Peeking Into Ira’s Soul


“”Practice any art,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote.  “…music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage…

“Practice any art…no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

Ira Sayles, 1817-1894, practiced art, writing essays and poems throughout his long life.  He shared them with friends. He enclosed them in family letters. He submitted them to regional newspapers and sought wider publication.  Ira yearned to belong among the publicly acclaimed, a recognized poet, an admired intellectual.  He had to settle for living among regular folks.

It didn’t stop his writing, though, and the samples of his art that survive are a testament to Ira’s experiences and soul searching. 

In a poem written 15 December 1872 and published in The Sabbath Recorder on 9 January 1873, Ira celebrates the biblical account of Jesus’ birth.  Each verse ends with “Peace on earth, good-will to man!” 

Is this refrain a peek into Ira’s soul?

Ira served in the Union Army in the early years of the Civil War, discharged after only a short campaign because his 44 year old body couldn’t bear the field conditions of a soldier, much to his dismay. He returned to his wife, Serena, and three sons to resume teaching at Alfred University, Alfred, New York. During early Reconstruction, Serena directed Ira to purchase land in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, where the family relocated in 1870. Her money, her land, in her name, feme sole.  The situation proved acrimonious, as Ira sought to retire and write. Serena, presumably, was determined to teach, farm, or both. 

By the poem’s wintry date, Ira was estranged from Serena, who stayed with their three boys down in Virginia.  Ira returned to his birth family in Pennsylvania.  Eventually, the 55 year old would resume teaching, traveling throughout northern tier counties of Pennsylvania and the southern tier counties in New York to fill vacancies in one room schoolhouses.

Do these stanzas tell us more than Ira was a Christian? Perhaps this poem was a way for Ira to process grief, shame, restlessness; to find peace on earth and good-will to Ira in the new year.

            "Christmas Choral"

 Music floats upon the night-wind,
            Watching shepherds list the strain:
Gently steals the anthem earthward;
            Echo whispers its refrain—
“Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
 
Seers had heard the wondrous story,
            Longed to seeMessiah’s reign,
“Come! O come! thou King of Glory!”
            Echo caught the faint refrain—
“Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
 
Cradled in a humble manger, 
            Nursed by earth’s most lowly train,
Lo! He comes, th’ Almighty stranger!
            Echo murmurs the refrain—
“Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
 
Magi see the astral token
            Shimmering o’er Judea’s plain;
Death’s gloomy night , they know is broken;
            Echo floats the sweet refrain—
“Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
 
Age on age hath borne its burden,
            Filled with human woe and pain, 
Since Faith first beheld her guerdon:
            Echo thunders the refrain—
“Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
 
Brighter gleams that astral glory,
            As the ages rush amain;
Echo louder peals the story,
            Thundering out that sweet refrain—
“Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
 
                                    Ira Sayles
Knoxville, Tioga Co., Pa., 
Wednesday, Dec. 25, 1872

Source

Sayles, Ira. Poem “Christmas Choral,” The Sabbath Recorder, 9 Jan 1873, v29 i2 p6; digitally accessed on Fulton History (FultonHistory.com) 10 Dec 2018.  Transcribed by D. Kay Strickland. 

Wealth and the Ideal Man: An Epistle from Ira Sayles to EB Hall, 1885

Ira Sayles, assistant geologist with United States Geological Survey. 
Photograph taken about 1885 at age 68.

Ira Sayles.

Had I nothing but historical documents, I would have but a simplistic notion of who my great-great-grandfather was.  A self-taught student who rose to be a college student, teacher and founding school administrator of Alfred Academy; Principal of Rushford Academy; Captain of Company H, 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteers in the Union Army; assistant geologist to Charles D. Walcott with the United States Geological Survey. 

A son, brother, husband, father.

But I have letters. And poems. And journal articles. And more letters. 

Clearly, Ira Sayles was a complicated man, with a rich interior life.  His core identity was constructed from his intellectual activities, not his familial relationships.  He harbored ambitions for his poetry, teaching methods, and scientific observations, and nursed grudges with a world that failed to recognize his brilliance. 

