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Using Diaries and Journals for Social History

Did your ancestor leave a diary or journal? If you are fortunate to have a prolific writer amongst your ancestors, then you are already familiar with the treasure trove of information these books can contain. Libraries and historical societies with substantial manuscript collections are well worth searching to uncover these gems. Oftentimes, they contain a wealth of social history, giving the reader a slice-of-life view from someone who was there. This information can then lead the reader to other records for further information.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Christine Sweet-Hart
Word Count: 807 (approx.)
Labels: Social Aspect 
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Did your ancestor leave a diary or journal? If you are fortunate to have a prolific writer amongst your ancestors, then you are already familiar with the treasure trove of information these books can contain. Libraries and historical societies with substantial manuscript collections are well worth searching to uncover these gems. Oftentimes, they contain a wealth of social history, giving the reader a slice-of-life view from someone who was there. This information can then lead the reader to other records for further information.

Even if the writer of the diary is not a family member, details of the author's day-to-day life are wonderful snapshots of history. In addition, there is always the chance that your ancestors are mentioned in someone else's diary or journal. Everyday details gleaned from a diary or journal written during the time in which your ancestor lived give flavor to historical writing. I was fortunate to have one such diary given to me for a research project.

The diary painted a portrait of a Massachusetts gentleman, giving the reader an inside view of his life during 1870. The gentleman in question was a traveling merchant who dealt in the leather trade. He was also a deacon at the local Baptist church. Details of his life on the road as well as major life events for the parishioners of his church are plentiful. Many descriptions of life changing events for both the merchant and his parishioners abound. In one touching depiction, while ministering to a dying woman, a conversation is had whereupon the woman remarks that she has had a great life and is ready to meet her maker. She dies the next day and her funeral is attended by a great many friends and relatives, whose names are listed, being that she was "well known and well-liked." I know that if this were my ancestor, I would be thrilled to have the names of friends and relatives of my ancestors. It is this type of information in an uncommon source that leads to the fall of many brick walls in research.

Other vignettes depicted included a party at a Charlestown prison given for an inmate being pardoned after his conviction twenty-two years prior for arson. In addition to listing the convict's name and date of original sentencing, he details the happiness of the convict at being released, the joy of the other prisoners to see one of their own exonerated, and the thoughts of the warden. For the descendents of the convict, this would open up a new path to records, including court and newspaper records detailing the events leading up to the incarceration and upon his release.

Little known meteorological events are also remarked upon. One such event was the Massachusetts earthquake in October 1870 that "scared the children while they were at school." Perhaps this earthquake was covered in the local paper. If the children felt it, perhaps it did damage somewhere else as well. It was newsworthy in itself since Massachusetts is not known for earthquakes and likely was mentioned in the local press.

The day-to-day life of a traveling merchant and religious layperson are so clearly depicted that one can almost feel the energy radiating from him as he catches the trains to cities and towns all over the state to sell his goods and minister to people along the way, dines at hotels and inns, rides horses to local venues, and hires hackney carriages to get where he needs to go. Although busy, he still has time to remember the less fortunate and gives donations to the poor, deaf, and destitute that he passes along his route. He reads the daily paper, gets a shave everyday, snacks on fresh oranges bought from a fruit vendor on the street, and pays a boy to hold his horse outside of an establishment while he conducts a sale inside. For someone looking to write about the life of a traveling merchant, this information is priceless.

His relationship with his family and his personality also shine forth from the pages from the money that he gives to his wife to run the household, his excitement at the birth of his daughter during that year, the importance of a purchase of a birthday present for his son, the enjoyment of a family outing on a Sunday, the thankfulness on his birthday of another year he is given to do the Lord's work and have his family about him, and the strong faith of a man committed to his church.

All these day-in-the-life details are awaiting discovery in manuscripts in libraries around the country. If you are looking to write an authentic story of a historical time period in which your ancestors lived, you would be well served to peruse these gems and take notes. They are a fascinating and underutilized tool in family history research.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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