By 2 o’clock

Deadlines are my friend.  Deadlines are my friend.  Deadlines are my friend.

2 o’clock.  That is my latest deadline.

Computer time–1:39.

Twenty minutes to sift through my busy brain  and find some compelling story or intriguing information that is worthy of a reader’s time.

I got nothing.

Or maybe I am just procrastinating a bit of discomfort.

Oh, dear…I am.

Very late last year I made a commitment–to myself–to share my family’s history of enslaving with Coming To The Table’s Shared Legacies project.  And I did share a first draft,  a typical family historian attempt to craft story from facts and conjecture.  However, with feedback I realized that the Shared Legacies were to be a first person point-of-view, a narrative about how my ancestors’  enslaving linked to my own life experience, or, better yet, a narrative of how I discovered the descendants of the people my 4th great-grandparents enslaved.

Well, I don’t have any of the latter.

And I can’t write succinctly about why the Revolutionary Era Dodsons haunt me.

I have four more minutes…to convey to you, dear reader, that I have a shit-ton of White Folk Work to do.  And I will make a commitment here, today, to peel away excuse after excuse, and sit with my discomfort.

I hope you will join me as I examine how liberty became a race-based right in my family.






The Dodsons of Mecklenburg County: Friends of Friends Friday

In the decade after Edward and Francis Dodson unpacked their wagon (1772),  the 95 acres on Little Fork of Allen’s Creek, Mecklenburg County (VA) became a bustling farm. Green stalks of corn grew from hills of rich, red clay soil. Hogs snuffled through thick stands of oak, hickory, persimmon,and pine. Cattle grazed in fields that first yielded crops of wheat. The farmers sold surplus timber and crops to purchase those tools and foodstuffs they couldn’t produce themselves. And they purchased “heads” to increase their productivity, which would increase their profits, which would increase their savings, which would purchase more acreage–and more “heads” to work the new land.

The Dodson Farm: Mecklenburg County, Virginia

The county was criss-crossed by spring-fed creeks and rivers, and by centuries-old trading paths, first packed down by the feet of the Occaneechi Indians.  The road from Petersburg (VA) to the North Carolina border cut through the Mecklenburg Court House settlement, and was heavily used by the Continental and county militia companies as they positioned supplies and men during the Southern Campaign of the Revolutionary War.  Edward Dodson served as militia company lieutenant from 1778 for the duration of the rebellion, and no doubt was called to guard the munitions at nearby Taylor’s Ferry on the Roanoke River.  Having enslaved  men, women, and children back on the farm privileged a resilience on the Dodson place that helped the family survive throughout those turbulent years.

In 1784, the Dodson family welcomed Edward Junior. Sally (Sarah), William, Elizabeth, and Martha probably knew what was up with the addition of one more baby, but toddlers Nancy and John were likely enthralled by the newborn.  Outside their house could be heard the cries of two more babies, Robin (Bob) and Amy,  born to the enslaved Kate and Biddy. In the quarters of the forced laborers two-year-old Bristol and Lucy were looked after by seven-year-old Sukey and four-year-olds, Dick and Bristol. Will, Peter, and Pat worked the farm with Kate and Biddy, overseen by Master Ed.

Post-war Virginia was just beginning to reconcile the concepts of liberty and slavery, the American contradiction that would shape generations of Dodsons.


Mecklenburg County (VA) Personal Property Tax Lists, 1782-1805, scanned microfilm images. A Binns Genealogy CD Series, Williamston, MI;

Name of Enslaved                    Date of Birth

  • Peter                                      before 1767
  • Will                                                  1767
  • Pat                                           before 1767
  • Kate                                         before 1767
  • Biddy                                       before 1767
  • Sukey                                               1777
  • Jim                                                     1780
  • Dick                                                   1780
  • Bristol                                               1782
  • Lucy                                                   1782


Friend of Friends Friday: Slaves of the Virginia Dodsons, 1853-1865

A couple of months ago I received a query regarding my ancestors, the Dodsons of Mecklenburg County, Virginia.  In particular, Angela Pearl Dodson was seeking information about the slaves that this family owned, or that relatives of this family had owned.  I circle back to this topic today, with a posting from the special collection of the Alexandria Library: Morales, Leslie Anderson , Jennifer Learned, and Beverly Pierce. Virginia Slave Births Index, 1853-1865, Volume 2, D-G. Westminster, Maryland: Heritage Books, 2007.

The information for Dodsons, from all the reporting counties of Virginia, begins on page 85 (with the alternative spelling Dobson) and continues to page 88.  Each entry proceeds in this order:

Informant’s Surname, Informant’s First Name; Slave’s Name; Mother’s Name; Date of Birth; Place of Birth.


page 85 page 86 page 87 Page 88This volume contains the slave birth records for slave owners whose surnames begin with the letters D, E, F, and G, for the period of 1853-1865.  I am more than willing to look up information for other names that this volume may cover.  Please leave  your query in the comments.


On This Day: The Discharge of Captain Ira Sayles

Winter SkyAs the sun set one hundred fifty years ago, Ira Sayles glumly faced life as a civilian. The New York abolitionist had enlisted in the summer of 1862, joining Alfred neighbors and friends in forming Company H, 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteers.  Their first deployment was in Portage Station, New York, to be issued uniforms and weapons, and to elect company officers.  Private Ira became 1st Lieutenant Sayles.  The regiment traveled by train, their early legs through Williamsport and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania lined by cheering children and flag-waving townsfolk.  A brief stop in Washington, D.C. was followed by passage down the Potomac, into the Chesapeake Bay, to Fort Monroe.  The soldiers, by and by, found themselves in the September humidity of southeastern Virginia, eight miles from the North Carolina border, and just mosquito-wings distance from the Great Dismal Swamp.  Camp Suffolk would soon surround the southern town of Suffolk, with earthen forts, trenches, and rifle pits.

