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Jessie D. McDowell (J.D.) Presley : Elvis Presleys Grandfather

By David Troedson
Source: Elvis Australia
May 14, 2011 - 11:40:51 AM

To understand Elvis Presleys Grandfather, Jessie D. McDowell (J.D.) Presley better, one needs to look at the family history. Our story begins with Dunning Presley Jr who was born on July 1, 1827 in Monroe County, Tennessee. Dunning Jr was the son of John Presley, grandson of Dunning Presley Sr., great grandson of Andrew (Andreas) Preslar, and great, great grandson of Johann Valentin Bressler the father of the first immigrant family, in the 'Presley' line, to America. On November 1, 1847 at the age of 20 he enlisted at Knoxville as a private in Captain Jno. C. Vaughn's Company C of the 5th Regiment of Tennessee Volunteers. His regiment served in the War with Mexico, and between February and April of 1848 he was in San Juan, Mexico, and in May 1848 he was at National Bridge, Mexico. In Vera Cruz, he contracted a severe gastrointestinal disease which remained with him throughout his life. Dunning serves nobly and on July 2, 1848 he is back on ship for home where he is discharged from service on July 20, 1848 in Memphis, TN.

Note View video of Jesse Presley on CBS TV's 'I've Got A Secret', 1958 and listen to is two recordings, 'The Billy Goat Song' and 'Swingin' In The Orchard' released as a single in 1958.

On November 7th he was issued a warrant for 160 acres of land based on his army service. It was sent to him in care of Rufus Smith in Madisonville, Tennessee

Elvis Presley Article Read the Elvis Presley Family History 1669-1935.

Dunning returned home to his wife and eldest daughter whom he had left in Tennessee. He had married Elizabeth in 1845 in North Carolina or Tennessee and to this union were finally born five children: Elvira E. in 1846, Elizabeth in 1848, Joshua in 1851, Dunning (III) in 1852, and Nancy Jane in 1854.

Dunning Presley applied for a service pension from the Mexican War from his residence in Washburn Twp., Barry County, MO, in late 1880's which he received and was awarded the sum of $8.00 monthly.

In 1860, Dunning Presley's life is touched by despair when his beloved, Elizabeth, died. Left with five children , the oldest fifteen, the youngest six, Dunning leaves them in the care of relatives and sets out to claim land from his grant. He had heard that land in Mississippi was fairly cheap and so he headed into northern MS. While in MS, Dunning meets a young lady, Martha Jane Wesson several years his junior, whom he marries on August 15, 1861. His first wife is gone over a year and Dunning is in need of companionship. The joy of their marriage is overshadowed by a new and different war which began in April of 1861.

Martha Jane Wesson, the daughter of Edward Wesson and Emily Ferguson of Itawamba County, MS, , is young and vibrant, and ready for marriage and motherhood. In February of 1862, the couples first child, Rosella Elizabeth Presley, is born. As in his first marriage, he soon went off to war again.

The 1900 US Federal Census for Itawamba, Mississippi states that Rosella's middle Initial was M. She is listed with several of her children. However other sources list it as Elizabeth.

Suffering still from his colon malady, Dunning was 37 years old during the War of Northern Aggression. He had already served in a previous war and was still adjusting from the effects of that service when he chose to enlist again. On May 11, 1863 he enlisted at Grenada, Mississippi, in Company E, Hamm's Regiment, Mississippi Cavalry. Perhaps, like many other Civil War soldiers, he was concerned about his family back home and temporarily deserted in order to investigate their circumstances, because from January 18 to June 30, 1864 he was listed as deserted and absent without leave. Martha Jane gave birth to the couple's second daughter, Mary Jane 'Rosalinda' Presley in 1864. Dunning returned to his unit in 1864, probably after Rosalinda's birth and stayed there until the end of the war, 1865. (Some sources list Mary Jane 'Rosalinda' Presleys birth as 1865.)

