A Civil War Legacy Continues: Serena Sayles Makes A Claim

Ira Sayles died Friday, 15 June 1894, and was buried on the Sayles’ Mecklenburg County farm before the sun hovered on the western horizon that evening.

If you have ever served as executor of someone’s last wishes, then you know how incongruous the days following a death can feel. There are all the emotions roiling around loss–relief if the loved one was in pain, deep anxiety about what the person’s absence will mean about your future, regret over old arguments that will never get settled, and deep, grumbling, fumbling sadness. Then there are the legalities, specific steps that one’s mind must clearly, carefully execute.

Vulnerability. Precision. Do what must be done.


Serena and Ira were dependent on their son, Clifton, and as he stated in a letter supporting his father’s pension claim, “I myself am a poor man with a wife and several children to provide for.” The $8 a month that Ira received as a disability pension had been a welcome supplement to the family’s income. Was there some way that benefit could continue?

Vulnerability. Precision.

In the week following Ira’s burial, Serena contacted James Tanner, the Washington, D.C. lawyer who had successfully prosecuted Ira’s disability claim, and began the process of getting a Widow’s Pension based on Ira’s military service.

Who was James Tanner?

Serena Sayles used James Tanner as her legal counsel because Ira had. But how did Ira arrive at the Tanner law office in 1892?

Folks don’t know about him now, but during Reconstruction James Tanner was well known and well regarded as an outspoken advocate on behalf of disabled and elderly Union veterans. Mr. Tanner was himself a disabled vet, having had both legs shattered by a shell during the Second Battle of Bull Run. As a double amputee, Tanner reinvented himself as a stenographer for the War Department. He was assigned to Washington, D.C. and took down the initial first-hand accounts of Lincoln’s assassination in the very bedroom in which president lay dying.

The ambitious New Yorker subsequently studied law and held a variety of public service positions. But he was perhaps best known as a key figure in the fraternal veterans organizations, the Union Veteran Legion and the Grand Army of the Republic, which lobbied states and Congress for funds and facilities dedicated to helping veterans of the War of the Rebellion.

After serving briefly as Commissioner of Pensions in 1888, he dedicated his law practice in Washington, D.C. to helping veterans win claims against the federal government.

Tanner was resilient and shrewd; public speaking engagements kept him in front of veterans and their families, and strategically placed newspaper advertisements kept his pension business before the public.

Ira could have listened to Tanner address the D.C. encampment of the Union Veteran Legion, or perhaps read of the lawyer’s lobbying efforts on behalf of Union veterans, or seen the attorney’s advertisement. Ira was just one of thousands who put their trust in Tanner to prosecute a pension claim. And Serena followed suit.


Precision in Vulnerability

Ten days after Ira’s death Serena took a seat across from notary public N. H. Williams in a Chase City (VA) office. Williams transcribed her testimony into a form provided by James Tanner. She declared herself to be a widow of an old soldier of Company H, 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteers, whom she had married in Whitesville, New York in April of 1845. Serena also attested that she was poor, living on her daily labor alone, with but a $15 per year income from renting her farm out. And she agreed to pay James Tanner $10 if her pension claim was granted.

Williams had two witnesses testify that Serena was who she said she was, and then mailed the form.

Two days later a clerk in the U.S. Pension Office placed an official stamp on her document and created claim No. 597.861. It would be three years before Serena’s file was considered complete and a decision rendered by the Commissioner of Pensions.


What factors affected the speed at which Tanner could work on this case? How did the country feel about military pensions? Did public sentiment affect Serena and her claim?

Notes

Transcript Tuesday: Neighbor’s Affidavit in the Pension Application of Ira Sayles, 1893

For the testimony of employers or near neighbors of soldier (other than relatives,) who have known him before his enlistment, or since his discharge and return from the army. 

State of Virginia, County of Mecklenburg,

In the matter of the application for pension of Ira Sayles on this 8 day of May, A.D., one thousand eight hundred and ninety-three personally appeared before me, a Notary Public in and for the aforesaid County, duly authorized to administer oaths, J.M. Sloan, aged 58 years, a resident of Chase City in the County of Mecklenburg and State of Virginia whose postoffice address is Chase City Va well known to me to be respectable and entitled to credit, and who, being duly sworn, declare in relation to the aforesaid case as follows: 

That I have been personally acquainted with Ira Sales (sic) for 15 years and that his habits are good. That he is a teetotler (sic) and has no bad habits, so far as I know or ever heard of.

He has been employed for many years in the Geological Survey, and has not been located in any one place long at a time. Would suggest application to surgeons, in Washington, who examined him last Oct. (sic) I refer to the Board of Ex. 

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

He is almost totally helpless, so much so, that (he) doesn’t go about at all.  This is his home and he visits us occasionally. 

