I listened to a fascinating CAFE live conversation between historians Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman the other day. At minute 8 or so they begin to discuss the difference between journalists and historians.
Journalists, they point out, follow the story; they look for facts and find sources to deliver the story. Historians look for facts in primary sources–art, documents, records, newspapers–to find patterns in the past that created change, tracking a story but not always knowing what that story is going to turn out to be.
Journalists tell us what happened. Historians ask “who cares?” and “so what?”
it’s a case of both/and
When my dad declared me “Keeper of the Family Lore” I had no idea how deeply I would travel into the past. The facts led to questions and the questions led to course work and books, which led to more course work and more books. Some 15 years later, I am a citizen archivist and genealogical antiquarian; a history enthusiast and translator of the family lore.
I am drawn to historian folks like Drs. Richardson Cox and Freeman because they have been instrumental in helping me see patterns in the present BECAUSE of their study of patterns in the past. And they motivate me to apply the techniques and processing skills of the historian to find patterns in my genealogical stories.
This blog gives me a platform to connect with other history loving folks. Sometimes I am simply an antiquarian, posting names and dates and timelines for the sheer love of detail. But the posts I most enjoy writing are those with a rich narrative around the facts that answer the “who cares” and “so whats” about my family’s relationships and events.
In this moment I am striving to be a part of a larger conversation that historians are having about our Civil War and Reconstruction era, and how we can use what the nation learned then during this current backlash against expansive democracy. It is a process that is both intriguing and humbling, leading to an ever more liberating understanding of the history behind my family’s lore.
I played around with this Gutenberg Block editor in hopes of sharing genealogy basics in a more visually appealing, less overwhelming format.
‘Cause, let’s face it, when you’re trying to engage with kin that lie somewhere out there beneath your family tree’s shade, the typical checklists of names and dates of birth, death, marriage, and the (seemingly endless) enumeration of siblings and kids can be so tedious that a mind wanders and, before you know it, perusing leads to closing the tab rather than clicking a contact button.
What if the data was shared in a more graphic form? Can the Gutenblock editor help me create a family diagram?
My grandfather Strickland was an orphan who inherited the Mecklenburg County (VA) farm from the three, single Dodson siblings who adopted him. Their sister, married to a Sayles, was my grandmother Strickland’s mother. When my dad narrated our hikes around Oakview with stories of his childhood, I only saw my Virginia roots so deeply embedded in that rich red soil, worked by generations of Dodsons, the people they enslaved and the people they hired to sharecrop.
But my last set of posts about Ira Sayles and George Parker got me to thinking about where little boy George Strickland played until his parents died of the flu in 1897. Let’s dip into his family tree.
In my mind I’m going to Carolina
George Ricks “Ricky” Strickland
Born in Franklin County NC; Died in Richmond VA
George Ricks “Ricky”
Sydney Nicholas Strickland
Born and died in Franklin County NC
married in 1879
Virginia Elizabeth Coppedge
Born and died in Franklin County NC
Anderson Perry Strickland
Born in Wake County NC; Died in Petersburg VA
Married in 1843
Julia M. Stone
Born and died in Franklin County NC
William B. Coppedge
Born and died in Franklin County NC
Married in 1857
Laura Ann May
Born and died in Franklin County NC
Look at all those North Carolina folks! I could keep going back, tracking down the Stallings and Bowdens, the Dents and the Boons of Franklin, Nash, and Wake County. But four blocks of vital statistics hit me as a just enough information to whet someone’s curiosity.
My original idea was to end with a diagram, with connections, branches, shoots. And though this attempt is far more basic, I feel satisfied. My goal was to discover another way to share basic data, and I think I stumbled on a satisfying format. Only time will tell if such posts promote more reader engagement. For now…I’d say family historians have a friend in the WordPress editor.