After Dunning's return there are problems in the household. On a Sunday while Martha Jane and his daughters attend Mass, Dunning walks away from that family, never to see them again. We are told that he had gone back to TN and assume it was to check on his family there. Reports vary, (It has been over 100 years) .

Martha Jane married William Steele between 1866 and 1867. She died in 1868, during childbirth. The two daughters of Dunnan and Martha Jane, named Rosella (Elvis' great-grandmother) and Mary Jane, found themselves being reared by their maternal grandmother, Millie Wesson. Though neither daughter was educated or ever married, they reared thirteen children - who all took the Presley name.

The 1880 Federal census for Independance Arkansas states Rosella and Rosalinda's father Dunnan Presley Jr's last name was in fact Presley. Dunning died March 10, 1900 in Mississippi, at 73 years of age.

Elvis' paternal line continued through Rosella's son, Jessie D. McDowell (J.D.) Presley (1896-1973), (Elvis' grandfather) who was born on April 9, 1896 in Itawamba County, Mississippi, to Rosella Presley, unmarried, and John Wallace (Elvis' great-grandfather). Though the rightful (traditional) surname should have been Wallace, Rosella gave her children her own name, her maiden name of Presley. (Pressley) As did Martha.

Rosella bore nine illegitimate children, never once identifying to her children who their fathers were. Rosella stubbornly, and resourcefully, supported them through sharecropping. Mrs. Doshia Steele, one of Rosella's daughters, said this of her plight. 'I can't remember anyone ever talking about who our father was ... It was a big mystery when we were children. My mother just didn't talk about it'. Rosella, internalised the abandonment and re-enacted it throughout her life. Beginning at age nineteen and continuing over 28 years.

Jessie D. McDowell (J.D.) Presley

One can imagine that without a father figure (Jessie was effectively abandoned by his father), the result could potentially be a troubled child and that Jessie Presley could re-enacted his fathers 'abandonment' by making weak bonds with his own children. And thus Vernon after him!

His brother, Calhoun Presley, had this to say about J.D. 'For most of his life Jessie drifted from one job to another all over Mississippi, Kentucky, and Missouri. He was a sharecropper in the summer and a lumberjack in the winter. Jessie worked hard and played hard. He was an honest man, but he enjoyed drinking whiskey and was often involved in drunken bar brawls.

JD was a slim, handsome man about six feet tall with raven black hair. He was also a dapper dresser. Clothes were one of the most important things in his life. People used to call him 'the lawyer' because he dressed so smart.

He loved fine clothes. His favourite suit was a tailor-made brown one with pearl buttons. He saved up for months to buy it. Twenty-four dollars. 'He paraded around town like a peacock, with his head in the air and a cane in his hand. Owning expensive clothes was his only ambition in life. He hated poverty and he didn't want to people to know he was poor. He felt that if he wore a tailor-made suit, people would look up to him'.

If I could be you, if you could be me
For just one hour, if we could find a way
To get inside each other's mind
If you could see you through my eyes
Instead your own ego I believe you'd be
I believe you'd be surprised to see
That you've been blind

Walk a mile in my shoes
just walk a mile in my shoes
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Then walk a mile in my shoes

On July 20, 1913 J.D. Pressley married Minnie Mae Hood.

Jessie served in the U.S. Army (Stateside) during World War I.

On April 10, 1916 in Fulton, Mississippi their first child was born, Vernon Presley (1916-1978), Elvis Presley's father. Vernon was scared of J.D., any transgression of his father's rules could provoke a beating.

This, combined with Jessie's drunken and philandering ways, caused permanent harm to their relationship. In many respects it was as if Vernon had no father as Jessie repeated his own fathers abandonment on his children. This theme of father abandonment reverberates throughout Elvis' paternal lineage. It is a strong clue to the abandonment that Elvis felt, and perpetrated, in his own life. Jessie fathered five children during his marriage to Minnie Mae; Vester, Vernon, Delta Mae, Nashville (Nash) and Lorene.

