The Agony of Not Knowing

Week 22: #52 Ancestors – So Far Away

By Eilene Lyon

We take for granted our ability to stay in touch with loved ones far away. We no longer have to pay long distance charges and we can talk as long as we like. There are even video-phone options. Back in the day when calls were expensive, we had cheap and reliable mail services to stay in contact with one another. An exchange could take place in just a week or two.

When my ancestors went to California during the gold rush, they had none of that. The absent men could have been on the moon, for all anyone knew. Lack of communication can make anyone seem very far away, indeed.

When Henry Zane Jenkins and company went west in 1851, Henry kept his promise to write home regularly. One of his letters serves as the background image for this blog. He generally wrote about twice a month. But it was not cheap!

We think mail costs a pittance, but in the 1850s, a long-distance letter cost 10 cents or more to send, not including the price of paper, which could also be quite dear.1 Henry mentions that miners would have to pay a courier to bring letters from Stockton or Sacramento to the mines, which cost between $1 – 2 per letter. When the average daily wage for a carpenter back east was $1.40, you can see that letters were a bit of a luxury.2


The Jenkins letters were usually folded to create a self-envelope. This one from Henry to his wife, A. G. Jenkins, from July 1851 bears the 10 cent postage stamp. Henry generally included small pieces of gold, but had to be careful not to go over 1 ounce. He worried the weight would cause the letters to “miscarry” and letters heavier than an ounce could cause the fee to nearly quadruple. (Collection of the Henry E. Huntington Library)

As far as is known, all of Henry’s letters reached his family back in Indiana. But it was small comfort. It could take as long as two months for his words to reach them, and by then, anything could have happened. If Henry died, how long would it take them to discover the grim news?

Worse, until the mining company settled into a camp somewhere in California, Henry’s family would not know where to send mail, so they had to wait many months before they could share their news with him.

And the mails to California were nowhere near as reliable as going the other way. Many letters addressed to the miners never reached them. In fact, it was more than seven months after leaving home that they received the first news. They agonized, wondering what was happening with their loved ones, especially since infectious diseases and deaths were so common then.

The Jenkins family had to struggle to stay afloat with Henry gone, so their hard-working days passed quickly. Henry’s absence was especially hard on one family member – his 81-year-old mother, Ann W. (Zane) Jenkins.

Ann was nearly blind and deaf, so she had ample time to sit in her chair worrying about her son’s welfare. They had been close all their lives – she’d been living with Henry’s family since about 1830 – and as far as is known, she had no other living children.3

Though she put her faith in the Lord, she couldn’t help but feel heartache at the thought she might never see Henry again. She wrote:

“I still occupy my arm chair in the corner – they are all talking and laughing around me – I hear nothing they say – I don’t knit anymore – this 5 past weeks I put my kerchief over my face, put up a petition to my heavenly father for my dear son – shed a shower of tears to ease my full heart, wipe my eyes, hold up my head again and no one knows anything about it but the allseeing God – he drys the widows tears and binds up the broken heart – in the expectation of my dying before thee returns I have brought myself to that state of resignation that I can say with truth not my will but thine Gods be done – if we never meet in this world I hope we will in a better where the parting hand is never giving.4

There are no verified photos of Ann or Henry Jenkins. I do have this image (below) in my collection. It was not labeled, but it came through my mother’s family and based on age and other personal information, I believe it’s most likely Ann W. Jenkins. The only problem is that it’s a tintype.


Tintype image that may be a photograph of Ann W. (Zane) Jenkins. Collection of the author.

The woman appears to be quite elderly. Her apparel is appropriate for a poor, humble, aged Quaker woman in the mid-19th century. All this fits with Ann.

But tintypes weren’t invented until 1853 and were not common in America until after 1856.5 There is no record of Ann’s death, but family letters indicate she was alive in the summer of 1853, and was likely not alive in October 1855, giving us a general date range.

My explanation for the tintype is that it seems likely that the family had a daguerreotype made of Ann before she died. Sometime later, her grandchildren wanted copies of the photograph. The only way to copy a daguerreotype was to take a photo of it. So, the copies, possibly made in the 1860s, would have been tintypes. Unfortunately, I will probably never know for sure.


Feature image: Part of a letter written by Ann W. (Zane) Jenkins to her son, Henry Zane Jenkins in 1852 (collection of the Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA)


  1. Henry’s cost for a 4-page sheet of paper was 12.5 cents. Ink was 50 cents a bottle. Letter to Abby Jenkins from California, dated August 31, 1851. Collection of the Henry E. Huntington Library. Postal rates: 
  2.   page 457. 
  3. Henry Z Jenkins in the 1830 United States Federal Census, includes one female 60 – 69. 1830; Census Place: Cincinnati Ward 5, Hamilton, Ohio; Series: M19; Roll: 132; Page: 111; Family History Library Film: 0337943. Online at 
  4. Letter from Ann W. Jenkins to her son, Henry, dated May 3, 1852. Collection of the Henry E. Huntington Library. 

8 thoughts on “The Agony of Not Knowing

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  1. Great post! When my great-grandfather married his wife from Rieneck, Germany, they were so poor that NO letters were ever sent to her family. The cost was simply too prohibitive to send a simple piece of paper from the Tirol to Germany. Now we think nothing of blowing $100 a month or more for internet. I would still rather lick the stamp.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow what a fascinating piece of family history, both the letter and the photo! I can’t even imagine what that must have been like for both the miners and their families. Very much enjoyed this post.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes! I know I’ve fallen a little behind with that. I’ve got one more article coming next week, and then will post the next segment after that! 🙂 Thank you so much for your interest in it!

        Liked by 1 person

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