‘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?