Vernon Presley and Gladys Smith

On June 17, 1933, Vernon Presley and Gladys Smith eloped and were married in the County of Pontotoc, where Vernon was not known, both lying about their ages. Vernon gave his age as 22, Gladys 19.

While Gladys was of legal age Vernon was not at age 17.

Gladys would hide her real age for much of her life.

In her book, Elvis and Gladys, Elaine Dundy says 'Impetuosity and impulsiveness played a large part in Gladys make up. She knew nothing of half measures, nor was there anything half-hearted or self-protective about her'. Elvis would inherit from Gladys his unpredictable impulses.

Elvis Aaron Presley

About the end of June 1934, Gladys knew she was pregnant. Some time around her fifth month she was sure she was having twins - she was unusually large, could feel two babies kicking and had a family history of twins on both sides of the family.

Elvis Presley Article Read more about - Gladys and Vernon Presley.

Vernon set about constructing a family home, and he and Gladys moved in that December. Elvis' birthplace was built by his father, Vernon, with help from Vernon's brother Vester and father, Jessie, whose relatively 'spacious' four-room house sat next door. Located above a highway that transported locals between Tupelo and Birmingham, Alabama, and nestled among a group of small, rough-hewn homes along Old Saltillo Road.

The house had no electricity (It was connected but it was not used due to the cost) or indoor plumbing, and was similar to housing constructed for mill villages around that time.

Elvis Presleys birthplace on the Old Saltillo Road, East Tupelo
Elvis Presleys birthplace on the Old Saltillo Road, East Tupelo

January 8, 1935, not long before dawn, Elvis Aaron Presley was born. Gladys delivered a second son earlier that morning, a stillborn identical twin named Jesse Garon. Elvis would be their only child.

Elvis' family life was turbulent during his early years, largely due to the poverty and financial circumstances of his parents, Vernon and Gladys, however, Elvis grew up within a close-knit, working class family, consisting of his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, who all live near one another in Tupelo. There was little money, but Vernon and Gladys did their best to provide for their son, who is the center of their lives.

Elvis Presley 1939
Elvis Presley 1939
On November 16, 1937, Vernon along with Gladys' brother, Travis Smith and a friend Lether Gable were indicted for forgery. A check that Orville Bean had made out to Vernon had been altered and the culprits stood accused by Bean. Vernon had sold Bean a hog and received for it, a check for only $4 - a sum much less than he had expected. Vernon was furious; as the hog was worth much more, and he had been counting on the money. There is no record of how the deal was arranged or for how much.

Vernon talked it over with Travis and Lether and an idea emerged, since Vernon 'had been sold short', why not make the check closer to the amount deserved? Courthouse records do not include details of how large a sum of money the check was altered to, but in her book, Elvis and Gladys, Elaine Dundy says that based on the memories of the people she talked with, it was either fourteen or forty dollars.

According to Vernon's old friend Aaron Kennedy, he thinks the check was not altered but forged by putting a blank check over Orville Bean's and tracing his writing on to it. In any case obviously none of the men had any idea of how a bank operates to prevent such fraud. Great pressure was put on Orville Bean by the community of East Tupelo to show leniency toward the offenders, to no avail.

A bond for bail was fixed at $500 each. On January 4, 1938 only two bonds were filed for Travis and Lether Gable. Oddly the records show, Vernon's father, JD Presley and JG Brown stood sureties for Travis Smith but not Vernon. At least there is no record of such so it appears that Vernon spent six months in custody awaiting trial. JD had apparently never liked Vernon. He had kicked him out of home at 16.

It was Elaine Dundy that uncovered this evidence but it is not possible to know the truth as there not finding a record does not prove Jessie did not bail his son. Elaine Dundy does conclude the worst. It should be pointed out (As Elaine Dundy does in her book) that J.D. was farming on Orville Bean's land; Orville Bean was his landlord so it may have encouraged J.D. to stay on the 'right side' of the landowner.

