Cousin Jasper Gray: an early storyteller

Cousin Jasper S. Gray was one of the early storytellers in the Gray family of Cocke County.

Have you ever played a game in which you’re asked, “If you could have a conversation with any deceased person, who would it be and why?

Those of us who love family history can answer that question in a hurry—with not just one person’s name, but dozens of long dead ancestors who could fill in the gaps of our histories.

For example, I’d love to asked Timothy and Elizabeth Sisk, forerunners of our clan who lived in colonial Virginia lots of things. I’d especially like to ask Elizabeth, “What was your maiden name?” That tidbit of history continues to elude us today!

Another person I’d like to chat with is Cousin Jasper S. Gray.

He was born March 22, 1868, a son of Uncle Newton and Catherine (Lewis) Gray, and lived his life, as far as I know, entirely in Cocke County. Uncle Newton and my great-great-grandfather, William Gray, were brothers.

Somewhere along the way, Cousin Jasper developed an appreciation of history, both his family’s and that of his neighbors. He lived and died in the old Fourth District, close to a slew of his kinfolks.

I first became aware of him when I found a large sheet of paper, about 8 1/2 x 11, tucked inside our big family Bible. Written in pencil, in a beautiful and very legible handwriting, is a record entitled “The Old Folks.” The one-page document lists the family of Jasper’s grandparents, William and Fanny (Fox) Gray, who migrated to Cocke County in 1805 from Virginia. The list names each of the couple’s fifteen children, along with their birth and death dates.

Cousin Jasper, I learned, provided this list for our family. I have a feeling he copied it from an old Bible, which I’ve never found. Over the years, I’ve corroborated all of his information with other records. He knew what he was talking about!

Cousin Jasper was an old-time school teacher, instructing students at such institutions as Hall’s Top, Wilsonville, and Chestnut Hill. As a teacher, he allowed no nonsense in his classroom, as my father, one of his students at Wilsonville, found out the hard way.

A few weeks after school started, Cousin Jasper deemed it necessary to discipline a young Gray O’Neil, who became highly incensed and refused to return to school for the rest of the year. My dad told me the story himself and never quite got over the incident. What amazed me was the fact that my grandparents allowed my dad, who was still in elementary school at the time, to get away with such truancy.

In the early 1980s, Cousin Jasper’s grandson, Alfred Gray, showed me some of his grandfather’s school registers, and lo and behold, there it was, in black and white. Gray O’Neil had maintained perfect attendance until that fateful day toward the end of October and had then been withdrawn!

In addition to his teaching, Cousin Jasper, starting in 1914, was one of those entrusted with the job of filling out formal death certificates. That was the year Tennessee began requiring the official recording of deaths and, from what I can gather, about half a dozen people across the county had this job.

A meticulously filled-out death certificate is a genealogist’s best friend.

The document, in addition to telling us the deceased’s full name (maiden, in the case of a married woman), also lists birth and death dates, cause of death, name of doctor (if one was in attendance), date of funeral, name of cemetery, occupation, and spouse’s name.

Even better, it gives the names of the deceased’s parents and their birthplaces!

Sadly some of the people taxed with this job in Cocke County were very lax and careless in their work, sometimes giving no more information than the deceased’s name and date of death.

However, Cousin Jasper took his duties seriously and painstakingly filled in every blank on the form. Written in his beautiful handwriting, the certificates are extremely valuable to genealogists.

Cousin Jasper married Emma Elizabeth (Fine) Henry (1865-1950). She was a daughter of William and Mary (Wilson) Fine, both members of very old Cocke County families. By her first husband to Llewellen Henry, Emma was the mother of four daughters. Resentment between these girls and their step-father brewed, as evidenced by remarks made by both sides of the question. In a journal, Cousin Jasper, upon the marriage of the last step-daughter, expressed his delight to be rid of the “ungrateful” step-children.

He and Emma went on to have four children of their own: Joseph Alfred, Ella Gertrude, Edward Frank, and Maggie Mildred.

As the years passed, Cousin Jasper became known for his contributions to local newspapers. The headline of his obituary in 1936 called him “...One of County’s Best Informed Men.”

It went on to say,

Mr. Gray wrote numerous articles for the local papers, among which were poetry, history, and philosophy.

At his home he had a well kept library. He always saved important articles, and when references were needed, the public was always welcome to use his collections.

He was able to be in the city about a week ago, and brought a small piece of poetry to the editor. It was printed last week and was headed ‘To Oscar Hicks.’ He could always see the sunny side of life and amused his thousands of friends with his sayings.

From my dad’s recollections of Cousin Jasper, I’m not so sure about his ability to “always see the sunny side of life,” but I’m positive I would enjoy a sit-down chat with him about the old folks. Ah, the stories he could tell!

Don’t forget to share your family’s stories with us for Smoky Mountain Homeplace Part III. Next Friday, Feb. 15, is our deadline for submissions! Don’t be left out!

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