In an undated letter to his friend, EB Hall, a druggest and amateur paleontologist in Wellsville, New York, Ira Sayles declares:

People may not be willing to accredit me with being their
Ideal Man. I have never striven to be their Ideal Man; but I do strive to be my own Ideal Man. I am no social puppet. The Ideal Man of Society is but a puppet. He must attitude, and bob, and bow, according to the notions of a silly mob, for whose good opinion I will not turn on my heel. 

Apparently Ira and EB Hall had been discussing the notion of wealth, how the great entrepreneurs of the age–Vanderbilt, Cornell, Rothschild–had used their money to endow public institutions.  Ira took issue with the social standing that these men accrued because of their riches and legacies.

  I know the power of wealth. I acknowledge its good, and I deplore its evils. I can say, too, I have felt its evils. I do not care to rehearse my experiences; nor will I enter into any explanations why I have been so long a homeless wanderer over this beautiful Earth. The story shall remain untold. 

No man can win through the ordinary course of business, a large fortune, but that every dollar is cursed with the tears of the hungry, the naked, the shelterless! 

Ira’s disdain for capitalistic success was connected to his concern about the changing aspirations of women.  In fact, in this letter, Ira predicted a total breakdown of the social order.  Because of financial expectations men, the natural providers for women, would not be able to afford the trappings of success needed to be married.  Wealth among the few would contribute to women not getting married and having children, and men frequenting houses of ill repute because they could not afford wives.  

Ira’s legacy, however, would not be appraised in terms of the dollar.

Instead of making Wealth an object of Life—the object of Life—I will make, as I have long been making, complete fullness of manhood and womanhood, in all its richness, not the chief
but the only end of Life. 

Perhaps you, like others, will call me a dreamer, indulging in an illusive (sic) fancy that will forever mock my hope. Be it so. I have the satisfaction and the joy of living that life myself; I will build myself a home where whoever will, may come and partake with me freely, on the same conditions as I impose on myself, viz. Living up to the Complete Laws of Human Nature. That and that only. 

Living up to the Complete Laws of Human Nature. 

Where the ideal man provided for the ideal woman who remained at home and became mothers.  Where everyone had enough to eat, a safe place to sleep, and honorable work to complete.  

Ira’s utopia. Did he ever discover the wealth inside his own ideal? 

Source

Letter from Ira Sayles to EB Hall of Wellsville, New York, ca. 1885; Hall Family Documents, privately held by Jay Woelfle [address for private use,] 2018. Transcribed by D. Kay Strickland, 2018. 

The Will of Thomas Rowlett: Spider Web in a Family Tree

I first came to know the Rowlett family through my 2nd great-grandmother, Sarah Jane, who married James Dodson in antebellum Mecklenburg County, Virginia.

When Sarah was a young girl, Congress addressed the needs of its elderly war heroes by passing the Revolutionary War Pension Act of 1832.  This legislation provided full pay for any man, enlisted or officer, who had served at least two years in the Continental Line or state militias.  William Rowlett’s application is an extensive justification of his claim that also serves as biography.  It is this document that offered my first peek into Sarah’s Rowlett lineage, connecting her to the surname found in Chesterfield County (VA) and to the Butcher’s Creek, Mecklenburg County (VA) neighborhood of Sarah’s adulthood.

The pension files include documentation of William marrying Sarah’s mom, Rebecca Short, in 1825 while living in Chesterfield County.  It is clear from the tangle of story lines that this was William’s second marriage, that he had children from the first marriage, that he had served in the Revolution while living in Chesterfield County, that he emigrated to Mecklenburg County after the war ended and lived there for some thirty years before returning to Chesterfield County.  Between 1825 and the filing of the pension application, an elderly William, Rebecca, and Sarah relocated to Mecklenburg County, on a farm near James Dodson, and his parents, Edward and Mary Green Dodson.

