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?

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.

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 11.30.42 AM

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

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 11.32.42 AM

  • 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.

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 11.33.40 AM

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

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 11.34.47 AM

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.

 

 

Mystery Among the Roots

The Northeastern Pennsylvania Genealogical Society in Hanover, Pennsylvania may seem an odd place to find this Virginia root hunter.  But one of the perks of belonging to my local library is accessing their subscription to Family Search files which includes ALL the digital files within the vast Salt Lake City-based repository.

Every Thursday you can find me in front of a computer, exercising my eyes on handwriting of folks long gone from Mecklenburg County’s red soil.  For some weeks I have been tracing the land purchases and sales of William Wills Green, a colonial ancestor in my Dodson branch. Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 2.28.46 PM

Today while summarizing a few 18th century deeds,  I found a connection within two records that I zipped past during my first read-through.

In the spring of 1778 William W. Green purchased land along a creek off of Church Road, in Mecklenburg County, from Peter and Mary Oliver.  The 500 acre parcel included buildings, woods, waters, ways [paths], and cost £500 current Virginia money.

In the fall of 1781 William Green sold that same parcel of land, identified as  lying on Butcher’s Creek, to William Wills of Amelia County–for £100 current Virginia money.

Add these two facts from other records:

  1. Abraham Green, Sr. , William’s father, purchased land in Amelia County (VA) in 1741, and it seems likely that William Wills Green grew up there.
  2. Butcher’s Creek is west of Allen’s Creek.  The land in between the two creeks is showing up in deeds of William W. Green and Edward Dodson, Sr., including land that Abraham Green sells to his son, William.

Carrying this information into today’s review, I find myself asking:

Is the 1781 buyer, William Wills, the man for whom my 4th great-grandfather is named?

Is the relationship a reason that Green took a £400 loss on the land?

Were the Greens and Wills consolidating community and power during the Revolution?  Or did Wills purchase the land to give William W some extra funds during that turbulent time?

Back to the past for me.  Will I find William Wills in Amelia County deeds?  Next door to the Green family?  Roots push deeper into the past, ever deeper.