Sunday’s Obituary: Merlin W. Sayles of Chase City, Virginia (1878)

A family mystery has been solved! My great-great-grandparents, Ira and Serena Sayles, had four children, wrote my grandmother, Florette Sayles Strickland. The daughter, Florette, died as a young girl. One son, Clifton, grew up to be a farmer, a husband, a dad – her dad. Another son, Christopher, grew up to join the peacetime army, and yet another son, Merlin, was lost to memory’s mists, until I uncovered his obituary in the Seventh Day Baptist archives of the 1878 Sabbath Recorder. From page three of Volume 34, issue 40, I finally learn the fate of this young man.

DIED

In Whitesville, N. Y., September 23d, 1878, MERLIN W. SAYLES, of Chase City, Maklinburg (sic) County, Va., aged 21 years, 2 months, and 11 days, second son of Prof. Ira and Serena C. Sayles, formerly of Alfred. His disease, as shown by examination after death, was aneurism in the right of the mesenteric artery, followed by a completely conjested mesentery, with incipient abcsess (sic) of the same, thus functionally destroying this vital organ. For the last two months, his sufferings were intense — he really starved to death. He was a member of the First-day Baptist Church of Chase City, Va., and died clinging to Jesus.

Just imagine the scene.  On a muggy, hot July day, Merlin collapsed after slopping the hogs. His brothers, Christopher and Clifton, rushed to where he lay doubled over, clutching his belly as the blood vessel lay ruptured inside him.  As they carried Merlin up the porch steps Clifton yelled to his mother, and Serena rushed into the front hallway of the family’s farmhouse.  Sizing up the moment she turned and took the stairs two at a time, with the boys on her heels.  Merlin was gently lowered into bed, his shoes taken off, his clothing loosened.  He must have been in agony that day, and each day after as his intestines slowly died and infection set in.  No tea, no soup, no biscuit would have stayed down; Serena would have tried every sort of remedy to ease the pain, to cure the fever, to stave off his withering.  Today the ruptured artery would be quickly diagnosed and surgically repaired. Serena could only watch over her boy, mopping his sweaty brow, wetting his dry lips, holding his feverish hand, praying for his recovery.

Would Ira have traveled down from New York for a last visit? Or did Serena meet this tragedy alone with her boys and neighbors?

Merlin W. Sayles may be buried in the family’s cemetery just off of Hunter’s Lane, south of Chase City, Virginia. Hidden among trees, his tombstone may still serve as testimony to the horror of his final days.

Sunday’s Obituary: Florette W. Sayles

From the Sabbath Recorder, Alfred, New York, July 1856:

DIED

In Rushford, N. Y., on the 25 ult., (of last month) after an illness of eight weeks, FLORETTE W., daughter of Ira and Serena C. Sayles, aged 8 years, 8 months and 19 days.  A few days before her departure, while in her father’s arms, she told him she was not afraid to die and be with Christ.  She also assured her mother, during her last hours of consciousness, of the same confidence.  She moreover reproved her mother for weeping, saying, “It can do no good.”

In grief we lay our daughter down
To sleep the sleep that knows no waking'
In faith, we look beyond the tomb--
We see the glorious morning breaking, 
Brightly dawning through the gloom:
We see, by faith, her spirit come,
Midst the joyous angel throng, 
To proclaim their Jesus King--
King o'er heaven and earth most glorious--
King o'er death, and the grave victorious--
King omnipotent to save 
All who put their trust in him.
Then where's thy victory, boasting grave?
O death! where is thy venomed sting?
Then triumph! triumph, weeping mother!
Triumph, little trusting brother!
Triumph, father, in thy faith!
Jesus hath won life from death!

Obituary accessed with the help of the Seventh Day Baptist Historical Society.

Poem is not attributed to any person, though I suspect that Ira Sayles is the author.

Follow Friday: Historic Map Works

One of the all-time best inventions of the human mind, in my humble opinion, is the map.  Whether ink to paper or pixels to screen, maps represent reality as seen from the cartographer’s point of view.  Beyond the accurate recording of topography and societal infrastructure, map makers convey all sorts of information, depending on who has paid their salary!  Display all the gas wells in Allegany County! List all the businesses of the Whitesville!  Differentiate between a dirt road, a tiny local road and the main state road.

One of my favorite sites lets me explore the world according to my ancestors. Historic Map Works lets you browse United States, World or Antiquarian maps by searching with a Keyword, Family Name or Address.  I wanted to know what a map could tell me about my ancestors, Ira and Serena Sayles, in the 1860s when I know they lived in three separate towns in south central New York.

Using the keywords ALLEGANY COUNTY NEW YORK my query returned a treasure: The Atlas of Allegany County, published by D. G. Beers and Company in 1869. Each page of the atlas has been digitised, and can be opened for expanded viewing.

