Today I transcribed this letter posted from my 2x great-grandfather, Ira Sayles, to his long time friend, Edwin B. Hall, at the end of June, 1884. I suspect that the friends first met in the 1860s after Ira’s sister, Rhobe Sayles Crandall, moved with their elderly parents to Wellsville (Allegany County, New York) where Hall ran a drugstore. Ira’s visits to check in on sister and parents would have provided opportunity for the two men to meet, and share their enthusiasm over all things geological. Both men collected rock and fossil specimens as citizen scientists; and Ira parlayed that hobby into a job with the newly developed United States Geological Survey in 1883. The Hall-Sayles friendship continued throughout Ira’s tenure. I am grateful to Jay Woelfle for sharing his 2x great-grandfather’s keepsakes with me.
A few days ago, the Mail Carrier laid on my table a package. On opening it, I might have imagined, but didn’t, that all the Wellsville typeclingers had suddenly fallen in love with me. Some articles had pencil marks around them. The one from Mr. Rude reveals some curiosities relative to Prof. [J.L.] Burritt, and his management of the Academic Department of Wellsville Graded School. I have known some men similar to the one hinted at by Mr. Rude. Still I have seen the public run gaping after these very men. The truth is, that the general public is utterly unqualified to sit in judgement on really well educated intellect. A man with brass and endless variety of sweetened palaver can talk popular approval of any folly his fancy may choose, into the popular head. In educational matters, as in Religion and Politics, the blind lead the blind, unquestioned, and, even if questioned, the popular shield sufficiently protects the arraigned idol.
I know absolutely nothing of Prof. Burritt; but I suspect that Rude knows his man.
I discover that Wellsville rejoices in a New Light—The Free Press! Does A.N.C.1 shine through its columns? If it lack his vast illuminating powers, ‘twill, possibly, prove an Ignis Fatuus3. A.N.C. and the great E. B.2 have shed such floods of thin light in Alleghany County that the people ought to erect a rival Washington’s Monument on their highest hill, to commemorate their appreciation of such wondrous services.
By the way and apropos, Washington’s Monument is becoming quite a respectable pillar. It has already attained the height of 470 feet above the foundation. In two months more, it is expected to reach 500 feet, from which point a new slope will bring it to a terminus, at the height of 555feet—the highest work ever erected by man: still how insignificantly small, compared with the huge pyramids of Egypt! The base of this monument is 55 feet: its walls, at the base, are fifteen feet thick, leaving, thus, twenty five feet of open space inside the walls.
In my judgement, its site is most unfortunate. Why it was placed down on that low ground, I can not imagine, nor have I yet found the man wise enough to give me any light on that point. It is there, but why there, nobody seems to know. All admit the blunder, if one can call such the case a blunder. It must have been chosen for some fancied advantage; but what? That’s the question. As an American Citizen, I am ashamed of the location. I don’t suppose my protest will avail anything; but I protest, “all the same!”
1 A.N. Cole, editor locally known as the “Father” of the area’s Republican Party.
2 Perhaps a reference to E B Hall.
3 Noun: 1: a light that sometimes appears in the night over marshy ground and is often attributable to the combustion of gas from decomposed organic matter. 2 : a deceptive goal or hope.
Yesterday was Juneteenth and I am uncomfortable admitting that it was the first Juneteenth that I honored with reflection.
I mean, I knew about Juneteenth, but I didn’t KNOW Juneteenth. Didn’t make time to feel the deep hope of freedom that the day commemorated. Yesterday, ’cause this has BEEN A YEAR, I felt called to ponder.
I pondered the role my ancestors played in perpetuating the cycle of enslavement. Strickland. Stone. Stallings. Coppedge. May. Green. Rowlett. Dodson. So many wills, probate documents, and tax records. So many traces of Lucys, Reubens, and Armisteads deliberately obscured from my family story.
I pondered my role in perpetuating the erasure of my “cousins by consequence.” *
I reread the “full disclosure” posts I have written in the past about ancestral enslavement with my shoulders hunched, face scrunched. The tone makes me cringe. My white saviorism is on full display. I am embarrassed. I don’t know the right way to share this information. When is it my story to tell?
I hesitate to return to this work.
But that is what racism looks like, isn’t it? Silence of white folks.
