Springdale Friends Cemetery, Springdale Township, Cedar County, Iowa
Thomas W. Jenkins
Called As A Slave Richard 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.
I decided to see what I could find out about Thomas Jenkins. I learned quickly (initially from a 1959 essay by Jeanette Mather Lord recounting her early childhood memories of him)** that Thomas Jenkins was a longstanding, well-known member of the Springdale community, not just someone who happened to be buried there.
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.
**Lord, Jeannette M. “Thomas W. Jenkins.” The Palimpsest 90 (2009), 88-89.
Available at: https://ir.uiowa.edu/palimpsest/vol90/iss2/19