Using Diaries, Journals & Ledgers to Complement Your Family History Research

I am always envious of those who have family letters, diaries and journals which give firsthand accounts of their daily lives. While I have many photographs (for which I am very thankful), I have little in the way of family papers.

While many researchers don’t have access to family diaries, assuming they ever even existed, it is still possible to learn much about the ways of life of our ancestors in specific time periods. It’s not likely that research will uncover a diary relating to our own families – not impossible, but chances are slim.

However, locating diaries and journals written by others during certain events, like a westward migration in the 1800s or daily life during the Civil War in the South, is a definite possibility if one knows where to look.

The first place to research would be local libraries and historical societies in your town, county or state of interest, particularly if those repositories are on or near a major migration trail.

Some diaries remain in their original manuscript form and would have to be searched in person at a repository. Others might actually have been published in book form and perhaps even microfilmed. A few of these diaries are available to read online. The good thing is that the online collection is growing slowly.

Where should you begin your online research? I always recommend a visit to the FamilySearch wiki, which is fabulous. You need to determine where and when your family immigrated or migrated to decide where you might find possible diary collections. The wiki is a great learning resource with multiple links to find further information:

FamilySearch – Research Wiki has a page about U.S. Migration Trails and Roads

Most of the online resources are either to government-held repositories to libraries, archives and historical societies. Unless you are already knowledgeable about the migratory paths your ancestral families took, I would recommend beginning your research at the local level where the family was living and then expand your search to the county, state and federal levels.

Locating business ledgers is a bit more tedious, as many are held at the local level. It will take more digging, but results are worth the time.

Local Level – A public library, private library or historical society would be most likely to house diaries and family papers. If there is a local genealogical society which publishes a newsletter or magazine, you might find excerpts of diaries along with information about the current owner at the time of publication. If your family had a strong religious affiliation and a member might have kept a library, there is a slim chance that a local church might even have information, but success there would be rare.

County Level – Again, public and private libraries and historical societies are your best bets for locating materials.

State Level – Check your state library and/or state archives for diary collections, along with university/college libraries in addition to regional libraries (like the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston).

National Level – The Library of Congress and National Archives

Here are links to some online resources:

American Memory, which is part of the Library of Congress, has multiple links relating to the Westward Expansion and diaries and letters preserved from that era.

Antique Journals and Handwriting Online – includes practice in reading old handwriting

Diaries and Journals of the American Civil War

Diary File

Historical Diaries & Journals Online

History Matters

Kansas Historic Trails

Letters from Forgotten Ancestors – This collection relates to Tennessee families.

Mormon Trails Association

Oregon-California Trails Association

Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869

University of California, Berkeley – Letters, Diaries and Papers

Utah State University – Historical Diaries

There are quite a few books available providing bibliographic lists of diaries – too many to include in this post or it would turn into a book itself. Here are just a few:

Arksey, Laura, Nancy Pries and Marcia Reed, American Diaries: An Annotated Bibliography of Published American Diaries and Journals, 2 volumes, Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research, 1983-1986.

Goodfriend, Joyce D. The Published Diaries and Letters of American Women: An Annotated Bibliography.Boston: G.K. Hall, 1987.

Schlissel, Lillian. Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey. New York: Schocken Books, 1992.

Lastly, remember that some diaries might be catalogued under manuscripts. Check the National Union Catalog, Manuscript Collections (NUCMC).

Some of these books may be difficult to find. Because these titles are a bit more scholarly in nature, they will probably be listed in WorldCat, so you can determine if a copy is housed near where you live.

2 thoughts on “Using Diaries, Journals & Ledgers to Complement Your Family History Research”

  1. Great advice. Original sources like this help give us context and also an idea of the cadence of our ancestors’ speech etc. And you never know who might get mentioned if you find a diary from an area where your ancestors lived 🙂

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