So I make a promise this Juneteenth to walk the journey of discomfort, to tell the full family story. And I hope that folks will participate with me in the comments, to hold me accountable when the tone is off, or share when the story resonates; to find joy when a clue is dropped or ask a question when the digging can go deeper.
In early February I tracked Christopher Sherman Sayles, my great-grandfather’s youngest brother, to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a mental asylum for the residents of the District of Columbia and for the veterans of the US armed forces.
Sherman had enlisted in April 1898 with Company C, Third Missouri Volunteers, Second Division, Second Corps, swept up by the nation’s patriotic fervor to drive Spain from the hemisphere. With his regiment, Private Sayles traveled to the training facility at Camp Alger, Falls Church, Virginia, and by mid-June was a patient in the Second Division Hospital.
On the night of June 29 Sherman attempted suicide. The thirty-six year old man was transferred to the medical facility at Fort Myer, Virginia, and ultimately admitted to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in the District of Columbia, where he died in 1903.
I sent a query to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the repository for remaining hospital files. Was it possible that a health record for a Private Christopher Sherman Sayles, Third Missouri, existed among those stored in Record Group 418, Records of St. Elizabeth Hospital?
Sixty-five pages of YES!
My request for a reproduction of the contents of Box #184 is currently being serviced and if the archivists’ schedule is typical ONLY
I think of my 19th century ancestors’ lives as bound by the geography of their landscapes. What they observed out their front doors and across the lane framed their beliefs, thinking, their sense of opportunity. The assembly of characters in their lives were tied by blood or marriage or business. Their movements were limited by the health of feet or hooves, by mud or snow, by daily necessity. Matters and people beyond that home horizon were physically and emotionally distant.
Exceptions crop up, of course, like the Minor patriarch who drove hogs from southwestern Pennsylvania to market in Baltimore. And the family of Ira and Serena Sayles. Their mid-century children were born to the expanded horizon of intellectual communities in Alfred and Rushford, New York. Their horizons literally changed when the family relocated to Mecklenburg County, Virginia in 1870, the three boys coming of age in the midst of an industrial revolution and a national reconstruction.
The couple split up in 1872, estranged after a long-simmering dispute, perhaps over Ira’s inability to manage finances or perhaps over his condescending attitude toward women’s abilities. Ira returned to New York. Serena remained in Virginia. And the boys, Clifton, Merlin, and Christopher Sherman, traveled back and forth.
Clifton eventually settled into the red clay of Virginia, farming and raising a family that eventually included my grandmother Strickland.
Merlin died before he had a chance to settle down.
And Christopher Sherman? He seems to have been restless, searching horizons for a path to contentment. He lived as a laborer on a farm in Wellsville, New York, in 1880. He traveled with his geologist father, traipsing through Tennessee and Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains collecting geological and paleontological specimens for the United States Geological Survey in the mid-1880s. Sherman received a share of the Virginia farm from Serena in 1885. And it appears that he abandoned that land, and went west to live with or around his Uncle Loren Sayles in Cullison, Kansas, in the 1890s.
For thirty-something Sherman, horizons were literally and figuratively broad. Something shattered my great-granduncle’s psyche, something that reduced the line where sky meets ground to only that which Sherman could see from the window of a Washington, D.C. insane asylum.
a little red highlight
I was using the Library of Congress website, Chronicling America, to search digital copies of newspapers for anything “Sayles,” particularly for the Ira and Serena Sayles branch. By chance I clicked on a newspaper which had a longish red box indicating a possible “Ira Sayles” mention.
“Private Sayles, Company E, 3rd Missouri”
Hmmm, I thought. This military reference tickled a memory, so I returned to my files to satisfy my intuition that Private Sayles was Christopher Sherman Sayles.
“Private Sayles, Company E, 3rd Missouri attempted suicide yesterday afternoon at the 2nd Division Hospital”…Camp Alger, Virginia…June 30, 1898
I refined my search term to “Private Sayles” and returned multiple newspapers between June 30, 1898 and July 8, 1898 carrying the story, some with fuller accounts than others. A side search for “Camp Alger” and the “Third Missouri” sketched the details of Sherman’s shrinking world.
Even short wars leave victims
In 1898 the United States told Spain to get out of Cuba. Spain said no. So the US declared war at the end of April.
A bit of a dilemma for the Department of Defense, since as of April 1 of that year the American regular Army stood at 25,000 men to Spain’s global 400,000 men. President McKinley and Congress passed a Mobilization Act to which the country responded with patriotic fervor, adding over 125,000 men to the Army and Cavalry within weeks.
