James F. M. Raley/Raby
FINDING THE FIRST: A SOLDIER’S GRAVE
Leslie Whitley, August 10, 2009
On July 12, 2009, I attended a remarkable dedication ceremony at Sykes Cemetery in Decatur. Amos McKinney was a black soldier in the integrated 1st Alabama Cavalry U.S.A., a Union soldier who fought for his country and his freedom, but until July his grave had no marker. The service was very moving and the song around his grave powerfully emotional. Amos’ relatives came from other states to pay their respects. During the ceremony I wistfully thought of my own relative in the 1st Alabama who reportedly also had no grave marker. His name was James F. M. Raley.
James was born in Morgan County in 1827. His grandfather, Charles Raley, was a Revolutionary War veteran from SC who brought the family to Morgan County just several years before James was born. His father Owen obtained a patent for 40 acres near Roundtop in Cedar Plains in 1833. In July 1862 Colonel Abel Streight of the 51st Indiana Infantry made his well-known recruiting expedition into Morgan and Winston counties and visited the home of James’ aunt Sarah Raley Davis. Chris Sheets spoke, and Streight left with 150 recruits for the 1st, including some of the Davis family. The following May after the nearby Battle of Day’s Gap, in which members of the 1st fought, James’ first cousin Lucinda Raley Davis cared for 16 wounded Union soldiers including a commanding officer who died in her home. That month James and his brother William enlisted in the 1st and left for war.
James had married Martha Ford in 1855 and had young children, while William was still single. James joined the nearby Cedar Plains Christian Church in 1863, and Martha never did. He was listed as “missing in action” in Oct 1863 and returned to duty in January. His enlistment expired and both brothers mustered out. But their first cousin Charles Washington Pitt’s Southern Claims Commission claim shows that James could not get back home. He was with “Wash” Pitt in Limestone County, unable to safely return. I wonder if he was able to get back to his family after the Union occupation of Decatur in 1864, but I can imagine that a discharged Union soldier would not have been safe at home in rural Morgan County.
After the war both brothers returned to farming at the home place. William married Rebecca Roden and they also raised a family. Together they joined the Cedar Plains Christian Church in 1869. These two families were neighbors in the 1870 census. In 1872 James’and Martha’s daughter Martha married James Bryan and they also lived nearby.
But then for some unknown reason, James and Martha Raley moved west, leaving his mother, his brother’s family, and daughter Martha Bryan and grandchildren behind. They certainly were not the first family to go west. However, since James was the oldest son, one wonders why they left. The land was owned by his mother who was remarried to a widowed uncle. Did he think his prospects were limited? Was there a rift in the family? Did it have anything to do with his wife’s and children’s Cherokee ancestry?
Martha Ford was born in 1832 in Tennessee. If she was Cherokee or part Cherokee, her parents had avoided the Indian Removal of 1838 along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. I don’t know how long she lived in Alabama, but after 20 years of married life in Morgan County she and James moved to Pt. Remove in Conway County, Arkansas, where they were in the 1880 census. Their great-granddaughter once said they got off the train there because they ran out of money, and that James once made a deal for land in the Indian Territory but “some lawyer beat him out of it”. Their granddaughter reportedly threw the papers in the fire.
After his mother Ann Wallace’s death back home in 1889, James is said to have written inquiring about the distribution of her land. Probate records show Ann’s will written the year before she died left the land to “my beloved William” whose extended family had remained on the farm. James and Martha lived some years in Arkansas, and two daughters married Woodall men. Then they moved to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. In 1896 Martha and one son Franklin Madison Raley applied under the Dawes Commission for Cherokee tribal recognition but were rejected.
After 50 years of marriage, unusual in that time, Martha died in 1906 in Vian, Sequoyah County, Oklahoma. James lived afterwards with their daughter Minerva and continued to draw his Union pension. They were renters in nearby Sallisaw, Oklahoma, and he was in his 90s when he died in 1919. The famous Sequoyah, crafter of the Cherokee syllabary, the first written Cherokee language, had moved to Sallisaw in 1825. His cabin is a museum in Sallisaw today. Fifty miles up the road is Tahlequah, the capital then and now of the Cherokee Nation. Within this same county is Cherokee Landing State Park, the sad terminus of the Trail of Tears.
Two days after I attended Amos McKinney’s service, I too went west on vacation with my husband and children. When I realized we would be returning via I-40 through Sallisaw, Oklahoma, I immediately wanted to visit the Drakestand cemetery off Dwight Mission Road where James F. M. Raley and Minerva Woodall were said to be buried. The AAA Tour Book told me that Dwight Mission operated as a mission to the Cherokees at Vian for over a hundred years. Rootsweb online said that the cemetery was deeded to the county by the Cherokee Nation in 1914 and that I would find it only 1 and ½ miles off the interstate. It also said that “Jas Raley” and his daughter Minerva Woodall were buried there. Since it gave that form of his name and his specific birth and death dates I thought I would perhaps find a headstone after all, and I was earnestly looking forward to sending a photograph of it to the 1st Alabama Cavalry webmaster to be recognized with the others, including his brother William’s at Roundtop Cemetery.
But after searching the cemetery assisted by my husband and daughter, I sadly concluded that their graves were unmarked, although I noticed other Government-issued soldiers’ markers and also some fascinating Cherokee names such as Chuculate. I left only with photos of the cemetery and the surrounding farmland and the distinct impression that this part of Oklahoma looks a lot like Morgan County and East Tennessee, which is perhaps why some Cherokees emigrated there before the Removal. I also left convinced as to why James and Martha came here: Surely the family story that Martha was Native American was true.
I should have remembered this is how it goes with old cemeteries. I wanted to find his marker and pay my respects and contribute to the recognition program. But of course I did pay my respects just by going there. And like Amos, James was paid a visit by a relative from another state. So the marker and its missing photo must remain a good idea of what ought to be, and this small tribute a grave song for the old soldier from Alabama.
Database created and maintained by Ryan Dupree.
Service records compiled by Glenda Todd and used with her permission. This and other information about the history of the First and the men who fought with the unit
can be found in her book, First Alabama Cavalry, USA: Homage to Patriotism.
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