Photographs and Memories Sayles Surnames White women's history

Grandma Serena Had A Cat

This week’s #family history challenge–What’s Your Favorite Discovery–from Amy Johnson Crow’s #52Ancestors52Weeks sparked a vivid memory.

In mid-January 2009 I discovered first hand what our nation’s capital is like in winter. Washington, D.C.’s humid air wraps your body in a vise; a cold breeze off the river increases its grip. I walked briskly from the Archives-Navy Memorial metro station to the National Archives and arrived flush-faced–from the cold, from the exercise, from the excitement.

Butterflies knocked around in my belly as staff took my photo and transferred it to an official archivist ID, my entry card to the treasures within that building. I entered stacks and confirmed my great-great-grandfather’s Civil War pension number before notating it on the official request form and filing it with staff for retrieval that day.

I remember picking that file up, its heft a pleasant surprise. I took a seat along side other researchers at a long wooden table in a cavernous room. Though work was conducted in hushed silence, my anticipation made me chatty. The gentleman across the table sensed my excitement and smiled. We softly shared our awe that these historical records, so meticulously preserved and catalogued, were here for us to search and use and build stories.

I took a breath and started to read.

Page after page I turned. The Pension Application for Ira Sayles revealed new information about his 1863-64 service record in Company H, 13oth New York Volunteers. Letters submitted in witness to his 1893 condition documented the end of his life, and the tribulations that led Ira to apply for the monthly stipend.

All of this data wealth provided inspiration for years of further research and story telling. But my favorite pages were not about Ira.

They were about his wife, Serena White Sayles.

Whereas Ira left an abundance of letters, published articles, books, poems, and public documentation, Serena left but a few breadcrumbs tracing her life. Here in this file I glimpse the woman behind the name.

Serena White Sayles dressed in a black dress in the fashion of 1863 sits with her small baby Christopher Sherman in her lap. Sherman hugs a bottle of milk to his chest. A little girl dressed in pink stands at the mother’s right shoulder. Florette had died in 1857 and was painted here in memoriam. A second painting exists that depicts her husband Ira and her two older sons, Clifton and Merlin.

Serena White Sayles was born in the southern tier village of Independence, New York to Samuel and Nancy Teater White. She met Ira while attending Alfred Academy (Alfred, New York), and the couple married shortly after graduating. The teachers were instrumental in the development of Alfred Academy and Rushford Academy, both located in Allegany County, New York. In the early years of Reconstruction Ira, Serena, and their surviving children–Clifton, Merlin, and Sherman–relocated to Southside Virginia, outside the village of Christiansville (later known as Chase City), on a farm of around 600 acres. Ira returned to New York in 1872, and the couple remained estranged for the rest of their marriage. This family story was passed on by my grandmother, Florette Strickland, daughter of Clifton, and lifelong resident of Chase City.

The pension file disclosed so much more.

Ira died in the heat of June 1894. A week after his body was laid to rest in the family’s Mecklenburg County cemetery plot, Serena filed her widow’s declaration to continue receiving the $8/month stipend. Over the course of the next 2 1/2 years brothers, neighbors, and friends added impressions and details to Serena’s own testimony.

My Great-great-grandma began with an attestation of her marriage to Ira on 11 April 1845 in Whitesville, New York. The ceremony was performed by Seventh Day Baptist Elder John B. Chase and witnessed by her family. Because she had no public certificate to back that up, her brothers George and Clark White of Whitesville, New York submitted notarized statements confirming the event.

The widow then had to prove that she was indigent and needy enough to qualify for the government benefit. It must have hurt her pride to ask for help. Her birth family had been well connected in Allegany County, leaders and successful business people in Independence and Whitesville. Her move south was made possible by the relative wealth that she inherited.

But here in these 1890s documents I glimpse an elderly woman struggling to not be a financial burden on her family–her eldest son Clifton and his wife and four kids lived in the adjacent farm. For they all suffered from the ripples of the 1893 failure of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the National Cordage Company, financial failures that set off a national financial crisis.

One friend testified that Serena was “in very dependent circumstances and unable to support herself, except by her daily labor. [She] owns a small plantation, worth some $300-rent of which amount to $20 per annum, barely pays taxes on same farm.”

“In order to eke out an uncertain existence she has to resort to selling a little timber but even that resource will soon be exhausted. Can’t see how she keeps body and soul together.”

“The land is mostly old field pines, poor and almost worthless.”

It is hard for me to imagine this well-educated, financially independent woman struggling to keep a roof over her head.

“[I] have no personal effects of any account and no income. [I have] 1 bed, some books, 1/2 dozen chairs, in all about $50 worth including clothing.”

“[I have] a lot No. 5 Section 10 in Chase City (VA) [worth] $100.”

I have “nothing besides the land except one cat.”

Grandma Serena had her books. Her wits. Her determination to survive.

And she had a cat.

Something we most definitely have in common.

A black and white tuxedo cat sits contentedly in her mom’s lap.

Strickland Surnames Transcriptions women's history

Amanuensis Day: The Last Will and Testament of Happy Stone

North Carolina, wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 for Happy Stone, Franklin County; accessed digitally on, 20 August 2021.

On a Tuesday morning in March three springs before her death, Happy Stone sat with H. H. Davis and Robert Mannas and dictated the terms of what should happen to her farm and estate upon her death. On 8 April 1853 Kerenhappuch departed this world, and at the 1853 June court her last will and testament was proven and recorded in Franklin County (NC) Probate Records, Book IV, pages 330-331.

