Fresh (adjective): Experienced, made, or received newly or anew.
I am celebrating the overwhelm that results from a decade’s hunt for Ira Sayles, my great-great-grandfather. In my research stash are maps of Allegany County (NY), the Union encampment at Suffolk (VA), landowners of 1870 Mecklenburg County (VA); letters to his brother James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and his friend Edwin B. Hall; book chapters, newspaper columns, field notebooks, and poems; census data, New York enlistment and discharge records, Alfred University documents, land deeds, and a federal pension application.
Ira Sayles was a Victorian gentleman, an autodidactic from a rural northern tier Pennsylvania family whose passion for learning led him to school in the southern tier town of Alfred, New York. The 27-year-old finished the teacher’s education course of study and then zealously joined Principal William Kenyon in expanding Alfred Academy into a premier teacher’s college.
And then the two explosively parted ways.
This much of the story was established fairly early in my search. Burning curiosity pushed me in multiple directions to discover the source and result of the conflict, the status of Ira’s relationships, the values and communities that informed his choices over his long life.
Now 2019 is the year, the year to challenge myself to stop collecting detritus, and tackle the endeavor of creating a fresh narrative for the geologist-educator-writer-ancestor, Ira Sayles.
Coming soon…how to identify an ancestors’ vision and values
IN 1884 Ira Sayles, 1817-1894, wrote a letter to his friend Edwin B. Hall of Wellsville, New York. My great-great-grandfather could have been writing from Ithaca, New York or from Washington, D.C., in between field trips for the United States Geological Survey. He could have been writing on site in Tennessee or Virginia or Vermont, after a day’s work collecting paleontological specimens. Though Hall was also a renowned amateur paleontologist, in this note Ira dwells on his aspirations rather than fossils.
While the first page is missing, it is possible to discern that Hall and Sayles were in dialogue about life’s value and one’s hopes. Ira says, ” The whole scope of our natural activities must be met, grasped, and guided by a master-hand.”
Ira proceeds to lay out his plan for a home, to be established on public land out West, where he could retire and live with others who practice the principles that he teaches. “My home shall be the home of such and of such only as wish to live the life that I teach…[I]t will be to me as the beginning of my life anew–a life with a purpose humble, but deep as the Eternal Fountain whence it draws its inspiration.”
Ira Sayles aspired to build a utopian community, or so it appears. As Ira was a prolific letter-writer, I am certain to flesh out Ira’s “principles” as I take a new look at old files.
This letter contains clues worthy of pursuit:
Why did Ira claim that he had never had a home of his own?
What happened in 1880 that led Ira to feel healthier, more fit?
What happened in 1883 that contributed to Ira’s financial security?
Did Ira ever go West? If so, where did he travel, how long did he stay, with whom did he live?
To be continued…
Letter from Ira Sayles to EB Hall, 1884. From the Edwin B Hall Family Collection, privately held by Jay Woelfel, [address for private use.] Transcribed by D. Kay Strickland December 2018.
“”Practice any art,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote. “…music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage…
“Practice any art…no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”
Ira Sayles, 1817-1894, practiced art, writing essays and poems throughout his long life. He shared them with friends. He enclosed them in family letters. He submitted them to regional newspapers and sought wider publication. Ira yearned to belong among the publicly acclaimed, a recognized poet, an admired intellectual. He had to settle for living among regular folks.
It didn’t stop his writing, though, and the samples of his art that survive are a testament to Ira’s experiences and soul searching.
In a poem written 15 December 1872 and published in The Sabbath Recorder on 9 January 1873, Ira celebrates the biblical account of Jesus’ birth. Each verse ends with “Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
Is this refrain a peek into Ira’s soul?
Ira served in the Union Army in the early years of the Civil War, discharged after only a short campaign because his 44 year old body couldn’t bear the field conditions of a soldier, much to his dismay. He returned to his wife, Serena, and three sons to resume teaching at Alfred University, Alfred, New York. During early Reconstruction, Serena directed Ira to purchase land in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, where the family relocated in 1870. Her money, her land, in her name, feme sole. The situation proved acrimonious, as Ira sought to retire and write. Serena, presumably, was determined to teach, farm, or both.
