Teen With Passion For History Accepts Challenge
FRIENDLY – Fall has arrived, so the shadows are growing longer on many places few and far between where gravestones mark the passage of time.
And Tyler County has been around for a long time.
The Tyler Star News challenged one teen with a passion for history to find the oldest known grave in the county. That’s no small feat when considering the county was originally part of Virginia and named after John Tyler Sr., the father of President John Tyler, when it was founded in 1814.
Eli Henthorn, 16, knew the answer as if it was a World Series box score. Not only that, the Middlebourne teenager was able to accurately pinpoint that grave whose namesake has an amazing story that touches the foundation of Ohio and Tyler counties. Henthorn said he never expected to find something of this degree of historical significance.
“Most of our stuff has been eroded away like this stone here. It’s almost gone,” Henthorn said while pointing to the county’s oldest grave marker. “Most of our old, old graves like this are gone because they’ve eroded away and disappeared over time.”
For video about Henthorn, see the Tyler Star News Facebook page.
The teen is passionate about local history.
“I think this research is important because it is our heritage and it’s where we come from,” he said. “It’s very interesting, because if one single person back in your family line had made one decision differently like to not come to America from across the pond, or to join the western migration movement – your life would be very different.”
Henthorn said he became first interested in local cemeteries when he and his dad Jamie would go four-wheeling on back roads in Tyler County.
“When I was really young, my dad used to take us around on four-wheeler rides and we’d stop at some of the cemeteries and look around at the old stones, so I guess I was intrigued by it,” he said.
Blast from the Past
Tyler County’s oldest gravestone is found in an abandoned church yard on Rt. 2 near the county line with Pleasants County. The 211-year-old stone dates back to 1805 and belongs to Rachel (Grist) Jolly, based on Henthorn’s research of which he collaborated with Richard Neff. Her story comes from a letter that was sent to the Wheeling Intelligencer in May 1874 from one of Grist’s descendants.
Back in the 1770s, Indian attacks loomed large in the Wheeling area.
When Shepherd’s Fort in the Elm Grove area was to be evacuated, the Grist family decided to return to their home about two miles away. That’s when 11-year-old Rachel Grist’s story began.
The family was attacked by Indians near Tridelphia in 1777 the same year Fort Henry was attacked by 400 to 500 Indians and a small contingent of British troops.
The Indians may have murdered Grist’s parents and her four siblings.
“When near the mouth of Peter’s Run, a party of Indians who had watched their movements at the fort, fell upon them and murdered, or supposed they had, all but one whom they took prisoner,” according to the Wheeling Intelligencer.
During the attack, Rachel Grist’s skull was fractured when she was attacked by a war club and taken prisoner. Later, Grist was scalped and left for dead on Chapline Hill, which is located behind Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling. A company of pack horsemen discovered the 11-year-old girl under a tree about a quarter of a mile from National Road she was still alive. The men carried her to Fort Henry, where she received medical attention and recovered.
“This aspect of the story is amazing that she survived but that’s wasn’t the end of her story,” Henthorn said.
Grist married Captain Henry Jolly and became the mother of five children four sons and one daughter. According to research from Henthorn and his neighbor, Richard Neff, Captain Jolly was from Washington County, Pa. He had served as a justice of the peace for several years, was a Common Pleas Court Judge and later served in the state Legislature in Pennsylvania.
To bring Grist’s tale full circle, what was this Pennsylvania gentleman’s connection to Tyler County? Later, Jolly would become the first operator of the Sistersville Ferry when it was first established in 1817. The ferry will be celebrating its 200th anniversary next year.
His wife, Rachel (Grist) Jolly, died when she was 40 years old from the effects of the wounds she received from the Indians. She is buried in 1805 on land formerly known as the Nicolas Wells Farm, an early pioneer in Tyler County now the site of an abandoned church that sits next to a cemetery along Route 2. A few of the letters on the grave marker are visible, but otherwise faded.
A Teen with a Passion for the Past
Finding Tyler County’s oldest known grave was no small task.
Speaking in general terms, Henthorn said he consults a lot of sources when searching out answers about Tyler County’s history, cemeteries and gravestones.
“There are many sources I go to when I research,” said Henthorn, who attends classes at West Virginia Northern Community College. “You just have to go where there might possibly be information. Even just a little scrap here or there. Some of the best sources are the courthouse, local history books, censuses, old newspaper articles, and with the wonderful world we have today, one can find almost anything with the help of Google.”
Henthorn said the best source of information he has found so far in his favorite realm of research (Elk Fork/Indian Creek history) is his neighbor, Richard Neff.
“If it hadn’t been for his help, encouragement, and generosity, I would never have made it halfway through my family tree, or any other kind of historical research for that matter,” he said.
Neff said he learned his research skills from years of looking through courthouse records and from his mother, Marybelle “Ruth” Ferrell Neff, who was well versed in local history, as well as Wilma Fiber, a noted Tyler County genealogist. Not only are the Henthorns and Neff neighbors, Henthorn’s great-grandmother, Irene Fox, was related to Neff’s family.
“We started talking four or five years ago about where area area families with commonly known names like Tennant, Ferrell, Haught and Lemasters are buried,” Neff said. “He learned a lot from me and I’m learning a lot from him. When he was 11 years old, Eli was big into geneology and history. When I would tell him something, he would remember it. He has an extraordinary mind – no doubt about it.”
Neff said finding the oldest grave was not an easy task, but a worthwhile one.
“We did the research and then when we discovered who it was and where the grave was located, we visited the cemetery near Bens Run,”Neff said. “We were shocked that not only did we find the grave, but that it was still there.”
Henthorn said the best method for finding the grave of an ancestor is to first search for it on www.findagrave.com.
“This is an amazing tool for the genealogy researcher, or just someone wondering where uncle so-and-so is buried,” he said. “Often times you can even find family pictures on this site. If you can’t find it here, you may want to try looking through the many county cemetery indexes.”
Such indexes are located at Tyler County Museum’s Genealogy Room while others are online such as Gary Patterson’s “Tyler County Cemetery Index” or the Holler Sisters Website, www.lostbutnotforgottengenealogy.com .
“If still no luck, just ask around to family members or people from the area. Maybe somebody will know,” Henthorn said.
Henthorn said asking people questions is the key to solid research.
“The most important thing to do when conducting research is to just ask people,” he said. “Most likely they can either answer your question, or give you some kind of information that you can use to search further. And if they don’t know, they might just know someone who does! It’s also important to do this because in the process you will make connections, and if you’re lucky, friends.”