A Letter from Henry

Week 40: #52 Ancestors – Oldest

By Eilene Lyon

I believe the oldest document in my possession is this letter written by Henry Z. and Abigail Jenkins, dated October 19, 1855. The entire letter runs to over 1500 words, so I won’t give a full transcript here – your eyes would be glazing over long before the end!

Because Henry and Abigail grew up in Philadelphia under the influence of Quakers, their language is a bit archaic, even for the 1850s. It almost seems as if it could have been written a century earlier.

They wrote this letter to their eldest son, William Zane Jenkins, who suffered a blinding explosion in a mine he was working in Amador County, California. Though this letter hints that William expected to regain his sight, he never did.

In spite of all the grief Henry Jenkins endured trying to succeed at the mines in California himself, the letter makes it clear that he and others were seriously considering a permanent move back to the west coast.

Letter from Henry Z. Jenkins and Abigail (Bedford) Jenkins, in Knox Township, Jay County, Indiana, to their son, William Z. Jenkins in California. (Click to enlarge)

Partial transcript:

My dear son Wm it seems a long time since I have written to thee and it also seems long between letters from thee – thy sister Ann wrote to us informing of thy sad misfortune and thy Mother and I myself truly sympathize with thee  thy Brothers Sisters and many friends also express much sorrow on thy account – if it had been possible for me to have started on the first inteligence reaching us I should have been with thee before this time but it was out of the question and we had to wait as patiently as we could for further news from thee which did not come to hand until last mail five weeks after the first intimation of thy hurt but it rejoiced us then to learn that thee would recover the use of both eyes  what a great mercy, had thee lost thy sight entirely or an arm or otherwise disabled as thy less fortunate comrade did how much harder it would have seemed for thee  truly thee has great cause to be thankful although it seems a severe dispensation as it is  still how much worse it might have been  there are many verry unlooked for changes transpiring all round us and not the least is the change manifested in Wm R’s last letter to his brother Robt in refference  to makeing that country his permanent home  now he is all for coming back here and opening a store in Co with Robert  I of course have no right to say a word about it either way but it was truly unexpected and I must say we (Bed Decater thy Mother and self if not Emma) were verry much disappointed  21st  Robt and Emma have been up to see us and have just gone home again and while they were up we were made more fully acquainted with the sudden change in refference to going to California  it is mainly a consequence of their Fathers inability to govern his appetite at all times and I must say it is commendable in them the children that can and will cross and subdue their own cherished plans for the benefit of their weaker parents will merit and no doubt receive their reward eventually  I believe it is R’s intention to come out in two or three years if he can prevail on the old man to remain where he is  the Makepiece business is not yet settled or I could tell better whether we will be able to come out shortly or not  I would much like to know how thee feels about comeing back or staying in that country  I cant help believeing myself that if we were all there together we would be better satisfied than in this country  Bedford I fear will never enjoy good health in this and perhaps not in that or any other place  he looks miserable and is verry often complaining  thy Mother and myself fear he is not long for this world still he may outlive us all…

Feature image: Log cabin in Jay County, Indiana (E. Lyon 2017)

41 thoughts on “A Letter from Henry

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  1. It must have been awful once William realized he was not going to regain his sight. The words of his father’s letter that were so encouraging must have made it even worse to have to tell them the truth after all.

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  2. This letter is such a treasure to have! The actual thoughts and words of your ancestor from 170 years ago! It really is too bad the art of letter writing barely exists anymore. I read it with natural breaks, but there doesn’t appear to be any punctuation…..

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Almost no punctuation. In my transcripts, I add an extra space where I think each thought ends. I’m always amazed at Henry’s perfectly straight and evenly spaced rows. Even when he was writing on a ship or in the mines, every letter is that neat. I have one other letter he wrote, many years later, but all the rest are at the Huntington Library.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. What a treasure. One of my relatives in CA had a letter from my great-grandmother to her eldest son when he moved to Seattle, but he couldn’t find it! I really wished he hadn’t even mentioned it to me as I was so disappointed not to have something in her own writing. She was a schoolteacher before she married in 1870.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. What a treasure! Thanks for sharing with us.

    When I read this, I cannot resist the urge to “translate” Henry’s words into 21st century-speak.

    Dear Bill – It has been a while – Anne told us about your terrible accident. News was slow to reach us, and we were all terribly worried. So very glad to hear that your eyesight will recover.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh my gosh, that’s too funny!😂😂 It’s so hard for me to imagine after reading these letters so many times. Poor Henry is stuck in the 18th century (even though he was born in the 19th). His mother was such a strong influence in his life. She lived with him until into her 80s. Probably died about a year before this letter was written. Sometimes I wonder if he really spoke the way he wrote.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love old documents and photos. The earliest document I have is from Nicolo Rizzi, regarding a tax dispute. He was “Capo Cumune” (mayor) of Cloz in 1632. That beats out the second oldest document of 1634 for my mother’s side of the family. Samuel Allen was the town recorder for Plymouth, MA and the document details damaged caused by someone’s cow and the reimbursements that were owed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those sound totally awesome, Allen! I recall being in Chioggia, Italy, in the town hall and a guide held up these papers that had been hidden during wartime and later found. They were 400 years old and he was waving them like yesterday’s newspaper. My jaw dropped.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We have documents written on leather in our area of Italy called “Pergamena.” I am one of the few that is allowed to examine them physically. They date from 1,000 to 1,500 AD.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Hmmm, most of my posts are 1500 words, if not even longer, so I hope people are able to make it through without their eyes glazing over! It is easier to read typed words than cursive though, especially cursive in one long run-on sentence like that seems to be. Well done for persevering with a transcription!

    Liked by 1 person

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