In my last post I offered a brief synopsis and a transcription of the last wishes of a Thomas Rowlett. Written in the closing days of 1805, Thomas’ will confirms some relationships that I have been guessing about–neighbors and cousins, great-aunts and -uncles, and 3rd and 4th great-grandmothers–since first investigating Sarah Jane’s lineage.

Thomas Rowlett listed four primary relationships as beneficiaries of his estate :

  • his mother, Sarah, thought to be a second wife, and also known as Sarah Neal Archer.

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 11.30.42 AM

  • his brother, William, not known to have married.

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  • his sister Mary, who it is thought married a first cousin, William Rowlett, also known as 3rd-great-grandfather, William Rowlett, father of Sarah Rowlett Dodson.

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  • his deceased sister, Martha, daughter of Sarah, wife of William Wills Green, and mother of Mary Green Dodson, my 3rd great-grandmother.

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This one document helps confirm how intertwined my  branches are.

So, in short:

Sarah Jane had much older half-siblings:

  • Sarah, who married Thomas Coleman.
  • Thompson, who married Mary (Polly) Dodson.
  • William.
  • Peter.
  • Thomas.
  • John.
  • Mary.
  • Archer.
  • Martha.

The oldest two remained in Mecklenburg County, and I have accounted for them.

The others may have returned to Chesterfield County, and pose more questions than my brain can handle right now!

My 3rd great-grandmother, Mary Green Dodson, lost her mother before 1803, when William W. Green is recorded as having married widow Mary Hinton Poindexter.  The will suggests to me that as a young girl Mary might have been at least partly raised by her elder siblings.

  • Archer.
  • Abraham.
  • Elizabeth who had married James W Oliver in 1799.
  • Sarah.
  • William.
  • Martha.
  • Lewis.

Mary also had two younger sisters:

  • Susanna.
  • Rebecca Cole.

As I continue to gather documents and sift stories, I have an increasing number of relatives , neighbors, cousins to inquire after, to listen for.  I know folks refer to this genealogical hobby as building a tree, but right now I feel more like a spider spinning a web that collects specks of the past.

What story will come from these patterns?

Source:

The Last Will and Testament of Thomas Rowlett. Mecklenburg County (VA), Will Book 5, p 320, 1806; accessed digitally from Family Search (familysearch.org) September 13, 2018.

 

 

The Last Will of Thomas Rowlett: 1806

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 2.56.44 PMSource: Mecklenburg County, Virginia Will Book 5, p 320, 1806; accessed digitally from Family Search (familysearch.org) September 13, 2018.

In late December of 1805, Thomas Rowlett of Mecklenburg County wrote a new will.  Less than a month later, the son of William Rowlett and step-mother Sarah Neal Archer Rowlett was dead.  Thomas left an estate that included a mill and a 1300 acre plantation on which lived 9 horses, 32 head of cattle, 38 sheep and 17 lambs, 4 sows and 24 pigs, 7 turkeys, 59 Dunghill Fowls, 13 geese, and 4 ducks.

And twenty-three enslaved people who worked as carpenters, field hands, grooms, cooks, and household help.

Phill (£200), Joe (£100), Sam (£120), Tom (£120), Bob  (£75), Peter (£60), Charles (£90), George (£75), Isaac  (£75),John (£60),Caesar (£5)Dixon (£50),Ned (£30),Lucy Senr  (£30), Hannah (£90), Diannah (£60), Susanna (£90), Creacy (£75), Lucy Junr (£75), Nancy  (£55), Dizy (£40), Amy (£25), and Fanny (£15).

I Thomas Rowlettof the County of Mecklenburgand the State of Virginia do make and ordain this my last will and Testament in manner and form following—

First I give and bequeath unto Sarah Coleman the wife of Thomas Coleman a negro woman named Hannah. Secondly I give and bequeath unto my dear mother Sarah Rowlett one hundred dollars annually during her natural life if she will accept of the same. Thirdly I give and bequeath unto Colo William W Green my Grey Riding Horse call Yorick to be delivered upon my death.

