I’m a collector of things. I like to have the full set.
I’ve got stacks of postcards I bought at thrift stores. I have over 3,000 postage stamps and a rapidly expanding vinyl collection that will soon require more shelving. I have an urge to fill my kitchen with canisters…I like collecting. This tendency doesn’t stop with physical objects, it also applies to information. My deep desire to collect has aided me in my recent research – translation: I have been obsessively driven. My motto became “find all the things”.
While I had great success in finding out facts about the man from the suitcase (which I will share with you here) the most important discovery was a complete surprise.
Armed with a name, a birth year and the state the man from the suitcase was born, I bit the bullet and signed up with the mothership of genealogy research: www.ancestry.com.
John Paul Jones was born in 1912, in the state of Michigan. This basic information came from his enlistment record, which I found in the National Archives. You can learn more about that discovery in this post. It’s a fascinating testament to the dedication of the folks at the National Archives and all who contribute to the preservation of our Military records.
It doesn’t take an expert to use ancestry.com; you just plug in a name and off you go. In fact, I encourage everyone to sign up for a free trial and have a poke around in the closets and steamer trunks of your ancestors. (I wish I was being paid for this plug, but I’m not). You’ll almost certainly receive an instant payoff, and your initial search may be the first step in an intriguing and rewarding journey. At the very least, you’ll have the most interesting “what did you do this weekend?” story.
That being said, being a total rookie on genealogy research, I did what all children do when they are feeling overwhelmed and not up-to-task: I called my mum. She’s done a huge amount of research on our family on the UK Ancestry site and she patiently held my hand during those first few steps, much as she did 34 years ago.
The greatest lesson she taught me was always confirm your initial findings with at least one piece of corroborating evidence. With a name as common as John Paul Jones, this tip proved to be handy numerous times.
Ancestry.com presented me with three census records from the years 1925, 1930 & 1940.
As I didn’t pay much attention to my Government 101 class in high-school, I was unaware that the census is a requirement of the Constitution. Now I am an adult with access to the internet, I have no excuse to remain in the dark. The Constitution requires that Congress conduct a census every 10 years to determine the representation of each state in the House of Representatives. The first census in the United States, and the first country-wide census in the world was taken in 1790.
In the 1920s, the population in densely packed urban areas had exploded, and the Southern Congressmen who represented large, rural states were getting squeezed out of the House. After the 1920 census was analyzed, Congress discovered they would need 50 additional seats to keep the Southern states from losing representation. Without the addition, the seats of the South would be handed over to states like Massachusetts, where the population was booming. Foreseeing a future when the number of seats would increase beyond manageability, Congress did not add seats or reapportion the seats in the house after the 1920 census. This was the first and last time in the nation’s history that the census would not result in a redistribution of district seats.
This decision lead to a lot of political huffing-and-puffing, bill-blocking and general uncooperative bloody-mindedness between the Northern and Southern states for the next nine years. The stand-off lasted until the number of seats was capped at 435 in 1929 and 1930 census was once again used to create a more balanced ratio of seats to the population.
Some things never change.
Here is the ‘facts and figures’ part:
The earliest census that listed a John Paul Jones (b. 1912) was the 1925 census of Cayuga County, NY. Recorded in the town of Union Springs, NY.
Here’s what the census tells us:
J. K. Jones
- Head of household
- 43 years of age
- Occupation: Minister
Vesti I Jones
- Spouse of JKJ
- 38 years of age
- Occupation: House work
- Daughter of JKJ and VIJ
- 14 years of age
- In school
John Paul Jones
- Son of JKJ and VIJ
- 12 years of age
- In school
The only thing that I couldn’t confirm is the date of birth. At 12 years old in 1925, it’s possible that he was born in 1912 or he could have been born in 1913. Following the sound advice of my mother, I knew I had to corroborate the names of his family with another source.
I flipped through my artifact binder, looking for any names other than JPJ’s. I knew I had a letter, but it’s signed ‘Mother’ and the hand-writing is very hard to read. I have some pictures, one which has ‘Vesta’ penned on the back, but it’s a picture of an infant. Only the picture had the faintest link to the family name. Starting from the beginning, I flipped through the pages one by one, scouring artifacts for a clue.
Stuck behind a folded map of Paris was a blank cream envelope I hadn’t paid much attention to. I fished it out and found a folded piece of creamy card stock.
Bingo! Elder and Mrs. J. K. Jones announce the marriage of their daughter Marjorie Ina. Those are my Joneses!
The 1930 census is from the same town, and has a little more information on it.
Some additional details on this census include state of birth for each member of the household, total value of home and education history. Details that differ or are new are italicized below.