In the name of God. amen. I Happy Stone of the State of North Carolina and County of Franklin considering the uncertainty of my earthly existence, but being of sound mind and memory, do make, publish and declare this to be my last will and Testament in manner and form following. To wit-

  • Item 1. It is my will and desire that this body of mine be decently interred and that all of my just debts be paid after my death.
  • Item 2. It is my will and desire that after my death that all the property of every description that I may possess at the time of my death be sold and equally dived (sic) as follows, (To wit) I give one sixth part after paying all expenses to my son William Stone. One sixth part I give to my son McCullar Stone, one sixth part I give to my son Washington Stone, one sixth part I give to my son Elias Stone, One sixth part I give to my daughter Mary Ann Howell, one sixth part i give to my grandson John Axum (?) Jenkins–but should he die before he arrives of age of twenty one, it is my will that the part left to him be equally divided between William, McCullar, Washing (sic), and Elias Stone and Mary Ann Howell and their Heirs.
  • Lastly I nominate and appoint my son William Stone my sole Executor to this my last Will and Testament. In testimony of which I have hereunto set my hand and affixed my seal this 19th March A.D. 1850.

signed, seal, and acknowledged Happy HER MARK X Stone

H. H. Davis, Robert Mannas

Because she had already sold her land to my 2x great-grandparents, Anderson and Julia Strickland, what remained were debts settled with the proceeds from the sale of her tools, furniture, livestock, foodstuffs, crops already planted, and two human beings, Nancy and Crofford*.

But that is a story for another day.

*alternative spellings: Crawford, Craff, Croford.

Related posts:

Amanuensis Day: Happy Stone’s Land Goes to the Next Generation

Minor Recipes and Receipts Strickland Surnames Transcriptions women's history

Recipes and receipts: A 1970(ish) Texas Sheet of Chocolate Deliciousness

Our dinner table in southwest Virginia was always full. Mother and Daddy at either end, us four kids seated two across from two on each side. In the center, sat two vegetables, a starch, a meat dish or casserole, to be passed to the left until all were served. At each place was a glass of milk and a small bowl of canned fruit, preferably fruit cocktail with maraschino cherries which had to be equitably divided among the four of us.

The highlight of every meal, though, was dessert. My mother was a terrific cook; her baked goods, however, were whole-other-level fantastic. Homemade cookies or brownies or cakes of all sorts were a daily staple of my childhood memories.

Among the recipes in my mother’s Recipe Accordion File was a hand-written page of directions from her sister’s mother-in-law, Cora Carroll of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. This Texas Sheet Cake is one of the most sweet-tooth-satisfying cakes I have ever bitten into.

Try it. You’ll like it, I’m sure!

Texas Sheet Cake

Sift altogether in large bowl:

         2 cups granulated sugar               ½ teaspoon salt

         2 cups all-purpose flour                1 t baking soda


         Melt 2 sticks of margarine [or butter], 1 cup water, ¼ cup cocoa. Bring to a full rolling boil.

Small Bowl:

         2 eggs (beaten)           1 teaspoon vanilla      

         ½ cup buttermilk         1 Tablespoon vinegar

Add everything to large bowl. Mix lightly. Pour into greased jelly-roll pan (15 ½ x 10 ½ inch)

Bake 20 minutes at 400°.

Ice while warm with Chocolate Icing:

         [Mix together] 1 pound confectioners’ sugar, 1 egg (beaten), ½ cup melted butter, 2 squares melted unsweetened chocolate, 1 teaspoon lemon juice. [spread over warm cake]

I transcribed the recipe as Cora wrote it out for my mother, baker to baker. I made sure to translate anything that seemed confusing, like measuring abbreviations, but other than that this is how the recipe was handed down.

I have another recipe for this cake from a 1980 edition of A Heritage of Good Tastes from Historic Alexandria, Virginia that uses a mix of shortening and butter instead of margarine in the cake. And in that version the Icing recipe substitutes 6 tablespoons of milk for the egg.

And you, my reader. Do you have variations of this Sheet Cake? What are your favorite childhood dessert memories?

Sayles Surnames The Geek Within: Tips, Tricks and Techniques women's history

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?


Dodson family history Green Random Thoughts women's history

Leaf Litter from the Family Tree

The leaves from our deciduous forests are turning yellow, or brown, and dropping with alacrity to the ground.  They carpet every surface–grass, water, rocks, moss, driveways.

Falling LeavesFor years I have used the family tree metaphor to structure my genealogical research.  Only today did it strike me that leaf litter can also be an inspirational metaphor, as in those leaves, those ancestors, that get dropped, and disappear to nurture the soil of the family’s winding tale.


And as a review of this deed transcription suggests it is often women who carpet the family forest floor.

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 3.02.36 PM

On 15 June 1770, Samuel Whitworth sold 120 acres of land to William Wills Green, my fifth great-grandfather.  The parcel included houses, outbuildings, orchards, woods, water, and parts of Allens Creek, Mecklenburg County, Virginia…land that lay not far from where my father grew up.

William W Green took possession of the real estate on the same day.  His neighbors included Edward Beavils, Francis Moore Neal, Abram Green, and Thomas Whitworth.

No women were present for the sale.  No dower rights were acknowledged.


English common law crossed the ocean with the European settlers from which I descend.  Among the provisions of this legal framework was coverture, the principles enshrined to govern married women, prohibiting their agency to hold property, run businesses, conduct trade,  and act as citizens.

Therefore, though I know from William Wills Green’s last will and testament that he had 10 children, there is no record of their mother in this deed, or among the long list of deeds I have uncovered.  There is no acknowledgement of the women with whom she quilted and cooked; no indication that a midwife helped birth all those babies; no public record of any domestic work that contributed to the Green estate development.

Which is frustrating.  I have to snuffle in the leaf litter of history to discover the women in my past, more imagining than documenting their stories to fill out my family tree.

If you are a women’s studies buff, please leave any sources and ideas for research questions in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.