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Historical Journals & Diaries Online

©2005 by aisling d'art

Are you fascinated by old diaries and journals? I am. The handwriting can be challenging, and the spelling was irregular through the end of the 19th century. However, these voices from the past are compelling and highlight the importance of telling our individual stories in our journals and diaries.

Here are some historical diaries that can be read online:

  • Martha Ballard's Diary, features over 10,000 entries--from January 1, 1785 to May 12, 1812--in her own handwriting. It's not always easy to read, but the diary is nevertheless a remarkable history.

    Martha was a New England midwife who began keeping a daily journal, at first just notes about the weather, when she was 50 years old. Her story inspired the movie, The Midwife's Tale, and her original journals are now kept at the Maine State Library.

  • Michael Shiner's Diary tells the story of a slave who, in 1832, rescued his wife and three children when they were sold to slave traders in Virginia. Only a few pages of his journal are online, but the story is rich with emotion as he does his best to simply state the facts.

    There are other handwritten diaries and letters, and related documents at the Library of Congress' African American Odyssey.

  • The Diary of Anita Dwyer Withers 1860 - 1865 has been transcribed and it has only a few entries, but the author's voice is compelling as she writes of everyday events and how the war affected her family in San Antonio, Texas.

    The Diary of Belle Edmonson, January - November 1864 is another transcribed diary of a 24-year-old Tennessee woman during the war.

    Her faith in the victory of the South was evident in July when she wrote, "I wrote to Shallie Kirk today, the 7th. Tenn and McDonald's Bat'n have orders to move on an hour's notice, the Yanks are very strong in numbers - but God will bless us and crown us with Victory, save our poor boys from privation and danger."

    Later, I found it very moving when she noted on November 17th, "My 24th. birth day - I wonder if any one thought of me at home." By that point, her diary entries were brief and sparse.

  • However, by far the most colorful diary is A Diary from Dixie, as Written by Mary Boykin Chesnut, 1859-1861. If you can only skim one of these transcribed diaries, hers is a must-see.

    There are additional voices of men and women in diaries (listed under "D" for diaries) at Documenting the American South, a project of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

  • Women's Studies, at the University of Pennsylvania offers several 19th and early 20th century diaries by women in the Northeast. My favorites at that website include the 1857-58 diaries of Elizabeth Cowperthwaite, who alternately talks about her interest in writing, and then worries about whether she should (or ever will) marry. Her handwriting is difficult to read at times, but she's clearly talking to herself about several issues that were probably very challenging for an independent-minded woman in her era.
  • Prairie Settlement - Nebraska Photographs and Family Letters present a wealth of handwritten letters that serve as a kind of diary of Mattie Oblinger who--after successfully delivering three daughters in earlier years--died in childbirth along with her infant son in 1880.

    Her husband moved to Minnesota where he married Laura, whose letters are also at this website. With photos to that provide us with faces of these people, the lives of these two women--as told through their letters--become especially real.

  • Camping with the Sioux: Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher may be one of the most complete, fascinating, and enjoyable women's historical journals online. Ms. Fletcher was an unmarried anthropologist who, at age 43, spent six weeks with the Sioux. Her journals include sketches and photographs that bring the past vividly to life.
  • Other online historical diary collections include Library of Western Fur Trade Historical Source Documents, mostly books and journals by the mountain men, but also a few transcribed pages from the Diary of Mrs. Eliza Spalding, June 15 - July 6, 1836 and the Letters and Journal of Mrs. Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, 1836

Future online diary projects include the University of Wales' plans to digitise the 26-year diaries of William Bulkeley, who described everything from the weather to his daughter's marriage to a pirate in the mid-18th century.

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