O ne of my most prized possessions sits on a desk in my office. It’s a large book, measuring 8.5 by 11.5 inches and running for more than 500 pages.
The title is “Loftis and the Descendants of Laban Loftis,” and the book traces my paternal family history back for eight generations. Laban Loftis is my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, the son of one of three Loftis brothers who came to America from England in the early 18th Century.
Laban was born in South Carolina and eventually moved east to Tennessee, where a huge number of Loftis descendants remain to this day. There’s even a Loftis Middle School in Hamilton County, Tenn., near Chattanooga.
The book’s genealogy starts with Laban but also offers some details on the Loftis clan before the first of my ancestors arrived in the New World. According to the book, my origins trace back to the Vikings and then to France and on to England.
The book was originally published in 1993 by a group called Cousins by the Dozens — a group of Loftis family genealogy enthusiasts who did a lot of painstaking research without the benefit of conveniences like the internet. The book isn’t without its flaws — my grandfather Benjamin Ray Loftis is listed as Roy, probably because someone misread an old Census document, and there is no mention of his brothers Arlie and Chester. I’m sure there are plenty of other mistakes as well. Still, it’s a fascinating book, including old documents and photos. It’s interesting to see the resemblance between far-flung family members. A distant cousin who lived 150 years ago in Texas looks like an identical twin to my dad’s brother in Arkansas.
My family’s history includes a record of military service dating back to the Revolutionary War. My great-great-great grandfather Henry Reuben “Ruby” Loftis lost an eye fighting the Yankees in the Civil War. He and five of his brothers enlisted in an infantry regiment from Tennessee; only three of them survived the war. One died in a federal prison camp in Pennsylvania, another on the battlefield at Stone Mountain, Ga., and the third died of “black tongue fever” in Mississippi.
More recently, my grandfather Ray was a Marine who served in World War II and Korea — losing a lung after a fight with a fellow Marine on a transport ship. My father, Ronnie Earl Loftis, enlisted in the Navy and served in Vietnam. Both my sons, Ronnie Edward and Ryan Scott, enlisted in the Marine Corps. Ronnie now serves in the Army National Guard and was deployed in south Arkansas during last week’s winter storm.
I took a keen interest in my family genealogy 20 or 25 years ago and did some research on my own. That included multiple trips to the family cemetery in Van Buren County.
I discovered that the cemetery is actually named for my great-great-great-grandfather Phillip Quattlebaum, who donated the land for the cemetery and was the first person buried there. Phillip’s story by itself is very interesting. Born in South Carolina, he first moved to Alabama where he was a plantation overseer before moving to Arkansas. He fought in the “Indian War” and later served in the Confederate Army. He reportedly stood 6-foot-6, a giant in his day. I clearly did not inherit the height gene.
Phillip’s daughter married my great-great grandfather, Laborn Barton Loftis, who went by Labe. Labe lost a leg at the age of 5 or 6 after an accident involving an axe but didn’t let that prevent him from an active life. The family legend is that he carved his own wooden leg. Born in 1854 in Jackson County, Tenn., he died in 1930 in Van Buren County and is buried in Quattlebaum Cemetery.
There are dozens of Loftises buried in the family cemetery — including my great-grandfather Levi Arthur Loftis and two of his sons, my grand-uncles Arlie and Chester. Arlie died of pneumonia in 1937. He was only 12 or 13 (his tombstone only says 1924-1937). Chester — my dad’s Uncle Chet — served as an Army sergeant in Korea but died tragically in a heavy equipment accident in 1956 in Lonoke County. He was only 25 years old. I’m told my great-grandfather took his death especially hard.
I have only the dimmest memories of my great-grandfather, although I was nearly 15 when he died in 1984. He was almost 88 when he died and had outlived both his wives and three of his four children. My Papaw Ray only survived him by two and a half years before he died in December 1986, when I was a senior in high school. I remember an aunt asking me if I wanted to go back and see him while he was in the hospital, but I declined. I wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone then, but the truth is I was afraid to see him so sick. My papaw was a huge Razorback fan. A few hours after he died, the Arkansas basketball team beat Kansas at Barnhill Arena when the Jayhawks were ranked sixth in the country. It was the first big win for Nolan Richardson at Arkansas, and I remember thinking how much Papaw Ray would have enjoyed it.
I wish I had spent more time with my grandfather and my great-grandfather. I wish I had asked questions and gotten to know more about them and about our family’s history.
But I’m glad for the knowledge I do have, and I’m especially thankful for that big book I keep on my desk.