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.

Sayles Surnames

Life Unwinding: Ira Sayles 1891-1893

As fine crystals frosted the window panes of his Ithaca office that November 1891, the assistant paleontologist for the United States Geological Survey concentrated on the Devonian fossils arrayed before him. Ira Sayles–Darwin doubter, writer of meter and rhyme, observer of chipmunks and turkey vultures, thinker of deep thoughts–prepared the season’s specimens under the supervision of Cornell University professor, Henry S. Williams, for shipment to the National Museum in Washington, D.C.

The 74 year old’s labeling and packing of the year’s field work was disrupted by a “stroke of paralysis” which left him weak and tremulous, particularly in his right hand. Nonetheless Ira carried on his duties for the Survey and returned to his Washington, D.C. apartment at 213 9th Street. His winter commute was but a short block north to the National Museum, headquarters for the Geological Survey. Each day he summoned the intellectual acumen of which he was so proud, and joined the team analyzing field notes and fossil specimens to discover the “bearing and distribution of faunas on the history of the elevation of the eastern half of the North American continent.

Ira Sayles lived at 213 9th Street, a block south of the National Museum in 1889-1891.

Real Estate Platt Book of Washington, DC, Volume 2, 1893, by G.M. Hopkins and Company: digitally accessed at DC Public Library ( 28 Aug 2019.

Ira’s health deteriorated with the deepening of the District’s winter.

On the 24th of February 1892, Ira’s boss, Chief Paleontologist Charles D. Walcott, alerted the Sayles family in Mecklenburg County, Virginia that Ira was “lying dangerously ill at Providence hospital, this city.” What, asked Professor Walcott, did his wife and son want to do with his body in the event of his death?

Ira didn’t give them a chance to make that decision. He left the hospital with or without medical advice, resigned from the US Geological Survey, and set out for home.

One could be forgiven for anticipating that Ira took his frail body to Southside Virginia, to sit on the porch of his family’s farmhouse, to listen to wind-brushed pine needles and drink deeply of the curative Buffalo Lithia Spring Water bottled locally.

But Ira had rarely visited Chase City since the estrangement from Serena in 1872. For a decade afterward Professor Sayles had bounced from one New York academy to another, until he had received an appointment to the Geological Survey in 1883 by former student-cum-Secretary of the Interior, Henry M. Teller. As a geologist/paleontologist Ira had split his homecomings between apartments in Ithaca, New York, and Washington, D.C., with an occasional visit to the farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia.

So, from that Providence Hospital bed, Ira rose to board trains and coaches not through Virginia’s Piedmont, but through the Appalachian Mountains. During the first two weeks of March 1892 Ira traveled to south central Kansas with the intention of making his home with his younger brother Loren, a prominent citizen and water works engineer in Greensburg. The visit lasted long enough for Ira to celebrate his 75th birthday in April and to witness Loren’s purchase of the Rubart house on East Florida Street in May. But the sibling time proved temporary. In mid-July, wheat fields waved farewell as Ira headed back east.

Unemployed and unemployable, the elderly Sayles had one option for continued independence in Washington–apply for a pension under the Congressional Act of June 27, 1890. This legislation made funds available to soldiers and sailors who had served at least 90 days during the War of the Rebellion, had been honorably discharged, and who found themselves permanently unable to do manual labor because of disability not caused by vicious habits like alcoholism or STDs. Ira’s service with Company H, 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteers and his permanent debilitation from the strokes made for a good claim.

On August 2, 1892 Ira Sayles filed the first piece of paperwork through Washington, D.C. attorney James Tanner. Nine days later the former paleontologist walked from his apartment up 9th Street, past the National Museum, across The Mall to the Pennsylvania Railroad Depot on the corner of B and 6th Streets, where he succumbed to the heat and humidity. Whatever his destination, the trip was postponed while he recovered in the Washington, D.C. Emergency Hospital and then recuperated with his friend and colleague, Dr. Revere Randolf Gurley in Carlins Springs, Virginia, just across the Potomac River.

In early October Ira picked up where he left off, and submitted to a physical examination by the pension board’s physicians, Drs. J.W. Little and C.A. Davis. They described him as a 5 ft 8 in, 175 pound, somewhat emaciated, pale man with flabby muscles. They noted that the history of apoplexy caused a loss of power in his right hand, which left Ira tremulous and unable to button all his clothing.

The doctors also noted a right inguinal hernia, which was “readily returnable and easily restrained by truss”, a diagnosis they believed entitled Ira to a 10/18 rating for disability. A secondary diagnosis of a irritable, weak heart was also reason to rate Ira for disability.

“He is evidently debilitated. To some extent.”

With that step completed, Ira retired to the rolling landscape along Butchers Creek, in the care of his son, Clifton.

The first quarter of 1892 was unusually cold, setting farm work and schedules 10 days to a month behind. That delay may have provided time for Clifton to pursue the arduous application process. In March Clifton reached out to James Tanner, the attorney Ira had hired to prosecute his claim. Having established that his father was completely unable to care for himself or to travel to Washington to gather the necessary testimony, Clifton received the necessary documents to pursue the claim from Chase City.

In the following weeks, Ira filed a General Affidavit testifying to his hernia. A local doctor, H. L. Burwell, completed a medical affidavit that Ira was “totally unable to perform manual labor, and that he was suffering general disability resulting of old age, and an inguinal hernia on his right side.” And a J. M. Sloan, who had been acquainted with Ira for 15 years, gave a Neighbor’s Affidavit to affirm that Ira was who he said he was, that his habits were good, that he was “almost totally helpless, so much so, that doesn’t go about at all.”

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

“This is his home and he visits us occasionally.”

Military records, physician exams, general statements, letters, and neighbor’s affidavit slowly piled up in Ira’s file. As the claim was reviewed by Pension Board of Review requests for clarification and additional evidence were made; the family complied. The cold spring was followed by summer days when temperatures soared above 100 degrees. Summer crops were appearing on dinner tables when finally Ira’s invalid pension was approved on August 4, 1893, retroactive to the date of first application August 3, 1892.

Eight dollars a month was not nearly what he had earned as an employee with the Geological Survey, but it was a useful stipend for the care he received in his son’s home until his death just 10 months later.

The story of the pension does not end in June 1894.

For though Serena and Ira’s marriage appeared strained, and strange, they were husband and wife. During the summer of 1894, James Tanner and J. M. Sloan would once again find themselves party to a Sayles declaration for a pension.

Who was J. M. Sloan and what was his relationship to Serena that he went to bat for the Serena’s Widow Pension? Next time on Shoots, Roots, and Leaves.


Pension files of Ira and Serena Sayles, #1124613 and #597.981, National Archives Building, Washington, D.C.

Newspapers of the era discovered on and Library of Congress’ Chronicling America (

United States Geological Survey Annual Reports to the Secretary of the Interior, 1890-1892, available in Google Books, and on U.S. Geological Survey Publications Warehouse (