Transcript Tuesday: Neighbor’s Affidavit in the Pension Application of Ira Sayles, 1893

For the testimony of employers or near neighbors of soldier (other than relatives,) who have known him before his enlistment, or since his discharge and return from the army. 

State of Virginia, County of Mecklenburg,

In the matter of the application for pension of Ira Sayles on this 8 day of May, A.D., one thousand eight hundred and ninety-three personally appeared before me, a Notary Public in and for the aforesaid County, duly authorized to administer oaths, J.M. Sloan, aged 58 years, a resident of Chase City in the County of Mecklenburg and State of Virginia whose postoffice address is Chase City Va well known to me to be respectable and entitled to credit, and who, being duly sworn, declare in relation to the aforesaid case as follows: 

That I have been personally acquainted with Ira Sales (sic) for 15 years and that his habits are good. That he is a teetotler (sic) and has no bad habits, so far as I know or ever heard of.

He has been employed for many years in the Geological Survey, and has not been located in any one place long at a time. Would suggest application to surgeons, in Washington, who examined him last Oct. (sic) I refer to the Board of Ex. 

It is impossible to get further testimony here as he has not been here but a few months.  

He is almost totally helpless, so much so, that (he) doesn’t go about at all.  This is his home and he visits us occasionally. 

Signed

J. M. Sloan 

Notary Public

N. H. William


From the Pension Claim #1124.613 of Ira Sayles, Neighbor’s Affidavit, J. M. Sloan, 8 May 1893; original documents in National Archives, Washington, D.C.

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?

Amanuensis: A letter from Ira Sayles to James K. Sayles, 1872

Thanks to cousin, blog reader, and James K Sayles descendant, 
Sharon Babcock, for sharing her stash of family artifacts.

Christiansville, Mecklenburg Co. Va.

                                    Wednesday P.M., April 10, 1872


My Dear Brother James,

                                                Yours of March 14, was duly received, and somewhat astonished me with its announcement of your affliction.  If my sympathy could cure you, it is sincerely at your disposal.  I know that kind words can soothe the spirit, though they may not heal the infirmities. “that flesh is heir to.”  Nevertheless the spirits’ wounds and diseases are far more incurable than those of the body.  This great world of humanity is a mass of bodily rotenness (sic); but its infirmities of spirit create a stench that rises high Heaven and sinks deeper than Hell! Believe you this? In man there is no help. He has sought for panaceas. He pompously proclaims his discoveries. The simple pay their money and swallow his nostrums; make wry faces and die! Still, untaught by failure, they pour out their golden gifts, hoping for relief, though half-persuaded they have been humbugged.  But, when told the more alarming disease of the inner man, they open wide the eyes of incredulity, give you a broad grin—a regular alligator grin—turn away, and say, “I guess you’r (sic) joking.” So on they fare; from generation to generation. 

            I am rambling. Let me come back. You are sick of palsy. Nothing to be trifled with. Your physician will, of course, try to bring about recovery—may succed (sic) –hopeable. You allude to your religious faith in the matter. A sincere, calm trust in Providence is of more consequence than all else: that, however, is really effective only when our xxxx takes the life of the Son of Mary as his modle (sic), after which he is willing closely to pattern. 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. Now, all this 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. 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. 

            Anything I write, let anybody read who will. 

            And Anna—that little chub-faced, flax haired, blue-eyed blond-is a bona fideschool marm! Well, I hope she is a live one: but I can only think of her as that little girl that used to sit on my knee. Ah! That was eight years ago! How they fly! Since then, what a multitude of facts have occurred in my own life history! Yes, Anna has had ample time to develop into womanhood. I xxxxxxx old, grey headed man! Astonishing! Isn’t it? You are five and a half years my junior. You are in your fiftieth year: and Lucinda, well, I don’t know how old she is; nor does it matter: old-womanhood is sure to overtake her soon.  You speak of Frankey.  Who is Frankey?  I have not had an introduction: and this is coming it rather on the side cut. Well, I hope both you and Frankey will recover, now that spring is really on. Our peach trees have been in bloom for three days. A cool dry wind is blowing from the west today. We have been 

The rest of the letter is missing.