Saving Grace

Week 18: #52 Ancestors – Where There’s a Will

By Eilene Lyon

William Zane Jenkins barely knew what hit him. Suddenly blind, deaf and numb, in a dark hole deep in the bowels of Mother Earth, his life took on new meaning. He’d always been a taciturn, pessimistic, Eeyore of a man. For some reason, this drastic turn, one that would have sent other men into despair, became Will’s saving grace.

If this was the end, he was prepared – had been planning for it his whole life, you could say. He never expected to survive, nay thrive, after a premature detonation in an Amador County mine forever robbed him of sight.

National Hotel
National Hotel and Stage Depot in Jackson, Amador County. (Public domain)

Many years later, the Pennville, Indiana, merchant known as “Blind Billy” Jenkins counted his blessings as he celebrated the marriage of his only child, Lizzie, to William S. Hyde. He’d come a long way from that California gold mine.

Will Z. Jenkins was born in Philadelphia on February 13, 1828, the first-born child of Henry Zane Jenkins and Abigail Bedford, who’d been wed by a justice of the peace a scant four months earlier. When Will was a toddler, the family relocated to Springboro, Ohio, along with Abigail’s parents and siblings.

By the time the Jenkins family moved to a leased parcel of land in Jay County in the mid-1840s, Will had grown used to a life of poverty and hard work. He did not take privation cheerfully, but did his duty by his family, a close, loving and spiritual clan that included his elderly grandmother, Ann Zane Jenkins.

Despite his dour demeanor, Will found love and married Frances Jane Ransom, known as Jane, on July 31, 1850, not long after his sister, Ann, had married Jane’s brother, William C. Ransom. When William Ransom planned to go west to California, following Will’s father, Henry Jenkins, and the Blackford Mining Company, Will made plans to go.

The expense of the journey did not become a reality to the young men until they reached New Orleans in February 1852. Will saw the impossibility of it and returned to Indiana, to his wife and baby girl, speaking no more of the matter and settling back into his duties as the family breadwinner.

Nearly two years later, William Ransom had pressured his wife to join him in Santa Clara, California. Ann refused to leave behind their three-year-old daughter, Cordelia, so a chaperone seemed prudent. Her brother, Will Jenkins, would accompany them. Will’s wife, Jane, had been buried months earlier, possibly a victim of consumption. He left little Lizzie with his parents and finally made the long-delayed trip to California.

Indiana Institute for the Blind (Wikimedia Commons)

After the mining accident, Will spent 18 months recuperating in San Francisco, hoping to regain his sight. To support himself, he became a fruit vendor. Knowing his parents had no means to relocate to the west coast to join him, he finally took the steamship home.

Once there, he bought his parent’s farm (they continued to live there with Will and Lizzie). For a year, he attended the Indiana Institute for the Blind and learned the broom-making and willow-work trade. But he had the notion he could do better, and his newfound optimism sustained him in his efforts. He opened a store in Pennville that would be his livelihood for years to come. And he found love again with Sarah Stults, whom he married in 1874.

Pennville Plat 1887
1887 plat of Camden (Pennville), Indiana. Red arrow shows the location of Will Z. Jenkins’s property.

In his later years, Will suffered from paralysis of unknown origin. He outlived his daughter, Lizzie, but Sarah was by his side when he breathed his last on April 4, 1894.

Feature image: William Z. Jenkins and Sarah Shults Jenkins headstone in Hillside Cemetery, Pennville, Indiana (E. Lyon 2017)

William Zane Jenkins on


Biographical and Historical Record of Jay and Blackford Counties, Indiana. 1887. The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago, pp. 396-7.

Census records and property deeds.

Jenkins family gold rush letters. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, and collection of the author.

William Z. Jenkins obituary. The Christian Worker, April 19, 1894 p. 252.



21 thoughts on “Saving Grace

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    1. It’s hard to know if he was ever very happy. I hope he was. I know he had friends and was respected in the community. Certainly he had loving parents and siblings. In the end, he did choose to make lemonade, right?

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Opening sentence really grabbed my attention. I was thinking what…was he buried alive?!!! He may have been an Eeyore, but obviously he was lovable and he seemed to have a lot of determination. I’m sure it would have been just as easy or easier to give up and let others take care of him. Interesting read.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve never been able to find a news report about the mining accident, though I’ve found some very similar. He was working with a partner who I think was also blinded and maybe lost an arm. Yes, I think Will had determination and mostly pretty good sense.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Amy. A tough life complicated by disability. I wish I had more information about him. I know that he sent his parents a photo of himself from California, but he has no descendants, so who knows what happened to it. For that matter, his father sent a couple photos from California, too, that have vanished.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Well, as for photos, I find “new” cousins and “new” photos all the time. Maybe something will turn up one day. Just a couple weeks ago, I got my first look at my 2nd great-grandfather, Robert Ransom. Quite thrilling!

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I also have been finding new cousins with new photos—mostly, they’ve been finding me through my blog! I’ll be posting some in the coming weeks.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I had an Irish ancestor, great great aunt whose Canadian husband who went west during the gold rush, leaving his wife Annie and son behind. He never returned, so she was declared a widow, and after her son died (age 10 – tombstone very similar to the one you showed, she remarried a widower with many children. I have a picture of them – 1860 tin type? The gold rush must have enticed a lot of young men to get rich….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many, many men (and some women) went to California. Over a decade it amounted to 300,000 people. One of the men who went with Henry Jenkins never went home and stopped writing to his family. His wife eventually remarried, and as it turned out he was still alive out in California, but not for much longer.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I suspect my relative’s husband was still alive out west, at least no one ever said he had died, he just never came back, but he was Protestant and they were Irish Catholic so there might have been some issues and dislike of him when he basically abandoned her and their son…who was sickly and later died. I resemble her somewhat….

        Liked by 1 person

  3. What a story. Another example of how the dream of going West and the reality of going West didn’t quite match. Poor man, I can understand why he was an Eeyore. I imagine I’d be the same under those circumstances.

    Liked by 1 person

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