So it was inevitable that on May 25 1938, Vernon, Travis and Lether were sentenced to three years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman for forging the check.

In his book, Day By Day, Ernst Jorgensen states, 'Gladys is unable to maintain the repayment schedule on their home causing the family to lose this house, and she and Elvis are forced to move in with relatives'.

In his book, Last Train To Memphis, Peter Guralnick states that 'During the brief time time Vernon was in prison, Gladys lost the house and moved in briefly with her in-laws next door.

Elaine Dundy in her critically acclaimed book, Elvis and Gladys, states; These are hard times for mother and son. Understandably, in view of Jesse Presley's attitude toward his son, Gladys had grown more and more uncomfortable living next door to her father in law. At some point during Vernon's prison sentence, Gladys moved out and stayed with her first cousin Frank Richards. Whatever the reason, the Presleys never return to the house Vernon built, stories differ as to the reason and how the house left their ownership.

Presley Family 1941
Presley Family 1941
On February 6 1939, Vernon was released from Prison with a six month suspension of their sentence, granted on condition of continued good behaviour. This leniency is the result of a 'petition of the citizens of Lee County and on a letter from Mr. O. S. Bean, the party on whom the checks were forged'. The document is signed by Governor Hugh White.

Evidently, if Vernon ever was angry with Orville Bean, he didn't seen to hold a grudge as he brought a new house from him in Tupelo in 1945.

[Ironically, Elvis' fifth grade teacher, would be Mrs Oleta Grimes, Orville Bean's daughter. And it was Mrs Grimes who was highly impressed with Elvis' classroom performance of 'Old Shep'. 'He sang it so sweetly'. She took him to the school Principal, Mr Cole, and again Elvis sang 'Old Shep'. Mr Cole was similarly impressed. This was a few weeks before the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, held in Tupelo. Elvis was promptly entered.]

In 1940, Vernon was granted an indefinite suspension of his sentence.

During World War II, while Vernon was away helping to build a prisoner of War camp for the WPA, Gladys was admitted to hospital. In the words of Mrs Leona Moore, now a retired nurse, who was working at the Tupelo hospital at the time, 'The truth is she had a miscarriage'. This explains why Gladys never had another child, she had tried, and unfortunately failed.

Soon after Vernon returned, his father J.D. suddenly took off again. This time for good. He left Tupelo, working his way northwards, ending up in Kentucky where he later became a night watchman at a Pepsi Cola plant in Louiseville.

On August 18, 1945, Vernon purchased a new four room house in Berry Street, East Tupelo from Orvile Bean. The price is $2000, with a down payment of $200 and monthly installments of $30 plus 6% interest.

J.D. Divorces Minnie Mae

In 1946, claiming Minnie Mae had deserted him, Jessie Presley filed for divorce. Fighting back, Minnie Mae, who Elvis hung the nickname 'Dodger' on, claimed, 'I didn't desert my husband. He deserted me and has been living with another woman. He hasn't sent me any money in over a year. I am not able to make a living', the judge listened to both sides, then granted Jessie the divorce. No alimony for Minnie Mae. The divorce was finalised on August 3, 1954 in Lee County, Mississippi. J.D then married Vera (Kinnaird) Leftwich.

If I only had wings of a little angel
Don't you know, I'd fly
To the top of a mountain
And then I'd cry, cry, cry

Walk a mile in my shoes

Minnie Mae never remarried. She moved in with her son and daughter-in-law at their Berry Street home. Later, she would live in the Graceland mansion until her death in 1980.

On July 18, 1946, Just eleven months after purchasing the house on Berry Street Vernon 'sold' - actually transferred the deed over to his friend Aaron Kennedy for $3,000 to avoid foreclosure proceedings. Immediately then, Aaron Kennedy gave Orville Bean a deed of trust, which is the same thing as a mortgage.

The Presleys move into Tupelo, first to Commerce Street, then to Mulberry Alley, a small lane running beside the fairgrounds, just opposite the town's black neighbourhood, 'Shake Rag'.


