From her ravishing red ringlets to her designer stilettos, not much is common about Mona Lisa Smile actress Julia Roberts—that is, except her last name. Any family researcher knows you can have the widest, whitest smile in the country, but if your last name takes up roughly half the phone book, you’re genealogically disadvantaged.
Not surprisingly, my search into Roberts’ father, Walter, was thwarted early on: He was born after 1930—the year of the most recent US census available to the public—and I couldn’t hazard a guess at which Robertses were his parents. So I turned my attention to Julia Roberts’ maternal lineage. I figured I had a better chance with a surname like Bredemus. And I was right. That line led me to Colonial America, the Billingslys and a story worthy of a Hollywood epic.
I read in a Billingsly family history that Julia’s sixth-great-grandfather, James, born in 1726, was an advocate for US independence from Britain. Local Tories loyal to the crown, however, took exception to his political leanings and continually harassed him. In April 1776, they broke into James’ home and demanded money. When he couldn’t pay up, they dragged him out the door and hung him in a tree. His wife, Elizabeth Crabtree, recorded the incident in the family Bible.
America’s uncommonly Pretty Woman may display an Oscar on her mantel and earn mega-bucks for each performance, but those movie roles are no competition for the real-life drama her Colonial ancestor didn’t live through.