The recruits of the 130th NY Volunteer  infantry were unseasoned soldiers, and days of shoveling red clay were followed by nights of marching.  Footsore, hungry and often wet, the companies would return from their Blackwater River escapades without having fired a shot.  By the end of September the regiment began losing soldiers to the diseases of the swamp.  And 1st Lieutenant Sayles was elected Captain to fill one such resignation.

From the Family Records of Sharon Babcock.  THANK YOU!

Captain Ira Sayles was proud to wear the officer’s sword, and to marshal the energies and courage of his men.  After all the pre-war public-speaking, after all the furtive dealings along the local Underground Railroad, Ira must have found the actual participation in slavery’s eradication a seductive reason to endure all the trials and horrors of the war.

Unfortunately, Ira’s forty-six year old body rebelled against the prolonged exposure, manual labor, and sleep deprivation.  By January, Ira Sayles, suffering from chronic debilitating pain, reported for a hospital cot instead of picket duty.  At length,  as it became evident that Ira’s passion could not overcome the frailties, his regiment’s physician, B. T. Kneeland, wrote these words :

February 19th. 1863

I certify that I have carefully examined Capt. Ira Sayles of Co. H, 130th N.Y. Vol’s. and find him incapable of performing the duties of his position, because of rheumatic disease induced in my opinion by frequent and long continued exposure and fatigue, in performing the duties of his office.  

Surely a long, sleepless night followed the examination.  The next day, after sharpening a fresh goose feather quill, Ira dipped deep into his abolitionist soul to find these words:


I have the honor hereby to tender my Resignation of the Captaincy of Company H of the 130 Regiment, New York State Volunteers, which post I now hold.

It is with unfeigned regret, that I find myself compelled to take this step during the continuance of my country’s imminent peril; but the labors, the exposures, and the watchings of the past six months’ service here, have made such inroads on my health, that it is evident I can no longer perform the severe duties of a Captain of Infantry, either creditably to myself, or effectively for my country.  In such case, honor and patriotism alike demand, that the sword I am no longer able to wield with due energy, I resign to stronger hands.  (Please find Surgeon’s Certificate enclosed.)

Praying for my country’s Early and Honorable Peace through Victory over her Insolent Foes,

I have the Honor to be, Sir, Very Respectfully Your Most Obd’t Serv’t,

Ira Sayles

One last time, Ira proudly added:

Capt. Comd’g Co. H., 130 Reg’t., N.Y.S.Vols.

By February 26, Ira would have received notice. Special Order No. 55 had been issued by Head Quarters, Department of Virginia, Seventh Army Corps, Fort Monroe, Virginia:

The following named officers having tendered their resignations are honorably discharged from the military service of the United States

Capt. Ira Sayles 130th Reg. N.Y.Vols. on account of ill health.

By command of Maj Genl. Dix

The sun set that February night on a civilian Ira Sayles.

The Cloak of Defeat: Friday’s Facing The War

Author’s Note:  What began as a mere dabbling into my family roots has become a robust investigation of my family history. Slowly the search has become centered on the lives, decisions and events of the Civil War era, 1850-1880, as they shaped the physical and mental landscape in which my grandparents and parents lived.  Here I repost an essay from last summer, in which I first grapple with how those past lives reached out to touch my childhood, my mental landscape.  

  The Dodson Farm, Mecklenburg County, Virginia

I am American by birth, Virginian by the grace of God.

And like many southern white children of the 1960’s I grew up in a culture that wore its defeat like a thick woolen cloak draped around one’s shoulders, adorned by the tales of our brave soldiers J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson.  To be Virginian was to represent your family and your state with honor, as demonstrated by that great leader Robert E. Lee.  You may not believe in the cornerstone argument BUT you must honor your duty to the motherland and your family, and rise to their defense!

While the institution of slavery was mentioned, pro-slavery racism and its sibling Jim Crow segregation were not discussed.   Ever so subtly children inherited their parents’ mistrust and loathing of all things Yankee, and even with a Yankee mother I could not escape this net.

I remember walking the hall of my high school, surrounded by my black and white friends, laughing and taunting the plain clothes police officer lurking in the dark corner–present to protect any little white child from unruly mobs.  Discussing the latest desegregation violence in Boston, one of my gang cried,”Ain’t so easy, is it, Yankee Boy!”  We all hated the hypocrisy of the Yank, whose finger pointed to the South as the crucible of all American sin and never at himself, ignoring the seeds of racism within his factories, cities, and governments.

All this anti-Yankee sentiment persisted into my adult discussions of the Civil War, and I continued the tradition of defeat.  The Civil War was about states’ rights, far more than it was about slavery.  Most southerners didn’t even OWN slaves, and many who did were right kind to them.  Yankees always think they are so moral and pure, but even they didn’t like free blacks and took drastic measures to ensure that freedom and liberty to the emancipated did not equate into white men’s jobs.  And so it was until I began my genealogical journey.

In census documents, deeds and wills, slavery became slaves–people that my people owned, like the trees they sold for lumber and the hogs they raised to butcher.  My people participated in one of history’s slave cultures, using the commodity of bonded labor to produce commodities like tobacco to be sold in a global economy.  To ignore the stories of slaves, even if they are only names found in documents, is to ignore black pioneering in the United States.  What is contained in my family’s papers, documents and stories will be shared whenever and wherever possible.

For me, it is time to drop the cloak of defeat, and be a true Virginian, honoring all the people who contributed to the development and promise of that state, and to all of these United States.