Seeking roots: quest for family history turned into American history trilogy

AUBURN – When Bettye B. Burkhalter retired a decade ago as vice president for student affairs after 22 years at Auburn University as a professor and administrator, she began the journey of a lifetime – several lifetimes.

Even before leaving Auburn with emerita status, Burkhalter had become intrigued by her aging father’s tales of the Burrell family history going all the way back before the American Revolution. Cecil Burrell, then 83 and in declining health, wanted to make sure future generations of the family knew about the lives of their ancestors in the 18th and 19th centuries and earlier, as well as his own experiences through much of the 20th century.

Sharing her father’s goal, Burkhalter soon began work on a brief book about the family history, but the work gradually blossomed into a much larger undertaking. That simple beginning led to journeys across the Deep South, up the Eastern Seaboard, into Nova Scotia and across the Atlantic to the Provence region of France.

After nearly a decade of research and writing, Burkhalter recently published two books about her ancestors and their times and this summer will publish the third book, exploring the experiences of her father’s generation during and since the Great Depression. A fourth book due this fall is a cookbook of nearly 500 years of family recipes, including some that originated in the Burrell family’s ancestral home in Ollioules, France.

“This started as a single book for my father,” Burkhalter said. “His health was fast declining, but he got so excited about my work on the book that it was not just keeping him alive, it gave him something to live for. So I would follow up on the leads he gave me and then go back and we would discuss the book some more. And I would come away with more ideas for my research.”

While the stories were intensely personal for her father, Burkhalter recognized the broader scope of a family that spanned the history of America, providing a perspective that was broadly American and distinctly Southern. Drawing upon her research experience in education and business, she tracked down numerous historical documents and visited places where various ancestors had lived, gaining new leads at every stop.

Gradually, she accumulated so much material that one short book turned into two lengthy books and then a trilogy totaling approximately 1,000 pages, plus the trilogy’s cookbook companion. Determining that a simple historical account would not do justice to either the individuals or their times, Burkhalter adopted a writing style she calls “creative nonfiction,” viewing the times through the eyes of the individuals, themselves. Where no written record existed as to a person’s thoughts or words, she draws upon what is known about that person to flesh out the characters.

The trilogy begins with the life of Jean (John) Baptiste Elzear Burel, a naval surgeon who followed Lafayette to Colonial America during the Revolutionary War.

In “Daring Pioneers Tame the Frontier,” Burkhalter describes how Burel gave up his inheritance in France to remain in America with his Acadian French wife and newborn son after the war. That book traces the young family’s move from Philadelphia to a farm in the backcountry of South Carolina, examining in detail the challenges they faced and the country they encountered in what was then America’s frontier.

Book two, “Raised Country Style, South Carolina to Mississippi,” continues the saga with the tale of Jean Burel’s son James moving his family west in 1847 in search of new land in Mississippi. The story traces the family through the next half century and beyond, recounting tales of prosperity as independent farmers in the Antebellum Era, death and sacrifice during the Civil War and the struggles of the survivors of that war to also survive lean years that continued long after the Reconstruction Era.

In book three, “The Generation that Built America,” with the family name long since anglicized to Burrell, Burkhalter carries the family story into the 20th century, building upon the memories of her father, Cecil Burrell, a retired chief engineer with Southern Natural Gas Co. That book carries the saga through the loss of the family farm during her father’s childhood in the Great Depression, life on the homefront during World War II and the decades after the war.

Carrying the story into the 21st century, that book includes the tale of a family member whose plane had gone down on a combat mission over the Mediterranean during the war, and the return a few years ago of his remains for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

Cecil Burrell, who died at age 89, did live to see the draft completion of the books. Burkhalter said the work drew her closer to her father and gave him the will to keep going in his final years. “This gave him a new reason for living, and he made the most of it,” she explained. “I wanted to capture a way of life that we both loved and valued, and we saw fading into the pages of time, and he was determined to stay around long enough to help me do that.”

Published by AuthorHouse Inc. in Bloomington, Ind., the first two books are available at www.auburnauthor.com or www.authorhouse.com, as well as Books-a-Million, Barnes and Noble and amazon.com. The others are scheduled to be available later this year. Additional information about the series is available at Burkhalter’s www.auburnauthor.com website.

Burkhalter, who holds doctoral degrees in both education and administration from the University of Alabama, served from 1978-2000 on the faculty of the College of Education at Auburn University, where she also served as director of the university’s Economic Development Institute, associate provost for quality assessment and improvement and, from 1995-2000, vice president for student affairs.

Contact: Roy Summerford, (334) 844-9999 (summero@auburn.edu), or
Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (clardch@auburn.edu)