A fire licked the home of memories, back in 1947. My father recalled being summoned by the farm’s bell, and dashing up the pasture with his dad to watch a chimney fire consume the Dodson Home Place, built in 1860 just off of Butcher’s Creek, Mecklenburg County, Virginia. Family Bibles, photographs, letters and clippings; beds, clothing, sheets, tables, books, piano – all gone in a matter of hours. Family and friends gathered food and clothing to comfort the Stricklands, and others shared photographs – like this one – that the memory of Oakview and her history might not be buried in the ashes of that tragedy.
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.
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.
Born on 15 August 1856 in Regiment 22 of Mecklenburg County, Virginia, Lillie Dodson was one of ten children: Greene, Virginia, Harvey, Henry, Dora, Molly, Adlaide, Rebecca Eulelia (Lillie), Edward, and William Rowlett (Bud). Her parents, James H. and Sarah Jane Rowlett Dodson, farmed land just off the Boydton Road south of The City.
Mr. Dodson was a planter and slave owner. Miss Rowlett moved with her parents from (Chesterfield County, Virginia) and settled on land adjoining the Dodson plantation. They were united in marriage in (1844) in Mecklenburg County, Virginia.
Mr. Dodson built the old Dodson home and moved into it when Lillie was three years old, about 1859. She said she could remember walking across from the “Old House,” climbing over the felled trees, carrying her dolls. The house had not been completed, and as the War soon started, he never did finish it.
Mr. Dodson gave each of his children a tract of land for a homestead. He gave the Dodson house and a certain number of acres to the three unmarried daughters, Dora, Molly and Lillie.
…Soon after moving to Virginia with his parents in 1870, Clifton Sayles paid court to Lillie Dodson (a neighbor girl). Her parents were still living, and twas too soon after “The War between the States: ended; feelings still ran high. For Clifton’s father, Ira Sayles, had been a Captain in the Federal Army, and Lillie’s brother, Greene Dodson, had been killed while serving in the Confederate Army; consequently Lillie’s parents did not favor the suit, and Clifton married another girl.
This wife, Anna McCullough, died sometime after the census date of 1900, and Clifton again paid court to Miss Lilly, who had remained single.
Clifton Duvall Sayles, born April 11, 1851, in Alfred, N.Y., and Rebecca Eulelia (Lillie) Dodson were united in marriage January 9, 1901 in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. Born to this union: Anna Florette, born December 4, 1901.
At the time of her marriage, Lillie traded her share in the home with Ed, for his share, called the “Old House” tract, and she later sold it. Ed, Dora and Molly remained single and continued to live at the Dodson home until their deaths in the 1920s (at which time the land was bequeathed to the adopted son, George Strickland.)
George …was a real son to them. He continued to care for and look after them untill their final illnesses and deaths. He called Ed “Master Ed” and said Aunt Dora and Aunt Molly and called their sister Aunt Lillie. In appreciation of the love and care George bestowed on (them) Ed Dodson deeded George Ricks Strickland the old Dodson home place.
Around 1920, George Strickland drove a wagon over to the Sayles home and paid court to Florette. They were married September 28, 1921 in the Baptist parsonage in Chase City, Virginia by the Rev. H. L. Williams. Four sons were born to this union: George Sidney, Clifford Ricks, Paul Warren, and Norman Scott. The family survived the depression by returning to the Dodson farm.
At around the same time, Clifton Sayles died, leaving Lillie a widow; she moved in with her daughter and nephew to help raise the four boys–and made certain that cookies were a regular part of their diet.
Source: Strickland, Anna Florette. Some Genealogical Facts of the Strickland-Sayles Family. Chase City, VA: Handwritten, March 1976.
My ancestors include well-to-do farmers in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. James H. Dodson (1815-1884) was a middling planter; in other words, he owned enough slaves to not work along side them in the field but not so many as to be considered upper-crust in his society. In the gathering shadows that my research summons are the shapes of people, folks he owned, black pioneers who helped him plant and harvest the foods he placed on his family’s table and the tobacco he sold in his community’s auction. I have uncovered little information about the women of James H. Dodson’s life, and even less about the slaves that worked his land.
