The band Kansas released their first, self- titled album in 1974 and you should listen Carry On My Wayward Son now. Really, do it. Behold.
Here is the cover:
And this is the 1940 mural Tragic Prelude by regionalist (my favorite kind!) painter John Steuart Curry on a wall in the Kansas statehouse:
You can read a scholarly article, “Kansas and the Prophetic Tone” by Mitchell Morris, if you’d like: (I found it on Jstor.) It is about the band more generally but refers to the mural’s “ambivalent ferocity.”
Some claim the song, Carry On My Wayward Son is about John Brown. I don’t think we know if that was the intention of the writer, but like the fella says, it’s all about the beholder.
In 1842 Ann Lynch Coppoc of Ohio suddenly became a young Quaker widow with six children (Levi, Maria, Edwin, Lydia, Barclay and Joseph). Left without much means she had to accept help and split the children up to to live with various friends and relatives. Eight years later, about 1850, she inherited $100 and used it to reunite her family. Many Quakers were moving west and settling in Iowa where the government was selling land for $1.25 an acre so she got her children together and moved to the area that would become Springdale, in Cedar County. The oldest boys, Levi (18) and Edwin (15) built the house and started a farm.
Within a few years Ann married Joseph Raley, a widower with four children (Eliza, Jordan, Absalom and Asenath) and he came to live on her farm. Like many Quakers, Ann opposed slavery and her farm became a “station” on the Underground Railroad where many freedom seekers stopped on their journey north. Even though Iowa was a free state, the Fugitive Slave Law meant no one with brownish skin was safe anywhere in the country.* Ann was an outspoken, rabble rousing kind of Quaker and her sons learned from her. However not as she intended, Levi, Edwin and Barclay all got in trouble with the Quaker meeting for dancing and fighting and being unrepentant about it. Levi became Springdale’s first constable. At some point Ann also ran a store in town. Over the next several years Maria, Lydia and Levi all died of tuberculosis.
When little Ann Lynch was about five, Thomas Jenkins was born in Virginia where he worked as a slave. Later he was taken to Tennessee, then Missouri.
Meanwhile, John Brown (1800-1859) like Ann, grew up in northeastern Ohio and by the 1850’s completely dedicated his life to the abolition of slavery. He was not a Quaker, but he was on a mission from God and he believed that violence was required as morality and politics had failed. The cause of abolition brought John Brown to Springdale, a town of Quakers who hated both slavery and violence.
After participating in bloody guerilla warfare in Kansas (and here I am glossing over a great deal of mass killing) the eleven men of Brown’s militia spent the winter of 1857/58 in Springdale. They boarded with a family on a local farm while Brown himself went back east to raise money and support. The men studied military books, read poetry, and did drills out in the yard with guns and wooden swords. They dated the Quaker girls. For entertainment on long winter nights they held mock legislatures and debates that the community attended. That winter is when Edwin and Barclay Coppoc got involved.* Jeanette Mather Lord reports how fondly the elders spoke of that winter with the interesting and passionate young abolitionists in residence.
Despite striking contradictions, the radically pacifist Quakers loved John Brown. Did they not understand his position on violence? Did they somehow mentally separate his aims and his means? Or did they secretly support his use of violence? Lord discussed this with her mother. Basically, John Brown inspired confidence:
The meeting “were united in their testimony for peace…in their efforts to free the slaves and in their disapproval of the use of force by Brown. They spoke their minds frankly and forcefully at every opportunity without fear. Yet, Mother would continue, when John Brown stated that he felt he was called by the almighty God to deliver the nation from Slavery and that his mission was “divinely appointed,” the Friends could not doubt him. With their belief in the “Inner Light” and “that of God in Everyman” the Quakers expect one’s conduct to be in agreement with the inner revelation. The individual must assume full responsibility for his spiritual decisions. Hence they responded to John Brown with an unwillingness to judge him or to set themselves up against him As Brown walked among them, they shared the burden of his soul, the great weight of the shackles of the thousands of men in bondage.”
