Project 150: Ira and Serena Sayles in 1861


November 1861   The rolling hills of Allegany County, New York were studded with trees, bare-limbed but for the oak trees.  Red brown leaves would be clinging fast to those branches until harsh winter winds pulled them into crunchy swirls.  

All that remains of The Gothic, built by Samuel S. White in 1851 for his daughter, Serena White Sayles

Ira and Serena Sayles would have been leading very full lives on the campus of Alfred Academy and Alfred University, which were situated on the hill just beyond the Main Street of the town, Alfred.  Waking early to parent two young boys, ten year old Clifton and four year old Merlin, the couple would have departed The Gothic, their lovely framed house, to teach; Serena would have taught French while Ira taught modern and classical languages, mathematics and geology.  The end of the fall term was approaching, and the campus would have been filled with the tension that accompanies examination preparation.  Of course, autumn winds brought more than northwestern cold fronts that year. 

Alfred – Hotbed in Cold Times

Alfred University was a community of religiously devout, liberal intellectuals; ardent believers in equal rights – for women and for negroes.  Among the guests entertained on the 1861 campus were Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lectured on the “Classes of Men” and Frederick Douglass, who spoke on his “Life Picture.” Shortly after shots were fired on Fort Sumter, the entire graduating class of the university enlisted, leaving for Elmira, New York on July 2, 1861 to become part of the 23rd New York Volunteers.  Professor, and Sayles’ neighbor, Jonathan Allen accompanied the young men as they headed to Washington, D.C. and to the front, where he witnessed the chaos of the Union retreat at Bull Run.

 That November letters from Asher Williams, Luis Kenyon, Edmund Maxson, and other alumni would certainly have been shared among the community as were, no doubt, Jonathan Allen’s first hand accounts.  Copies of the Angelica Reporter, Genesse Valley Free Press and the Elmira Advertiser could have been found in every hall, in every home. 

Students and faculty alike would have been immersed in a dual world in which academic studies prepared students for peace time adult lives and community organizations prepared everyone for war time contributions.  Serena and Ira may very well have argued about just what those contributions should be for each of them.  Ira was probably quite keen on enlisting himself, while Serena, who was pregnant with their fourth child*, would have encouraged him to remain active enlisting others.

November held hope for quick victory over the slaveholders’ treason and joy for Alfred’s loved ones who were still safe.  But there was almost certainly some tension among this abolitionist community about what Lincoln and the Union was finally going to do about slavery.  Thus far the war had nothing to do with slavery, though slavery had everything to do with the war. Among the thanksgiving and prayers offered up that November 28, Ira and Serena would most certainly include thoughts for their unborn child, their former students turned soldier and for unknown slaves fleeing their oppression.  For the Sayles family the secession of southern states had already become an opportunity to end slavery on American soil, once and for all.

Project 150 is a series of Civil War posts that, taken together, will tell the story of my family’s life choices during the years of rebellion.  Sources used for today’s post include privately held family documents, documents held in the Alfred University archives and the New York State Military Museum and the Federal 1860 census accessed at ancestry.com.

*Their daughter, Florette, had died of unknown causes in 1857.

Project 150: It’s 1861. Farm On.

Project 150 is a series of Civil War posts that, taken together, will tell the story of my family’s life choices during the years of rebellion.  Sources used for today’s post include privately held family documents, a Wiki article on the election and the Federal 1860 census accessed at ancestry.com.

My great-great-grandparents, F. Marion and Mary Jane Gwynn Minor, woke up each day of 1861 inside a farmhouse on Ceylon Lane.  Each night they tucked their three children, John (age 9), Olfred (age 6) and Sarah (age 3), into bed.  When they attended Goshen Baptist Church in the nearby village of Garard’s Fort, Marion and Mary Jane drove past brother Samuel Minor‘s family home.   Driving to the nearest town, Carmichaels, took the couple past the homes of Marion’s parents, John P. and Isabella McClelland Minor, and his sister, Isabella Minor and Hugh Keenan.  The families were four of the ninety-eight that called Greene Township, Greene County, Pennsylvania home.