A SOURCE OF INFORMATION
Both our federal and state governments found the gathering of census information to be useful quite early in our nation’s history, and the reams of resultant data provide valuable glimpses into the past. One such census was begun in 1853 by the Commonwealth of Virginia; its purpose was to conduct an annual registration of births and deaths. The Slave Birth Index was transcribed for the years 1853-1865 by the Works Project Administration and recorded on microfilm in the 1930s. To make this information more accessible to genealogists and family historians, the volunteers and staff of the Alexandria Library transcribed the microfilm in the 2000s, making it available in a multi-volume print record. It is from this source that some of my family’s shadows get names.
From the second volume I transcribe here the slave births of Oakview Plantation, home of the James H. Dodson family, Mecklenburg County, Virginia:
Baby Mother’s Name Date of Birth
female Ann May 1857
female Fanny February 1855
male Jane April 1857
Catherine Jane January 1857
Eliza Joana December 1855
George Ann September 1854
George Ann December 1855
Charlotte ——- July 15, 18xx
female ——— April 15, 1853
Catherine Jane June 1856
Clarasey Hannah August 1860
Cornelius Fanny July 9, 1860
George Joanna May 7, 1860
Lucy Joanna December 1861
Martha Fanny December 1858
S. B. Jane November 1858
Morales, Leslie Anderson., Ada Valaitis, and Beverly Pierce. Virginia Slave Births Index, 1853-1865, Volume 2, D-G. Westminster, MD: Heritage, 2007. Print.
This morning, as I steeled myself to watch my son’s back recede into the maze of airport security this weekend, I felt a tug from the past. “Remember,” she said, “he is going on an adventure, following his dream and his loyalties, to become the man he needs to be. At least he enters into a world of safety and civility, with a university’s throbbing pulse. He won’t be put deliberately into harm’s way. You are lucky.”
Sarah Jane Rowlett Dodson must have felt awash with anxiety and sadness as she watched her son’s back recede down toward Dodson’s Corners, Virginia. Greene left home to pursue his adventure as a soldier for the Confederate States of America. He didn’t get the chance to become a man.
It is going to be much easier to ponder this mother’s goodbye than to say mine. So my next few posts will be a bit of productive coping.
My proof that Greene Dodson actually existed and fought in The War Between The States begins with my Grandmother Strickland’s family history, “Some Genealogical Facts of the Strickland-Sayles Family”, compiled and written by Florette Sayles Strickland, March 1976.
James Dodson and Sarah Jane Rowlett, united in marriage 18–, in Mecklenburg Co. Virginia. Born to this union: Greene, Virginia, Harvey, Henry, Dora, Molly, Adlaide, Rebecca Eulelia (Lillie), born Aug. 15, 1856, Edward (Ed), and William Rowlett (Bud). ….Greene, the oldest son, was killed while serving in the Confederade (sic) Army near Petersburg, Va. shortly before the War ended. He had left school to join up, tho (sic) he was under age.
The 1860 Federal Census provides further evidence. Listed among the residents of Regiment 22, Mecklenburg County, Virginia are Dodson, James (45), Sarah (35), William (13), Eugenia (10), Harvey(8), Maria (6), Mary (5), Lilly (3), Usebia (2).
Because my grandmother referred to the eldest son as Greene I have concluded that Sarah Jane’s boy was named William Greene, after James’ mother, Mary Greene. The search among Confederate Soldier records included all the possible variations: William, Wm., William G., W. G., Greene, William Greene Dodson. After falling down the proverbial rabbit hole, I found the muster cards provided some confusing results.
Next: The Confederate Citizens’ Papers yield an important clue.
Map of Mecklenburg Co., Va. Surveyed under the direction of A.H. Campbell Capt. P.A.C.S. in Ch’ge Topl. Dept. [by] H.M. Graves Lt. Engrs. Sept. 1864.