Reading an ancestor’s journal

Several years ago, I came across a copy of my great-great grandmother’s journal. My great great grandmother’s name was Emma Tilton Richards and she lived in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. The journal was kept from 1888 to 1902. In 1933, someone had transcribed the original diary on a typewriter and then later someone else made photocopies of the typewritten version. A few weeks ago, I asked to borrow this copy of the journal so that I could copy it over into a Word document. I know that scanning the journal and using some sort of free OCR (optical character recognition) technology might be faster, but it would possibly be less accurate, and frankly, more boring. I enjoy the immersion experience that re-keying the journal provides.

So far I’ve copied through April 1888. In the journal, Emma and her family (husband Frank and five kids, plus Frank’s parents who live with them) often seem to embody the expected vision of hardworking, rural New England life. Frank spends the first few months of 1888 packing the region’s apples into train cars to be shipped to New York City and elsewhere. In the early spring, the oldest son, Prescott, collects sap from a tree on their property and they make maple syrup. Emma’s mother-in-law seems to be regularly making pies, cakes and fried doughnuts. They ride about in sleighs.

"It'll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives."

“It’ll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives.”

At the same time, between the children and the adults, someone is usually not feeling well. And Emma shares in the universal woes of parents everywhere, as she expresses in one entry: “This has been one of the days I’ve accomplished nothing. The children have all stayed indoors.” They also must contend with the great blizzard of 1888:

[Tues., Mar. 13 1888] Wind blows fearfully all the time. We are drifted in completely; between the house and barn drifts higher than a man’s head and in front of the house it is so high that we cannot see out unless we look through the upper sash. The roads look as though we should not see many travellers at present.

[Fri., Mar. 16, 1888] Pleasant. Grandpa has walked to the village this P.M. but no mails in yet – only as they have been brought by hand. General blockade of business all over N.E. and York State – even as far So. as Washington the storm was quite severe.

[Sat., Mar. 17, 1888] Pleasant and not very cold. Mother baked bread, and ginger snaps and fried doughnuts. Grandpa walked to the village again this P.M. One team passed here today that had been all day coming from Conway. Frank came tonight giving us all a surprise. Left his horse in Huntington. He was blocked in Chester Hill until Thurs. P.M.

Emma’s life was touched by tragedy early on (before the time of the journal) when the Mill River flood of 1874 claimed the lives of a younger brother and her maternal grandmother. And in November of 1890, her nine-month-old baby Ruby died after a period of sickness. Though I haven’t copied over that part of the journal yet, I have read it. The journal goes silent after Nov. 9, 1890 and does not resume until Dec. 1st, when Emma then writes a long, sad entry about Ruby’s death. The sadness of the entry stands out especially because Emma’s ‘voice’ in the journal, while never unemotional, generally tends to stay very New England practical. Here is an excerpt of that entry:

“. . . I kept thinking she would better if we could only keep her strength up – so Mon. morn the 24” I wrote to mother that Prescott and Ruby seemed better. But Ruby breathed her last at about 10 o’c that A.M. . . . She has gone up higher. The medicine did not work on her at all as the Dr. hoped it would, and I do not know as any human power could have saved her.

I know “it is well with the child,” but seems as though the lonesomeness and heartache would kill me. She had grown to be so lively and pretty. She would put both little hands on my face and kiss and love me and say mam- mam, mam –

We all felt fairly stunned by the blow, but we went about making ready for the funeral. Grandpa took Mr. Sanderson’s horse and drove to Conway & Frank went to Florence to get a casket and to make other arrangements. Mrs. Sanderson came up with things needful to do some baking.

Grandma washed Ruby and laid her out. I stood by and held her head and gave her the clothes. Then I made up the cradle clean and mother put her in and we carried her into my entry where it was cool.”

Re-reading the above journal entry is even more moving now that I’ve been copying over the journal, because I feel quite familiar with and fond of my ancestor, her family, and her neighbors.

As a way to experience history, reading this journal has been a fascinating portal into late 19th century American life. I probably would be faster at copying over the entries if I didn’t keep stopping to research some term, event or person online. I’ve learned that the apples they harvested were likely dominated by the Baldwin variety, which was very popular at the time. Emma proudly mentions opening up a barrel of Baldwins with “not a decayed one to be seen.” The variety waned in popularity during the early 20th century and then a hard winter wiped out most of the great Baldwin orchards in the 1930’s, though it is a variety that still exists today. My dad, who has cultivated apple trees, said he had a Baldwin once.

