This week’s #family history challenge–What’s Your Favorite Discovery–from Amy Johnson Crow’s #52Ancestors52Weeks sparked a vivid memory.
In mid-January 2009 I discovered first hand what our nation’s capital is like in winter. Washington, D.C.’s humid air wraps your body in a vise; a cold breeze off the river increases its grip. I walked briskly from the Archives-Navy Memorial metro station to the National Archives and arrived flush-faced–from the cold, from the exercise, from the excitement.
Butterflies knocked around in my belly as staff took my photo and transferred it to an official archivist ID, my entry card to the treasures within that building. I entered stacks and confirmed my great-great-grandfather’s Civil War pension number before notating it on the official request form and filing it with staff for retrieval that day.
I remember picking that file up, its heft a pleasant surprise. I took a seat along side other researchers at a long wooden table in a cavernous room. Though work was conducted in hushed silence, my anticipation made me chatty. The gentleman across the table sensed my excitement and smiled. We softly shared our awe that these historical records, so meticulously preserved and catalogued, were here for us to search and use and build stories.
I took a breath and started to read.
Page after page I turned. The Pension Application for Ira Sayles revealed new information about his 1863-64 service record in Company H, 13oth New York Volunteers. Letters submitted in witness to his 1893 condition documented the end of his life, and the tribulations that led Ira to apply for the monthly stipend.
All of this data wealth provided inspiration for years of further research and story telling. But my favorite pages were not about Ira.
They were about his wife, Serena White Sayles.
Whereas Ira left an abundance of letters, published articles, books, poems, and public documentation, Serena left but a few breadcrumbs tracing her life. Here in this file I glimpse the woman behind the name.
Serena White Sayles was born in the southern tier village of Independence, New York to Samuel and Nancy Teater White. She met Ira while attending Alfred Academy (Alfred, New York), and the couple married shortly after graduating. The teachers were instrumental in the development of Alfred Academy and Rushford Academy, both located in Allegany County, New York. In the early years of Reconstruction Ira, Serena, and their surviving children–Clifton, Merlin, and Sherman–relocated to Southside Virginia, outside the village of Christiansville (later known as Chase City), on a farm of around 600 acres. Ira returned to New York in 1872, and the couple remained estranged for the rest of their marriage. This family story was passed on by my grandmother, Florette Strickland, daughter of Clifton, and lifelong resident of Chase City.
The pension file disclosed so much more.
Ira died in the heat of June 1894. A week after his body was laid to rest in the family’s Mecklenburg County cemetery plot, Serena filed her widow’s declaration to continue receiving the $8/month stipend. Over the course of the next 2 1/2 years brothers, neighbors, and friends added impressions and details to Serena’s own testimony.
My Great-great-grandma began with an attestation of her marriage to Ira on 11 April 1845 in Whitesville, New York. The ceremony was performed by Seventh Day Baptist Elder John B. Chase and witnessed by her family. Because she had no public certificate to back that up, her brothers George and Clark White of Whitesville, New York submitted notarized statements confirming the event.
The widow then had to prove that she was indigent and needy enough to qualify for the government benefit. It must have hurt her pride to ask for help. Her birth family had been well connected in Allegany County, leaders and successful business people in Independence and Whitesville. Her move south was made possible by the relative wealth that she inherited.
But here in these 1890s documents I glimpse an elderly woman struggling to not be a financial burden on her family–her eldest son Clifton and his wife and four kids lived in the adjacent farm. For they all suffered from the ripples of the 1893 failure of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the National Cordage Company, financial failures that set off a national financial crisis.
One friend testified that Serena was “in very dependent circumstances and unable to support herself, except by her daily labor. [She] owns a small plantation, worth some $300-rent of which amount to $20 per annum, barely pays taxes on same farm.”
“In order to eke out an uncertain existence she has to resort to selling a little timber but even that resource will soon be exhausted. Can’t see how she keeps body and soul together.”
“The land is mostly old field pines, poor and almost worthless.”
It is hard for me to imagine this well-educated, financially independent woman struggling to keep a roof over her head.
“[I] have no personal effects of any account and no income. [I have] 1 bed, some books, 1/2 dozen chairs, in all about $50 worth including clothing.”
“[I have] a lot No. 5 Section 10 in Chase City (VA) [worth] $100.”
I have “nothing besides the land except one cat.”
Grandma Serena had her books. Her wits. Her determination to survive.
And she had a cat.
Something we most definitely have in common.