 

 

 

 

This page of Alfred Center shows my great-great-grandmother’s home, The Gothic. According to records this house was sold and the proceeds used to purchase a farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, shortly after the publication of this atlas.

Interestingly, I also found Serena Sayle’s name on a property in the township of Independence and her husband’s name, Ira, on a property in Rushford, where he was the principal of Rushford Academy.

 

 

 

With a subscription to Historic Map Works I can download and print these maps out, further exploring Ira and Serena’s world; who did they live next to, what stores might they have shopped in, how far did they travel in going about their daily lives? All these details, from a map.

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On This Day: Ira Sayles Enlists in the Union Army

On August 14, 1862, my great-great-grandfather, Ira Sayles,  volunteered “to serve as a soldier in the Army of the United States of America, for the period of THREE YEARS, unless sooner discharged by the proper authority.”  The forty-four year old teacher from Alfred, New York joined others gathering at the recruiting station in Almond, Allegany County, New York.  The blue-eyed volunteer swore that he would “bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America” and that he would serve “them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whomsoever.”  He stood five foot eight inches tall, his hair still dark and full.  Having pledged to observe and obey the “orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the Rules and Articles of War,” Ira Sayles signed his name.  The next day Private Sayles was mustered into Company H of the 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteers Infantry.

*** Thank you, cousin Sharon, for sharing this photograph of Ira Sayles.

Tuesday’s Tip: Don’t Climb Trees With Your Glasses On!

It all started, this tree climbing, with my grandmother’s handwritten family history and my father’s stories of growing up on the family farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia.  I scrambled up the lowest branches, then higher and higher into the tree; deeper and deeper into my past, discovering dreams and disappointments among the families’ leaves.  Blogging as I connected the dots of dates and events and folks’ names, I attracted the attention of a fellow enthusiast and descendant.   And the letters she posted via snail mail continued to support my generational study of the Sayles/Dodson family.  Kind of.

Read this excerpt:

“I could get and make a splendid home there (Virginia), at a very low price.  But it is all of no use.  The means of making such a home are his/hers.  Where s/he says invest, there investment will be made, or nowhere.”

Which ancestor wrote this:

a) the stay at home mom with three boys, 18, 13 and 7?

b) the former Captain in the 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteer Infantry?

c) the Principal of Rushford’s secondary school?

d) the French teacher in the town’s academy?

If you said (a), you would not be alone, for that was exactly what I would have said, were I listening to this letter, author unknown.

My great-great-grandmother, Serena White Sayles, was a stay at home mom in the summer of 1869, and a former French teacher at both Rushford Academy and Alfred University in Allegany County, New York.  She and husband, Ira Sayles, moved to a farm outside Christiansville (Chase City), Virginia by the 1870 census, with their boys, upon the advice of Ira who might have become aware of this fertile region while serving at Camp Suffolk, Virginia – just east of Christiansville –  in 1862-1863. 

That’s the story I saw, prior to this letter, because I stared through the lens of old English common law, in which  women’s wages, property and their very identity were merged with that of their husband.  This framework dominated the legal and social  landscape in the post-war era. Except in New York, where the legislature had first passed laws governing the rights of married women as early as 1848. In 1860 it had updated the law to read in part:

Section 1: The property, both real and personal, which any married woman now owns, as her sole and separate property; that which comes to her by descent, devise, bequest, gift or grant; that which she acquires by her trade, business, labor or services, carried on or performed on her sole or separate account; that which a woman married in this state owns at the time of her marriage, and the rents, issues and proceeds of all such property, shall, notwithstanding her marriage, be and remain her sole and separate property, and may be used, collected and invested by her in her own name, and shall not be subject to the interference or control of her husband, or liable of his debts, except such debts as may have been contracted for the support of herself or her children, by her as his agent, ¹

So the author of this letter was not a powerless wife, but a former Captain in the Union army, and a community and educational leader.  It was Serena who owned the family’s real estate, properties gifted to her by her father, Samuel S. White of Whitesville, New York and Serena who held control over those assets.  And it was Serena who instigated the move to Virginia, not Ira, as revealed in another section of this same letter:

She wanted me to invest her means in Virginia lands.  Then she thought she didn’t dare trust me alone, so she went with me. 

Taking my common law lenses off, I have read and reread this letter.  Each pass through yields a different clue to the nature of Ira and Serena’s relationship, its distribution of power and its lack of harmony.  How different the family story is shaping up to be, now that I am climbing without my glasses on. 

¹ New York Married Woman’s Property Act of 1860, approved March 20, 1860.  1860 N.Y. Laws 90, Session 83, pp. 157-159.