J. K. Jones
- Occupation: Minister at Adventist church
- Married Vesta when he was 24
- Born in Maryland
Vesta I Jones
- Married JKJ when she was 20
- Born in Indiana
Ina M. Jones
- Born in Massachusetts
John Paul Jones
- Born in Michigan
Based on the Home Data column, the Joneses rented their house for $25 a month. With today’s inflation, that’s about $340/month.
That deep desire to collect I wrote about at the beginning of this post? Well, it’s certainly helped me, but it also got me into trouble.
Once I had the full list of family names and places of residence, the information came flooding in. I quickly accumulated stacks of information on the Joneses, JPJ’s life in Nashville and his work with the 7th Day Adventist Church. My mum and I had hour-long phone calls, making rapid-fire connections and arguing over puzzles. Within a week, I had gone from two artifacts with a single name to over 62 electronic documents, 20 people mapped out on a family tree and 15 more promising leads. I was buried.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve been trying to compress all the information I’ve found into a blog post and I have been failing miserably. I would start it up and then fizzle out. I’ve got piles of information to share, but every attempt felt like an essay about facts and figures…not people. To be frank, it was BORING. I’d slapped the laptop shut in disgust on a number of occasions, shoving it away across the dining room table with a sneer. I’d lost the heart of the story.
One evening, ignoring the black hole on the laptop, I spent some time with the negatives I had scanned. I began to post them on instagram, mainly for a small collection of found photo and genealogy enthusiasts. I also documented some of the artifacts in the case, posting them to Instagram and tumblr. As I handled each of them, I paid attention to their musty texture on my fingertips. The fragile creases of the papers, made weak from decades of folding and unfolding, reminded me that other hands held these letters, maps and city guides. The screensaver on our downstairs computer is comprised of our own photos and I often get caught up in them, re-visiting the places and the people I captured. I’m sure it was true of the photos from the suitcase; why else do people take photos other than to look back at where they have been, remember things they had seen and felt?
These items belonged to people. People like us: travelers, daughters and sons, lovers and friends. It was time to pull that back into focus and find the people again.
One other important document I found was JPJ’s Birth Record. I found this on familysearch.org, a free genealogy resource run by the LSD. John Paul Jones was born on October 9th, 1912.
JPJ’s birth is recorded on the City of Lowell, MA register. Based on the 1930 census, I knew that the Joneses lived in Massachusetts during the birth of their daughter, Marjorie, who is only two years older than JPJ. Here’s where it gets odd…
Why would JPJ’s birth be registered in Massachusetts if he was born in Michigan? His is the only record on the page that has a birthplace other than Lowell, Mass (except for one baby born in Boston, a mere 30 miles away). Before I found this document, I assumed that the family moved from Massachusetts to Michigan after Marjorie was born, and because the move happened in the years between the census collections, there would be no government record of their short residence in Michigan. I think JPJ was born on the road…but why so far from home?
Lowell, Massachusetts is 853 miles away from Cedar Springs, Michigan…and that’s if you take a straight shot through Canada. If you stick to the U.S. of A., it’s 100+ miles further, as you have to navigate around Lake Erie.
Why would the Joneses be so far away from home? John’s dad was an Adventist Minister, maybe he was a traveling preacher? I didn’t imagine that the salary of a Adventist Minister would support a sight-seeing tour of the Northeast, especially with a hugely pregnant wife. As I ruminated on these questions, my phone buzzed, alerting me to a text from Mum.
It was a lightbulb moment. Why else do people travel millions of miles each year? To see family! What do I do when I’m feeling overwhelmed and not up-to-task? I call my mum. Who do you want to be around when you are really, really pregnant? Your Mum. It was a hunch, but it was enough to get started.
A bit of quick math from the age of Vesta on the 1930’s census, I could put her birth year close to 1886/87. After finding a marriage record for John K Jones and Vesta Ida in 1908, I learned her maiden name was Covert. Her full birth name, Vesta Ida Covert and a birth year was enough to get me a hit on another census.
This 1900 census from the state of Kansas has Vesta, at the age of 8, living in Jefferson Co, Kansas with her parents, John and Mary Covert and her two brothers, Walter and Ezra.
10 years later, in 1910, John and Mary Covert are in Allegan, Michigan. Allegan is only 60 miles away from Cedar Springs, Michigan.
I believe that the Joneses headed off to visit Ma and Pa Covert in Michigan. Maybe the plan was to have the baby while they were there…maybe our man came a little early. Either way…it’s a hell of a long way to travel back with two year old Marjorie and a new born baby.
Since I started thinking about the Joneses as an actual working, living family, I have become more interested in these little stories than the facts. Although every little ‘find’ in the census was celebrated, it’s the stories that these discoveries tell. I’ll be doing my best to dig out these stories and share them with you.
“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
― Philip Pullman
So…how did the Joneses travel over 800 miles to get back home? Well, I have some ideas on that too. Stay tuned for the next installment!
***SPOILER ALERT*** It contains a lot of cool maps!