In the 1820s, America's southwestern frontier was an unforgiving place. The promise of plantation dreaming—built on stories of rich Delta farmland and self-made wealth—proved an irresistible lure to disaffected southerners on the eastern seaboard. Many made the journey only to be sacrificed on King Cotton's altar, while others struggled to knit together a life in pioneer towns plagued by financial instability and disease.
Born in the Piedmont of South Carolina, six-year-old Sarah Haynsworth made the westward journey to Alabama with her parents in 1810. Less than ten years later, she wed lawyer and politician, John Gayle, and traded the fancies of bellehood for childbirth and domestic management. By the age of thirty, Sarah had given birth to seven children, two of whom were stillborn. Her parents had died young, and Gayle feared that she would share a similar fate. In 1827, she began a diary to relieve her loneliness during the months that John was away from home on business, and later, as place to impart moral lessons to her children. In the event of her premature death, Sarah hoped that her words would act as a compass to guide her kin through a world that turned on community ties and a culture of resignation.
Sarah Gayle revered the ideal of southern womanhood, and tended her Greensboro hearth with the domestic purpose of one whose rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes had suffered from the "premature old age and decay" that rankled many a girl bride (p.7). Sarah's teeth were missing and her body was worn out from unremitting pregnancies, and she clung to the hope that a companionate marriage and uplifting home circle would help her husband to look beyond "the faded being...who has nothing of youth, of beauty, of talent, not even the poor charm of manner to fascinate" (p.42).
A good marriage to an honorable man, Sarah declared, was the cornerstone upon which women's happiness and social credit was built. She held up her own marriage as a glowing example, but peppered her journal with stories of men who beat their wives, neglected their children, wallowed in drunkenness, or indulged in "rambling fancies" (p.202). Even under the best of circumstances, Sarah admitted that women "have no judgment to give advice [to husbands], and still less power to enforce it" (p.90).
Like most well-to-do Southern women, Sarah rode the ebb and flow of family fortune; she worried over John's financial misadventures, reluctantly followed him and his career to Tuscaloosa, and dreamed of the day when her family might reside on a sprawling farm far away from vice-ridden cities and grubby politics. Until then, Sarah endured the peculiar "sort of widowhood" that marked the life of a politician's wife, and placed her faith in a strong network of female neighbors and friends who drew closer in times of need, ameliorating the harder edges of submission "in all faith and friendship" (pp. 159, 232). Her diary ended abruptly on July 21, 1835. She died ten days later from lockjaw, brought on by a dental procedure.
Sarah's diary has long been a favorite of historians of the antebellum South, and editors Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins and Ruth Smith Truss are to be congratulated for bringing it to a wider audience. Their work was no small feat: the diary suffered from lost, misplaced, cut, and defaced pages, and the painstaking restoration of the document became a project in and of itself. Wiggins and Truss employ minimal in-text annotation, noting that problems with the U.S. census and "the lack of extant newspapers" limited the "identification of the hundreds of individuals who people the journal"—and regrettably, the absence of a strong genealogical context somewhat obfuscates Sarah's world (p.xvi).
Nevertheless, Sarah Haynsworth Gayle's blighted hopes and determined resignation provide a moving portrait of one woman's tragic lot on the southwestern frontier.
Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins is professor emerita of history at the University of Alabama, a past president of the Alabama Historical Association, and editor of the Alabama Review for twenty years. She is the author or editor of The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865-1881; From Civil War to Civil Rights: Alabama 1860-1960; The Journals of Josiah Gorgas, 1857-1878; and Love and Duty: Amelia and Josiah Gorgas and Their Family.
Ruth Smith Truss is a professor of history and department chairman at the University of Montevallo, has published several articles related to Alabama history, is president of the Friends of the Alabama Archives, and served on the board of directors of the Alabama Historical Association.
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