The Texan supermodel Jerry Hall first found fame soon after moving to Paris as a teenager. But where did Mick Jagger’s partner for more than 20 years get her “pioneer spirit”, her sense of adventure? “I suppose it’s in the genes,” she says at the start of her episode of Who Do You Think You Are? “We’ll find out.”
The first forebear Jerry goes searching for is a paternal great grandfather, James Hall, but she doesn’t initially find traces of him in the New World. Rather, Jerry heads for Oldham in Lancashire, where she learns James was a child labourer, who worked in a cotton mill as a ‘piecer’, responsible for repairing yarn breakages even as the mill’s machines kept running.
James was promoted to become a supervisor, but in 1881, as he turned 30, his life changed forever when he shipped out for Texas. He was drawn by the prospect of well-paid work constructing the railways and the opportunity to acquire land. Initially, he left his family, a wife and two children, in the UK, and Jerry fears he was “an adventurous cad” who did “a runner”.
In fact, James’s family joined him in 1882, only for his wife, Martha, to die of kidney disease in 1883. It’s unclear what happened to James’s baby son, but it seems a family friend adopted his daughter, Clara.
In 1884, James bought 118.5 acres of land, which he farmed while also continuing to work on the railways. In November 1886, he remarried, to Parthenia Dunham. The couple had eight children. Jerry visits her great grandfather’s farm, now owned by her father’s cousin, Joyce, and even sees an old photograph that, while it’s not labeled, likely shows James, an intense-looking, handsome man. “I think my father’s family had a very hard life,” she says. Nonetheless, James “did make a success” of his life.
Next, Jerry heads for Austin to research her mother’s side of the family. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, an organisation dedicated to perpetuating the memory of the state’s founding families, proves invaluable, as archivist Sharon Hall tells Jerry about her 5x great grandfather, Isaac Best.
Isaac settled in Texas in 1823, when it was still part of Mexico, and regarded by Mexican authorities as a buffer zone against potential Native American attacks. Isaac owned more than 4,000 acres, which he purchased for just $100. Jerry’s disturbed to learn that he owned slaves: “That’s kind of horrific.”
She also discovers that Isaac came to Texas from Missouri, where he lived on the border with lands then known as Indian Territory. In 1814, Native Americans targeted Isaac’s home. Archives in St Charles show he lost goods worth $1,572 in the attack, a substantial amount of money in the 19th century. A far worse loss was to follow. In 1815, Isaac’s teenage son, Isaac junior, serving in a militia, was killed in an encounter with Native Americans. “Wild times,” says Jerry, “it’s like a movie.”
Jerry is able to go back another generation. Isaac’s father, Humphrey Best, headed west from Kentucky. Visiting Fort Boonesborough, a reconstruction of an 18th century outpost, she learns Humphrey was a pioneer who would have known Daniel Boone, frontiersman and folk hero.
“My mom would be so proud,” she says. Marvelling at how “such important information” got lost, and reflecting on the adventurous natures of her four children, she adds: “I guess the pioneer spirit is living on.”