‘Her white hair touched the floor:’ On ancestor’s images, oral histories and family resemblance

ImageJane Elizabeth Clark Jones and her grandson, John Homer Jones

From 100 or more years ago, Jane Clark Jones looked back at me.

It’s the kind of email a genealogist pines for, the chance to look into the face of an ancestor for the first time, the attachment revealing a face lost from the Earth. It’s what you hope to find when you click on ancestors catalogued on Find A Grave, hoping someone has uploaded an image that will pull back the curtain and reveal your past. The attachment could be a scan of a tintype, an ambrotype, a daguerreotype.

A copy of the tintype of Jane Clark Jones, my three-greats grandmother, arrived thanks to her two greats-granddaughter, who is my first cousin once removed. She received it from her own mother, who shared poignant memories of Jane Clark Jones.

My grand-aunt, Lillie Lucille Jones Beach, had special memories of Jane Clark Jones. I recorded and transcribed an oral history conversation with Lucille in 2003.

“She raised my father,” Lucille told me. “My dad was about 18 months when his mother (Mary Mollie Bolt Jones) died.”

Jane Elizabeth Clark married John Alexander Hamilton Jones in 1866 in Haywood County, North Carolina. She gave birth to 10 children, and the last was my two-greats grandfather, John Wesley Jones. Jane was 48 and had raised 10 children when she took on the raising of her grandson and my great-grandfather, John Homer Jones.

If you look at a picture of Jane and John side-by-side, the family resemblance is undeniable. And he favored her both physically and emotionally.

“We used to go there (to visit Jane Jones, who lived with a daughter) every Sunday,” Lucille said. “We would race in the house, and the first one there would brush her hair. It was white. She could sit in the chair, and her hair would touch the floor.”

That white hair was evident in the tintype that came via the email, her locks parted on the side and pulled back into a bun of some kind. Lucille had the same kind of white hair herself. It’s the kind of hair that a woman who decides to let her hair do what it will hopes to discover with time.

As to the age of the tintype, it’s hard for me to know for sure, but the oval, hand-colored image, according to Bill Blanton’s guide to determining the age of ancestor’s photographs, suggests it was produced after 1856.  I’d guess quite a bit after, given Jane’s careworn face and shock-white hair.

Lucille’s older sister, Marie Jones Relyea, took part in an oral history conducted by my uncle in 1997.

“I remember her being the tiniest little shriveled up lady you ever want to see. Hard of hearing. Could hardly see….” Marie said. “I know that she was very, very old. And I knew that they revered her, the family revered her because she was so old. I can remember that.”

Jane Clark Jones died Jan. 21, 1931, in Walker County, Georgia. She is buried in White Cemetery in Walker County, on Lookout Mountain. If those dates are correct, that would have made her 82 at death, about double her life expectancy.

“I was about 7 years old when she died,” Lucille said.

“They cut down a pine tree, had it planed and made into her coffin. We took it to Chattanooga and had it lined, bought the handles. She said she didn’t want to be taken to the cemetery in a car, so we all walked behind a wagon carrying her coffin when she died.”

Marie too remembered the funeral of Jane Clark Jones.

“Dad built her coffin when I was just a little girl,” Marie said. “I remember we were living on Lookout Mountain when she died. And we went down, they had her lumber sawed and in the barn for that, you know. They did that in those days. It was cured and everything.”

As I research family, I collect dates, and sometimes images, but what I really want are the stories. And seeing Jane Clark Jones after hearing those stories makes her all the more real to me. It underscores my own need to step up the efforts to record oral histories.

Without that conversation, how would I ever know that Jane Clark preferred a horse-drawn hearse? That her white hair touched the floor?

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Ask Grandma before you ask Google to fill in genealogy blanks

I must confess it: I committed a genealogy sin. What does every newcomer to family history hear? Start with what you know and work backwards. I know this rule, but I transgressed. My penance was the thrill of discovery, followed by the chagrin of realizing that the generation to which I had leapt was, alas, not of my line.

I Googled. When my query about George Friedman in St. Joseph County, Indiana, turned up a match that placed him there in 1859, I was hooked.

This 1859 George Friedman had it all — land, public esteem, an origin in Bavaria, a slew of children. Thanks to free Google ebooks, I could read about him “History of St. Joseph County,” published by C.C. Chapman & Co. in 1880. Page 759 offered the kind of background that a researcher dreams about, information that goes beyond vital statistics and paints a picture of your ancestors. “Mr. Friedman and family are members of the Catholic Church; his educational advantages in Germany were good. He owns 90 acres of good land on sec. 9, worth about $60 per acre, and is a hard-working man.” Catholic, educationally advantaged, hardworking. Great details.

One problem: The George Friedman I had been searching arrived in the United States, in the Port of New York, in 1892. I know he’s my George Friedman, originally spelled Friedmann, because I’ve climbed the ladder to reach him, starting with the most recent generation and connecting each generation to the one that preceded it.

This 1859 George Friedman could be a relative of some kind. Separated by more than 30 years, the two George Friedmans did land in the same county, and they do share a name. It was not uncommon for immigrants to come to America and then bring relatives across the pond in waves to join them.

But alas, the older George Friedman is not in my direct line. I spent a good deal of energy tracking this other George in public documents before realizing he couldn’t be my guy.

You’ll get farther, faster, if you start your research by printing off one of the many ancestor or pedigree charts and family group sheets available for free online and filling in the blanks, starting with yourself. Ancentry.com offers free downloadable forms, and Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet can connect you with others. Write in your parents, their parents… go as far as you can, and if you are guessing, make sure to note that. If you know Grandpa’s age but not his birthday, you might note that you are estimating by using the word “circa” before the year. You always can amend your sheet with true dates once you have verified them, and circa or est. is a good flag so you don’t start to believe your guesstimates.

Vital statistics — birth, marriage, dates of death for loved ones you have lost — are the building blocks of a successful family tree. Start with those living around you and pepper them, gently, with questions. Plenty will feel pleased to share. I’ve never encountered a relative, no matter how distant, who wasn’t happy to hear the next generation taking an interest in the family history.

As easy as it is in the digital now to ask Google, you would best be served by asking Grandma.