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.

Dodson Strickland Surnames

Points of View

DSC_1923I look through a viewfinder at least once a day.  Photography makes me practice seeing different points of view; the very act of framing the familiar often reveals a hidden detail that adds unexpected meaning, an “aha!” that leaves me changed.

Genealogy can be a framing exercise too, with questions serving as viewfinder. During research on my dad’s neighbors, the Crute family, I posed the question:  If the Crute’s provided regular part-time labor for the neighboring Strickland tobacco acres, did the Stricklands reciprocate and provide needed labor to the Crutes?  Looking for reciprocity opened up the space to confront the Jim Crow-era world that set the context for my father’s memories, and consequently the lore that was handed down to me.

Charles, Clarence, and Robert, along with their mom, Cora, figure prominently in Norman Strickland’s childhood.  The black family lived on the Boydton-Chase City Road, a bit west of the Dodson/Strickland farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia from the 1920s through 1940, at least.  The family also included their father, Mathew (1883-1931) and siblings Willie Bee, Daisy, Alice, Angie, and Odie.

During that era of hardship my grandfather pulled out all the stops; he farmed on Oakview, invested in Chase City real estate, and purchased one school bus after another, contracting with the public school system to transport rural kids into Chase City’s schools.  I was told as a child, repeatedly, that George Strickland single-handedly shut down all the one-room schoolhouses in the area.

And he did it with the regular part-time help of Charles, Clarence, and Robert, according to my father.

Hunter's Lane, Mecklenburg County, VA 1932
The Dodson/Strickland farm was located between Route 46, or the Chase City-Boydton Road and the county road 679 also known as Hunter’s Lane, along Butcher’s Creek. It is thought the Crute farm was located along RT 46.

Mecklenburg County, VA 1932 Map Key


In the 1940 census, my uncles–Sidney, 17, Clifford, 15, and Paul, 14–were students in high school.  My dad,11, had just completed sixth grade.  Clarence Crute was 24 years old, farming on his own account, and evidently the primary support for his mother, Cora, and two sisters, Angie, 16, and Odie, 12, who were all listed as occupied in home housework.  Clarence had attained a seventh grade education, Angie a sixth grade education, and Odie a fifth grade education. The discrepancies in educational attainment and normal occupation are striking for the two families.

I once asked my father if George had used his buses to transport all the kids, or just the white kids.  Were all the one room schools shuttered or only the white schools?  Where did the Crute kids go to school?

Norman was stunned, I sensed, as he realized that he didn’t know where the Crutes went to school.  A conclusion is unavoidable:  George bought buses and transported white kids into better schools, into a system that went all the way through 11th grade.  But my grandfather didn’t buy buses to close all the black one room schools.  He didn’t even buy buses and hire the Crute men to drive the black kids who made it through the one room school curriculum into the local black high school, the Thyne Institute, founded on the outskirts of Chase City in 1877.

The explanations about the Crute contribution to the Oakview farm were woven as a story of reciprocity.  George needed help running the farm as his boys attended school and he gave the Crutes jobs and paid them with a fair share of the tobacco crop.  Granddaddy was a good and kind and fair employer, as the story went and the reality of the Crutes’ limited educational choices and work opportunities as a result were simply erased.

My family engaged in opportunity hoarding.

I don’t know where the members of this African American family landed after World War II.  From the records it appears that they, like my father’s family surged off the farms and into cities and towns with other work/life options.  But my father and his brothers had high school educations; Paul and my dad went on to college and into professional careers.  Sidney and Clifford held managerial positions for most of their lives.

What of the Crutes?  Did they migrate into the Bronx and Chicago and other destinations north?  What work did they find?  What dreams did they hold?

And what would their lives have been like, if instead of sitting atop a tractor or behind an team of oxen, they had sat on a bus?







Random Thoughts Strickland Surnames

Tip of the Day: Details Matter

I took another box of mixed media from the house, the house my father last lived in.  Most of the holiday cards I threw out, their messages meaningful only to Norman.  Many of the photographs were ones I had sent him, or copies of pictures he had snapped and sent to me years ago.  Several letters from my uncle I sent on to my cousin, sure that she would appreciate the insight into her father.  Letters from my grandmother, Florette, I saved for a rainy day read.

Methodically I sorted the box’s contents, pausing now and again to hold a memory tight.  And then, just as I thought there was really nothing new here, I came upon an envelope postmarked 1985.  Pearl Freeman had shared a few photographs with my father.  Without annotations or a note of explanation, I don’t know the relationship but apparently this stranger was sharing adolescent memories.

To date the photographs I pulled out a few key details that my father had shared about his high school years.

  • Norman, like his three brothers before him, attended Chase City High School, in Chase City, Virginia.
  • Chase City High School went up through eleventh grade.
  • Norman graduated in 1945.
  • My father began to smoke at the age of 17.
  • Chick, as my father was known by his pals, drove one of his father’s school bus routes.