Christopher Sherman Sayles, age 28, was one such young recruit. He enlisted as a private with Company C, Third Missouri Regiment in Kansas City, Missouri, in early May, living in the city’s Armory until his regiment received orders to move out. At 6:00 pm Saturday, May 7 Colonel Gross marched his twelve companies, including one Private Sayles, from the Armory, down Thirteenth Street to Grand Avenue, where the regiment received a battleflag, and from there on down Eleventh to Main to the Union Station on Fifth. The enthusiastic troops boarded trains first to encamp in St. Louis and eventually to travel on to Dunn Loring Station, Virginia.
The Third Missouri was part of wave of the untrained Second Division, Third Brigade of the Second Corps assembling at an overgrown estate, Woodburn Manor, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.. Trees were felled, grasses cut, and a canvas city erected in the Falls Church forest and fields. Christopher Sherman was one of thousands who marched, handled arms, ate, pooped, peed, and suffered ticks, lice, and mosquitos. And sometimes bathed.
Camp Alger it was named, after the Secretary of Defense, Russell Alger. Close to multiple railroads and blessed with multiple streams, the site was thought to be ideal for a training camp. However, that spring and summer Virginia was dry, empty-streambed dry. Army engineers had to dig wells, and that took time. Water for drinking and cooking had to be hauled in, and took priority over bathing. The undisciplined use of the woods as latrine additions added to the malodorous camp atmosphere. And when it finally rained, the forest “sanitation system” ran off into the wells.
Typhoid was endemic at the time in the US, and many soldiers came to camp already exposed, and would have suffered anyway. But the poor sanitation and contaminated drinking water accelerated the spread of the disease.
It may be that Christopher Sherman entered the Second Division Hospital with symptoms of typhoid at the end of June. It is certain that on the night of June 29 Private Sayles was restless, and while the attendants and staff were busy elsewhere in the canvas-covered ward, Sherman acquired a penknife and cut his left wrist. By the time medical providers arrived he had lost a large quantity of blood and was in critical condition. Major Stunkard dressed the wound and arranged for Sherman’s transfer to the regular Army hospital at Fort Myer, Virginia, for continued observation.
My great-granduncle’s suicide attempt was reported in newspapers throughout the country, particularly in the midwest. No article was published to tell what happened next; his treatment and attempted recovery was not news worthy to anybody but his family. None of this history got handed down to me.
what Grandma did say
Grandmother Strickland did relate that her father, Clifton Sayles, had a brother who enlisted in the peace time Army, that he died there, and was buried in the National Cemetery in Arlington. The Spanish-American War was virtually over by the end of August 1898, before the Spanish could mobilize all its military might. I suppose, then, that the Sayles family could have felt justified in telling neighbors and friends that Sherman was in the peacetime Army, that he died there, that he was buried in a national cemetery.
But based on my research Christopher Sherman did not serve in a unit after that night in June 1898. He did remain in the care of the US Army, however, for the rest of his life, in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the Government Hospital for the Insane, Washington, D.C., where he died November 19, 1903. A government-issued headstone marks his grave in St. Elizabeth’s East Cemetery, Anacostia, Washington, D.C..
I have requested help from the National Archives in obtaining Christopher Sherman’s medical records, if they still exist. I may never know any more than I do now.
But I find it important to pause, as our nation deals with the fallout of the Soleimani killing, the downing of a civilian airplane, the traumatic brain injuries of our service men and women, to remember that even a short war has consequences.
Horizons are contracted. Lives are lost. Minds are torn.
When I began my genealogy blog ten years ago, the ‘sphere was fresh, unknown territory. The prospect of reaching an audience, even unidentified, was exhilarating. The possibility of attracting lost relatives and exchanging family records was intoxicating.
Blog posts flowed out regularly.
Comments and followers multiplied.
Cousins-many-times-removed shared stories, tips, maps, and letters.
Until one day I realized that my story cache, specifically Ira Sayles’ tales, didn’t fit a blog post format. And blogging was a chore, not a joy.
Time to reassess. How can Shoots, Roots, and Leaves function as a space of curiosity and joy, that complements the deeper dive I will be doing offline?
Not sure. Yet.
Leave your ideas and requests for future posts in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!