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. 

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?

Reading Between the Lines: A note from Ira Sayles, 1869

This post examines the letter Ira Sayles, my great-great-grandfather, wrote
to his brother James in July of 1869 for its tantalizing clues of sibling
whereabouts.

Many thanks to cousin, blog-reader, and James Sayles descendant, Sharon Babcock,
for sharing her family stash.  

A bit of Review

Ira Sayles (1817-1894) was one of nine children born to Christopher and Sarah [King] Sayles. In 1824, the family migrated from Burrillville, Rhode Island to Westfield Township in the Cowanesque Valley of Tioga County, Pennsylvania. By mid-century, however, few of the Sayles kids remained in that northern tier county.

As I systematically reviewed what I knew or wanted to know about each person mentioned, the 1869 letter became more than a sibling’s let-me-catch-up-with-you. It documents family movements and issues that are inextricably tied with economic and social events that prompted mass migrations of people in the mid-19th century.

let me reintroduce Ira

Ira, the eldest child, was the first to leave the Westfield homeplace, to apprentice in a woolen mill located in Whitesville, Allegany County, New York, in 1837. It was a poor fit for the voracious reader and Ira leapt at the chance to become a student at an Allegany County academy in Alfred in 1839. With the exception of military service in Virginia during 1862-1863, Ira resided in Allegany County, just over the New York-Pennsylvania border from his family, for the next thirty years, serving as a teacher and/or principal:

  • at Alfred Academy,
  • then Rushford Academy,
  • back to Alfred Academy,
    • and, after the war,
  • once again at Rushford Academy.

And it is from Rushford that Ira wrote to James in 1869.

Who Else is mentioned in this letter?

James (1822-1882), the letter’s recipient, was a fiery-tempered, hazel eyed younger brother, who remained in his hometown to become first a machinist and then a hotelier. In the mid-1860s James, wife Lucinda, and their family disappeared from Ira’s life.

“Yours of the 18 inst[ant] came to hand, last evening. I need not say I was somewhat surprised: for I had lost all trace of you…I am glad to receive a line now,” said Ira.

A line from Austin, Minnesota where James and his wife Lucinda had purchased a farm in the south central part of that state.

Another person mentioned is the blue-eyed middle child, Loren. “[He] is in East Boston, I suppose.”

This brother had left Westfield in his twenties to study at Alfred Academy before relocating to Lowell, Massachusetts where he married Francis Weymouth in 1855. Shortly thereafter, the couple trekked across the continent to Cosumnes, a gold mining camp in the Michigan Bar District of California. After trying his hand as a miner, Loren, his wife, and baby daughter returned to the east coast, to East Boston, where Loren likely worked as a machinist in the area’s shipbuilding yards.

And wrote to Ira inquiring about other family members. “He (Loren) has twice inquired of me for you. I could not tell. The matter has rested.”

A third person is discussed in that note to James–Ira’s wife, my great-great-grandmother, Serena Crandall White Sayles. The couple was living together in a house across Main Street from Rushford Academy. Serena was a full-time homemaker, assisted by black teenager, Virginia Copeland, and mother to three surviving children, Clifton, Merlin, and Christopher Sherman.

Serena was also the controller of the family’s purse-strings, a role that Ira seems to have resented. Ira’s principal salary was devoured by family expenses and any financial flexibility was attributed to his wife’s assets, given or bequeathed to Serena by her parents, Samuel S. and Nancy Teater White.

“Serena does not dispose of much of her landed property, though of some. She is moving to sell her Alfred property, house and all, for six thousand. It ought to bring ten thousand. She wanted me to invest her means in Virginia lands. Then she thought she didn’t dare trust me alone, so she went with me. It was exceedingly warm; and I suspect she will not go again very soon.” 

“I could get and make a splendid home there, at a very low price. But it is all of no use. The means of making such a home are hers. Where she says invest, there investment will be made, or nowhere.”

Once Correspondence, Now Evidence

Ira wrote to bring James up to speed on family news. It was a conversation via post.

For me now, the letter provides evidence of family members’ residences, as well as evidence of marital discord. It also offers evidence of when the Sayles first began to consider relocating to Mecklenburg County, Virginia.

Ira’s determination to remain connected with his extended family unwittingly recorded how the era’s political and economic whirlwinds separated family networks and reinforced racial hierarchies.

In taking his animal husbandry, blacksmithing, and business skills west, James joined a stream of white settlers that flooded into Minnesota lands from which indigenous peoples had been forcibly removed during the US-Dakota War of 1862.

Loren trained as a machinist, and left the mountains of rural Pennsylvania to participate in the northeast’s textile economy, which thrived off the cotton picked by enslaved labor. Loren then sought opportunity amidst the gold rush in California and returned to the industrial opportunities of East Boston‘s ship yards.

Ira, though chafing at his wife’s property rights, contemplated the possibilities of migrating to a reconstructing south.

All three families were white, descendants of Rhode Island British colonizers. The Sayles families moved to opportunity, confident that they would be welcomed and capable of moving again if prospects didn’t work out. They negotiated no bans, confronted no xenophobic signs, carried no passes or permission to travel from employers or law enforcement.

