Life Unwinding: Ira Sayles 1891-1893

As fine crystals frosted the window panes of his Ithaca office that November 1891, the assistant paleontologist for the United States Geological Survey concentrated on the Devonian fossils arrayed before him. Ira Sayles–Darwin doubter, writer of meter and rhyme, observer of chipmunks and turkey vultures, thinker of deep thoughts–prepared the season’s specimens under the supervision of Cornell University professor, Henry S. Williams, for shipment to the National Museum in Washington, D.C.

The 74 year old’s labeling and packing of the year’s field work was disrupted by a “stroke of paralysis” which left him weak and tremulous, particularly in his right hand. Nonetheless Ira carried on his duties for the Survey and returned to his Washington, D.C. apartment at 213 9th Street. His winter commute was but a short block north to the National Museum, headquarters for the Geological Survey. Each day he summoned the intellectual acumen of which he was so proud, and joined the team analyzing field notes and fossil specimens to discover the “bearing and distribution of faunas on the history of the elevation of the eastern half of the North American continent.

Ira Sayles lived at 213 9th Street, a block south of the National Museum in 1889-1891.

Real Estate Platt Book of Washington, DC, Volume 2, 1893, by G.M. Hopkins and Company: digitally accessed at DC Public Library (https://digdc.dclibrary.org) 28 Aug 2019.

Ira’s health deteriorated with the deepening of the District’s winter.

On the 24th of February 1892, Ira’s boss, Chief Paleontologist Charles D. Walcott, alerted the Sayles family in Mecklenburg County, Virginia that Ira was “lying dangerously ill at Providence hospital, this city.” What, asked Professor Walcott, did his wife and son want to do with his body in the event of his death?


Ira didn’t give them a chance to make that decision. He left the hospital with or without medical advice, resigned from the US Geological Survey, and set out for home.

One could be forgiven for anticipating that Ira took his frail body to Southside Virginia, to sit on the porch of his family’s farmhouse, to listen to wind-brushed pine needles and drink deeply of the curative Buffalo Lithia Spring Water bottled locally.

But Ira had rarely visited Chase City since the estrangement from Serena in 1872. For a decade afterward Professor Sayles had bounced from one New York academy to another, until he had received an appointment to the Geological Survey in 1883 by former student-cum-Secretary of the Interior, Henry M. Teller. As a geologist/paleontologist Ira had split his homecomings between apartments in Ithaca, New York, and Washington, D.C., with an occasional visit to the farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia.

So, from that Providence Hospital bed, Ira rose to board trains and coaches not through Virginia’s Piedmont, but through the Appalachian Mountains. During the first two weeks of March 1892 Ira traveled to south central Kansas with the intention of making his home with his younger brother Loren, a prominent citizen and water works engineer in Greensburg. The visit lasted long enough for Ira to celebrate his 75th birthday in April and to witness Loren’s purchase of the Rubart house on East Florida Street in May. But the sibling time proved temporary. In mid-July, wheat fields waved farewell as Ira headed back east.


Unemployed and unemployable, the elderly Sayles had one option for continued independence in Washington–apply for a pension under the Congressional Act of June 27, 1890. This legislation made funds available to soldiers and sailors who had served at least 90 days during the War of the Rebellion, had been honorably discharged, and who found themselves permanently unable to do manual labor because of disability not caused by vicious habits like alcoholism or STDs. Ira’s service with Company H, 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteers and his permanent debilitation from the strokes made for a good claim.

On August 2, 1892 Ira Sayles filed the first piece of paperwork through Washington, D.C. attorney James Tanner. Nine days later the former paleontologist walked from his apartment up 9th Street, past the National Museum, across The Mall to the Pennsylvania Railroad Depot on the corner of B and 6th Streets, where he succumbed to the heat and humidity. Whatever his destination, the trip was postponed while he recovered in the Washington, D.C. Emergency Hospital and then recuperated with his friend and colleague, Dr. Revere Randolf Gurley in Carlins Springs, Virginia, just across the Potomac River.


In early October Ira picked up where he left off, and submitted to a physical examination by the pension board’s physicians, Drs. J.W. Little and C.A. Davis. They described him as a 5 ft 8 in, 175 pound, somewhat emaciated, pale man with flabby muscles. They noted that the history of apoplexy caused a loss of power in his right hand, which left Ira tremulous and unable to button all his clothing.

The doctors also noted a right inguinal hernia, which was “readily returnable and easily restrained by truss”, a diagnosis they believed entitled Ira to a 10/18 rating for disability. A secondary diagnosis of a irritable, weak heart was also reason to rate Ira for disability.

“He is evidently debilitated. To some extent.”


With that step completed, Ira retired to the rolling landscape along Butchers Creek, in the care of his son, Clifton.

The first quarter of 1892 was unusually cold, setting farm work and schedules 10 days to a month behind. That delay may have provided time for Clifton to pursue the arduous application process. In March Clifton reached out to James Tanner, the attorney Ira had hired to prosecute his claim. Having established that his father was completely unable to care for himself or to travel to Washington to gather the necessary testimony, Clifton received the necessary documents to pursue the claim from Chase City.

In the following weeks, Ira filed a General Affidavit testifying to his hernia. A local doctor, H. L. Burwell, completed a medical affidavit that Ira was “totally unable to perform manual labor, and that he was suffering general disability resulting of old age, and an inguinal hernia on his right side.” And a J. M. Sloan, who had been acquainted with Ira for 15 years, gave a Neighbor’s Affidavit to affirm that Ira was who he said he was, that his habits were good, that he was “almost totally helpless, so much so, that doesn’t go about at all.”

“It is impossible to get further testimony here as he has not been here but a few months.”

“This is his home and he visits us occasionally.”

Military records, physician exams, general statements, letters, and neighbor’s affidavit slowly piled up in Ira’s file. As the claim was reviewed by Pension Board of Review requests for clarification and additional evidence were made; the family complied. The cold spring was followed by summer days when temperatures soared above 100 degrees. Summer crops were appearing on dinner tables when finally Ira’s invalid pension was approved on August 4, 1893, retroactive to the date of first application August 3, 1892.

Eight dollars a month was not nearly what he had earned as an employee with the Geological Survey, but it was a useful stipend for the care he received in his son’s home until his death just 10 months later.

The story of the pension does not end in June 1894.

For though Serena and Ira’s marriage appeared strained, and strange, they were husband and wife. During the summer of 1894, James Tanner and J. M. Sloan would once again find themselves party to a Sayles declaration for a pension.

Who was J. M. Sloan and what was his relationship to Serena that he went to bat for the Serena’s Widow Pension? Next time on Shoots, Roots, and Leaves.


Sources

Pension files of Ira and Serena Sayles, #1124613 and #597.981, National Archives Building, Washington, D.C.

Newspapers of the era discovered on Newspapers.com and Library of Congress’ Chronicling America (ChroniclingAmerica.loc.gov.)

United States Geological Survey Annual Reports to the Secretary of the Interior, 1890-1892, available in Google Books, and on U.S. Geological Survey Publications Warehouse (https://pubs.er.usgs.gov)

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.