Early in 1859 John Brown and his men came through Springdale again, this time with a group of twelve enslaved people they’d forcibly liberated from farms in Missouri. Federal marshals and vigilantes were in hot pursuit but never caught them. The freedom seekers were secretly transported in a boxcar from West Liberty to Chicago and John Brown personally saw them cross the border to Chatham, Ontario. A baby was born during the trip and named John Brown. Another young couple from the group were married by a local magistrate while in Springdale. Here they are in a studio portrait many years later:
In October of 1859 John Brown and his small militia, (including Edwin and Barclay Coppoc – their friend Elza Maxson, from Springdale, arrived too late) carried out their raid on the United States Arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The grand plan was to seize the arsenal and use the weapons to arm a huge slave insurrection and despite their wholehearted intent, they failed. Barclay was among those that escaped. Edwin was among those caught.
Perhaps just before the raid in the fall of 1859 Thomas Jenkins had “some kind of trouble” with his master and escaped on foot even though it meant leaving his wife and child behind in Missouri. He said that he walked at night, following the North Star, and slept hidden in cornfields during the day. He ate raw field corn to survive. He finally arrived in Springdale in November and Lord wrote that his feet were so frozen his boots had to be cut off. As soon as he could he continued on to Canada. He certainly must of gotten an earful regarding the Springdellian’s (just made that up) old friend, “the Old Man,” John Brown. He a could easily have still been recuperating in the Springdale area on December 2, when Brown and Edwin Coppoc were executed by hanging.
On the day of Edwin’s execution a friend came to be with Ann who let her in and said, “I’m glad thou art come. Edwin was hanged at one o’clock today.” On December 3, Barclay Coppoc came home. He had been in hiding and was still being pursued by authorities so from then on he was always armed and under the protection of his also-armed friends. He was read out of the meeting for carrying a weapon. In 1861 Barclay joined the Union army and was killed when Confederates burned the train trestle he was traveling across. I don’t know if you are keeping count, but this left Ann Raley with one child, Joseph, who was also put out of meeting for bearing arms. Two of her husband Joseph’s children were long grown and married and the third, Jordan, classified as “idiotic” on the census, remained at home.
Good old Springdale, Iowa, now only a wide spot in the road, where Thomas Jenkins arrived in 1859 and chose to return to a decade or more later, was not any old Springdale. It was a real hot spot and kind of bonkers, with religious people going all out as best they could and not always getting it right. Or maybe they did.
Another story, kind of related but not perfectly: George and Maria Tyler and eight of their children were one of the other Black families that returned to settle in Springdale after the war. They had been sold away from each other and managed to find each other and most of their children after they were free. George was at Pikes Peak (you know, the Gold Rush) with his master when they got word of John Brown’s execution. Apparently the master, Colonel Johnson, turned and handed George his papers right there. George, Maria and some of the children are buried at North Liberty Cemetery, also near Springdale and literally around the corner from the house Brown’s men stayed in during the winter of 1957/58.
* The Fugitive Slave law was basically a bounty system, not unlike the new abortion law in Texas. Under it Black people could be detained if suspected of being runaways and had to be returned to their owners. If an owner was not found and the person could not prove somehow that they were free they were auctioned off on the courthouse steps. So making it to Iowa was good, but they were still being pursued.
*in other times and circumstances we would say they were “radicalized.”
I live now about ten miles from Springdale, Iowa in a house that was built around the time Thomas Jenkins first came to the state. I arrived in this area in 1979, when I was in tenth grade at Scattergood Friends School, two and a half miles from Springdale. Mom had married her second husband that summer in the Quaker meetinghouse at Scattergood. Their marriage entailed moving into his house in rural Illinois so I ran a successful begging campaign and was allowed to go to Scattergood instead.
When things didn’t go as she planned Mom absconded to Springdale, where there were a few Quakers she knew and an old general store for rent with an apartment in the back which became my home base for the next several years. Her house was on a gravel street leading out of town to the cemetery, at the top of a rise, and that was the best place to head to for a walk. That means I probably first saw Thomas’s grave over Thanksgiving or Christmas of 1979. Springdale Friends Cemetery is a small plot with about six hundred memorials overhung by very old evergreens. Thomas W. Jenkins’s stone is in a back corner, bounded on two sides by walls of corn. In winter the stubble is a demonstration of the color “harvest gold” and by the end of June it’s happened all over again and the corn is ten feet high and deep emerald green. The air smells sugary. Respiration from all the corn makes the Iowa countryside even more humid then than it would be otherwise, so great is our hunger for high fructose corn syrup.
