for Mattie.  Mattie eventually became ill and died March 26, 1950.  John and Mattie each died in Ted’s house on 1725 Greenwood Street in Torrance.  Both were buried side-by-side in Inglewood Cemetery, near the Manchester Blvd. entrance, across the street from the “Great Western Forum” (the former home of the Lakers Basketball team).  They were survived by eleven loving children and many grandchildren.

Looking Forward

Both John and Mattie were physically short - about 5 feet tall[29].  It seems a bit incongruent that people named Biggs should be so short!  However, their contribution to the Biggs legacy is not.  At last count, John & Mattie have over 230 direct descendants (not counting spouses).  Three of their children, Acy, Claude & Phoebe (Ted), are responsible for 70 % of that number.  Gabe and Nadeen never had children and all the others had smaller families.  California and Oklahoma are still the biggest family centers, but there are growing numbers in Colorado, Oregon, Texas and other places.

Obviously, great wealth and social position were not ours to inherit.  Instead, healthy long lives, a strong work ethic and common sense.  These have served us well!  With a strong farming and religious heritage, one might think we are all farmers and attend church on Sundays.  The truth is while there are a few farmers, most of us are common white and blue collar workers.  And on Sundays, many of us will be found in church, but the settings and attitudes have changed dramatically from what Asa knew.  Regardless of career or religious affiliation, all of us are "good people", contributors to society, loving parents, hard workers, volunteers and givers to charity, independent and patriotic.

Unfortunately, descendants of John & Mattie's children don't know each other very well today.  High level get-togethers have not been held to preserve the extended-family feeling over the years.  Busy 21st century pace doesn't help either as it succeeds in robbing our time and attention away.  But, despite our dimming view into the past, there are many who desire to re-connect.  Of John & Mattie's 34 grandchildren, 19 are alive today.  They are curious about their long-lost cousins and one-by-one, many are making contact with each other.

So what's to become of this Biggs family whose history lies scratched in the dark red furrows of mid-west soil?  They say that apples don't fall very far from the tree.  So, we need look no further than our own lives to discover something of our fore-bearers inside us.  The character and values of past generations lingers and not only touches our lives but gently shapes the future.  We are inextricably connected across generations.  There is no question that we will carry on with strength and tenacity passed on to us.  The only question remaining then is:

What shall we pass on to future generations...?

 

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Acknowledgements

The Biggs and Herring stories told here are only fragments of a larger picture, so the absent portions beg to be revealed.  How well did John know his older brother Edward?  Why didn't Joseph Herring and his father-in-law get along?  What happened to Henry and Sarah after 1870?  Fortunately, the pool of collective memory is deep enough to put this much together.  We can be thankful to many who preserved these stories in one form or another.

Mabel Beatrice White Biggs (1910-1997) was the unofficial “family record keeper” for many years and passed on much priceless information that was used in this story.  Taking care of John & Mattie in their last years, Mabel enjoyed many opportunities to hear their stories.  She also wrote many things in her family Bible, which not only contain the data of the Biggs lines, but of her White lines as well.  They are all written in Mabel's beautiful, clear handwriting.  The Bible was passed down to her granddaughter Deborah who holds it today.  Without Mabel’s contributions, many important events of the family might have been lost forever.  Her diligence in record-keeping was only surpassed by her love for family and compassion for the less-fortunate.  Mabel was married to Johnny Biggs, John & Mattie’s 8th child.

Glenda Grange had already gathered much family information when we crossed paths in 2003 doing online queries of the Biggs surname.  What a pleasant surprise to meet a 2nd cousin in such a way!  Glenda was generous to share all her pictures, stories and data.  Many of these were passed down to her from her mother, Gearldine, granddaughter of John & Mattie through Walter.  Others from Oklahoma were Gregg Biggs who shared pictures and stories passed to him from his father, Roy Dee Biggs, grandson of John & Mattie through Acy.  Similarly, Sheldon from his father Floyd Biggs and Chester from his father Chester Earsal Biggs (also through Acy).  These wonderful people combined to provide the rich mid-west angle of our family history.

Jewell (Huffman) Cassell, Geneva (Parr) Wickham, Noryne (Tucker) Lipske, LaDean (Biggs) Gray and Norma (Biggs) Newkirk were most helpful in relating early California experiences and are the sweetest people to be called cousins!  Granddaughters of John & Mattie through Anna, Ted, Ruth and Johnny, they remember vivid personal experiences of growing up under the eye and watch-care of their grandparents.  As living witnesses of a bygone era, their stories of past events are not only endearing, but invaluable to younger generations.  Lester Biggs was kind to provide photo-access to his large collection of carvings that he collected from his father, Claude.  Sandy Stewart (granddaughter of Ted and Cecil Parr) is the author of a website that merges the Parr and Biggs lines.  She has generously shared pictures and valuable insight that are used here.

