write with intention

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!

Believe You This?

In a letter to brother James dated 10 April 1872, Ira Sayles sent both sympathy and sermon to his ailing 50 year old sibling whose diagnosis of palsy had been shared in a March note.

Palsy by definition in the 1870s was a chronic condition involving some sort of paralysis. A person had three alternatives in seeking a recovery:

  • medicinal remedies,

“There is no pain that Centaur Liniments will not relieve, no swelling it will not subdue, and no lameness it will not cure.” (1)

  • a physician’s treatment,

Dr. Clark A Miner of Chicago the Celebrated Chronic Disease Specialist will make his next visit to Austin, August 13th and 14th till ‘Noon at the Fleck House where he can be consulted free upon any disease in his specialties…Scrofula, Syphilis, Consumption, Kidney Disease, Piles, Paralysis, Palsy, Female Complaints of Whatever Character…Almost hopeless cases are successfully treated.” (2)

  • or, as Ira preaches, ” A sincere, calm trust in Providence is of more consequence than all else.”

Much of this letter could have been delivered from a pulpit. Ira writes long detailed paragraphs that delineate his belief system.

“I have spent years in studying these matters, and my Father has gradually opened to me the whole scheme, scope and aim of human life, with all the human faculties and susceptibilities. He gave us the exhibition of the Life of Jesus, as the modle(sic) of a perfect man. Through Him He promises to confer on the perfect man Immortal Life; and, in the resuscitation of the mangled carcass of Jesus, after a death of nearly three days, He demonstrates His power to fulfill His promises.”

Words not at all out of the ordinary for a devout Christian.

But Ira then goes on to weave the language of science into this religious doctrine.

The death and resurrection of Jesus he states is “strictly scientific, if we make our scientific basis broad enough; if we make it too narrow, we fail to reach this great fact.”

“The narrow-based scientist and the narrow-based religionist are forever at loggerheads. Both are dogmatic: both wrong.”


Ira was a citizen scientist, collecting botanical and geological specimens throughout his career as a teacher and academy principal. His keen observations of and theoretical writings about nature earned him local acclaim.

In fact, Ira would be appointed to the United States Geological Survey in 1883 by Secretary of the Interior Henry W. Teller, a former student, where he served as an assistant geologist and assistant paleontologist until his final illness. Ira was a scientist at heart.

And he was also a Christian, his faith formed during the Second Great Awakening spurred by the religious revivals of Charles Finney. He received his education and first teaching opportunities at Alfred University, a school deeply intertwined with the Seventh Day Baptist church.

Separating religion from science, science from religion, embracing both, or one and not the other…this is the stuff of existential debate that has raged from the moment humans began to observe, classify, hypothesize, and offer testable explanations based on facts. It is fascinating to bear witness to my great-great-grandfather’s grappling.

“The scientist sees just to the end of his nose, and thinks that the whole universe. The religionist scarcely sees from our corner of his eye to the other yet he thinks nothing worth seeing, which he don’t (sic) such are the facts in the case. IF your religion rests on a ‘scientific basis’, be sure that your basis is broad enough.”

Believe you this?


1. The St. Cloud journal. (St. Cloud, Minn.), 27 Feb. 1873. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. 

2. Mower County transcript. (Lansing, Minn.), 02 Sept. 1875. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. 

Weekend Reading

I haven’t read past the Prologue of “Sold on a Monday”. I am haunted already by the quote Kristina McMorris chose to introduce PART ONE.

PHOTOGRAPHY is the art of observation. It has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

Elliot Erwitt

Everything to do with the way I see them.

I wonder what scenes will emerge from my photography shoots this week.

The Arduous Work

I leave the transcription of Ira Sayles’ letter. I lay it aside, figuratively, in a file inside a folder on my laptop. And yet its presence generates a rumbling, incessant turmoil.

Listen. Listen to me. 

The connection between past and present demands attention, but I can’t make out just exactly what that link is.

I find Ira tiresome, pompous, bloviating. It is difficult to discern the reformer, the citizen scientist, the wannabe poet, a man I would like to proudly claim as ancestor.

To write a thorough narrative of Ira Sayles’ life requires me to do just that, however. My great-great-grandfather was a man of his time, complex and earnest; a man wrestling with the coexistence of science and God, and the evolving status of women. Little wonder that I find this genealogical work so arduous.


I would love to hear from fellow family researchers. What do you do when you smell a great story but don’t really like the ancestor? How do you expand the narrative?

Fresh

 

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