Even before Ancestry.com, my family was steeped in genealogical lore.
Grandpa Addison Jenks and his sister, Aunt Ava, spent their lives searching courthouse records for birth certificates, wills, and deeds that bore the Jenks name. Addison liked to do family research in graveyards, noting the birth and death dates of subterranean Jenkses. This creepy predilection led my mother, who was an Emerson, not a Jenks, to whisper, “The only people he cares about are dead.”
That was probably untrue, and when the Divine M* and I prowled the West End cemetery in Oneonta, N.Y., we immediately grasped the joys of tombstone prowling. One of our favorite graves is in that cemetery and I wrote about it here.
There are other macabre idiosyncrasies in the Oneonta cemetery. On at least two Jenks graves the birthdates are etched but death dates are blank. I theorize the practical decedent had purchased the stone as a hedge against inflation but died somewhere else. The Divine M theorizes they were vampires.
Addison was a farmer in South Side, Oneonta, and he ran the Oneonta Armory for most of the time I knew him. Both were reputable callings but I suspect he wanted to prove his ancestors were tinged with greatness. He traced the family name back to Wales and believed he could prove he was descended from a line of Welsh kings whose long names he could not pronounce because they contained no vowels.
He made a better case that an ancestor had “come over on the Mayflower” (her name was Elizabeth Tilley). He was happy about that, although, logically, if one’s ancestors have been procreating in America since the 17th century, the massive and infinitely snarled web of familial connections makes a distant Mayflower connection almost unavoidable.
I was 16 when Addison died, but I had shown a sufficient interest in his research that his papers eventually found their way to me. I quickly discovered the family has its share of heroes and anti-heroes.
One of Addison’s heroes was Major Lory Jenks,** a Revolutionary War veteran who moved the family from Rhode Island to Oneonta where he owned a popular pub. On the less heroic side, there was Jeremiah Jenks, a cousin of Addison’s father, George. Jeremiah was a blatant eugenist who wrote books explaining why non-white, non-European, non-Republican, and non-Jenks people were naturally inferior. I’d like to think Addison did not agree because he doesn’t mention Jeremiah in his research.
Most Jenkses in the United States trace their ancestry back to Joseph Jenks (1599 -1682), who – as Addison tirelessly reminded us – was awarded in 1646 the first patent in North America, for a new design for making scythes. In 1654 he also built the first fire engine in North America for use in Boston, and in 1647, in order to manufacture his scythes, he built the forge at the Saugus, Mass., iron works. My family and I have often visited the Saugus restoration, now a national historic site. One hot summer I followed an exhausted guide around the site and decided it would be good to introduce myself by surname. Before I could approach him, he told the crowd, “There are thousands of Jenks descendants in the U.S. And some summers it seems like every goddamned one of them comes here.”
For me, the most interesting Jenks of yore was Joseph Jenks III (1656-1740), the first of the line to be born in North America. As governor of the Rhode Island colony, Governor Jenks presided over the first geo-political entity in the world founded for religious liberty. There’s no evidence Joseph knew Rhode Island’s spiritual founder, Roger Williams, or that he was a Baptist. But he was an early hero of church-state separation.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Governor Jenks was that he was six-feet, seven inches tall, and looked much taller because of the Charles II wig he plopped on his head.
According to family lore, Governor Jenks was concerned that his cloak of office, designed for much shorter men, exposed his skinny calves and made him look ridiculous. When the wig was added to his attire, he was undoubtedly right,
Grabbing his quill, he scrawled out an order for a six-foot, seven-inch cloak suitable to his office and sent it via tall ship to England where the best cloaks were made.
No one knows how long it took the ship to make its way to England, or how much time it stayed in England, or how long it took to sail back to Providence. The process probably took more than a year.
No one knows if Governor Jenks was a patient man, but he must have been delighted when a package finally arrived from the mother country. But – as nearly every Jenks knows – when he opened the package, it contained not a cloak, but a six-foot, seven-inch clock.
No one knows if Governor Jenks laughed, cried, or raged when he realized he should have written the order in easier-to-read block letters. But a Baptist friend who served in the Rhode Island legislature once assured me that a six-foot, seven-inch clock still stands in the capitol.
I must admit, I have always suspected that this droll story is apocryphal and told exclusively among Jenkses, the only people likely to find it interesting.
So I was amazed the other day when I was surfing the Internet and discovered an old newspaper clipping of a spirited piece of doggerel that told the same story in imaginative detail. I was unable to discover how old the clipping is, or who wrote it. But I’m delighted to have this little item which appears to document an old family legend
If nothing else, it is passable evidence that my ancestry might just as interesting as yours.
And I know Addison, who always wanted people to know how interesting we secretly were, would have been pleased to add it to his voluminous research.
I wish he had lived to see it.
* The Divine M, of course, is my spouse, the Rev. Martha M. Cruz.
** Throughout history, Jenks has been spelled different ways. Grandpa Addison’s theory was that Jenks was adopted by patriotic supporters of the American Revolution, leaving the redundant letters to the loyalist Jenckes branch.