This post examines the letter Ira Sayles, my great-great-grandfather, wrote
to his brother James in July of 1869 for its tantalizing clues of sibling
Many thanks to cousin, blog-reader, and James Sayles descendant, Sharon Babcock,
for sharing her family stash.
A bit of Review
Ira Sayles (1817-1894) was one of nine children born to Christopher and Sarah [King] Sayles. In 1824, the family migrated from Burrillville, Rhode Island to Westfield Township in the Cowanesque Valley of Tioga County, Pennsylvania. By mid-century, however, few of the Sayles kids remained in that northern tier county.
As I systematically reviewed what I knew or wanted to know about each person mentioned, the 1869 letter became more than a sibling’s let-me-catch-up-with-you. It documents family movements and issues that are inextricably tied with economic and social events that prompted mass migrations of people in the mid-19th century.
let me reintroduce Ira
Ira, the eldest child, was the first to leave the Westfield homeplace, to apprentice in a woolen mill located in Whitesville, Allegany County, New York, in 1837. It was a poor fit for the voracious reader and Ira leapt at the chance to become a student at an Allegany County academy in Alfred in 1839. With the exception of military service in Virginia during 1862-1863, Ira resided in Allegany County, just over the New York-Pennsylvania border from his family, for the next thirty years, serving as a teacher and/or principal:
- at Alfred Academy,
- then Rushford Academy,
- back to Alfred Academy,
- and, after the war,
- once again at Rushford Academy.
And it is from Rushford that Ira wrote to James in 1869.
Who Else is mentioned in this letter?
James (1822-1882), the letter’s recipient, was a fiery-tempered, hazel eyed younger brother, who remained in his hometown to become first a machinist and then a hotelier. In the mid-1860s James, wife Lucinda, and their family disappeared from Ira’s life.
“Yours of the 18 inst[ant] came to hand, last evening. I need not say I was somewhat surprised: for I had lost all trace of you…I am glad to receive a line now,” said Ira.
A line from Austin, Minnesota where James and his wife Lucinda had purchased a farm in the south central part of that state.
Another person mentioned is the blue-eyed middle child, Loren. “[He] is in East Boston, I suppose.”
This brother had left Westfield in his twenties to study at Alfred Academy before relocating to Lowell, Massachusetts where he married Francis Weymouth in 1855. Shortly thereafter, the couple trekked across the continent to Cosumnes, a gold mining camp in the Michigan Bar District of California. After trying his hand as a miner, Loren, his wife, and baby daughter returned to the east coast, to East Boston, where Loren likely worked as a machinist in the area’s shipbuilding yards.
And wrote to Ira inquiring about other family members. “He (Loren) has twice inquired of me for you. I could not tell. The matter has rested.”
A third person is discussed in that note to James–Ira’s wife, my great-great-grandmother, Serena Crandall White Sayles. The couple was living together in a house across Main Street from Rushford Academy. Serena was a full-time homemaker, assisted by black teenager, Virginia Copeland, and mother to three surviving children, Clifton, Merlin, and Christopher Sherman.
Serena was also the controller of the family’s purse-strings, a role that Ira seems to have resented. Ira’s principal salary was devoured by family expenses and any financial flexibility was attributed to his wife’s assets, given or bequeathed to Serena by her parents, Samuel S. and Nancy Teater White.
“Serena does not dispose of much of her landed property, though of some. She is moving to sell her Alfred property, house and all, for six thousand. It ought to bring ten thousand. 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.”
“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.”
Once Correspondence, Now Evidence
Ira wrote to bring James up to speed on family news. It was a conversation via post.
For me now, the letter provides evidence of family members’ residences, as well as evidence of marital discord. It also offers evidence of when the Sayles first began to consider relocating to Mecklenburg County, Virginia.
Ira’s determination to remain connected with his extended family unwittingly recorded how the era’s political and economic whirlwinds separated family networks and reinforced racial hierarchies.
In taking his animal husbandry, blacksmithing, and business skills west, James joined a stream of white settlers that flooded into Minnesota lands from which indigenous peoples had been forcibly removed during the US-Dakota War of 1862.
Loren trained as a machinist, and left the mountains of rural Pennsylvania to participate in the northeast’s textile economy, which thrived off the cotton picked by enslaved labor. Loren then sought opportunity amidst the gold rush in California and returned to the industrial opportunities of East Boston‘s ship yards.
Ira, though chafing at his wife’s property rights, contemplated the possibilities of migrating to a reconstructing south.
All three families were white, descendants of Rhode Island British colonizers. The Sayles families moved to opportunity, confident that they would be welcomed and capable of moving again if prospects didn’t work out. They negotiated no bans, confronted no xenophobic signs, carried no passes or permission to travel from employers or law enforcement.
Three different stories. Three different sets of choices that separated siblings. All remained joined by the position they, as white men, occupied in the country’s hierarchy of color, race, and opportunity.
Beyond pricking my conscience about white intergenerational opportunity, the letter also prompts questions for further family research.
- How much was an average teacher’s salary in post-war New York? Virginia? Nationally?
- What were the laws in New York and Virginia governing a married woman’s right to own property and control her wages?
- What were the motives for Serena and Ira’s consideration of a Virginia residence?
- How do the answers to these questions affect my understanding of what unfolded in the next decade for Serena and Ira?