Signed

J. M. Sloan 

Notary Public

N. H. William


From the Pension Claim #1124.613 of Ira Sayles, Neighbor’s Affidavit, J. M. Sloan, 8 May 1893; original documents in National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Leaf Litter from the Family Tree

The leaves from our deciduous forests are turning yellow, or brown, and dropping with alacrity to the ground.  They carpet every surface–grass, water, rocks, moss, driveways.

Falling LeavesFor years I have used the family tree metaphor to structure my genealogical research.  Only today did it strike me that leaf litter can also be an inspirational metaphor, as in those leaves, those ancestors, that get dropped, and disappear to nurture the soil of the family’s winding tale.

 

And as a review of this deed transcription suggests it is often women who carpet the family forest floor.

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On 15 June 1770, Samuel Whitworth sold 120 acres of land to William Wills Green, my fifth great-grandfather.  The parcel included houses, outbuildings, orchards, woods, water, and parts of Allens Creek, Mecklenburg County, Virginia…land that lay not far from where my father grew up.

William W Green took possession of the real estate on the same day.  His neighbors included Edward Beavils, Francis Moore Neal, Abram Green, and Thomas Whitworth.

No women were present for the sale.  No dower rights were acknowledged.

 

English common law crossed the ocean with the European settlers from which I descend.  Among the provisions of this legal framework was coverture, the principles enshrined to govern married women, prohibiting their agency to hold property, run businesses, conduct trade,  and act as citizens.

Therefore, though I know from William Wills Green’s last will and testament that he had 10 children, there is no record of their mother in this deed, or among the long list of deeds I have uncovered.  There is no acknowledgement of the women with whom she quilted and cooked; no indication that a midwife helped birth all those babies; no public record of any domestic work that contributed to the Green estate development.

Which is frustrating.  I have to snuffle in the leaf litter of history to discover the women in my past, more imagining than documenting their stories to fill out my family tree.

If you are a women’s studies buff, please leave any sources and ideas for research questions in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

Reclaiming all the past

These thoughts are for all you white family historians out there.  Particularly the ones who are, like me, struggling to tell the unmentionable, the dishonorable chapters of our ancestors’ lives.  The plot lines of which extend into our own days, leaving us uncomfortable with our race.  Our whiteness.

I have been silent on this blog space, for what seems like a long time.  Not because I don’t have anything to say, but because what I have to say is so disconcerting to me.  I have hung out with my research for months, letting it rattle my bones.  Letting the names and the implications of the unnamed disturb my imagination, and disrupt my nostalgia of my southern past.

And humbled I return to this segregated space to confront the taboo against mixing race and family.  The taboo against talking straight up about how I can trace my status, my education, my opportunities right back to those of my Dodson forebears in 1772.

I want to reclaim all the past.  I want to braid stories of the Dodsons with the connections of the Crutes and dozens of unnamed African Americans who contributed to the Dodson legacy, yet seldom profited from it.

I hope you will return to learn how my dad’s scribbled note prompted my memory of something Norman said, which together led to the documentation of the Dodson Crute Connection.

Next up:  The Dodson Crute Connection

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The Dodsons Cross County Lines: Surname Saturday

In the summer of 1772, Edward Dodson cast a shadow into my future as he set out from Amelia County, Virginia.  The young man crossed the Meherrin River and continued on into Mecklenburg County, passing the farms of Samuel Dedman, William Wills Green, and John Hyde to assess the red soil along the little fork of Allen’s Creek.  Edward walked the tract’s perimeter with the owner. Finding the rolling, timbered hills fit for his needs, the aspiring farmer handed John Glassock five shillings, current money of colonial Virginia.

The Mecklenburg County Court convened once a month in the settlement that would one day become Boydton some 5 miles south. Residents used the court day as a social occasion, and  traveled from their farms to conduct business, swap stories, and trade goods.  Glassock and two friends, James Brown and Peter Burton, were among the folks who gathered on that August 10th, 1772.  The court ordered county clerk, John Talborne to duly record that John Glassock

…Doth give Grant Bargain, Sell Alien assigns and confirm to the Said Edward Dodson and his heirs. & Assigns for ever one certain tract or Parcell (sic) of Land Containing Ninety five acres lying and being in the County of Mecklenburg on the Little fork of Allens Creek…

Brown and Burton bore witness to the verity of the transaction.

Meanwhile Edward Dodson returned home to plan his emigration to Virginia’s remote interior.  On the last day of April 1773, Edward took possession of his “parcell”, perhaps with his wife, Francis, already pregnant with their first child Sarah.

Five shillings purchased the first acres of land that would remain in the Dodson family for six generations.  The story meanders, like a creek, into the 20th century.

Map.Virginia.1776.DavidRumseyMapCollection
Edward and Francis Dodson moved from around Amelia to a farm situated between the Meherrin River and Jefferson Falls on the Roanoke River. A General Map of the Middle British Colonies, in America. (1776). digital image: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, DavidRumsey.com.

Reference:

Glassock to Dodson, Mecklenburg County (VA) Deed Book 3-433; Microfilm #32533, Family History Center, Salt Lake City, Utah.