By far, the greatest reward has been meeting cousins for the first time.  However, going outside the safe circle of 1st-cousins can be a real adventure!  These not-so-distant cousins are people that one wouldn't normally get to know nor meet in a lifetime.  During the first contact there is the explanation, the perplexed look, a pause, then "ohhhh....I see...you're related to so-and-so!"  (...what fun I've had with that!!!)  Then, we sit down and talk, and all of a sudden, life is enlarged...there is wonder and discovery as we look over pictures and tell stories.  Meeting with so many wonderful people has been a confirmation of sorts that we come from the finest stock.

And that's a good segue into the last acknowledgement - it goes to everyone!  Everyone has been so supportive - not just politely interested, but genuine and encouraging.  I have new life-long friends and my family circle is expanding.  My hope is that the feelings are mutual (it would be a shame to keep all this to myself!).  Seriously, the process to lay claim on these blessings is simple.  It begins with picking up the phone and calling an uncle or cousin that we haven't seen for a while.  The rest unfolds naturally.  There is no risk that outweighs the rewards.  If John & Mattie were here today, they might sadden at how their posterity drifted apart.  But John would smile to know that we risked getting to know each other - without hitch-hiking across America!

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Footnotes

[1] Sarah's first name and middle initial "E" are well documented.  Her maiden name "Roberts" is stated in John's death certificate, but unfortunately, there are several inaccuracies and/or guesses in the informant section.  Finding inaccurate data on such a document breaks down confidence in the information it is trying to convey.  In my opinion, the Roberts maiden name is not 100% certain.  Adding confusion, a search through Texas marriages in the 1800's does show a Roberts bride marrying a Biggs groom.  Her name was Sarah E. Roberts (that would be it!) that married W.H. Biggs (not quite right!) in 1876 (darn!...not close at all!)

[2] Today, the "Order of Descendants of Ancient Planters" is a society whose members can prove descent from the names listed at the following website: http://www.ancientplanters.org/about.htm    There are recent indications that more than one person named Richard Biggs immigrated in this timeframe, however, only one is listed as an "Ancient Planter".  Whether Asa descended from the one Richard or another might be important if we are to gain access to the society, but in this context, it is a moot point.  The important consideration here is the length of presence on this continent.  We are proud that our English Biggs ancestors were some of the first to arrive and colonize this great country.

[3] The Baptist church was deeply divided in the early 19th century, separating into "missionary" and "anti-missionary" camps.  The anti-missionary side leaned in favor of original patterns of belief, including the doctrine of predestination (an all-knowing God would know beforehand who will be saved.  Either we are born into this favorable category or we are not and there is nothing we can do about it).  Adherents were known as Regular Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Old-School or Hard-shell Baptists

[4] SALINE CREEK BAPTIST CHURCH MINUTES at http://www.rootsweb.com/~tnstewar/saline.htm Asa Biggs, on page 4 is mentioned as "possessed of gifts". He is selected as moderator on Apr 18, 1812. On May 16, 1812, he is sent to the association to bear a 2nd letter for a new church. On page 8 he is mentioned as having a gift in a ministerial way. On Nov 15, 1817, he and his wife are moving and they are given a letter of dismission. At the Aug 1818 meeting he is excluded. He is restored in Nov 1819.

[5] Children of Asa and Winifred Biggs who moved from Tennessee to Texas: Dorsey, Eliza (who married Elihu Mauldin), Wilson, Benjamin, William, Henry and Amanda (who married James M. Bird).  It is not known if others came too.

[6] reference the 1850 and 1860 US Federal Slave Schedules of Shelby County, Texas

[7] "Biggs - History and Lineage in America" published by the author Alta Louise Biggs Martin (1993).  Also, reference http://www.shelbycountytexashistory.org/military/mexicanwarsecondtexas.htm

[8] Mabel Biggs identified this young boy as Edward.  The 1860 Shelby County Federal Census appears to be the only evidential record of his short life.  It lists a 6 year old boy named "F. Biggs".  What the "F" stands for is unknown.  One would expect to find this same boy as a 16 year old in the 1870 census, but he is not there.  This young boy who "...died early...", was probably John's brother who, by census records, was "F", but by family records was "Edward".

[9] John’s grave marker says he was born in 1858, however, this is incorrect when compared with official records.

[10] The timing of Henry's move to Louisiana is curious because Union forces were devastatingly successful in their drive through central Louisiana to capture control of the Mississippi River.  The date of the Biggs' arrival to Cloutierville is not known, but if they arrived during the war, one might wonder if the purpose was to help the Confederate cause.  But more likely, the move occurred after the war - perhaps a futile search for relief from the post-war economic depression which affected all areas.

[11] Diana Lawrence, author of extensive Herring research, submitted this information to the Pedigree Resource File 24 Jul 1999

[12] Peters Colony was the name of an area in North Texas managed by an investment group whose interest was attracting settlers and granting land.  One-half of a colonist's grant was retained as payment for services rendered. They were provided powder, shot, seed and in some cases, cabins. The investors also received ten sections of premium land from the Republic for each 100 families that settled.

