Surname Saturday–Sayles

Serena White Sayles–are you there?

That is what I ask every time I sort the Sayles’ family records.

My grandmother was a miracle baby.  Anna Florette Sayles was born in December 1901, less than a year after Lilly Dodson and Clifton Duvall Sayles married, a second shot at happiness that these two grabbed.  Clifton had paid court to Lilly shortly after arriving in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, but in the early 1870′s feelings ran high about Yankees.  Lilly’s oldest brother, Greene, and an uncle, Benjamin F. Dodson, had been killed in the Seige of Petersburg, 1864; Clifton’s father had served as captain in the 130th New York State Volunteer Infantry in 1863.  And Lilly’s parents, James and Sarah Rowlett Dodson, would not hear of Lilly marrying the young New Yorker.

Clifton stayed on the farm purchased in 1869 by his dad, Ira, and married Annie McCullough in 1879.  His mother, Serena White Sayles, had moved by that time to Mecklenburg County, while father Ira had returned to teach in New York.  The 1880s found Serena helping Clifton raise a family and teaching at private Chase City schools, while Ira Sayles traveled the east coast collecting and analyzing rock specimens for the young United States Geological Survey.

Ira fell ill in 1892 and finally settled in with Serena, Clifton and Annie, and several of his grandchildren.  He filed for a pension under the 1890 Civil War pension program and after his death 24 June 1894, Serena filed to receive the widow’s pension.  She had a cat and some books. Serena received the pension from 1897 until her death 16 July 1899.

Annie died sometime between 1 June 1900 and January 1901.

And Clifton, age 50,  immediately paid court to Lilly, who had never married.  She accepted his proposal and they were wed in Chase City, 9 January 1901. At the age of 45 Lilly had her first and only child, her miracle, my grandmother, 21 December of that same year.

It is Florette’s handwritten family history that has clued me in to how special Serena was. Brought up in western New York during the 1830s Serena attended Alfred Academy where she met fellow student Ira Sayles.  They married and remained in the Alfred Academy family through its growth to a college.  In fact, Serena taught after she was married, quite an avant garde position for a woman.  That much was conveyed through family lore.  I have found all sorts of letters, poems, scientific notes, and journal articles that Ira wrote. Given Ira’s considerable correspondence that is public I keep hoping that sooner or later I will trip over letters he and Serena exchanged.  But so far I have nothing.

What and who was Serena? This educated woman who loved French? This New Yorker of Seventh Day Baptist sensibilities, who relocated from a thriving women’s suffragist community to a sleepy agricultural county in southside Virginia?  What did Serena do? Who did she befriend? How did she keep up her French and her thinking? Did Serena write poetry, like Ira?  Because my grandmother was the child of the second marriage, those details she would never have heard.  And the children of Clifton and Annie, whom Serena help raise, have long left the collective memory of my family’s lore.  I just keep wondering.

Serena–are you out there?

Madness Monday: What Happened to Christopher Sherman Sayles?

Christopher Sherman Sayles was welcomed into the village of Alfred Station, New York sometime during 1862, the year his father, Ira B. Sayles, enlisted in the 130th Regiment New York Volunteer Infantry of the Union Army.  This youngest child of Ira and wife, Serena White Sayles, was named for his paternal grandfather, Christopher Sayles.

Sherman had two brothers, Clifton Duvall (b. 1852) and Merley (b. 1856).  According to the 1870 Federal Census, Sherman  resided with his mother and Merley in Rushford, Allegany County, New York, after Ira migrated to Mecklenburg County, Virginia with Clifton in 1869.  By 1880 Serena had emigrated to Virginia to farm with Clifton and wife, Anna McCullough; and Ira had returned to Andover, New York to teach school.  Sherman is recorded as living with Ira and working as a laborer.  Merle has disappeared from the records.

A. Florette Sayles Strickland wrote in her family history that “(Her father) Clifton Sayles’ brothers, Sherman and Merle, remained unmarried. One of them served in the peace time Army and died while there.  He was buried in the National Cemetery, Arlington, Va. The occupation and burial place of the other brother is unknown to writer.”

The facts of Merle’s life and death remain unknown.  It is clear from the 1900 Federal Census and the document “Headstones Provided for Deceased Union Civil War Veterans 1879-1903″ that Sherman was the brother who served in the Army.  The surprising discovery was the fact that he served in the Spanish American War in 1898, as a private in Company C, 3rd Regiment Mo (?) Infantry, was discharged and admitted to the St. Elizabeth’s Government Hospital for the Insane, Washington, D.C., where he was listed as an inmate in the 1900 Federal Census.  C. S. Sayles was single, and could speak English, read and write.  Christopher Sherman Sayles died on 19 November 1903 and was buried in a hospital  cemetery.

It was not uncommon for family members to hide the nature of a loved one’s mental illness, and my grandmother’s failure to include this detail may reflect her father’s desire to forget it.  Someday soon I will request Sherman’s medical records from the National Archives, to follow the family story a bit further, and uncover perhaps the circumstances and nature of his mental illness.


Serena’s Lament

Great-great-grandparents Serena and Ira Sayles were married in April of 1845, in Alfred, New York, but spent much of their lives from 1862 until 1894 separated by the demands of a post-war nation. Throughout their marriage Ira was an amateur geologist, and his last decade was spent traveling up and down the east coast for the United States Geological Survey, based out of Washington, D.C., while Serena remained on the Virginia farm with son Clifton. Ira returned to Serena–to die.  The following passage prompted my poem:

Mr. J. E. Beales states that he was present with Ira Sayles on June 15th, 1894. Saw him die. J.E. Beales and Henry R. Dodson both state that they viewed the remains after death. They both assisted to shroud or prepare his remains for burial, and they both were present at his burial. They assisted to place his remains into the coffin and both assisted to bury same, on the afternoon of same day of his death which was June 15th 1894.

General Affidavit,                                                                             Civil War Widow’s Pension application of Serena Sayles               26 November 1894

Serena’s Lament

There.
I said it.
At least I’ll know where you are after this good bye.

Seems all I did was watch you leave;
What chased you?
What caught you?
Did you feel my gaze lingering on your back,
Hope for your return dangling like a loose thread from your coat?

Off you went. Traipsing over rocks,
Winding up mountains,
Climbing down caves.
Chips and chunks of earth filling your sack,
Specimens retrieved, categorized, classified, analyzed, theorized
Among names that never
Included mine.
The shroud gathers round your empty frame,
Takes you, a specimen,
To the red red iron-fed soil
Of this land.
Now you will be categorized, classified and analyzed
By its souls.

And my eyes will linger on your back no more.