A Civil War Legacy Continues: Serena Sayles Makes A Claim

Ira Sayles died Friday, 15 June 1894, and was buried on the Sayles’ Mecklenburg County farm before the sun hovered on the western horizon that evening.

If you have ever served as executor of someone’s last wishes, then you know how incongruous the days following a death can feel. There are all the emotions roiling around loss–relief if the loved one was in pain, deep anxiety about what the person’s absence will mean about your future, regret over old arguments that will never get settled, and deep, grumbling, fumbling sadness. Then there are the legalities, specific steps that one’s mind must clearly, carefully execute.

Vulnerability. Precision. Do what must be done.


Serena and Ira were dependent on their son, Clifton, and as he stated in a letter supporting his father’s pension claim, “I myself am a poor man with a wife and several children to provide for.” The $8 a month that Ira received as a disability pension had been a welcome supplement to the family’s income. Was there some way that benefit could continue?

Vulnerability. Precision.

In the week following Ira’s burial, Serena contacted James Tanner, the Washington, D.C. lawyer who had successfully prosecuted Ira’s disability claim, and began the process of getting a Widow’s Pension based on Ira’s military service.

Who was James Tanner?

Serena Sayles used James Tanner as her legal counsel because Ira had. But how did Ira arrive at the Tanner law office in 1892?

Folks don’t know about him now, but during Reconstruction James Tanner was well known and well regarded as an outspoken advocate on behalf of disabled and elderly Union veterans. Mr. Tanner was himself a disabled vet, having had both legs shattered by a shell during the Second Battle of Bull Run. As a double amputee, Tanner reinvented himself as a stenographer for the War Department. He was assigned to Washington, D.C. and took down the initial first-hand accounts of Lincoln’s assassination in the very bedroom in which president lay dying.

The ambitious New Yorker subsequently studied law and held a variety of public service positions. But he was perhaps best known as a key figure in the fraternal veterans organizations, the Union Veteran Legion and the Grand Army of the Republic, which lobbied states and Congress for funds and facilities dedicated to helping veterans of the War of the Rebellion.

After serving briefly as Commissioner of Pensions in 1888, he dedicated his law practice in Washington, D.C. to helping veterans win claims against the federal government.

Tanner was resilient and shrewd; public speaking engagements kept him in front of veterans and their families, and strategically placed newspaper advertisements kept his pension business before the public.

Ira could have listened to Tanner address the D.C. encampment of the Union Veteran Legion, or perhaps read of the lawyer’s lobbying efforts on behalf of Union veterans, or seen the attorney’s advertisement. Ira was just one of thousands who put their trust in Tanner to prosecute a pension claim. And Serena followed suit.


Precision in Vulnerability

Ten days after Ira’s death Serena took a seat across from notary public N. H. Williams in a Chase City (VA) office. Williams transcribed her testimony into a form provided by James Tanner. She declared herself to be a widow of an old soldier of Company H, 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteers, whom she had married in Whitesville, New York in April of 1845. Serena also attested that she was poor, living on her daily labor alone, with but a $15 per year income from renting her farm out. And she agreed to pay James Tanner $10 if her pension claim was granted.

Williams had two witnesses testify that Serena was who she said she was, and then mailed the form.

Two days later a clerk in the U.S. Pension Office placed an official stamp on her document and created claim No. 597.861. It would be three years before Serena’s file was considered complete and a decision rendered by the Commissioner of Pensions.


What factors affected the speed at which Tanner could work on this case? How did the country feel about military pensions? Did public sentiment affect Serena and her claim?

Notes

Tuesday Tip: Think Outside the Search Box

I favor Google Chrome, a largely irrelevant opinion.  We all start in the box.

Dutifully we type surname and variations; we add locations or events or dates. Genealogists troll the internet for data, stories, articles, and cousins.  I must admit to some success with such random meanderings; but I have felt hungry for context, for a fuller understanding of the intellectual and economic landscape of my ancestors.  Particularly one. My muse.  The one ancestor I wish I could invite to lunch.  Ira Sayles.  Professor, teacher, principal.  Geologist, poet, soldier.  Son, husband, father.  And so I stared at the box and pondered.  What else could the internet expose?  How could I think outside this query box?

Among my earlier query returns was a letter published in The American Journal of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 39, May 1865; it established Professor Sayles’ geology credentials and was cited throughout oil industry documents for the next century. Staying inside the box, I felt proud of this citation. Outside my thought box I wondered: Why was a New York school teacher and administrator writing a letter about rock porosity and oil quality in northwestern Pennsylvania?  And why was he taken seriously?

The blinking cursor taunted me and finally I typed: Ira Sayles’ town of residence in 1865 – Whitesville, New York – and the keywords “oil history”.    Holy moly.  I got a whole new line of research, the most helpful site being developed by fellow genealogists in Allegany County, New York, with the page “Who Drilled the First Wells in Allegany County?”  Among the comments, assembled from various historical resources, was this tidbit: “this well, which was drilled on the Alvia Wood farm in the summer of 1865 by the Whitesville Petroleum Company” which was incorporated “for $2500 on March 6,, 1865, to bore for oil or minerals in Allegany and Steuben counties, and six trustees were named to direct drilling operations.  The stock was sold to residents of the village and vicinity farm owners.”  ( Empire Oil by John P. Herrick)

America’s first oil boom occurred just as the Civil War cannons boomed, and my ancestors were living in the middle of both.  Outside the old search box is a landscape of oil pockets and financiers purses.  Expanding a genealogical search to include more than the names on our trees expands our understanding of their stories, and their communities.

