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.

Amanuensis Monday: A Letter From Ira

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to a blog-reading  cousin, Sharon B., who contacted me after perusing this site.  After a flurry of excited email, I received a packet of letters written from MY great-great-grandfather to HER great-great-grandfather.  Today I transcribe the first of these brotherly exchanges.  Thank you, thank you, Sharon!

From Rushford, Allegany County, New York, my great-great-grandfather, Ira Sayles, wrote a letter to his younger brother James Sayles.  The circumstances of that summer of 1869 must have been strained; the weather was unpredictable, his marriage unsatisfactory, his birth family scattered far and wide.  Ira seems unsettled and forlorn.  On a Saturday, July 24 he wrote:

My Dear Brother, James,

Yours of the 18 inst (of the present month) came to hand, last evening.  I need not say I was somewhat surprised: for I had lost all trace of you.  My last to you was directed to LaPorte, and was never answered.  I received a paper published at Austin, Minn. sometime last summer, a year ago.  Your name was onit, and I supposed you sent it.  This was ll the clue I had to your whereabouts.   I could not discover where that was mailed.  So I supposed you would rather I should not know.  Of course I was quiet.  I am glad to receive a line now.  Since I wrote to you, my matters have run along in the usual track.  My year’s expenses devoured my year’s salary, and left me as poor, today, as one year ago today.

Serena (White Sayles) does not dispose of much of her landed property, though, of course.  She is moving to sell her Alfred property, house (1) and all, for six thousand.  It ought to bring ten thousand and 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.  It was exceedingly warm; and I suspect she will not go again, very soon.  (2)  I could get and make a splendid home there, at a very low price.  But it is all of no use.  The means of making such a home are hers.  Where she says invest, there investment will be made, or nowhere.

Loren (another younger brother) is in East Boston, I suppose.  He has twice inquired of me for you.  I could not tell. so the matter has rested.

I am again engaged in this school (Rushford Union School/Academy), for another year.  So you will know where I may be found.

This season has been a very unfavorable one for corn with us; but wheat has done well.  Grass has a heavy growth, but the weather for haymaking is tremendous.  No on can guess what hour it may rain like Noah’s flood.  These rains are frequently cold as April rains.

We are all very well.  I have not recently heard from any of our brothers and sisters.  My respects to Lucinda and Anna.

Very truly, Your Brother,

Ira

(1) The Gothic house on Alfred University’s campus, built by her father, Samuel S. White, in 1852 to house the Sayles’ family.  Both Ira and Serena were on faculty at the time.

(2) In fact, the family had purchased a farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, just south of what would become Chase City, by the spring of 1870, when it was recorded to be the residence of Ira and eldest son, Clifton.

Tuesday Tip: Think Outside the Search Box

I favor Google Chrome, a largely irrelevant opinion.  We all start in the box.

Dutifully we type surname and variations; we add locations or events or dates. Genealogists troll the internet for data, stories, articles, and cousins.  I must admit to some success with such random meanderings; but I have felt hungry for context, for a fuller understanding of the intellectual and economic landscape of my ancestors.  Particularly one. My muse.  The one ancestor I wish I could invite to lunch.  Ira Sayles.  Professor, teacher, principal.  Geologist, poet, soldier.  Son, husband, father.  And so I stared at the box and pondered.  What else could the internet expose?  How could I think outside this query box?

Among my earlier query returns was a letter published in The American Journal of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 39, May 1865; it established Professor Sayles’ geology credentials and was cited throughout oil industry documents for the next century. Staying inside the box, I felt proud of this citation. Outside my thought box I wondered: Why was a New York school teacher and administrator writing a letter about rock porosity and oil quality in northwestern Pennsylvania?  And why was he taken seriously?

The blinking cursor taunted me and finally I typed: Ira Sayles’ town of residence in 1865 – Whitesville, New York – and the keywords “oil history”.    Holy moly.  I got a whole new line of research, the most helpful site being developed by fellow genealogists in Allegany County, New York, with the page “Who Drilled the First Wells in Allegany County?”  Among the comments, assembled from various historical resources, was this tidbit: “this well, which was drilled on the Alvia Wood farm in the summer of 1865 by the Whitesville Petroleum Company” which was incorporated “for $2500 on March 6,, 1865, to bore for oil or minerals in Allegany and Steuben counties, and six trustees were named to direct drilling operations.  The stock was sold to residents of the village and vicinity farm owners.”  ( Empire Oil by John P. Herrick)

America’s first oil boom occurred just as the Civil War cannons boomed, and my ancestors were living in the middle of both.  Outside the old search box is a landscape of oil pockets and financiers purses.  Expanding a genealogical search to include more than the names on our trees expands our understanding of their stories, and their communities.

 

 

Mappy Monday: Oil and Coal and Gas! : Pennsylvania’s Resources

In the fall of 1864, Ira Sayles, my great2grandfather, penned a letter to an acquaintance.  From his berth in Meadville, Crawford County, Pennsylvania, Ira described boring samples from nearby oil wells.  An excerpt from this letter was published in The American Journal of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 39, in May 1865.  Ira’s observations about the relationship between the quantity/quality of oil and the porosity and permeability of the area’s Devonian sandstones remained relevant to oil and gas industry geologists well into the 21st century.

Amateur geologist Sayles begins his note by referencing an 1858 map of Pennsylvania, a product of geological surveys conducted between 1836-1857, and printed under the superintendence of Henry D. Rogers, Pennsylvania’s first State Geologist.  The map can be accessed at the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website.

1858 Geologic Map of Pennsylvania

As I studied this map – thoughts racing and crashing into one another – I discovered traces of the Minors and the Sayles, the Delehantys and the Corrigans.  All of these pieces of my past had been influenced by the topography and the geology of the Keystone State, with its deposits of Devonian coal and oil.

With a jolt, I recognized the patterns so carefully displayed; the first Pennsylvania Geological Survey resembles a DCNR map published almost 150 years later!

So, it turns out that the Devonian sandstones Ira Sayles described in 1864 actually cap the black, organic-rich Marcellus Shale now at the center of my state’s natural gas fracking debate. The scavenger hunt for ancestor stories has led me, once again, full circle to my own story.

*The first American oil boom began with the drilling of Edwin Drake’s well in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859.

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.