Fourthly, all the rest of my estate both real and personal I desire may be kept together for two years after my decease and then my executors hereafter named is hereby directed to sell the whole thereof to the highest bidder on twelve months credit taking sufficient security and after paying my debts if any should be due, and the legacies aforesaid—

I will and desire that the whole of my estate arising from the said sales and the profits of my Estate until the said Sales – be divided into three equal parts or shares to be divided as follows to wit one third part or share aforesaid I give unto my brother William Rowlett,

one other third part or share I give unto my sister Mary Rowletts Children, to wit, Sarah Coleman, Thompson Rowlett, William Rowlett, Peter Rowlett, Thomas Rowlett, John Rowlett, Archer Rowlett and Martha Rowlett to be equally divided,

one other third part or share, I give unto the Children of my deceased sister Martha Green, to wit, Archer Green, Abraham Green, Elizabeth Oliver, Sarah Green, William Green, Martha Green, Lewis Green, Mary Green, Susanna Green, and Rebecca Cole Green, to be equally divided among them.

Lastly I nominate and appoint Archer Green, Thomas Coleman and William Rowlett my brother executors of this my last will and Testament with a request that my plantations and carpenters shall be more particularly managed for the two years aforesaid by the said Archer Green and that he will leave the Mill finished.

I hereby revoke all other wills, I so hereby decide this to be my true last will and Testament this twenty ninth day of December on thousand eight hundred and five.

Signed sealed published and declared as the last will and Testament of Thomas Rowlett in the presence of us:

Edward L. Tabb, I Ridley Jr., Elizabeth Neal, Clarissa H Neal

Signed   Thomas Rowlett

At  a Court held for Mecklenburg County the 13thday of January 1806

This will was proved by the oaths of Edward L Tabb and I Ridley Jr. witnesses thereto and ordered to be recorded and on the motion of Thomas Coleman one of the executors therein named who made oath thereto and together with Charles Colley, James T. Hayes, William Pettus, William Stone and James Batte his secureties (sic)  entered into and acknowledged their bond in the penalty of fifty thousand dollars conditioned as the law directs certificate us granted him for obtaining a probate of the said will in due form, liberty being reserved for the other executors therein named to Issue in the Probate when they shall think fit.

Teste  William Baskervill CS Cou

Analysis to follow.

Sunday morning musing

I have been getting acquainted with my 19th century grandmothers during the last few weeks, creating more questions than stories at the end of each day, which is frustrating at many levels.

I catch myself re-centering the family account around the men, specifically the white men, who populate the records.  It is a habit.  A learned way of processing the world that I resist, unsuccessfully, as I try to bring womenfolk out of the past’s shadows.

So I end up tossing the paper into the bin, or cutting whole paragraphs of text, or moving the whole post to trash.

And I begin again.

This week I will (re)focus my attention on Mary Green Dodson, 1787-1858, daughter of William Wills and Martha [Archer Rowlette] Green; wife of Edward Dodson, Junior; mother of James H, my 2nd great-grandfather; and cousin to Sarah Jane [Rowlett] Dodson, my 2nd great-grandmother.

Mary grew from girl to woman, wife to widow, mother to elder, in the watersheds of  Allen’s and Butcher’s Creeks, Mecklenburg County, Virginia.  I have looked out on those woods, walked those hills, with red clay, that Mary saw every day, clinging to my shoes.  Childhood treks from Chase City to the country that had held generations of ancestors made little impression on me until I strolled up cow-worn paths with my father, his drawl spreading stories of his childhood on my children.

I have lots of records for many branches of my families, but I return to those from Mecklenburg County time and again, because of this connection to the white feldspar-studded land.  And this genealogical homecoming has prodded my reckoning with the unspoken family lore.

The land and its tobacco guaranteed food security, housing security, community esteem.  And none of that was possible without the work of black people-enslaved, sharecroppers, tenant farmers.

When I reconstruct pieces of Mary Green Dodson’s life, I also feel those African Americans emerging from shadows.

I hope I do all of these folks justice with my story-telling.

Their hopes, dreams–and nightmares–built this country.