[13] "State Of Texas vs. J.C. Thomas--Collin County March 7, 1863. This day appeared before me the persons herein mentioned, Joseph Herring and his wife Mrs. Catherine Josephine and swears that their lives are in danger through the conduct of said Mrs. C.J. Herring's father and wants the protection of the law..."

[14] Were Isaac & Nicey sympathizers or even members of the Mormon church in Illinois?  Is it just coincidence that their arrival into and departure out of Western Illinois were synchronized with the Mormon movements?  And does the presence of devout Mormon Herrings living close by indicate any significance?  Perhaps one could speculate that our Isaac might have been a follower but when persecution intensified in Illinois, he chose not to follow west with the group. Extending the thought, how might our Herrings been received into Texas carrying this "religious baggage"? ... and how might Joseph's father-in-law felt about it?

[15] Deborah Battles, a descendant of Sally Biggs Brittain, says that her grandparents used to refer to John Henry Biggs as “uncle Jack”

[16] Geneva Parr Wickham, granddaughter of John & Mattie through Phoebe Ollie Biggs Parr (“Ted”).  In 2004, Geneva was asked how she received her given name or if she had heard about her mothers cousin.  She replied that she didn't know.

[17] Mabel Biggs indicated that Tom Brittain road horseback to Louisiana to marry Sally Biggs.  The journey from Shelby County to Natchitoches Parish probably took at least a couple days, not just because of the distance, but because the Sabine river had to be crossed by ferry.  The imposing Toledo Bend Reservoir on our map today did not pose a problem because it didn't exist back then.

[18] Mabel Biggs placed the death of John's mother Sarah, in Louisiana.  No specific date and location were given, but a clue may lie in the migration of Charles and Mary Dowden's family.  They moved from Louisiana to Texas sometime between the births of their 2nd and 3rd children (1874 and 1877).  One could speculate that Sarah had passed away by then.  The death of John's father Henry, is less clear because Mabel wrote of John Henry Biggs Sr. living in Abilene Texas in early 1880's (there may be some ambiguity on who John Sr. is - see footnote [22]).  But if Henry was still alive, we should find him in either Louisiana or Texas in the 1880 Federal Census.  Unfortunately, he is in neither.  Where and when did Henry H. Biggs die?  We may never know for sure.

[19] "History of Rural Taylor County" author Juanita Daniel Zachary, publisher Nortex/Burnet Texas

[20] Many saloons sprang up in Abilene at this time.  They lined up conspicuously on both sides of the tracks, clustered around the Texas & Pacific railway station.  Business thrived well until about 1886 when a severe drought brought serious economic problems to the area.  In addition, there was a strong consensus to tame the frontier and make Abilene a town congenial for rearing families.  As a consequence, all saloons and sales of alcohol were outlawed in 1903 and the city remained legally dry until 1978.

[21] There is no marriage record in Taylor County to prove that John & Mary were married (I personally leafed through every record).  There's a chance that they married in a different county, but its very likely that they never married at all.

[22] Mabel Biggs wrote of a John Henry Biggs Sr and a John Henry Biggs Jr living in Abilene. Some have interpreted this to mean that John was named after his father. However, thorough research supports that John's father was Henry H. Biggs or H.H. Biggs, not John Henry Biggs Sr.  Who then, were John Sr and John Jr?  One theory is that "John Jr" was John & Mary's first child.  Today, the Abilene Municipal Cemetery shows two Biggs burials in their records -  Mrs Biggs (female) and Unknown Biggs (gender unknown) who died in the same year.  Presumably, these would be Mary and her baby, John Henry Jr.  Another theory would be that John and his father let go of strict name conventions and went informally as Sr and Jr.  If this is true, the burials in Abilene Municipal Cemetery could correspond with Mary and John Sr (Henry H.), with no separate burial plot for the baby.  Each theory is plausible, however I subscribe to the first.  Let the reader decide!

[23] Gabe Biggs, 11th child of John & Mattie shared these facts in a conversation on 2/3/2003 (just 19 days before he died)

[24] Oklahoma was admitted to the Union on November 16th, 1907

[25] Glenda Grange contributed a generous number of pictures, stories and data contained in this website.  Many of these were passed down to her from her mother, Gearldine, granddaughter of John & Mattie through Walter.  At one time, Gearldine lived with John & Mattie and "...the walls were so thin you heard any conversation that went on in the next room..."  She remembers hearing John plead,"...Mattie, please let me in bed!... I'm so cold!...Mattie finally relented and let John Henry come to bed"

[26] reference http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victory_garden

[27] "Ted" or Phoebe Ollie Parr, daughter of John & Mattie, didn't like her given name and went by "Ted" (or "Teddy" to close family). Earlier records show she also used Ollie as a given name. Ted drew Johnny & Mabel into attendance at her church and served as Sunday school teacher to their daughters, Norma and LaDean.  Often, Ted would say, "...everything you need to know is in the Bible...".  Ted & Mabel both towered as matriarchs of the Biggs family in their generation. Their example of faith and charity have not been forgotten through succeeding generations.

[28] Death certificate statement

[29] According to statements by Geneva and photo comparisons.

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