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Dear Diary: Discovering Your Female Ancestors

by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, CG
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Disovering Hidden Family History
Because tradition and law have until recently focused recordkeeping on male heads-of-household, the details of our female ancestors' lives are often more difficult to find. One possibility for research is the diary, and Sharon DeBartolo Carmack shows you how to find and use these precious documents in your family's history.

Diaries recount for us firsthand what it was like to live during a given time period and at a particular place. If your female ancestor had kept a diary or journal, and it survived the years for you to appreciate, wouldn't you be overcome with joy?

Diaries and Journals

Although the terms have been used interchangeably, diaries tend to record people's feelings, while journals are more likely to enumerate activities and events. Regardless of what you call them, these accounts are the autobiographies of ordinary women like your ancestors, and these may be the only existing records of their personal lives. Along with genealogical data, diaries give you a wonderful glimpse into someone's daily life, thoughts, and attitudes. A diarist may also record her feelings on national events, such as a war or its impact on her, her family, and the community.

Historically, it was more common for women to keep diaries than men, but women tended to do so only during periods of emotional stress: times of war, when they moved away from family and friends, or when they were separated from their spouse (for example, if the husband was out west in search of gold). Some, diaries may have been written with the knowledge that one day they would be read by others, such as with overland travel diaries; these accounts were meant to be shared with those who remained at home.

And where would the worlds of literature and history be without the publication of Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl? Anne Frank was just an ordinary teen; her diary made her famous. This proves that diaries don't have to be written by famous people to be valuable. In fact, the diary your female ancestor may have written will likely contain the routine, the boring, and the mundane. But that's okay. We can read about famous events and people in the newspapers; but we can only learn about an ordinary woman's daily life from her written account.

Women of the Quaker religion were encouraged to keep spiritual journals that were published and shared with other women. There were about three thousand printed before 1725. Howard Brinton's Quaker Journals: Varieties of Religious Experience Among Friends (Wallingford, Pa.: Pendle Hill Publications, 1972) and Luella Wright's Literary Life of the Early Friends, 1650-1725 (New York: Columbia University, 1932) are two invaluable sources if you have Quaker ancestry; these books also list the whereabouts of surviving originals. Be aware, however, that these diaries were edited before they were published; any passages that were contrary to Quaker beliefs were eliminated. (Metta L. Winter, "A Look at Quaker Diaries and Their Uses," in A Women's Diaries Miscellany, Jane DuPree Begos, ed., [Weston, Conn.: Magic Circle Press, 1989], 30-36.)

Diaries of Your Female Ancestor's Relatives, Friends, and Neighbors

Even if your ancestor's diaries have not survived, or were never written, perhaps diaries exist for one of your women ancestor's relatives, friends, or neighbors. Finding these diaries can be valuable as well for two reasons:

  • Letters and diaries written by your ancestor's relatives, friends, and neighbors may contain material about your ancestor.

  • These letters and diaries will give you a glimpse into what your own ancestor's life was probably like, since relatives, friends, and neighbors probably came from the same socioeconomic background as your ancestor.

Finding Diaries

This is all well and good, but how do you discover if your female ancestor has surviving diaries, or if friends, neighbors, or relatives left any? The first step is to contact all of your relatives to see if they might have any diaries. Even if you've already bugged your relatives for family history information, it is worth it to ask them specifically about diaries. Then place a query online or in a genealogical magazine to see if some distant relative might be in possession of an ancestor's diary. Once you determine your ancestors' friends and neighbors from research, queries are a good way to find descendants of these people, too.

Also check the area where your ancestor lived. Write or visit the state historical society, library, archive, or local university and public libraries that may have local history or special collections. Ask them if they have any diaries for your ancestor or the relatives or neighbors. You may also want to consider placing an ad or writing a letter to the editor in the local newspaper where your ancestor resided to see if any descendants are still in the area, as they might have family papers or a diary. Unfortunately, diaries can end up anywhere. A female ancestor who lived her entire life in Virginia may have kept a diary that is now in a repository in New Mexico, because the descendant who inherited it lived there and gave it to a repository.

