On Horizons

CW: Suicide attempt

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.  

Camp Alger

Camp Alger, Falls Church, Virginia, 1898

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.


sources

He enlisted as a private: Kansas City Journal (Kansas City Missouri) 6 May 1898, p3; Newspapers, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/42846160. Accessed 23 Jan 2020.

Camp Alger: Anderson, Eric. “Camp Russell A. Alger, Falls Church, Virginia.” On Point, vol. 19, no. 4, 2014, pp. 44–48. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26364238. Accessed 24 Jan. 2020.

contaminated drinking water: Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 30 June 1898. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1898-06-30/ed-1/seq-2/>

Family tree facts

  • Christopher Sherman was the youngest child of Ira and Serena Sayles, born in 1862, while the family still lived in Alfred, Allegany County, New York.
  • Private Sayles served with the Third Missouri Regiment during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
  • Sherman (C.S.) was an inmate in the Government Hospital for the Insane, Washington, D.C. in 1900.
  • C.S. Sayles died in Washington, D.C. in 1903.

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?