Week 46: #52 Ancestors – Poor Man
By Eilene Lyon
He had to be desperate – it was such an insane thing to do at his age. Traveling to California and mining gold was for the young and strong, not for 49-year-old family men. But Henry Zane Jenkins made that difficult choice: to leave his wife, children, and dependent mother for at least a year.
It wasn’t really riches he sought – he just needed to get out from under piles of debt and ensure a comfortable old age for himself and Abby. They didn’t want to be a burden on their children. Life just hadn’t gone according to plan.
Henry and Abby were born in Philadelphia in 1801. They both received a decent education. Henry learned the carpentry trade. Abby was 27 and Henry 26 when they married and started their family. They lost their second child, a baby girl named Jane. Perhaps it was a factor in their decision to leave the city.
With their toddler, Will Z. Jenkins, they settled in Springboro, a new Quaker town in southwestern Ohio. (Abby was a member of the Society of Friends, and Henry’s mother was, but not Henry.) They had several more children and owned a lot in town, but Henry couldn’t seem to get ahead.
When an opportunity arose to open a mercantile in a clearing in eastern Indiana, soon to become the village of Camden, Henry decided to take a risk. Goldsmith Chandler, one of the wealthiest men in Springboro, offered a wagon-load of merchandise to Henry on consignment.
Henry was one of the first to arrive and helped build the first cabins in Camden. He learned the hard way that pioneers rarely had cash to pay for goods. Collecting must have been a challenge for a soft-hearted, pious man, who saw himself as his brothers’ keeper.
A couple years later, Chandler took Henry to court. In order to pay the judgment, Henry obtained a mortgage from the Indiana State Sinking Fund, using 80 acres west of town on the Salamonie River as collateral.
Then a horrible flood year drove them off the land and they defaulted on the mortgage. Henry found some work in the county seat, and they leased a parcel on the school section just to survive. Year after year, the state tried to sell the foreclosed property, but there were no buyers. The balance due ballooned close to $500.
After hearing two years of lore about the wealth coming from California, and getting positive reports from his friend E.D. Pierce, who’d gone out with the 49ers, Henry just couldn’t resist. But, already heavily in debt, he needed to borrow even more just to get to the mines.
One year in the mines stretched to two and Henry learned the grim truth that most miners barely kept themselves fed and clothed. How would he ever amass enough to pay his debts and get home? It seemed impossible. How could he face his family and confess his failure? Admit he’d just further impoverished them – and they’d had to struggle on their own in his absence.
Some men in the mines never managed to overcome this sort of shame – their families never heard from them again. Henry’s ex-partner, John C. Teach, was one of those. Would Henry be lost to Abby and the kids forever?
As Henry’s efforts to get ahead in California stretched into a third year, he received an unexpected blessing. It wouldn’t do anything toward solving his debt problem, though. His son-in-law, William C. Ransom, convinced Henry he needed a trustworthy courier to take some money home to Indiana. Henry would be that courier.
His head might hang low when he walked through the door of the cabin his sons had built while he was gone, but Henry knew his family would enfold him in their loving arms, and absolve him with tears of joy and forgiveness. He would feel rich then, indeed.
Henry Zane Jenkins on Ancestry.com.
Note: Henry Jenkins, my 3rd great-grandfather, is the protagonist of my gold rush book. This is a synopsis of part of his story. One of his letters to Abby from California serves as a background for this blog.