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.

Sunday’s Obituary: Merlin W. Sayles of Chase City, Virginia (1878)

A family mystery has been solved! My great-great-grandparents, Ira and Serena Sayles, had four children, wrote my grandmother, Florette Sayles Strickland. The daughter, Florette, died as a young girl. One son, Clifton, grew up to be a farmer, a husband, a dad – her dad. Another son, Christopher, grew up to join the peacetime army, and yet another son, Merlin, was lost to memory’s mists, until I uncovered his obituary in the Seventh Day Baptist archives of the 1878 Sabbath Recorder. From page three of Volume 34, issue 40, I finally learn the fate of this young man.

DIED

In Whitesville, N. Y., September 23d, 1878, MERLIN W. SAYLES, of Chase City, Maklinburg (sic) County, Va., aged 21 years, 2 months, and 11 days, second son of Prof. Ira and Serena C. Sayles, formerly of Alfred. His disease, as shown by examination after death, was aneurism in the right of the mesenteric artery, followed by a completely conjested mesentery, with incipient abcsess (sic) of the same, thus functionally destroying this vital organ. For the last two months, his sufferings were intense — he really starved to death. He was a member of the First-day Baptist Church of Chase City, Va., and died clinging to Jesus.

Just imagine the scene.  On a muggy, hot July day, Merlin collapsed after slopping the hogs. His brothers, Christopher and Clifton, rushed to where he lay doubled over, clutching his belly as the blood vessel lay ruptured inside him.  As they carried Merlin up the porch steps Clifton yelled to his mother, and Serena rushed into the front hallway of the family’s farmhouse.  Sizing up the moment she turned and took the stairs two at a time, with the boys on her heels.  Merlin was gently lowered into bed, his shoes taken off, his clothing loosened.  He must have been in agony that day, and each day after as his intestines slowly died and infection set in.  No tea, no soup, no biscuit would have stayed down; Serena would have tried every sort of remedy to ease the pain, to cure the fever, to stave off his withering.  Today the ruptured artery would be quickly diagnosed and surgically repaired. Serena could only watch over her boy, mopping his sweaty brow, wetting his dry lips, holding his feverish hand, praying for his recovery.

Would Ira have traveled down from New York for a last visit? Or did Serena meet this tragedy alone with her boys and neighbors?

Merlin W. Sayles may be buried in the family’s cemetery just off of Hunter’s Lane, south of Chase City, Virginia. Hidden among trees, his tombstone may still serve as testimony to the horror of his final days.

Matrilineal Monday: Whites of Whitesville, New York

This is my brain on genealogy.

While transcribing a letter dated July 24, 1869, a couple of its sentences looped relentlessly through my head, like a snippet of a catchy tune. My great-great-grandfather complained to his brother, James :

My year’s expenses devoured my year’s salary (as principal of Rushford Academy), and left me as poor today as one year ago today.  Serena does not dispose of much of her landed property, though, of course.
 

Just how much landed property did Serena have? De Beer’s 1869 Atlas of Allegany County, New York mapped residences, illustrating that the couple, or rather, Serena owned three properties – the Gothic house on Alfred University’s campus, a farm a few miles south in Independence, and a house on Main Street, catercorner to Rushford Academy.  How did Serena come by these properties?  On her teacher’s salary?  Hardly likely, since Ira notes that his wages didn’t cover expenses. Mutter, mutter….. Far more likely that Serena received land and property from her parents, Samuel S. and Nancy Teater White, who had been successful farmers and business owners in Whitesville, Allegany County. But how had they managed that in one generation, on those rocky Appalachian hills, removed from any highways or railroads?  And what attracted them to western New York in the first place?

In the space of five minutes I found myself in a web of my own, sticky design.

This is my brain on genealogy, just a web of ideas and places and people, stuck together in a mass of interconnected strands.  Not til I imagine that I am a Super Fly, using this mess as a trampoline, can I make a bounding leap of faith and see the story hidden in its design.

