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.
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.
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.
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 Ancestry.com
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.