Week 10: #52Ancestors – Strong Woman
By Eilene Lyon
Abigail Gummersal Bedford, my 3rd-great-grandmother, endured many trials in her long life. Much of what is known about her comes from Quaker records, personal letters written during the California gold rush, and a couple brief biographies about her eldest son, William Zane Jenkins.
She was born in February 1801 in Philadelphia, the second daughter of Thomas and Jane Bedford. She was later joined by many brothers and a younger sister. She remained emotionally close to her siblings throughout her life. Perhaps having so many brothers led to Abigail’s comfort in dealing with men.
Abby, as she was known, was probably a petite and lively woman. In one letter, she refers to herself as “little wife” which perhaps should not be taken literally, but she also remarked that “I did think I would get fat eating hot corn but it was a mistake – I am still the poor old yellow A.”
In 1826, at the age of 25 (Quakers tended to marry late), Abby was engaged to Charles Brannin of Evesham, New Jersey. Their marriage was approved by the Friends in late April, but just before the wedding could take place in May, 24-year-old Charles contracted a fever and died suddenly. Abby must have been crushed.
A year later, Abby married Henry Zane Jenkins. It isn’t known how they connected, and no marriage record has ever been located. Henry was not a Quaker, but his mother was. It’s possible that the two mothers somehow plotted to bring Abby and Henry together (they were getting kind of “old,” after all). It was apparently a successful match – the marriage lasted until their deaths in 1882, a total of almost 55 years!
It may be that mention of Abby’s (unapproved) marriage to Henry Jenkins was lost during the turmoil that split the Philadelphia Society of Friends into two factions: Orthodox and Hicksite. It was actually the Hicksites who preferred the traditional Quaker ways, while the Orthodox group strove to emulate mainstream Christian Protestant churches.
The Bedfords (including Abby) and Henry’s mother joined the Hicksites. Abby is recorded under her maiden name throughout 1827, though she was well along in her first pregnancy. Abby bore eight children; only one died as an infant. The rest survived to adulthood, but Abby and Henry outlived all but three of their children.
The young Jenkins family left Philadelphia in 1830 to live in Springboro, Ohio. Most of Abby’s family moved there as well. In 1837, Henry and Abby moved to eastern Indiana. Henry was a carpenter by trade, but he was never very successful in business. He tried running a store (which Abby clerked most of the time), operating a sawmill, and farming, but failed in every endeavor.
They lost their first Indiana farm to foreclosure, and leased land from the state for seven years. Abby mentions that the entire family lived in a corn crib for a time while they constructed a small cabin. They bought another farm, but eventually had to sell that as well. Henry was constantly in debt. The family never rose above abject poverty, which added to Abigail’s burdens in life.
Henry was very different from Abby. His only close family was his mother. It may have been issues with his father and with his mother’s family that gave him a bit of a chip on the shoulder, and he struggled with anger and alcohol in his younger years. But supportive Abby was there to calm and steady him.
Abby always worked hard: rearing children, educating them, harvesting flax and spinning it, growing vegetables, cooking, cleaning, and making sauerkraut – a specialty of hers.
The gold rush period was probably the most trying time in her life. When Henry went to California, Abby had to work even harder to keep her extended family (including Henry’s elderly mother and a granddaughter) fed and clothed. Creditors hounded her while her husband was gone almost three years. Crops failed due to unfavorable weather and other issues. But Abby persevered, despite her vexation with the position she was left in.
Because of her desperate straits, namely lack of food and money, and the difficulty of timely communication with Henry out west, Abby had to make the decisions at home. When Henry expressed displeasure with some of them, Abby resolutely defended herself, saying she only did what she thought best in the circumstances. She tried to put herself in his place when paying debts, but she couldn’t read his mind, of course.
Abby claimed to believe in women’s rights, but her take on it was different from the Sojourner Truth version that was coming to the fore in the mid-19th century. “Thee knows my sentiments of the fuss that is made about the rights of Woman,” she wrote to Henry. “I maintain I have a right to my own husband whenever I can get hold of him and keep fast hold if I can.” And “I love female rights – that is a somebody to look to in all troubles – to lift the burden off my shoulders and take the lead – it is our prerogative and I hope soon again to gain it.”
Abby’s eldest daughter, Ann Ransom, moved to California in late 1853, along with Ann’s older brother, William and daughter, Cordelia. Abby never saw Ann again. She died of tuberculosis in Oregon on January 1, 1863. Abby thought her entire family would eventually move to California, along with her Ransom in-laws and neighbors, but when her son suffered tragedy in the mines, the enterprise was finally abandoned.
During the Civil War, Abby’s two younger sons served in the Union Army. Fortunately, they both survived the war, but the emotional strain would have taken a toll on her and the rest of the family.
Despite all her trials, Abby could remark on her sense of humor: “I often think I have lived amid sighs and groans for 20 odd years but I also think it is for my benefit for I well know I am inclined to levity, and need a ballast.”
She took a deep interest in the activities of her community, keeping tabs on who was ill (she would help nurse them), who had died, and the politics of the church. She joined Henry in the Methodist congregation in 1842. Abigail was above all a deeply religious woman. She took her difficulties in stride: “…but I have got somewhat used to hard things – hope they will work for my eternal good.”
After the war, Henry and Abby moved into town and for the last 17 years of their lives Henry worked as postmaster and magistrate. They never owned property after selling their second farm, but managed to make ends meet. It was a tough life, lived by a tough woman.