Three different stories. Three different sets of choices that separated siblings. All remained joined by the position they, as white men, occupied in the country’s hierarchy of color, race, and opportunity.

Now what

Beyond pricking my conscience about white intergenerational opportunity, the letter also prompts questions for further family research.

  • How much was an average teacher’s salary in post-war New York? Virginia? Nationally?
  • What were the laws in New York and Virginia governing a married woman’s right to own property and control her wages?
  • What were the motives for Serena and Ira’s consideration of a Virginia residence?
  • How do the answers to these questions affect my understanding of what unfolded in the next decade for Serena and Ira?

The past dwells in the present, and confronting its truth is requisite to participating in reconciliation.

The Will of Thomas Rowlett: Spider Web in a Family Tree

I first came to know the Rowlett family through my 2nd great-grandmother, Sarah Jane, who married James Dodson in antebellum Mecklenburg County, Virginia.

When Sarah was a young girl, Congress addressed the needs of its elderly war heroes by passing the Revolutionary War Pension Act of 1832.  This legislation provided full pay for any man, enlisted or officer, who had served at least two years in the Continental Line or state militias.  William Rowlett’s application is an extensive justification of his claim that also serves as biography.  It is this document that offered my first peek into Sarah’s Rowlett lineage, connecting her to the surname found in Chesterfield County (VA) and to the Butcher’s Creek, Mecklenburg County (VA) neighborhood of Sarah’s adulthood.

The pension files include documentation of William marrying Sarah’s mom, Rebecca Short, in 1825 while living in Chesterfield County.  It is clear from the tangle of story lines that this was William’s second marriage, that he had children from the first marriage, that he had served in the Revolution while living in Chesterfield County, that he emigrated to Mecklenburg County after the war ended and lived there for some thirty years before returning to Chesterfield County.  Between 1825 and the filing of the pension application, an elderly William, Rebecca, and Sarah relocated to Mecklenburg County, on a farm near James Dodson, and his parents, Edward and Mary Green Dodson.

In my last post I offered a brief synopsis and a transcription of the last wishes of a Thomas Rowlett. Written in the closing days of 1805, Thomas’ will confirms some relationships that I have been guessing about–neighbors and cousins, great-aunts and -uncles, and 3rd and 4th great-grandmothers–since first investigating Sarah Jane’s lineage.

Thomas Rowlett listed four primary relationships as beneficiaries of his estate :

  • his mother, Sarah, thought to be a second wife, and also known as Sarah Neal Archer.

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  • his brother, William, not known to have married.

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  • his sister Mary, who it is thought married a first cousin, William Rowlett, also known as 3rd-great-grandfather, William Rowlett, father of Sarah Rowlett Dodson.

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  • his deceased sister, Martha, daughter of Sarah, wife of William Wills Green, and mother of Mary Green Dodson, my 3rd great-grandmother.

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This one document helps confirm how intertwined my  branches are.

So, in short:

Sarah Jane had much older half-siblings:

  • Sarah, who married Thomas Coleman.
  • Thompson, who married Mary (Polly) Dodson.
  • William.
  • Peter.
  • Thomas.
  • John.
  • Mary.
  • Archer.
  • Martha.

The oldest two remained in Mecklenburg County, and I have accounted for them.

The others may have returned to Chesterfield County, and pose more questions than my brain can handle right now!

My 3rd great-grandmother, Mary Green Dodson, lost her mother before 1803, when William W. Green is recorded as having married widow Mary Hinton Poindexter.  The will suggests to me that as a young girl Mary might have been at least partly raised by her elder siblings.

  • Archer.
  • Abraham.
  • Elizabeth who had married James W Oliver in 1799.
  • Sarah.
  • William.
  • Martha.
  • Lewis.

Mary also had two younger sisters:

  • Susanna.
  • Rebecca Cole.

As I continue to gather documents and sift stories, I have an increasing number of relatives , neighbors, cousins to inquire after, to listen for.  I know folks refer to this genealogical hobby as building a tree, but right now I feel more like a spider spinning a web that collects specks of the past.

What story will come from these patterns?

Source:

The Last Will and Testament of Thomas Rowlett. Mecklenburg County (VA), Will Book 5, p 320, 1806; accessed digitally from Family Search (familysearch.org) September 13, 2018.

 

 

A Family Tree Can Provide More Than Shade

wood-nature-leaves-tree.jpgI think most of us who succumb to the genealogical fever scramble to collect names and dates, and align them in some order.  Bits and bobs of family history hang from stout lines of inquiry, like leaves on a June sugar maple.

I want to spread a blanket over its roots, and linger in the shade of these ancestors, telling stories of prosperity and perseverance.  But when I look up into the Dodson-Rowlett-Green branches, I see what those leaves are blocking, what is providing the shadowed comfort of family tales.

The light of ingenuity and survival contains the stolen humanity of enslaved people.

I can feel their presence, though I may never know more than an age, sex, or first name.  And I feel impelled to reframe my family’s progress and reputation, to fully account for their choices and the impact that those choices had on their children, neighbors, community, and on the very ideals of a developing democracy.

I am climbing my family tree, again, adding leaves and uncovering roots that go well beyond my known kin.  I wonder what I will learn when I step out of its shade.