How do you find these strays? Start with the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). NUCMC has been published annually since 1959 by the Library of Congress. The Library requests that repositories all over the United States report to them their manuscript holdings, and they compile these reports in the NUCMC, which may be found in reference departments of college and university libraries and in large public libraries. There is a two-volume set called Index to Personal Names in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections 1959-1984 that is especially helpful.

Another reference guide for women's diaries in particular is Andrea Hinding's Women's History Sources: A Guide to Archives and Manuscript Collections in the United States (2 vols. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1979). This guide also has a geographical index which makes it useful for checking the area in which your ancestor and neighbors lived.

Was Your Ancestor's Diary Published?

Don't overlook the possibility that your ancestor's diary was published, either in its entirety or as part of an anthology. Diaries are hot items for publishers, especially women's diaries and diaries of people who lived during the Civil War. As with the Quaker diaries mentioned earlier, however, be cautious of published diaries. Read the editor's introduction to determine if the diary has been published in its entirety. Some editors may choose to emphasize certain aspects of the diary, depending on the editor's goal. For example, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, is not a full transcription of Martha Ballard's diary, but Robert and Cynthia MacAlman McCausland's The Diary of Martha Ballard, 1785-1812 is. Martha's diary is now an online case study at Do

Also check the Internet for diaries. Type in "diaries" in your search engine and see what happens. As an example, in's search under "diaries," then "historic diary," it gave more than 43,000 links!

Other People's Diaries

Okay, so you've been through all the reference guides to diaries, you've talked with all your relatives, you've placed queries in genealogical magazines, and you're still coming up empty handed. Now what? Well, you can read other peoples' diaries — those from the same geographic area, during the same time period, and from the same socioeconomic class as your ancestor — to get a feel for what life was like. Besides, there is something sinful and quite enjoyable about reading someone else's diary.

Locating Diaries: A Checklist

Ask relatives if they posses any ancestors' diaries.
Put queries in genealogical magazines and online, seeking diaries from distant "genealogy" cousins.
Write to historical societies, archives, and libraries in your ancestor's locality to see if a diary was deposited there.
Check reference guides to help locate diaries in repositories.
Look for published diaries, including diary anthologies.
Look for diaries of your ancestor's friends, relatives, and neighbors.
Look for diaries of people like your ancestor, who lived in the same geographic area, during the same time period, and from the same socioeconomic background.

References to Help You Find Diaries

Arksey, Laura, Nancy Pries, and Marcia Reed. American Diaries: An Annotated Bibliography of Published American Diaries and Journals. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1983, 1987.
Forbes, Harriette, comp. New England Diaries, 1602-1800. A Descriptive Catalogue of Diaries, Orderly Books and Sea Journals. New York: Russell and Russell, 1976 (originally published privately 1923).
Goodfriend, Joyce D., comp. The Published Diaries and Letters of American Women: An Annotated Bibliography. Boston: G.K. Hall and Co., 1987.
Matthews, William, comp. American Diaries: An Annotated Bibliography of Published American Diaries Written Prior to the Year 1861. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1945.
_______________. American Diaries in Manuscript, 1580-1954: A Descriptive Bibliography. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1974.

Some Diary Anthologies

Begos, Jane DuPree. A Women's Diaries Miscellany. Weston, Conn.: Magic Circle Press, 1989.
Culley, Margo. A Day at a Time: The Diary Literature of American Women from 1764 to the Present. New York: The Feminist Press, 1985.
Franklin, Penelope, ed. Private Pages: Diaries of American Women, 1830s-1970s. New York: Ballatine Books, 1986.
Holmes, Kenneth L., ed. Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trail, 1840-1890. 11 volumes. Spokane: The Arthur H. Clark Co., various years.
Moffat, Mary Jane and Charlotte Painter. Revelations: Diaries of Women. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
Niederman, Sharon. A Quilt of Words: Women's Diaries, Letters and Original Accounts of Life in the Southwest, 1860-1960. Boulder, Colo.: Johnson Books, 1988.
Schlissel, Lillian. Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.
Wylie, Betty Jane. Reading Between the Lines: The Diaries of Women. Toronto, Canada: Key Porter Books, 1995.

About the Author
Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is a Certified Genealogist, editor of Betterway Genealogy Books, contributing editor for Family Tree Magazine, and the author of eight books, including A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Female Ancestors. Sharon also teaches online courses in personal/family memoir writing.

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