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.
When George Parker decided to risk everything and flee the bondage of a Murfreesboro (NC) plantation for the safety of the Union Army encampment in Suffolk, Virginia he didn’t know how his story would end. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a military order, establishing George’s status as “not slave.” But the proclamation came no where close to defining a new status for Black Americans. Refugees leaving slavery were stateless, neither property nor US citizens.
Chandra Manning’s book, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War, asks the reader to consider that this moment of freedom-seeking was not just a story about who catalyzed emancipation, but about a process of emancipation, in which refugees had to navigate and shape military and civil statutes that defined their identity and relationship to the US federal government. And no discussion of emancipation can transpire without a deep dive into how the concept of citizenship–and who could claim it–transformed as a result of the war efforts of black Americans.
Early in the book, Manning reminds us that historically wartime emancipations did not result in permanent freedom nor had they led to a reduction in the practice of slavery. In spite of attempts during the American Revolution and in the War of 1812, the presumptive status of black Americans throughout antebellum America remained “slave,” not freed, not citizen. This ideological barrier enabled white America–north and south–to accept the fact that the federal government had a relationship with white men only. Thus, the United States was a slave nation on the international stage until Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ruptured that idea, and established a powerful relationship between the federal government and Black Americans.
It was but one step toward altering the place of non-whites in the American consciousness.
Black refugees hoped for more than permanent emancipation. In serving the Army as soldiers, grooms, teamsters, ditch diggers, spies, cooks, seamstresses, laundresses, and nurses, they sought to lay claim to citizenship, and receive the permanent protection of the federal government in securing their rights to mobility, family, jobs with wages, and access to courts. Becoming indispensable to the Union victory was another step in altering the American consciousness.
For emancipation to become permanent and a pathway to citizenship, military authority had to be transformed into civil authority.
It wasn’t until December of 1865, months after the war had ended and President Lincoln had been assassinated, that the federal government codified the abolition of slavery in the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution, the ultimate civil authority. It would be another two and a half years before the 14th Amendment established equal protections under the law and citizenship rights.
I revisit the story of George Parker with renewed appreciation for the dangers he faced and the aspirations that buoyed his journey out of slavery.
If reading history isn’t your thing, I strongly recommend watching Dr. Manning’s interview with the National Museum of civil War Medicine.
Chandra Manning, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War; Vintage Books: New York, 2016.
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.
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.
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?
Have you ever wondered if anybody ever reads what you have so passionately researched and diligently recorded? Just as I despair that my family storytelling has NO audience, I got a comment, followed by a description, followed by an email with PHOTOGRAPHS. This post was originally published two years ago, and today, because of curious reader, I have additional descriptions of land purchased 170 years ago by John Pearson Minor.
Drawn on thin paper discolored to a light blue, the survey map described a distinct parcel of land with corners marked by Black Oak, Water Beech, Limestones, fence posts, stakes, and Hickories. Lines connected the corners and were labeled with surveying code–S37 W 151/2 poles and the like. Unnamed squiggly lines posed as small streams crossing the land, emptying into an unnamed creek boundary. Lines cut the map into pieces; within one rectangle was the name A. Minor, within another the name R. Minor. The outside bore a cryptic “plot of Virginia land 575.”
Five hundred and seventy-five was the amount of land that John P. Minor purchased from James P. Wilson in 1841 and 1842. As I reread those deeds I traced my finger along the lines of this map, and with great excitement realized that I did indeed have a map which depicted the Minor land acquisition of 1841 and 1842 in Harrison County, (West) Virginia!
With that confirmed I could with great certainty know that the bigger stream indicated Simpson’s Creek, and the smaller streams were Limestone Run and Stout’s Run. However, I still didn’t know when this map was created or where this parcel of land was on a current map.
unto the said Abia and Robert Minor their heirs and assigns for ever all that tract or parcel of land situate lying and being in the county of Harrison in the state of Virginia and bounded as follows
The 1849 document transferring a piece of this property to Abia and Robert Minor was never executed. It was as if the boys had given John P. some reason to pause before deeding title. BUT the document gives a surveyor’s description of the considered transaction, and that plot is only the piece labeled R. Minor in this map–a clue that this map was created sometime AFTER 1849. Other documents related to this land include John P. Minor deeding the tract of land labeled here A. Minor to Abia Minor in 1854. Therefore, I conclude that my surveyor’s map was created sometime between the years 1849 and 1854.
The when of the map was closer to being settled at this point, however I was left no closer to understanding where these 575 acres were located. For that I consulted the Federal Census data hoping to track the residences of the young men. My hunch was rewarded with an interesting trail.
1840 Abia has a child and wife in Greene County, PA
Robert is not listed anywhere
1850 Can’t find either Abia or Robert
1860 Abia is in Moultrie County,Illinois
Robert is in Harrison County, Virginia
1870 Abia is in Moultrie County, Illinois
Robert is in Harrison County, West Virginia
1880 Abia is in Harper County, Kansas
Robert is in Harrison County, West Virginia
If Robert was on that land so long then searching for a map of that 1860-1880 era might yield some clues.
At Historic Map Works I did indeed find such a map–An Atlas of West Virginia, published by D. J. Lake and Company in 1886. This map labeled not just towns and streams, but homes and businesses. I found Robert Minor’s name by a square that sat on a small stream, presumably Stout’s Run, that emptied into Simpson’s Creek north of Bridgeport. Limestone Run had been renamed Barnet’s Run by 1886. With these facts I could look at a Google map with new eyes and locate the ‘Plot Virginia Land 575’.
A mystery is solved, and leaves me with mixed emotions. Now I know where my ancestor once walked; where, finding coal and water and good land for farming, John P. Minor expected to give his sons a great leg up in life.
Phillip Wilson stopped by my blog, and read through this post, recognizing immediately that he grew up on Robert Minor’s farm. His parents, Robert and Helen Wilson, purchased the land in 1962. Their home, built around 1940, sat close to the “cellar house”, the basement of the original home. Phillip played for hours down by the creek while his mother kept a watchful eye from the patio, til they paved paradise and put up an exit ramp.
**With sixteen passes of the Flip Pal I had successfully scanned the map before me and stitched it together into a seamless jpeg file with the built in Stitch Tool. Flip Pal. LOVE. IT. Check it out here.