I have direct ancestors on both sides of my family who arrived on this stolen continent in the 1600’s and enthusiastically enslaved Black people for profit. On Mom’s side the enslavers were Nantucket Quakers*, and on my father’s side they were Virginia planters. My first ever genealogical motivation was to learn which generation of my forebears was the last to own slaves. I knew about Grandpa’s family but not because anyone ever said anything. I was trying to think, could he have known folks who used to own slaves? Yankees tend to be very naive about these things. The answer was yes, as anyone born near the turn of the last century and especially anyone from slave owning families might have. His grandfather was the right age, but by the time Grandpa was born our branch of the Clopton family had been in Iowa for a few generations. I narrowed it down to my 4x great grandparents, John Robert Clopton and Jane Perkins, of Kentucky, or perhaps their son and daughter in law, my 3x great grandparents David Clopton and Lavinia Jane Cogdal who migrated from Virginia to Missouri and Iowa. It’s all murky, as few families happily spotlight their ancestor’s transgressions.
I wondered about other kinds of distance, not just time and DNA but location and affinity. That’s when my Clopton genealogy went on hold and I began thinking about Thomas Jenkins. Initially it was a Reparational Genealogy project. I set out to make a family tree him, first to simply lift him up as a whole, connected person, and second, to make that basic information about his life available for his descendants. As I learned more I found that I really scored big on my new genealogical dimensions of distance from a historical figure: location and affinity. At that point I couldn’t really stick to building a tree. I knew too much.**
My first inquiries surprised me. Thomas was an integral part of the Springdale Quaker community for over forty years. In fact, there were more Black people living in the vicinity then, by far, than for many decades now. He probably shopped at the grocery store Mom lived in. He may have met John Brown! He knew Herbert Hoover as a boy. We were members of the same little conservative Quaker meeting 100 years apart. I found that he does not have any living descendants. I checked on Ancestry.com for him or his daughter Emily to appear on anyone else’s family trees. No one is looking for them. I’m not sure how that makes me feel – I guess just responsible. Maybe I’m their foster descendant.
Thomas’s life is not unknowable just because he was enslaved. The place he escaped in Missouri could be less than 100 miles from where I live in Iowa. Evidence of him does exist as tally marks on the federal census, decade after decade and someone always had to pay property tax on him, someone filed a deed for him at a county courthouse. Maybe his name is listed in someone’s estate inventory. Maybe his owner placed an ad in the paper promising a reward for his capture where they described him: his stature, scars, mannerisms, his clothing. The evidence is out there. Even though I feel like I am circling closer and closer to the truth he’s obviously remains, in some ways, a needle in the haystack.
Why is a White Lady Writing About a Black Man’s Life When She Has Very Little Business Trying to Do That?
So. Who gets to tell the stories of Black people? Obviously maybe not white people, and I definitely am what has been called a mediocre white woman.*** Maybe the story of Thomas Jenkins is not mine to tell at all and maybe the most respectful, dignified thing to do is let it be forgotten. My Quaker grandparents talked about having wooden grave markers that would last only as long as those who cared. (We used granite anyway, btw.) Oh well.
I’m extremely aware of being a white woman telling a Black man’s story and that I have batrillions of biases, prejudices and ignorance shaping the way I tell it. I could simply report the facts, but that’s boring and a waste of a lot of thoughts and ideas flawed though they may be. If you prefer the bleeped version (bleeped of my thoughts and feelings) I advise skimming.
*two pairs of my 8x great grandparents, William Worth and Sara Macy (Ishmael), James Coffin and Mary Gardner (Hagar). Also one set of my 7x great grandparents, Stephen Hussey and Martha Bunker (Sarah, Mark, Dorothy.) I’m sure there were others, and this doesn’t go into the uncles and cousins, as I’m related to most of the people who settled Nantucket. While this is not directly relevant to Thomas Jenkins it is always good to repeat the names of enslaved people if you know them.
**Plus there was a global pandemic and I needed something else to obsess about.
***If a more qualified writer/researcher wants to take this story over I will step back and let them have at it. I’m not even kidding.
There are a few brief accounts of Tom’s life based on his own telling; Jeanette Mather Lord’s and a couple of short pieces that ran in local newspapers. The article I put in the link above includes the only known photograph of him
Here is the basic outline of his life: Thomas was born in Culpeper County, Virginia, where he recalls sitting in his mother’s lap after seeing his father being whipped by their master. He told her that when he was grown he would be free. She told him to be careful to never say that to anyone else.
