It all started, this tree climbing, with my grandmother’s handwritten family history and my father’s stories of growing up on the family farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. I scrambled up the lowest branches, then higher and higher into the tree; deeper and deeper into my past, discovering dreams and disappointments among the families’ leaves. Blogging as I connected the dots of dates and events and folks’ names, I attracted the attention of a fellow enthusiast and descendant. And the letters she posted via snail mail continued to support my generational study of the Sayles/Dodson family. Kind of.
Read this excerpt:
“I could get and make a splendid home there (Virginia), at a very low price. But it is all of no use. The means of making such a home are his/hers. Where s/he says invest, there investment will be made, or nowhere.”
Which ancestor wrote this:
a) the stay at home mom with three boys, 18, 13 and 7?
b) the former Captain in the 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteer Infantry?
c) the Principal of Rushford’s secondary school?
d) the French teacher in the town’s academy?
If you said (a), you would not be alone, for that was exactly what I would have said, were I listening to this letter, author unknown.
My great-great-grandmother, Serena White Sayles, was a stay at home mom in the summer of 1869, and a former French teacher at both Rushford Academy and Alfred University in Allegany County, New York. She and husband, Ira Sayles, moved to a farm outside Christiansville (Chase City), Virginia by the 1870 census, with their boys, upon the advice of Ira who might have become aware of this fertile region while serving at Camp Suffolk, Virginia – just east of Christiansville – in 1862-1863.
That’s the story I saw, prior to this letter, because I stared through the lens of old English common law, in which women’s wages, property and their very identity were merged with that of their husband. This framework dominated the legal and social landscape in the post-war era. Except in New York, where the legislature had first passed laws governing the rights of married women as early as 1848. In 1860 it had updated the law to read in part:
Section 1: The property, both real and personal, which any married woman now owns, as her sole and separate property; that which comes to her by descent, devise, bequest, gift or grant; that which she acquires by her trade, business, labor or services, carried on or performed on her sole or separate account; that which a woman married in this state owns at the time of her marriage, and the rents, issues and proceeds of all such property, shall, notwithstanding her marriage, be and remain her sole and separate property, and may be used, collected and invested by her in her own name, and shall not be subject to the interference or control of her husband, or liable of his debts, except such debts as may have been contracted for the support of herself or her children, by her as his agent, ¹
So the author of this letter was not a powerless wife, but a former Captain in the Union army, and a community and educational leader. It was Serena who owned the family’s real estate, properties gifted to her by her father, Samuel S. White of Whitesville, New York and Serena who held control over those assets. And it was Serena who instigated the move to Virginia, not Ira, as revealed in another section of this same letter:
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.
Taking my common law lenses off, I have read and reread this letter. Each pass through yields a different clue to the nature of Ira and Serena’s relationship, its distribution of power and its lack of harmony. How different the family story is shaping up to be, now that I am climbing without my glasses on.
¹ New York Married Woman’s Property Act of 1860, approved March 20, 1860. 1860 N.Y. Laws 90, Session 83, pp. 157-159.