In this photo behind me lived the pioneer woman in rural Kentucky. Read her true story.
Jen Nova (Jennie) Jenkins was born in rural western Kentucky November 26, 1882. Jennie was my great, great aunt and a pioneer woman who was the embodiment of the “gentle woman” as told to me by her great granddaughter Joyce Hankins Candela. Women for centuries were seen as second class citizens and most men considered them as property. This led to extremely difficult lives for women of this era.
Jennie was born to a mentally fragile woman by the name of Sarah Blankenship. Sarah was not married to Jennie’s assumed father whose surname was Calvert. The Calverts were some of the founding settlers to the United States migrating to Kentucky.
Homelife for Jennie was unstable. Her mother Sarah borrowed money to put food on the table to feed the family. James Jones ( J J) Jenkins an elderly man who had accumulated quite a bit of wealth gave her a loan. At the high watershed of his wealth according to census records he owned 2000 acres. When he demanded repayment, Sarah could not. For reasons not completely understood by all, Sarah chose to give her ten year old daughter Jennie away as a servant to him as payment. J J Jenkins agreed to this. The outstanding loan was for $100.
J J Jenkins was a widower with five living grown children. This was an easy way for him to get a servant. After all he had been a slave owner in the past. In 1892 at the age of ten, Jennie began keeping house which included cooking, laundry, and taking care of J J and his grown children. Jennie was a mere child doing servant work with no respect.
When Jennie moved in with J J in his familial homestead, they lived in a log cabin. The cabin set back 200 yards from an old graveyard that would come to hold the Jenkins’ ancestors including J J ‘s parents, brothers, his first wife, and many more. The cemetery was above a creek bed in separating the cabin from the dead.
The unobtrusiveness of this cabin gave the illusion of easy maintenance. It was nothing of the kind. In this rustic log home, a tall stack of wood by the fireplace accented one wall. It was expected Jennie would keep the home warm, gather the crops, cook the meals and sew clothes. At one point, J J forced Jennie to cut her long auburn hair off so it did not impede her duties. Jennie’s granddaughter Joyce states her grandmother held onto the three foot long ponytail in case she would need to sell it to a wig maker. She was keeping it as security for the future, however, by the time Joyce married Jennie gave it to her granddaughter as a gift. The faded ponytail is cherished to this day.
By 1894, it became apparent to Jennie that J J wanted more from her. Eventually at the age of 12 on September 20, 1894 the two legally married. However, the legal age for marriage was 14 so J J wrote she was 15 years old. Jennie may have not understood the forms since she was did not read at this time. J J stated he was 68.
By the 1900 census, Jennie and J J were living without any of his previous children. The census indicates Jennie had taught herself to read and write by then. The census also indicated how big the Jenkins ownership of land was with family members owning surrounding land on their own farms. The census seems to indicate Whitnell Jenkins property being divided up between his living children. There were Calverts living next door which could have possibly been grandparents to Jennie. Thomas Jenkins the youngest son of J J was near by on his farm and then there was Polly Jenkins the widow of J J’s oldest brother George on her homestead and Sara Hobby his daughter on another. The older brother was near Lewis Jenkins. Grandchildren were living near by with the surname Masons and then my own line my great grandpa William Farr Jenkins, a nephew to J J living on a farm with his huge family. Numerous family members were continuing to live off Whitnell Jenkins original homestead earned from the War of 1812.
Before the 1910 census, J J and Jennie had four children with three surviving. As J J ages he became more dependent upon Jennie. In fact as told to me by Tom Jenkins one of only two living grandson’s of J J’s in an apparent attempt to look younger, he dyed his gray hair black. After dyeing his hair, he went to work in the coal mines and while sweating, the dye ran into his eyes causing blindness.
J J succumbed on Sept 24th 1909 after 15 years of marriage. Jennie had just turned 27. She could finally give her real age.
When J J died , Jennie was left with no means of support. Perhaps Kentucky State laws did not protect wives yet. For whatever reason, Jennie was on her own. One family member did send her son Leman off to boarding school and he received a high school degree. Jennie’s daughters weren’t afforded the same luxury. After Leman returned from school, he decided to move to St. Louis, Missouri and eventually Jennie joined him with his sisters Clara and Ruby. Jennie owned nothing yet she was now FREE from the oppressive life she led. She never complained.
Left to Right Ruby Mae, Clara Mae, and Alvin Clinton Hankins
Jennie’s journey allowed her freedom to help herself and take care of her children as she wished. Being in an environment now of her own making even led her to teach herself to read. When reminiscing about her grandmother, Joyce said, “She never owned a thing, yet seemed to own the world with all the love she shared with me. I will never forget as a little girl Jennie sitting on a glider rocker singing while I laid my head on grandma’s lap.”
Jennie died on her 84th birthday of a heart attack. She was about to have a party utilizing her first old age pension check when suddenly she began experiencing chest discomfort. She asked to be taken to the hospital and died within hours of arriving. Joyce states grandma was a bit of a superstitious woman and would not have wanted to die in her own bed as she would not have liked the family to have had that memory of her. An amazing pioneer woman again never thinking of herself.
This author would like to thank the contributions to this story: Joyce Hankins Candela, Tom Jenkins, Shelia Hart, Diana Hazelbaker, and Peggy Gilkey . In my research, I talk to many hoping to get the most honest picture of a subject. It is my hope and wish that I have done this with great aunt Jennie’s legacy. I would caution the reader as you make commentary in your mind of Jennie and J. J. that you remember the culture of their times. Please feel free to comment on this post and we will see you all on my next installment.