Old Family Letters, Diaries, and Journals

I used to teach genealogy community classes in my area a few years back. I will never forget when one of the students came in with a newly found journal written by one of her ancestors.

Genealogy and Family Tree RecordsThis dear lady, in her fifties, held it to her chest like a schoolgirl would hold her diary after a big date with her sweetheart. Her journal was a record of early settlers here in the Southern U.S. There were even drawings of the temporary homes that they built. It was fascinating. I remember that the crude but sturdy "lean-to" home even had a women's touch of carefully arranged curtains.

To prove a point I asked her, "How much would you take for that book?" Her answer was, "NO amount." It was no secret to the class. This record was priceless to her. And rightly so, they were her ancestors.

Old letters, diaries, and journals are my favorite part of genealogical research. They can give you valuable clues of where to look next. They can provide you with missing pieces of your puzzle as you, the family detective, continue your quest to find the answers you need and want.

But what I enjoy the most is finding out the personal side of my ancestors. As researchers, we gather names, dates, and places to further our progress. These wonderful intimate records are a true treasure if you can find them. To date, I have not had much luck with these records for my side of the family.

My wife Ellen however, comes from a letter writing family. She was born in Indiana and comes from Quaker stock. Her late Aunt Elizabeth was the family historian and collected family letters and diaries over the years.

I would like to share a few examples from these records: Appreciation for our progenitors is ageless. In this excerpt, E. H. Reed writes to his father and sister reflecting on his grandmother:

March 25, 1928 "I stop and think quite often, of the difference between my life and Grandmother Mason's. And it makes me glad that I live now instead of 75 years ago. I don't think that I would have the courage to carry on under the conditions that she had to face. She and you leave a heritage of courage under difficulties that are more valuable than much gold.I met a woman not long ago who was left with, I believe three children and a fair sized equity in a nice home. She complained bitterly of her lot. She spoke enviously of others who had more than she. She was a whiner. And I thanked my ancestors that I came from sterner stuff."

Some of our ancestors were very diligent in keeping diaries of their everyday activities:

A week in the life of Aunt Maggie - September 1889:
  • Sept. 23 "I went to town with apples. Phebe worked on carriage and buggy. When I got home I helped her. Cora had pot pie for dinner."
  • Sept. 24 "Worked on carriage and buggy. Eddie topped corn."
  • Sept. 25 "I went to town with apples. We finished the buggy. Cora had nice beef soup for dinner."
  • Sept. 26 "Father, Phebe, Emerson and I went to meeting. Father and Phebe went home. Looked like rain. I forgot to say I started to town at 4 o'clock; then P. And Cora spurred up and did quite a large wash while I was gone and made ½ gallon grape butter."
  • Sept. 27 "We dug the potatoes, plowed them with big plow. Eva Moore spent the day here. She and Cora borrowed Smith's harness and Jinirie's spring wagon."
  • Sept. 28 "I gathered most of a load of apples, 9 bu. Cold out in short time. Got a new gray cloth dress for Cora. Eddie finished picking and putting away the potatoes."
  • Sept. 29 "All went to first day school and meeting. After dinner I called at Josaphines. She went with me to Grays. Cora and Annie Mason soon came. Cora, Emerson and I went to Andrews to get glasses and medicine for my eyes. It rained. Johnnie tied the lantern under the wagon and we got home between showers nicely."

I have a question for you about Aunt Maggie's entries…What is missing? We have about three years worth of her diary. It is all very much like the week shown here. Re-read events from those seven days and think about it– what is missing?

The answer: MORE DETAILS!

There are so many unanswered questions, but don't misunderstand.
We are very happy to have a copy of her diary - but how we wish she had elaborated a little more.

-What town did she sell apples in? What was the town like?

-I have heard of apple butter, but how do you make grape butter?

-What was Cora's reaction when she got her new gray dress?

-What was the sermon about in the Church meeting?

-Was anything interesting said during her visits later that day?

Keep this in mind when you write in your own diary or journal. Make sure that you write the details!

The next example shows great feeling and insight. This letter tells the kind of story that will be passed down for generations to come:

From a letter from Elizabeth M. Minnich to Flora Mason:

June 16, 1922 "Mother has told me she remembered great grandfather Mason (Benjamin) well and grandfather George that she thought so much of a fine and temperate man. He died in his 50's from the effects of a heavy cold he contracted. He was getting over it - a man was out in the field plowing with one, if not two young horses and had gotten into trouble. Grandfather went out to him to help him out of his difficulties and stayed longer than he intended. Took an added cold and lived only a little over two months - an aggravated bronchial trouble developing.

Brother George says he remembers him taking him and Annie in his arms - bidding them goodbye and saying "dear little things." George also says this grandfather made an impressive temperance on his mind that he never forgot it. Might have been the spring before he died but it was in "fish hauling" season. A drunken man fell out of his wagon and the wheel had run over his neck and he was dead - the horse standing there.

Grandfather took little George by the hand when he ran down there and said, "George, bad whiskey killed this man. He fell out and the wheel ran over him. Don't ever drink nor let any one else make thee drink." That was a lesson he never forgot."

Here are some special stories shared with me in response to part one of the above article:

"After reading some of the diary entries, I wanted to share something. My grandmother passed away in 1990, unfortunately, my grandfather was taken from us the following year. His great grandfather kept a log of a ship he was on. After he came home from sea, his wife took over the book. In it are daily entries from the 1870's. Such as "it was sunny today, E went to meeting." My sister and I read this with fascination and began to feel as if we knew this woman personally. She also used the book to record birthdays and death dates. Along with some locks of hair from her children. So this book became known to us as the "hair book"! I decided to decipher the names, because there was no reference as to how they were related to her. When I went to Middleboro, MA (where they are from) and found them all in the town records, they truly became family to me. I now cherish the "hair" book more than ever. These people came to life for me." (Nancy Caswell)

"My mother, who passed away in 1981, would not allow any of us 13 children to say the word "HATE". She thought the word was too vulgar to use. She would tap our lips if we said the word. Even today I tell people to think when you say you hate something. It always made sense to me…" (Lou Seymour)