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