By the poem’s wintry date, Ira was estranged from Serena, who stayed with their three boys down in Virginia. Ira returned to his birth family in Pennsylvania. Eventually, the 55 year old would resume teaching, traveling throughout northern tier counties of Pennsylvania and the southern tier counties in New York to fill vacancies in one room schoolhouses.
Do these stanzas tell us more than Ira was a Christian? Perhaps this poem was a way for Ira to process grief, shame, restlessness; to find peace on earth and good-will to Ira in the new year.
Music floats upon the night-wind, Watching shepherds list the strain: Gently steals the anthem earthward; Echo whispers its refrain— “Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
Seers had heard the wondrous story, Longed to seeMessiah’s reign, “Come! O come! thou King of Glory!” Echo caught the faint refrain— “Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
Cradled in a humble manger, Nursed by earth’s most lowly train, Lo! He comes, th’ Almighty stranger! Echo murmurs the refrain— “Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
Magi see the astral token Shimmering o’er Judea’s plain; Death’s gloomy night , they know is broken; Echo floats the sweet refrain— “Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
Age on age hath borne its burden, Filled with human woe and pain, Since Faith first beheld her guerdon: Echo thunders the refrain— “Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
Brighter gleams that astral glory, As the ages rush amain; Echo louder peals the story, Thundering out that sweet refrain— “Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
Ira Sayles Knoxville, Tioga Co., Pa., Wednesday, Dec. 25, 1872
Sayles, Ira. Poem “Christmas Choral,” The Sabbath Recorder, 9 Jan 1873, v29 i2 p6; digitally accessed on Fulton History (FultonHistory.com) 10 Dec 2018. Transcribed by D. Kay Strickland.
Had I nothing but historical documents, I would have but a simplistic notion of who my great-great-grandfather was. A self-taught student who rose to be a college student, teacher and founding school administrator of Alfred Academy; Principal of Rushford Academy; Captain of Company H, 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteers in the Union Army; assistant geologist to Charles D. Walcott with the United States Geological Survey.
A son, brother, husband, father.
But I have letters. And poems. And journal articles. And more letters.
Clearly, Ira Sayles was a complicated man, with a rich interior life. His core identity was constructed from his intellectual activities, not his familial relationships. He harbored ambitions for his poetry, teaching methods, and scientific observations, and nursed grudges with a world that failed to recognize his brilliance.
In an undated letter to his friend, EB Hall, a druggest and amateur paleontologist in Wellsville, New York, Ira Sayles declares:
People may not be willing to accredit me with being their Ideal Man. I have never striven to be their Ideal Man; but I do strive to be my own Ideal Man. I am no social puppet. The Ideal Man of Society is but a puppet. He must attitude, and bob, and bow, according to the notions of a silly mob, for whose good opinion I will not turn on my heel.
Apparently Ira and EB Hall had been discussing the notion of wealth, how the great entrepreneurs of the age–Vanderbilt, Cornell, Rothschild–had used their money to endow public institutions. Ira took issue with the social standing that these men accrued because of their riches and legacies.
I know the power of wealth. I acknowledge its good, and I deplore its evils. I can say, too, I have felt its evils. I do not care to rehearse my experiences; nor will I enter into any explanations why I have been so long a homeless wanderer over this beautiful Earth. The story shall remain untold.
No man can win through the ordinary course of business, a large fortune, but that every dollar is cursed with the tears of the hungry, the naked, the shelterless!
Ira’s disdain for capitalistic success was connected to his concern about the changing aspirations of women. In fact, in this letter, Ira predicted a total breakdown of the social order. Because of financial expectations men, the natural providers for women, would not be able to afford the trappings of success needed to be married. Wealth among the few would contribute to women not getting married and having children, and men frequenting houses of ill repute because they could not afford wives.
Ira’s legacy, however, would not be appraised in terms of the dollar.
Instead of making Wealth an object of Life—the object of Life—I will make, as I have long been making, complete fullness of manhood and womanhood, in all its richness, not the chief but the only end of Life.
