Born near Sumter, South Carolina, in 1804, Sarah Haynsworth Gayle moved to Alabama in 1810 with her family, settling near present-day Mt. Vernon before moving to Claiborne. The area was virtually a frontier with few educational opportunities. Her education was only elementary level at St. Stephens Academy.
In 1819 as Alabama became a state, she married John Gayle, a jurist and politician. They had eight children; two were stillborn. Her life revolved around caring for the children while John was absent for extended periods. The Gayles moved from Claiborne in the early 1820s, then to Cahaba, then to Greensboro. Most of their lives they lived on the brink of financial disaster while John rescued his improvident, unemployed brother.
Sarah dealt with her emotional needs in Greensboro by building a network of women to support her during John’s absences and by keeping a journal that was a detailed commentary on daily life in l9th century Alabama. Her insatiable reading supplemented her meager education.
The 1833 legislature insisted that the governor reside in the capital city, and Sarah and the children moved with John to Tuskaloosa, for the remainder of Sarah’s life. There she encountered the wild behavior of students accustomed to freedom of life in the Old Southwest, and she built a new network of women to support her during John’s absences.
John was increasingly absorbed in his political career and more absent while Sarah grew increasingly isolated. Her life became one of repeatedly waiting for John to return home. She suffered in silence and shrank from confronting him about her loneliness. He was absent when she died of lockjaw in 1835. The children’s grief bewildered him, and he left to others the role of comforter.
The journal of Sarah Gayle stands alone as a personal window into the world of a young mother in Alabama in the decades immediately after Alabama attained statehood, providing historians with information available nowhere else. It is one of the most widely studied and seminal accounts of antebellum life in the American South.