Norman is front row, third from left. These teenagers appear posing in their best outfits, in front of a brick building that may be the high school, with adults milling around in the back. I suspect that this is the Class of 1945, posing after Chase City High School’s graduation ceremony.

Norman Strickland and friends
Here Norman sits on what appears to be a bus’ fender, reveling in female attention. His peak bus driving years were the mid-1940s.

Norman relaxes.  The cigarette dates the photo as around the time he graduated, at 17. 

Norman Strickland, Car unidentified
I am still researching the make and model. Because this capture was included with the other photographs, I am betting that this smile is of teenage-driver Norman.

If Pearl Freeman, or a descendant/friend, is reading this post, I hope you will leave a memory in the comments!!!



Dodson Sayles Strickland

Chase the Man. Chase the City.

Today’s NY Times Opinionator piece discusses the history between Abe Lincoln and Salmon P. Chase, an earnest, no nonsense man who was both a fabulous Secretary of the Treasury and Lincoln’s arch rival.

Why care about this troublemaker?

Because the dude had a fan club among the founders of a little town in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. Christiansville was a backwater village when George Endley and John Boyd rode in, buying up land on the cheap in 1868-1874. They held big plans for this area, recruiting northern colonists and railroad lines (that never quite materialized) to build a grand town–and in 1873 they approached fellow Ohioan, great banker, former US Senator and Ohio Governor, Secretary of the Treasury and US Supreme Court Justice. Your Honor, may we use your name for our grand Southside town?

Thus was born little ol’ Chase City, home of my beloved father, Norman S. Strickland.

This article details Salmon Chase’s political aspirations and his personal idiosyncracies. Thankfully, the nation was able to profit from his zealous anti-slavery and radical reconstruction ideas–a federal banking system was created, including the greenback demand note which was the first federal currency. His system also made it possible to fund the war effort with government bonds.

Salmon Chase, though an excellent financial administrator, was a pugnacious political fighter, with no sense of humor or understanding of human nature.  He aspired to the presidency himself and used his cabinet post to his own advantage, accumulating favors, names and cash–a fact overlooked by Lincoln because Chase was so good at his job. Salmon Chase overplayed his hand, however. Posturing for a particular political outcome, the Secretary offered his resignation.  Lincoln, weary of the man, accepted the letter. A surprised and humbled Chase did not seek the presidency. That year.

Lincoln, however crazy Chase made him feel, recognized the man’s intellect and within a few months of the resignation appointed Salmon Chase to the Supreme Court.

During 1872-1873 George Endley and John Boyd led the Southside Board of Settlers’ effort to incorporate their growing town as “Chase City”.  In April 1873 a delegation met with the Chief Justice in Richmond, Virginia to formally advise him of the town’s name, and to invite him to be an honorary member of their board.  By all accounts, Salmon Chase cordially received this news.

Date: Friday, April 11, 1873   Paper: Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, VA)   Volume: LXXIV   Issue: 81   Page: 2; accessed from Genealogy Bank,, ( on July 3, 2014.
Date: Friday, April 11, 1873 Paper: Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, VA) Volume: LXXIV Issue: 81 Page: 2; accessed from,July 3, 2014.

I have always wondered whether Endley and Boyd knew Salmon Chase personally, or if they had ever contributed to one of his political campaigns, or been the recipient of his patronage.  No matter.  Their admiration for their Buckeye buddy lives on, in the little town of Chase City.


Update:  The original post of July 3, 2014 stated that Salmon Chase never sought political office after Lincoln accepted his June 1864 resignation as Secretary of the Treasury.  That setback only affected the ’64 election.   Chase attempted to win the nomination in 1868 and 1872, unsuccessful in both attempts.


Minor Strickland Surnames

This Day in Family History: September 21, 1952

Sixty-one years ago, my mother left campus life behind to visit a little town a couple of hours south.  In truth it wasn’t the little town she wanted to see, but the family of the man she loved.

Letter 2 September 1953Marilyn Minor was a junior occupational therapy major at the Richmond Polytechnic Institute that fall of 1952.  Her man, Norman Strickland, was a junior transfer from RPI to Virginia Tech, where he was studying electrical engineering.  Norman had been asked to come home for the weekend of September 20-21, because his brothers, Sidney, Clifford and Paul, were all coming to Chase City, bringing their wives and children.  A conflicted Norman must have told his mother of his commitment to see Lyn that very weekend, and, as one can imagine, his mother offered a compromise that no one could turn down: ask Lyn to come along home with you!

As Norman proposed in a separate letter, received under separate cover, he would pick Lyn up that Sunday morning and take her back that night.  They would be all together for church and lunch.  These plans were made  in early September as the young couple prepared to return to school, since Lyn would need both her parents’ permission and the school’s permission to leave campus. “I do hope you will come for the joy will be all mine,” wrote the Chase City boy.  

The fact that my mother kept these letters suggests that Lyn dashed to her parents upon receiving the notes, and accepted the invitation before leaving her family home in Greene County, Pennsylvania. That year the fall equinox marked more than the changing of the seasons.  The courtship of Lyn and Norman took a very serious turn.