I listened to a fascinating CAFE live conversation between historians Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman the other day. At minute 8 or so they begin to discuss the difference between journalists and historians.
Journalists, they point out, follow the story; they look for facts and find sources to deliver the story. Historians look for facts in primary sources–art, documents, records, newspapers–to find patterns in the past that created change, tracking a story but not always knowing what that story is going to turn out to be.
Journalists tell us what happened. Historians ask “who cares?” and “so what?”
it’s a case of both/and
When my dad declared me “Keeper of the Family Lore” I had no idea how deeply I would travel into the past. The facts led to questions and the questions led to course work and books, which led to more course work and more books. Some 15 years later, I am a citizen archivist and genealogical antiquarian; a history enthusiast and translator of the family lore.
I am drawn to historian folks like Drs. Richardson Cox and Freeman because they have been instrumental in helping me see patterns in the present BECAUSE of their study of patterns in the past. And they motivate me to apply the techniques and processing skills of the historian to find patterns in my genealogical stories.
This blog gives me a platform to connect with other history loving folks. Sometimes I am simply an antiquarian, posting names and dates and timelines for the sheer love of detail. But the posts I most enjoy writing are those with a rich narrative around the facts that answer the “who cares” and “so whats” about my family’s relationships and events.
In this moment I am striving to be a part of a larger conversation that historians are having about our Civil War and Reconstruction era, and how we can use what the nation learned then during this current backlash against expansive democracy. It is a process that is both intriguing and humbling, leading to an ever more liberating understanding of the history behind my family’s lore.
I played around with this Gutenberg Block editor in hopes of sharing genealogy basics in a more visually appealing, less overwhelming format.
‘Cause, let’s face it, when you’re trying to engage with kin that lie somewhere out there beneath your family tree’s shade, the typical checklists of names and dates of birth, death, marriage, and the (seemingly endless) enumeration of siblings and kids can be so tedious that a mind wanders and, before you know it, perusing leads to closing the tab rather than clicking a contact button.
What if the data was shared in a more graphic form? Can the Gutenblock editor help me create a family diagram?
My grandfather Strickland was an orphan who inherited the Mecklenburg County (VA) farm from the three, single Dodson siblings who adopted him. Their sister, married to a Sayles, was my grandmother Strickland’s mother. When my dad narrated our hikes around Oakview with stories of his childhood, I only saw my Virginia roots so deeply embedded in that rich red soil, worked by generations of Dodsons, the people they enslaved and the people they hired to sharecrop.
But my last set of posts about Ira Sayles and George Parker got me to thinking about where little boy George Strickland played until his parents died of the flu in 1897. Let’s dip into his family tree.
In my mind I’m going to Carolina
George Ricks “Ricky” Strickland
Born in Franklin County NC; Died in Richmond VA
George Ricks “Ricky”
Sydney Nicholas Strickland
Born and died in Franklin County NC
married in 1879
Virginia Elizabeth Coppedge
Born and died in Franklin County NC
Anderson Perry Strickland
Born in Wake County NC; Died in Petersburg VA
Married in 1843
Julia M. Stone
Born and died in Franklin County NC
William B. Coppedge
Born and died in Franklin County NC
Married in 1857
Laura Ann May
Born and died in Franklin County NC
Look at all those North Carolina folks! I could keep going back, tracking down the Stallings and Bowdens, the Dents and the Boons of Franklin, Nash, and Wake County. But four blocks of vital statistics hit me as a just enough information to whet someone’s curiosity.
My original idea was to end with a diagram, with connections, branches, shoots. And though this attempt is far more basic, I feel satisfied. My goal was to discover another way to share basic data, and I think I stumbled on a satisfying format. Only time will tell if such posts promote more reader engagement. For now…I’d say family historians have a friend in the WordPress editor.
I headed out the door with keys and leash in hand, my tri-colored English Shepherd girl at my heels. A quick car ride later, we are out and about in the (temporarily) pollen-free air of Francis Slocum State Park. The viridescent hills have changed once again as deciduous trees continue their spring fashion show.
“Sweet sweet I’m so sweet” came from first one tree then another; Yellow Warblers in the park!
“Sweet Sweet Canada Canada Canada” sang White-Throated Sparrows, an endearing reminder that my winter buddies are still around.
Burbles and churps pulled my attention skyward and I watched acrobatic maneuvers of Tree Swallows swooping for insects I couldn’t spy.
But wait…that isn’t a white belly. That head isn’t blue-green.
OH!!! Today’s new arrivals were Northern Rough-winged Swallows with their plain brown backs and dusky throats. Darting low over the lake, they snatched today’s hatch and returned for oh-so-brief pauses on wires or snags. My swallow counts for eBird will get a bit tricky now.
I love it all–the wind, the clouds, the song, the flight, the greens. Even the arrival of ticks can’t deter my good mood.
A couple of weeks ago I opened this site, determined to see it with a new reader’s eyes, like someone exploring my rabbit hole of a blog for family connections or genealogy tips.
I clicked the search box and got a “drop down” box OVER my header’s menu.
UGH. THAT IS NOT HELPFUL. I couldn’t see what I was typing, and neither could any of y’all if you’ve tried.
This problem, I discovered, was baked into the WordPress theme I have used for the past few years, Libretto. Time to re-evaluate and try something new.
For the heck of it, I checked out Blogger, a Google blogging platform that I tried WAY back when. I remain unimpressed with the templates. I quickly moved on to review the pros and cons of WordPress.org and WordPress.com, which confirmed my aversion to self-hosting a blog. That circled me back to choosing among the free WordPress.com themes that fully complement the Gutenberg Block Editor and my final choice must have a REAL drop down search box in the header.
After a bit of dithering, I activated the Twenty-Twenty theme yesterday, tweaked the header menu a bit, and committed to using this format for the next month or two. If I can keep calm–controlling the perfectionist within–I hope to maximize the new theme, delivering content that is intriguing, fun, inspiring.
And also engaging with ever more readers. There’s so much history in our families worth exploring, together.
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.