 

 

Tuesday’s Tip: RootsMagic 5 from a Novice

Though I have been collecting documents, photographs and family stories for three years, and writing a blog for almost two, I have never tried to systematically record my genealogical information.  Now that I have amassed enough treasure to genuinely call myself a genealogist/family historian, I feel compelled to organize it – to better tell my stories and to refine my research.  

I am fortunate in that my treasures include a great many primary sources: family Bibles, postcards, pension files, letters and ledgers, in addition to those sources plucked from internet repositories.  I need genealogy software that will help me structure data, source it thoroughly and bundle it with transcriptions, summaries and media.  After asking around my +google circles and doodling with a downloaded trial or two, I settled on RootsMagic 5.

Just do it NOW

The sea of data has threatened to drown me more than once in the past couple of months.  Even with a nifty new program I was daunted by the work that lay ahead of me.  Just pick an ancestor NOW, said a cyber colleague.  Just start entering data,  NOW.  Start climbing the software’s learning curve NOW.

So I selected an ancestor, Ira Sayles and Serena, his wife, and just started using Roots Magic 5.  Innocently I chose the 1894 Civil War Pension File, because I wanted to reread the documents within the set and because I remembered that these primary sources contained a rich assortment of dates, names, occupations, etc. Almost immediately I was struck numb with doubt.   How will I ever structure this information so that I capture MORE than dates?  How will I capture stories of his health? His Civil War service?  Then the magic of the software appeared.

RootsMagic 5

The home screen of RootsMagic has a familiar appearance, and is constructed for intuitive use.

Double clicking the person of interest brings up an edit screen.


As you can see, Ira Sayles served during the Civil War; he applied for an Invalid Pension in 1893.  One of my first genealogical research trips was to the National Archives in Washinton, D.C., where my request to see the contents of pension application 1124613 returned a whole sheaf of papers.  Over the New Year holiday I began rereading them, and recording the data in no particular order.  Soon I had three separate entries documenting the fact that Ira Sayles had served in Virginia and succumbed to prolonged exposure and fatigue.  Unable to fulfill his duties as Captain of Company H, 130th Regiment New York Volunteers, he resigned in February of 1863.  Suddenly I was swept up in the urge to differentiate these sources further so that each perspective about that resignation was recorded. Determinedly I delved into the full power of RootsMagic.  

I selected one of my resignation facts – Ira’s letter of resignation – and started clicking tabs.

When you click the source button for your fact this page is brought up. 

At first all I tried to do was figure out how to cite my source.  Then I noticed the tabs to the right of the Citation Tab and went wild!  The Master Text Tab will let the user create further commentary on the Source Set.  What I wanted to do was find a way to record details of the individual documents within my pension file.  I moved on to the Detail Text Tab:

What a perfectly lovely sight!  The changes on this page apply ONLY to the specific citation; here you can name your document, attach your transcription or research note AND write down any further information that you want captured! 

So here I am, three days into my RM5 learning curve, and I already know how to capture information as structured data, how to cite my source AND how to bundle the data with transcriptions, research notes and summaries.  Magical.

 

Tuesday’s Tip: Location, Location, Location

Local Societies Have the Location      

 Most family historians, I would dare say, do not live close to the towns, farms and churches of our ancestors.  Fortunately, somebody else does.  Their location is prime real estate for your genealogical searching.  Try this: in your search engine type the name of the county and state in which your ancestor lived, then + “genealogy” .  From my experience your query will return a list for at least one historical or genealogical society in the county or the region of your foreparents.  These local societies often have resources available that the big data banks don’t carry.

For instance, Ira and Serena Sayles, my 3rd grandparents, lived for years in various towns of Allegany County, New York.  I have been compiling data about their lives for my Project 150: My ancestors in the Civil War.  The Allegany County Historical Society has transcribed an index and scanned the images for the 1865 New York census, an absolutely stunning document which is available elsewhere for other counties but not Allegany.  I contacted the web master to relay my thanks, and was able to extend my contact to the individual specializing in Whitesville, Ira and Serena’s family home in 1865.  In another query I discovered the Cornerstone Genealogy Society of Greene County, Pennsylvania, and was able to order an 1865 county map that will come in handy as I study the Minor family in the Civil War.

I wish I had a magic carpet that could whisk me to the physical locations of these libraries, where I would grab a coffee and chat with fellow enthusiasts.  Until that acquisition, a long distance membership and the internet will just have to do. And when all is said and done, that makes for a pretty remarkable ride.

I Got a Smart Phone and It Made Me Dumb: Tech Tuesday

I got a Blackberry Bold smart phone.  This snazzy handheld device replaced my old Samsung flip-top with its limited functionality–cumbersome SMS messaging, teeney tiny camera and so so call quality.

The message, ma’am.  Just the message.

NOW I have a multi-tasking toy!  I send messages by SMS text which pulls on the voice plan.  I text messages by Blackberry Messenger (BBM) which pulls on the data plan.  I check and respond to my emails, and I update my facebook status.  Anywhere there is a Verizon-friendly tower I can tether my smart phone to my smart computer and download maps that I can actually read or upload my cemetery Blackberry-captured photos straight to my footnote pages.  No more hunting for the nearest WiFi hotspot! I can have internet access anywhere I roam!

And I find myself growing increasingly annoyed by the ring tone, ignoring it, forcing real voices to leave messages to be retrieved later or convert their sounds into megabytes of text for immediate consumption.

What’s this?

I bought a smart phone and it made me dumb.