This past week I spent time researching my maternal side…the Dennis line of Giles County, Virginia. While I pieced together the family of Henry G. Dennis and Mary Jane Borden, I was drawn to their son, John Borden Dennis. He is not a direct ancestor. In fact, he’s my 1st cousin 4x removed. There was nothing special about him, but I found his life’s journey interesting.
Giles County is in southwestern Virginia on the West Virginia border.
Born in the late 1850s in Pearisburg, Giles, Virginia, John stayed with his family through 1870. So far, I can’t find him in the 1880 census. My guess is he was moving west because in 1894 he resided in Santa Clara County, California, about 50 miles south of San Francisco. The voter register for that year was very informative. It listed John Borden Dennis as a 37-year-old, 5’6 1/2″ tall with a fair complexion, blue eyes, and light brown hair. He worked as a laborer with a birthplace of Virginia, and residence in Moreland, California.1
By 1900 he moved closer to San Franciso, settling in San Mateo, California. He was a servant/laborer in the home of William Hull. Then by 1910 he relocated even further north to Tehama County, California, and worked for the Stanford Vina Ranch Camp as a hired man. 1920 found John near the Mexican border working as a hired man in Calexico, California. Since the census is only taken every 10 years, it’s possible John moved even more frequently, but there are no records to reveal this.
You may ask yourself why I spent time researching a distant cousin who stayed single and moved around a lot as a laborer. I think it’s because my husband and I have worked and traveled through many of the same places John worked and traveled.
Rob and I vacationed in San Mateo, a beautiful place. It was during this trip that we ventured to Muir Woods National Monument north of San Francisco. I didn’t enjoy the winding road to get there, but the views were worth the headache!
Calexico is also a place that my husband and I know well. We have taken many truckloads out of there.
According to John’s death certificate, his final days were spent at the Midnight Mission in French Camp, San Joaquin County, California, just south of Stockton.2 He is buried at the San Joaquin County Hospital Cemetery. Find A Grave states this cemetery was used for those who died at the hospital and could not afford burial anywhere else.3
The company my husband and I used to drive for has a terminal in the next town over from French Camp. Another place we have in common.
I don’t know the details of John’s life. Was he happy moving around so much or did he do it just to survive? Did he stay in touch with his family back in Virginia? These are questions I probably won’t ever find answers to.
Since we just celebrated Labor Day, I wanted to recognize someone in my past who was a true laborer. I may not think of him again, however, today he is remembered. Researching this man didn’t extend my family tree but it did fill it out that much more. It’s important to remember those overlooked individuals who may not have anyone else to do so. They are just as important to your legacy as your direct line.
Do you have ancestors you need to find? Please reach out as I’d love to help you find them.
Genealogy tip: Interesting stories can be found in ancestors other than our direct line. Take a little time to research their lives and you too may find similarities with those from your past.
1 Santa Clara County, California, Great Register, vol. 1894, John Borden Dennis; digital images, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com: accessed 6 Sep 2023), image 65; citing FHL microfilm 977290.
2 “California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:ZZ4N-G7PZ: accessed 8 Sep 2023), John B Dennis, 1935.