The Prohibition movement is mentioned several times – I know Emma mentions a rally, and I think in 1889 she mentions that there is a vote on the issue for the Massachusetts state constitution. Nearby Smith College was still quite a new institution and is referenced a number of times in the journal. A minister mentioned in passing – a Mr. Thorndike – was likely, based on time and place, the father of Edward Thorndike, a man I hadn’t heard of before but who is apparently considered a pioneer in the field of educational psychology.

Delving into this journal has been an exciting project – to the readers out there, have you also come across an ancestor’s diary or letters? What cool things have you learned by reading them?


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11 responses to “Reading an ancestor’s journal

  1. What a wonderful and fascinating find! And such an amazing experience for you to be copying it out and reliving it all at some level. None of my ancestors was the least bit interesting or committed the least bit of thought to the archive!

  2. piningforthewest

    You have what sounds like an absolute treasure of social history there. I’m sure it would be of interest to lots of people.

  3. debbierodgers

    I would love to make such a discovery in my family, but I doubt that happening. Please keep us “in the loop” as to your g-g-grandmother’s story as you transcribe it – and we can enjoy vicariously!

  4. I’m so envious! I’ve never encountered anything like that in my own family. Will you keep on posting excerpts as you’re transcribing?

  5. I read this soon after you posted it, but I didn’t have time to post a reply at the time.

    Thank you so much for posting this; it’s beautiful and joyous and sad all at once. How wonderful for you to have this link to your past. I do hope you’ll blog more about your experience as you go.

    I have always been very interested in my family’s history, but none of my forbears seem to have been the writing sort…or at least nothing they may have written down has survived. I’m always wondering and daydreaming about them and would love this sort of opportunity to get to know them better on some level.

  6. litlove – I was quite thrilled when I found it and still have that feeling. This particular branch of the family seems to have done a pretty good job of keeping track of themselves. It seems to be have been important for them to keep up the family record.

    pining – I have been thinking I should find out if Williamsburg has a local historian. I’m sure we could have a mutually beneficial exchange of information.

    debbie – I was surprised that a number of my relatives did not know about this journal’s existence, but I think this was due to the fact that for a while there was just the single typewritten copy but then someone took it upon themselves to make a few xeroxed copies. One of my aims for this project is to distribute the journal even more broadly among the family.

    Jenny – I think I probably will share some more excerpts – there were some I almost included in the above post, but didn’t want to make the post too long. But I’m happy that the journal seems to be interesting to other people and that encourages me both in the project and to blog some more about it in the future!

    Candiss – Thanks so much for taking the time to come back and comment! The part of genealogy that interests me is what you mention – the desire to get to know my ancestors as people, beyond their date of birth and date of death, and how many children they had.

  7. Pingback: Excerpts from my ancestor’s journal (Spring and Summer 1888) | A Good Stopping Point

  8. Nan

    When you say you ‘came across’ the journal – do you mean another relative had it? I am just fascinated. The part about the baby was heart-wrenching. I am so glad you are sharing this.

    • Oh, I mean it was in my grandmother’s house – I think it was sitting on a box or a stack of books. When I saw it again this year, it was by my grandmother’s armchair, as she was reading it sometimes. My mom has since found other xeroxed copies in my grandmother’s house, which means I can borrow the copy I have for a while if I want, which is nice.

      Regarding the baby, I have since found a picture of Emma Richards’ gravestone online and it has Ruby’s name on the stone as well. I might be able to visit the cemetery myself later this month. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  9. I am writing a novel about the Mill River flood (historical fiction) and happened upon your blog post! Fascinating! Did Emma stay in Williamsburg after the flood? I am sure the Williamsburg Historical Society would be very interested in seeing/hearing about this! Wow!

    I am assuming from her name that Emma’s father was Henry Tilton and the brother she lost was Willie; Sarah Snow was the mother-in-law Henry was not able to save. This information comes from one of my main sources about the flood – Elizabeth Sharpe’s “In the Shadow of the Dam” – do you know it?

    I live in Western Massachusetts near Williamsburg. Do you have an address for where she was living? I can see what I can find out!

    What a wonderful find. I loved reading the excerpts you’ve given. I’d love to be in touch! (heatherrichard (at) gmail (dot) com). Thank you for sharing this!!

    Here’s the link to Willie’s grave:

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