Once upon a time, acquiring access to a personal correspondence collection required an in-person visit to a specialized library, state archive, or a national depository. Diaries and Letters give a first person account of daily life, and divulge an individual’s circle of friends, chores, schedules, thoughts, and to various degrees – feelings.
This type of research has its pitfalls. While many letters, diaries, and other personal correspondence have been digitized and record a sender and receiver, the genealogical hidden in each document are uncovered by personally reading each item carefully. Understandably, this is a time intensive project for researchers, but the availability of these collections online make up for the time spent traveling to browse items in person.
Let’s take a look at a few of the online archives which feature digital diaries and letters:
Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org)
The personal diary of Sam Kimble, a resident of Manhattan, Kansas is a highly readable account of daily life on the turn of the century prairie. Kimble describes the weather, crops, livestock, town life, local politics, as well as the tasks of building a home and attending to household matters.
Kimble even found time to paste a picture of his ideal finished home ‘Castle Kimble’ in his diary entry for Thursday, May 17, 1894
The diary of Caroline Belcher Abbott chronicles life in the area around Kennebec County, Maine from 1834-1859. Some of her entries are very short, no more than one line about events that happened during the day. Others are a few paragraphs, describing her visits to Boston, and the people, places and information she acquired during those trips. As an interesting note, the sabbath days are clearly marked and noted in her writings.
The diary pages are photocopied from the original document, but the the contents make for an engrossing read. Coker documents fever outbreaks, prayer services, visits to individuals and families, and daily reflections of his missionary work. The script is flowing and relatively easy to read, but due to the nature of the photocopy job, the side margins where Coker placed notes and additions are sadly garbled.
The Iowa Digital Library hosts a collection of 20 handwritten letters and diaries of Civil War veterans. Spanning a period from 1862-1960, this collection offers large, readable images of original items. The interface, which allows users to pan around a page or download each item to a computer. One of the best features is the ‘Text’ tab, which allows you to read the page side by side with a typed transcription. If you’re interested in solving a mystery, there are two diaries which are listed as ‘Author unknown’. You can read them here:
Tuesday 26 Started at 5 AM in a dense fog. Lost the road going to far to the left went 10 miles out of the way & had to come back Capt pd (paid) Spaniard $2,50 to pilot us to right road went through the canon to Rancho Del Charro. & camped, Travailed 35 miles to day Wednesday 27 Broke a box in one of the wagon hubs and (Vertically, from bottom left:-) Distance to day 21 miles. no good water
Auburn University in Alabama also has an excellent collection of digitized Civil War diaries. Using the same interface as the University of Iowa’s digital library, Auburn’s collection also contains an unattributed Federal Soldier’s Diary (1862-1863). According to the description, the is dairy believed to have been written by a soldier of the 44th Massachusetts from December 11, 1862 to February 8, 1863. The early pages of the diary include numbers of casualties, for the Battle of Kinton on Dec. 14, 1862, and an account of the solder’s wartime activities.
If you need help deciphering American handwriting, I recommend Reading Early American Handwriting by Kip Sperry. However, if you’re looking for an online tutorial in paleographic exercises in general, I also recommend The National Archives’ practical online tutorial on Palaeography: reading old handwriting 1500 – 1800, and Bringham Young University’s online Script Tutorials.
What online diary collections are you looking to find? Share your thoughts and ideas in then comment section!
See you at the Library!