Perhaps you, like others, will call me a dreamer, indulging in an illusive (sic) fancy that will forever mock my hope. Be it so. I have the satisfaction and the joy of living that life myself; I will build myself a home where whoever will, may come and partake with me freely, on the same conditions as I impose on myself, viz. Living up to the Complete Laws of Human Nature. That and that only.
Living up to the Complete Laws of Human Nature.
Where the ideal man provided for the ideal woman who remained at home and became mothers. Where everyone had enough to eat, a safe place to sleep, and honorable work to complete.
Ira’s utopia. Did he ever discover the wealth inside his own ideal?
Letter from Ira Sayles to EB Hall of Wellsville, New York, ca. 1885; Hall Family Documents, privately held by Jay Woelfle [address for private use,] 2018. Transcribed by D. Kay Strickland, 2018.
I first came to know the Rowlett family through my 2nd great-grandmother, Sarah Jane, who married James Dodson in antebellum Mecklenburg County, Virginia.
When Sarah was a young girl, Congress addressed the needs of its elderly war heroes by passing the Revolutionary War Pension Act of 1832. This legislation provided full pay for any man, enlisted or officer, who had served at least two years in the Continental Line or state militias. William Rowlett’s application is an extensive justification of his claim that also serves as biography. It is this document that offered my first peek into Sarah’s Rowlett lineage, connecting her to the surname found in Chesterfield County (VA) and to the Butcher’s Creek, Mecklenburg County (VA) neighborhood of Sarah’s adulthood.
The pension files include documentation of William marrying Sarah’s mom, Rebecca Short, in 1825 while living in Chesterfield County. It is clear from the tangle of story lines that this was William’s second marriage, that he had children from the first marriage, that he had served in the Revolution while living in Chesterfield County, that he emigrated to Mecklenburg County after the war ended and lived there for some thirty years before returning to Chesterfield County. Between 1825 and the filing of the pension application, an elderly William, Rebecca, and Sarah relocated to Mecklenburg County, on a farm near James Dodson, and his parents, Edward and Mary Green Dodson.
In my last post I offered a brief synopsis and a transcription of the last wishes of a Thomas Rowlett. Written in the closing days of 1805, Thomas’ will confirms some relationships that I have been guessing about–neighbors and cousins, great-aunts and -uncles, and 3rd and 4th great-grandmothers–since first investigating Sarah Jane’s lineage.
Thomas Rowlett listed four primary relationships as beneficiaries of his estate :
his mother, Sarah, thought to be a second wife, and also known as Sarah Neal Archer.
his brother, William, not known to have married.
his sister Mary, who it is thought married a first cousin, William Rowlett, also known as 3rd-great-grandfather, William Rowlett, father of Sarah Rowlett Dodson.
his deceased sister, Martha, daughter of Sarah, wife of William Wills Green, and mother of Mary Green Dodson, my 3rd great-grandmother.
This one document helps confirm how intertwined my branches are.
So, in short:
Sarah Jane had much older half-siblings:
Sarah, who married Thomas Coleman.
Thompson, who married Mary (Polly) Dodson.
The oldest two remained in Mecklenburg County, and I have accounted for them.
The others may have returned to Chesterfield County, and pose more questions than my brain can handle right now!
My 3rd great-grandmother, Mary Green Dodson, lost her mother before 1803, when William W. Green is recorded as having married widow Mary Hinton Poindexter. The will suggests to me that as a young girl Mary might have been at least partly raised by her elder siblings.
Elizabeth who had married James W Oliver in 1799.
Mary also had two younger sisters:
As I continue to gather documents and sift stories, I have an increasing number of relatives , neighbors, cousins to inquire after, to listen for. I know folks refer to this genealogical hobby as building a tree, but right now I feel more like a spider spinning a web that collects specks of the past.
What story will come from these patterns?
The Last Will and Testament of Thomas Rowlett. Mecklenburg County (VA), Will Book 5, p 320, 1806; accessed digitally from Family Search (familysearch.org) September 13, 2018.