Within its sixteen square miles, the township had 134 women housekeeping and keeping all that was in the house – the stories, the children, the meals, the cleaning, the mending, the tending, the healing.  The hills also sheltered 105 farmers and day laborers, 5 shoemakers, 4 carpenters,3 merchants, 2 clerks, 3 seamstresses, 2 millers, 2 stonemasons, 2 stonecutters, 2 washerwomen, a shinglemaker, a chairmaker, a cattle drover, a physician, a blacksmith, and a coal miner.  All but two families were white, and all but twelve residents were born in Pennsylvania.  Most everyone could read and write.  The township’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of the merchants and three farming families: the Lantzes, the Gerards and the clan of John P. and Isabella Minor.  

John Pierson (Pearson) subscribed to the Waynesburg Messenger,  an instrument of the Democratic Party.  Shared among the extended family, the pages were no doubt well thumbed; the articles frequent sources of conversation and debate. Greene County voters had handed the county to the pro-slavery Southern Democrat, John C. Breckinridge, in the 1860 election.  

As the country staggered toward dissolution in 1861, Marion bought twelve head of cattle from Philip Wolf for $140, and another three for $25.  A bit later he purchased one from John Ramer for $24.20. As Abraham Lincoln settled into the White House, F. Marion bought ten more head at $60.  

Throughout the summer of 1861, as volunteers formed companies and regiments and brigades, the Minors of Ceylon Lane farmed on.  Walnut and oak trees were felled for logs, planks and rafters; stable flooring, joists, and sills.  Stables were built, homes repaired; livestock bought, fed and sold.  Into the fall the family farmed.   John P. purchased 50 bushels of coal for $5.  John P. Junior and Olfred probably climbed the hill to the family schoolhouse when they could, and climbed trees to shake out nuts when they were asked. 

As the days folded into long nights, the Minor business of tending children and raising cattle continued to thrive. 

December the 24th 1861

This is to certify that I, Elias Slocum, waid for TB Martin and Dan Shore 42 hed of cattel sold to Pearson Minor the cattel was in a fair condition to when waid.  

                                    Elias Slocum, way master

On December 30, 1861 John P. Minor made one last entry in his business ledger:  Lindsey paid me $487.00.  

Farm on.

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Follow Friday: Ancestry Civil War Collections–Worth Another Look!

Much of my family’s history was shaped around the American Civil War, so I have been eagerly anticipating the crisis’ Sesquicentennial.  Photographs and documents, long held in private collections, are being sought for public collections, like that of the Civil War 150 Legacy Project at the Library of Virginia.  Public documents, long preserved and accessed on site, are being digitized and shared on-line.  Case in point,  Ancestry just announced the assession of several new collections like the US Draft Registration Records and the US Confederate Pensions Collection, 1888-1958.

I discovered that my great-great-grandfather Ira Sayles had blue eyes and dark hair from his 1862 registration in the 130th Regiment NY Volunteers.  And I confirmed that great-great-grandfather Francis Marion Minor of Greene County, Pennsylvania was drafted in 1863–but sent a substitute.  In the Confederate (Widows) Pensions File of 1888, I discovered that great-great-granduncle Benjamin Franklin Dodson of the 34th Virginia Infantry (Mecklenburg County) was shot through the brain by a Union minnie ball on 6 July 1864 in the lines outside of Petersburg.

I am fascinated by the number of features in this Ancestry collection that prompt the user to explore beyond ancestral information.  For instance, this timeline at the bottom of the page begs the reader to review events and examine how ancestor records fit in–pictures, timelines, graphs are often so helpful in this regard.

The events of the Civil War affected my ancestors’ life choices:  a carpetbagging Clifton Sayles was prohibited from marrying young Lillie Dodson until after parents died and they were middle-aged. The Minor and Dodson family farms were ferociously tended, defended and passed on as coveted assets–safe havens for subsequent generations faced with their own economic crises.  In taking the time to study the Civil War, I have deepened my understanding of my country and my family, past and present.  I harbor this hope that I am building a shared memory with other family historians/genealogists, and that this common understanding of our country’s past might inform a more powerful, insightful understanding of our country’s present.  Maybe, just maybe, this genea-community can be a force for creative, civil discourse as our country navigates the current economic, political and social crises.