The Whites of Whitesville came from the sea

Samuel’s father was born Oliver White, Junior, in 1759 to Oliver White and Mary Sherman in the town of Newport, Rhode Island, down by the sea. Oliver Jr. removed west to Hopkinton, Rhode Island, a small town carved from Westerly, by 1775 when he first enlisted in the colonies’ army. Oliver served off and on for the duration of the Revolution, and between one of his tours of duty, on March 1, 1781, Oliver made a fateful decision. He decided to marry a Seventh Day Baptist.  Cynthia Burdick was the daughter of  Hannah Hall and Robert (4)  Burdick, who was the latest generation of Burdicks to provide leadership to the Westerly congregation.  Like other Baptists, they believed that local congregations were autonomous from a church hierarchy and had the authority to make decisions locally; and that the Bible was the authoritative source of faith. But unlike other Baptists, the Burdick family held that the scriptures designated Saturday as the Sabbath.  Sabbatarians worked on Sunday.  The rhythm of their work and worship, then, fundamentally differed from those of the larger community – and economy – in which they found themselves.   (Oliver Jr. became a member of the Hopkinton Seventh Day Baptist Church in 1786.)

As the atmosphere became more hostile to those not adhering to the conventional Christian sabbath, the sabbatarians began to migrate westward.  They moved in clusters, establishing communities in which they were free to work six days and worship on Saturday.  Oliver and Cynthia left Hopkinton, RI, with their children including Samuel, before 1810.  They lived for a short while in the 7th Day Baptist community of Brookfield, Madison County, New York, before moving on to Alfred, another center of sabbatarians, before 1816.  Here, young Samuel met and fell in love with a young school teacher and early organizer of Alfred’s Seventh Day Baptist Church, Nancy Teater.

They married in 1819 and moved to a new community south of Alfred, near the millson Cryders Creek. Within their first decade, Nancy and Samuel had established a farm, started a family, provided leadership for another Seventh Day Baptist congregation, and opened a hotel in the town which soon bore their name – Whitesville.

Sunday’s Obituary: Florette W. Sayles

From the Sabbath Recorder, Alfred, New York, July 1856:

DIED

In Rushford, N. Y., on the 25 ult., (of last month) after an illness of eight weeks, FLORETTE W., daughter of Ira and Serena C. Sayles, aged 8 years, 8 months and 19 days.  A few days before her departure, while in her father’s arms, she told him she was not afraid to die and be with Christ.  She also assured her mother, during her last hours of consciousness, of the same confidence.  She moreover reproved her mother for weeping, saying, “It can do no good.”

In grief we lay our daughter down
To sleep the sleep that knows no waking'
In faith, we look beyond the tomb--
We see the glorious morning breaking, 
Brightly dawning through the gloom:
We see, by faith, her spirit come,
Midst the joyous angel throng, 
To proclaim their Jesus King--
King o'er heaven and earth most glorious--
King o'er death, and the grave victorious--
King omnipotent to save 
All who put their trust in him.
Then where's thy victory, boasting grave?
O death! where is thy venomed sting?
Then triumph! triumph, weeping mother!
Triumph, little trusting brother!
Triumph, father, in thy faith!
Jesus hath won life from death!

Obituary accessed with the help of the Seventh Day Baptist Historical Society.

Poem is not attributed to any person, though I suspect that Ira Sayles is the author.

Follow Friday: Historic Map Works

One of the all-time best inventions of the human mind, in my humble opinion, is the map.  Whether ink to paper or pixels to screen, maps represent reality as seen from the cartographer’s point of view.  Beyond the accurate recording of topography and societal infrastructure, map makers convey all sorts of information, depending on who has paid their salary!  Display all the gas wells in Allegany County! List all the businesses of the Whitesville!  Differentiate between a dirt road, a tiny local road and the main state road.

One of my favorite sites lets me explore the world according to my ancestors. Historic Map Works lets you browse United States, World or Antiquarian maps by searching with a Keyword, Family Name or Address.  I wanted to know what a map could tell me about my ancestors, Ira and Serena Sayles, in the 1860s when I know they lived in three separate towns in south central New York.

Using the keywords ALLEGANY COUNTY NEW YORK my query returned a treasure: The Atlas of Allegany County, published by D. G. Beers and Company in 1869. Each page of the atlas has been digitised, and can be opened for expanded viewing.

 

 

 

 

This page of Alfred Center shows my great-great-grandmother’s home, The Gothic. According to records this house was sold and the proceeds used to purchase a farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, shortly after the publication of this atlas.

Interestingly, I also found Serena Sayle’s name on a property in the township of Independence and her husband’s name, Ira, on a property in Rushford, where he was the principal of Rushford Academy.

 

 

 

With a subscription to Historic Map Works I can download and print these maps out, further exploring Ira and Serena’s world; who did they live next to, what stores might they have shopped in, how far did they travel in going about their daily lives? All these details, from a map.

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