George Parker died of grip at his home near Alfred, May 28, 1902. He was born in bondage near Murfreesboro, N. C. Slavery kept few records and the date is not known, but at his death he was probably not far from the allotted age of man. He was sold once. In 1863, along with others, he escaped from the small plantation and came to the union camp. A little later he was brought north by Prof. Sayles. The first money of his own was two pennies given him by a little boy. He worked for a number of different people, including Chandler Green, Valencia C. Baker, Amos Burdick and others. He was accounten (sic) an excellent hand. He became widely known and respected. He attended school several terms and, although it was hard for him to learn, he was deeply interested in education. He had an ambition for which he carefully saved his money until nineteen years ago when it was realized, and he bought the farm which was his late home. On May 10, 1885, he was married to Ellen Van Dosen Simons, who survives him.
He was converted in younger years. He loved to go to church, and attended regularly until failing health made the trip too hard. He had many friends. They say of him that he was perfectly honest, his morals were above reproach, his heart tender and appreciative. He did not understand being born again, but it was his purpose to serve his God and live right. In at least one of the homes where he worked he was counted one of the family, and when speaking of the young ladies of the family he would call them ” our girls.” Only kind words are spoken of him, and the feeling of many would be expressed in the words of one man who said: “Well, George and I have been friends ever since he came to this country.”
There was one occasion when he was always present, if possible, and that was Memorial Day. Probably this was the first time he has missed for many years. It was peculiarly appropriate that his funeral was held in the same place the next day, and that the same patriotic decorations were in place. Surely it was as he would have had it be. Under the flag whose stars and stripes thrilled his heart when he saw it floating over the Union camp–under that flag the last tribute of love and respect was paid to his memory.
Funeral service were conducted in the First Alfred Church Sabbath afternoon, May 31. A brief sermon was preached by James Dawes, the black missionary who has been attending the University. A short life sketch and tribute was presented by Pastor Randolph. A large and sympathetic audience was present. Interment in Alfred Rural Cemetery.
Published in The Alfred Sun (New York) on June 4, 1902.
died of grip: died of complications from influenza
the allotted age of man: George appeared in the 1865 New York State census with stated age of 22. He could have been between 55-60 years of age when he died.
came to the union camp: George was part of a group of refugees who arrived in Camp Suffolk’s contraband camp, Uniontown, in early 1863. [see post His Future Was Not Yet Written]
he was brought north by Prof. Sayles:Professor Ira Sayles was a well known educator of Allegany County.
he attended school: George attended the Preparatory Program at Alfred Academy, 1869-1870.
he bought the farm: the farm lay on the outskirts of Alfred, New York
he married: George married the widow Ellen Simons, and helped raise her son, William.
he was converted: George became a member of the Alfred Seventh Day Baptist Church, adherents of which keep the sabbath on Saturday. Alfred Academy and Alfred University were affiliated with the Seventh Day Baptist denomination.
Post photo of Alfred, New York countryside by Kay Strickland, 2013.
A couple of weeks ago I opened this site, determined to see it with a new reader’s eyes, like someone exploring my rabbit hole of a blog for family connections or genealogy tips.
I clicked the search box and got a “drop down” box OVER my header’s menu.
UGH. THAT IS NOT HELPFUL. I couldn’t see what I was typing, and neither could any of y’all if you’ve tried.
This problem, I discovered, was baked into the WordPress theme I have used for the past few years, Libretto. Time to re-evaluate and try something new.
For the heck of it, I checked out Blogger, a Google blogging platform that I tried WAY back when. I remain unimpressed with the templates. I quickly moved on to review the pros and cons of WordPress.org and WordPress.com, which confirmed my aversion to self-hosting a blog. That circled me back to choosing among the free WordPress.com themes that fully complement the Gutenberg Block Editor and my final choice must have a REAL drop down search box in the header.
After a bit of dithering, I activated the Twenty-Twenty theme yesterday, tweaked the header menu a bit, and committed to using this format for the next month or two. If I can keep calm–controlling the perfectionist within–I hope to maximize the new theme, delivering content that is intriguing, fun, inspiring.
And also engaging with ever more readers. There’s so much history in our families worth exploring, together.