He was taken to Missouri (but perhaps first to Tennessee) and enslaved there as well. In about 1859 he had some sort of trouble with his master in which “Tom got the better of him.” The Muscatine Journal obituary continues, “He decided then and there to make a break for liberty.” Thomas left behind his wife and child and travelled north on foot at night and slept in cornfields during the day. He ate field corn to survive for three months.
When he reached Springdale in November (his goal since hearing of it through the grapevine in Missouri) his feet were frozen and his boots had to be cut off. He recuperated there long enough to continue on his way to Canada. At the end of the war Thomas returned to the U.S. and found his wife, but she had remarried so he settled alone in Springdale.
Lord recalls that Tom bought the house just east of the school and lived “alone with his cow, sometimes a calf, his chickens, ducks,” and his black and tan terrier, Dinah. “The house was used in common by all. I cannot say I ever saw the cow in the house, but I have seen the calf in the kitchen drinking from a dish placed on a chair. In the summer the door stood open and the fowls and animals crossed the threshold at will.” Thomas also brought Dinah into Quaker Meeting with him.
When he was about eighty Thomas went to live at the Cedar County Farm because he couldn’t manage at home any longer and that is where he died in 1902.
Everything else I have learned about Thomas Jenkins just hangs on this framework of information. And because I am the one asking the questions, the information I’ve put together just serves them – maybe there is a way to avoid that kind of bias but I didn’t.
Lord, Jeanette Mather, “Thomas W. Jenkins,” Iowa History Illustrated, Summer 2009, pp 87-88, an excerpt from “John Brown: They Had a Concern” West Virginia History, 20:3, April 1959, pp.163-83.
“Death of Uncle Tom” The Muscatine Journal, 12 December 1902, Fri. p.3. newspapers.com
“Thirty Years Ago” Clarence Sun, Cedar County, Iowa Thursday December 8, 1932. advantage-preservation.com
West Branch Times, Thursday July 12, 1900
“A Visit to Springdale” DesMoines Daily News, December 12, 1896, p.2. newspaperarchives.com
Springdale Friends Cemetery, Springdale Township, Cedar County, Iowa
Thomas W. Jenkins
Called As A SlaveRichard Lewis
Died Dec. 9 1902
Aged 83 Years
Seriously, Uncle Tom? You can’t just call someone Uncle Tom.
What was his name, really?
If he changed his name, why put put both on his gravestone?
Why was he buried in Springdale?*
This probably has something to do with Quakers.
I first saw this gravestone in 1979 – and have returned many times to find it just as puzzling as ever. Several yards away is another that reads:
Ann L. Raley
The Mother Of The Coppoc Boys
The Coppoc/Raley family was famous for a while because two of Ann’s sons were part of John Brown’s militia that raided the Harper’s Ferry arsenal in 1859, one of the sparks of the Civil War. One of them was hung beside John Brown, for treason.
These clearly aren’t just memorials, they’re captions for people who had remarkable lives.
The pandemic provided me with ample time to develop a deep obsession with tracking down information about Thomas. I know that he was a conservative Quaker, and a former slave who self-emancipated in about 1859. He was born enslaved in Culpeper County, Virginia and later taken to Missouri. He had a daughter, Emily, who lived and raised her family nearby in West Liberty, Iowa until her husband died in 1913. Tom was about forty when he freed himself and spent another forty in Springdale enjoying “untramelled freedom and the esteem of his friends,” according to one of his obituaries. For the last few years of his life he was cared for at the county poor farm, where he died.
I am determined to figure out who enslaved Thomas – not because that person deserves attention, but because that is the key to understanding the first years of Tom’s life, and it is a very interesting, illuminating life. It will place him in a particular location and community. He carried his slave name, Richard Lewis, throughout his life because it was a connection to his life before the war. My obsessive hunt has included time in archives (during the 2021 summer COVID hiatus), field trips to cemeteries, to the beautiful Missouri countryside that used to be full of plantations and now many ghosts. I also went out to the old county poor farm, and spent lots and lots and lots of time making spreadsheets and pondering and poring over records that are available online. So stay tuned. And please contact me with any questions, comments or collaborations.
*Springdale is an unincorporated town in eastern Iowa with a Methodist church, and that’s about it besides a clump of houses. In the mid-1800s it was a major Quaker settlement and a nest of abolitionists. The Springdale Friends Cemetery is half a mile up a gravel from the spot my family lived in the 1980’s.