On Sunday November 25, 1956 Elvis played two shows (2pm/8pm) at The Jefferson County Armory in Louisville, Kentucky. He stayed at the Seal Bark Hotel. Elvis's grandfather lived in Louisville and Elvis visited with him at his home during both the 1956 appearance and again in 1971 when Elvis appeared at Freedom Hall. On the first occasion Elvis gave his Grandfather a car, a brand new Ford Fairlane and a new TV set.

On the second occasion November 7, 1971 when Elvis played Louisville Kentucky at the 'Freedom Hall' he introduced his Grandfather, who was in the audience, to the crowd.

J.D. and Vera Presley with the car Elvis gave them
J.D. and Vera Presley with the car Elvis gave them

Later, Jessie recorded two songs - 'Who's That Kickin' My Dog Around' / 'The Billy Goat Song' b/w 'Swingin' In The Orchard' that was released as a single - for a Louisville record label. The record died in its tracks.

Elvis' Grandfather Jesse D. Presley Sings

On July 9, 1958, while Elvis was in Germany, J.D. appeared on CBS TV's 'I've Got A Secret'.

Elvis' grand father Jesse D. Presley with his wife, Vera, on CBS TV in 1958 discussing his new record, his singing debut and hopes of becoming a success. For more information about Elvis and the Presley family click here.

Billed as, Grandpa Jesse Pressley, 62 year-old grandfather of Elvis Presley, he made his television debut singing 'The Billy Goat Song'. For many years, Jessie (And at times Vernon) had spelled his name 'Pressley', but sometime after Elvis became famous, he dropped an 's' in the spelling.

Elvis Presley MP3 Audio Audio : J.D. singing 'The Billy Goat Song'

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Click above to listen to J.D. singing the song 'Who's That Kickin' My Dog Around' / 'The Billy Goat Song'

Elvis Presley MP3 Audio Audio : J.D. singing 'Swingin' In The Orchard'

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Click above to listen to J.D. singing the song 'Swingin' In The Orchard'

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Elvis' Grandfather Jesse D. Presley on CBS TV, 1958

On July 9, 1958, while Elvis was in Germany, J.D. appeared on CBS TV's 'I've Got A Secret'.
Jesse Presley Makes TV Debut : 1958

Elvis Presley Video Video : Elvis' Grandfather Jesse D. Presley on CBS TV, 1958

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Above image, July 9, 1958, with Gary Moore, left, on the drums, Guitarist Gene Klingman, right, and panellists of CBS TV's 'I've Got A Secret' looking on, Jesse Pressley, 62 year-old grandfather of Elvis Presley, makes his television debut singing 'The Billy Goat Song'. Grandfather Pressley (he spells his name differently) was recently signed to record a series of record albums. (Only the single was ever released).

As above, Jessie used the double 's' but later changed it to the single 's' like his famous grandson. This goes back at least as far as his mother and it seems it did not finally become resolved until this time.

Today there are plenty of Presly's, Presleys and Pressleys in Tennessee.

When Gladys died in 1958 J.D. rode a bus from Louisville and attended the funeral.

Jessie D. McDowell Presley died 19 April 1973 and is buried in Louisville. Minnie Mae Hood was born 17 June 1888 and died 8 May 1980. She rests in peace at Graceland. Vera (Kinnaird) Leftwich was born June 23, 1892 and died August 10, 1981 and is buried beside J.D. in Louisville.

Elvis Presley Article Read the Presley / Smith Family History
Elvis Presley Article Elvis Presley Family History : 1669-1935
Elvis Presley Article Elvis Presley Biography
Elvis Presley Article Gladys and Vernon Presley - Elvis Presley's Mother and Father
Link to shop In The Shadow OF A Legend - Elvis' Parents - Gladys & Vernon Presley CD

'Who's That Kickin' My Dog Around' / 'The Billy Goat Song'

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