On the evening of 29 June 1898, Private Sherman Sayles of the 3rd Missouri Regiment complained of a headache to the night nurse, who notified Camp Alger medical attendant Private Lake. While Lake went to the dispensary to mix some morphine, Private Sayles pulled out a penknife and sliced open his left wrist. Fellows in nearby cots yelled, and someone ran to retrieve Private Lake. By the time Lake and the attending surgeon, Major Stunkard, got cot-side, Sherman had lost a great deal of blood.
The wound was tended, and by morning Major Stunkard pronounced the soldier out of danger, physically. Clearly Sherman Sayles needed further care, care that tended to his mental health as well as his physical well being. Stunkard transferred the soldier to the hospital at Fort Myers (Virginia) where further evaluation determined that Sayles required intensive therapy.
As quickly as orders could trickle through bureaucracy Sherman was transferred across the Potomac to the Government Asylum for the Insane, locally known as St. Elizabeths Hospital, in southeast Washington, D.C.
On 5 July 1898 Sherman Sayles walked across the campus of St. Elizabeths under the shade of red oaks, silver maples and tulip trees, past vegetable and ornamental gardens, and chicken houses and pigeon coops. He climbed up the steps of a three-story brick building, crossed its white-trimmed porch and entered Oak Hall. A nurse guided the 36-year-old to a large room brightly lit by enormous windows. Beds lined the walls, each with its own privacy screen. From this crowded ward Sherman Sayles, my great-granduncle, would begin his treatment for acute suicidal melancholia.
Several months passed before his brother–my great-grandfather–paid the former soldier a visit. It was the week before Thanksgiving, and trees were now bare. Clifton D. Sayles crossed the St. Elizabeth’s campus, leaves crunching underfoot, and climbed the steps to the entrance of Toner Hall, the convalescent residence to which Sherman had been moved. He was shown to a pleasant sitting room, filled with light and plants and rockers. There he met a brother he probably hadn’t seen in years. Clifton had remained on the family farm, raising his own kids in the Mecklenburg County, Virginia community, while Sherman had moved from Virginia to New York to Missouri. The man that sat before him on that November day was not one he remembered. In fact Clifton was alarmed by his brother’s appearance and behavior. Cliff returned home and consulted with his mother, Serena C. Sayles, sitting to pen this letter to Sherman’s attending physician the following Tuesday.
As I was compelled to leave Washington without seeing you, I have taken the liberty of writing.
The second time I went to see my brother he either did not, or would not recognize me; and acted in a very suspicious manner altogether.
Now I do not claim to understand his mental condition; but I do say this, he acted very ungratefully to say the least. I have consulted with my mother since my return and we have come to the conclusion that the place for him to remain is right where he is. I would consider it unsafe for him to be here at liberty for years to come. Of course, I am entirely ignorant as to how long the U.S. Government will take care of him. I am also ignorant as to whether or not his regiment has been mustered out of the service: but he was certainly in the performance of military duty at the time of his mental attack. I do not wish to give you the impression that we are acting in an unnatural manner towards him; but I will never forget to my dying day, the tigerish glare he gave me the second time I went to see him.
Clifton ended his letter with a plea:
Whenever in your opinion he is sufficiently recovered to rejoin his regiment, we think that is the proper place for him. We would be very grateful indeed to you if you would take the trouble to write occasionally in regard to his condition. Please withhold nothing.
I feel such empathy for Clifton, for I have also been in the position of traveling all day to reach a loved one who found themselves in an disconcerting place, with strangers, living with unrelenting need and suffering.
I can vividly imagine Clifton trying to share family news only to be mocked; or suggesting a walk to enjoy the view over the Anacostia River only to be mimicked. I can envision that moment when Cliff gathered his coat to leave that first day, and Sherman melted into his chair, hands covering his face. And weeping.
His hands brushed the words over his body.
“I’m sorry for ALL of THIS.”
