Tuesday’s Tip: Using Diaries in Your Family History

This entry was posted by Jim Sanders on Tuesday, 30 April, 2013 at

It was Christmas Eve in Oxford, Connecticut and it snowed dreadfully. John, the first born of John and Jane Doe was born on that fateful day in 1856. How would you like to be able to describe the day when one of your ancestors was born?

Not everyone is going to have a 18th or 19th century diary written by their ancestors or even a close relative. Even if you do not have access to a diary of your ancestors, it is possible a diary of a neighbor or someone living in the same town is available today. In the Diary of Laura Davis transcribed by Oxford, Connecticut’s historian Dorothy DeBisschop it describes the weather of most days at the start of each entry. It did indeed snow dreadfully on December 24th, 1856 in Oxford, Connecticut at least according to Laura’s diary.

Here in Connecticut and New England in general, the vital records that were kept and survive today are very good. However in some areas such as upstate New York vital records started very late. Even after vital record keeping started, it was not always reported and there may be gaps. Diary entries may be the only mention about a particular date to a birth, marriage or death.

Here are just a few vital records contained within the Laura Davis Diary mentioned above;

  • Nov 2, 1856: Charles son of Bennett Scoville died aged 6 months
  • Nov 7, 1856: Daughter of Cyrus Sanford burned to death
  • Dec 9, 1856: Lyman Johnson buried
  • Dec 18, 1856: Orlando Cables died
  • Dec 19, 1856: Henry, son of George De Forest, drowned in Falls Pond, Seymour
  • Dec 29, 1856: Mrs. Henry Church gave birth to a son
  • Dec 31, 1856: Henry son of Mrs. Harison Tomilinson (sic) died

These are the vital records from just two months of her diary. If you can find the diary from someone in the same town at the same time period as your ancestor lived, it may just provide that hidden piece of data you’ve been looking for. You can also glimpse into daily life of the townsfolk; attending festivals and learning about the relationships of friends and neighbors and perhaps see a mention of your own ancestor in a neighbor’s diary.

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you to search for a diary from the time and place your ancestor came from, where would these hidden genealogy nuggets be found? Here are a few places to start your quest to find that diary.

  • The local historical society:
  • Most areas will have a local or county historical society where diaries of it’s citizens would be stored in their archives. The state archives or library may only be interested in prominent citizens of the state and thus a diary of a common citizen may be more likely to be archived at the local level.

  • The local town historian:
  • Find out who the local town historian is and contact them. They are most likely working very closely with the local historical society, but they may have further information and insight into where some local diaries may be kept.

  • The state historical society or state archives:
  • Although the diary of a common person may be more commonly archived at the local level, don’t overlook the possibility that a diary you’re interested in is stored at the state level.

  • Academic Libraries:
  • Find out what major colleges or universities are close to the town where your ancestor lived. Contact the college library to see if they have diaries in their archives.

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