Reading diaries from the place and time of your ancestors will help you to glean details about what their daily life was like. Diaries offer a personal glimpse into the past. Your ancestor may not necessarily be mentioned in a published diary, but you can learn about their community and its people, which will allow you to place your family history into its social history context. While some diaries may be filled with seemingly trivial and mundane entries, others offer insight into the daily lives and social customs of the times. Social events may be described in detail from a personal perspective, and the writer might offer opinions on religious and political movements of the day.
Where can you find diaries? Many organizations are digitizing their collections and offering them online either as digitized images or as transcriptions. If you want to look beyond the Internet, many academic libraries and historical societies are recipients of donations of family papers. Some of these organizations maintain a catalog of holdings online. Contacting libraries and societies in your area of interest just might net a bonus for you, a diary written by someone who lived in your ancestor’s community.
Bibliographies in book form to help you search for published diaries from the time and place where your ancestors lived:
American Diaries: An Annotated Bibliography of Published American Diaries by Laura Arksey
New England Diaries, 1602-1800 by Harriette Forbes
The Published Diaries and Letters of American Women by Joyce Goodfriend
Articles on the Internet
What to Do with a Diary You Have Found: This article from DoHistory.org talks about the proper way to handle a delicate diary.
Making Sense of Letters and Diaries: Author Steven Stowe offers a thorough explanation of the use of diaries in research and writing.
How to Research Old Diaries & Personal Journals for Genealogy: Mary Harrell-Sesniak’s guest post on the GenealogyBank blog gives examples of how your ancestors’ diaries and journals are invaluable to your family history research.
Below is but a sampling of the vast inventory of transcribed and digitized diaries available online. They are offered here as examples to help you search for diaries that will help you on your own genealogy journey.
Letters from an American Farmer: Online text of the book by J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur. Published in 1782, these letters paint a vivid portrait of early American life from a seafaring life in New England to plantation culture in the South.
The Diaries of George Washington: This website includes a discussion of the writings of George Washington as well as a link to the scanned images of the actual diaries.
Martha Ballard’s Diary – The Story of a Maine Midwife in the 18th Century: Explore the process of piecing together the lives of ordinary people of the past with the case study of Martha Ballard, a midwife in eighteenth-century Massachusetts. The website includes an abundance of tips to turn scattered fragments into a story.
From the Diary of Ebenezer Denny describing the surrender at Yorktown 1781: Ebenezer Denny, of Pennsylvania, was a major in the Continental Army. His journal offers perhaps the best eyewitness account of the capture of British General Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, which was the last major battle of the war.
Recollections of an Old Soldier: The Life of Captain David Perry: Transcription of the diary of Captain David Perry, a soldier of the French and Revolutionary Wars. The diary includes details of his own private life as well as some interesting events in the history of the times in which he lived.
Letters and notes on the manners and customs of the North American Indians: An online transcription of a book first published in London in 1844 containing letters about Indians in the western territories.
Diaries, Memoirs, Letters and Reports Along the Trails West: Links to dozens of online diary transcriptions written during the 1800s.
First Person Narratives of the American South: The Documenting the American South project is an initiative of the University of North Carolina. Included in the online collection are letters, memoirs, autobiographies, and other writings by slaves, laborers, women, aristocrats, soldiers, and officers that provide a southern perspective on American history and culture.
Library of Western Fur Trade Historical Source Documents: These diaries, narratives, and letters are accounts of the Rocky Mountain fur trade during the first half of the nineteenth century. Most are either primary or secondary historical sources; that is, either written by or as told by those who were actually there.
Cornelius C. Platter Civil War Diary 1864-1865: Transcription of the diary of Lt. (later Capt.) Cornelius C. Platter of the 81st Ohio Infantry Volunteers. Platter’s diary details Sherman’s march through Georgia from Rome to Savannah and the march north through the Carolinas. He gives dates, times, and lengths of marches and describes the weather, locale, scenery, and food as well as orders, rumors, positions, troop morale, and administrative duties. The diary also includes a description of the burning of Columbia, South Carolina, the news of the Confederate surrender, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The website also includes scanned images of the actual diary.
The Narrative of Bethany Veney, a Slave Woman: Electronic transcription of the diary of Bethany Veney. Hers is a story of tragic adventure, endurance under hardship, and religious faith.
Memoirs of World War One: An assortment of links to diaries and a lengthy list of first-hand accounts, many focused on one aspect or battle, written by soldiers of World War I.
A War Nurse’s Diary – Sketches from a Belgian Field Hospital: Online transcription of a diary providing a first-hand account of life at a field hospital during World War I.