Across the ages I can imagine Clifton’s promise to return, a swirl of questions around family duty and his brother’s needs accompanying him to his night lodgings. And ALL of the queries settled upon his next visit, when Sherman sat as if ready to pounce–shoulders hunched, face contorted, with a fixed tigerish glare.
In that instant there was the heart-rending recognition that he couldn’t care for his brother.
Clifton had to leave him, there, helpless to escape his condition. To be tended by strangers who may or may not have cared. But there, where he would be fed, and clothed, and washed, and watched over–where he would be safe.
The Sunday after his brother’s visit, Sherman packed his belongings and followed an attendant from the second-story ward in Toner Hall to one of the Oaks buildings, to yet another ward chock-a-block with beds.
In spite of the hydrotherapy, music and art opportunities, and the beauty of the grounds, Sherman continued to have suicidal thoughts and delusions that someone was out to hurt him. He frequently refused to eat his meals, for fear that they contained poison. Sometimes he would eat, only to purge immediately afterward.
By September of 1900, Sherman was emaciated, weighing in at only 110 pounds. Still the staff kept encouraging him to eat, dodging his verbal assaults and the occasional thrown glass.
This was an era of immense overcrowding at St. Elizabeths Hospital. In spite of the efforts to treat patients for recovery, many remained institutionalized, unable to recapture their ability to live on their own. And the acute cases continued to be admitted.
The need for caregivers far outstripped the supply of trained nurses and attendants. The bare minimum was probably all that each patient could be assured of–clean clothes, clean linens, three meals a day, and assistance with morning and evening ablutions.
There was no extra time to make sure that patients kept in touch with families, or that families were kept apprised of their loved one’s condition. Nothing in the patient record indicates that Clifton was ever made aware of his brother’s disordered eating or suicidal ideation; or that family news of the deaths of their mother and Cliff’s wife, Anna, reached Sherman. And with Washington, D.C. a series of train rides away, Clifton and his kids were not able to just drop by.
Sherman lived without a strong social support network, in wards intended to hold 18 beds and bedside tables but kitted out at the turn of the century with 30 to 40 beds; and 30 to 40 men’s perspiration, farts, snores, grunts, mutterings, sneezes and coughs, guffaws and shouts.
Sherman was surly when interacting with staff or other patients, and prone to withdraw from the hospital’s social life. Nurses would find him sitting on the side of his bed with his face buried in his hands, or haunched in a corner.
Month after month passed. As more patients were admitted, chronic patients like Sherman were moved from one building to another. After one such relocation Sherman appeared to improve a bit, taking his restless agitation out for long walks most every day. His thinking seemed more rational, his cooperation more consistent.
But the contrary behavior reappeared, with Sherman loudly refusing to cooperate in treatment “considered beneficial for his condition.” Occasionally he threw his food and dishes across the dining hall. He deliberately provoked his fellow patients. His language was often profane and vulgar. When the former private was “high-tempered” he beat himself on the face and body and claimed that his attendants struck him. Other times Sherman stole out of bed when he thought the attendant wasn’t watching and “slyly struck other patients who were unable to defend themselves.”
And always the food or the medications were suspected of containing poison. Only certain doctors and nurses could successfully cajole Sherman into consuming them.
In June of 1903 Sherman developed chronic diarrhea. Bedridden he also developed pressure sores.
As the Thanksgiving holiday approached, the diarrhea suddenly stopped, replaced by intermittent nausea and vomiting. Though increasingly debilitated, Sherman managed to vigorously refuse any attempts to take his temperature, or to give him hypodermic or oral medications. In the evening of 18 November, Sherman’s speech was reduced to a whisper; he grew still, only his chest moved with shallow, rapid breaths.
There was no last visit from Clifton, no one to sit bedside, to keep final watch over Sherman. Only a nurse bore witness to his final exhale.
A headstone in St. Elizabeths East Cemetery marks the grave of Private Christopher Sherman Sayles.
Christopher Sherman Sayles, QO1-563669951, St. Elizabeths Hospital (Washington, D.C.) patient record, Case number 10778, created 1898-1903; copy from National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., received February 2020.