Diaries, Trip Journals,
and Circular Letters

Many people in the late 1800s and early 1900s were accustomed to keeping diaries – a log of things that happened, on a daily or semi-regular basis. This corresponds with the period during which literacy among the general population was rising. While some men kept such chronicles, the vast majority of writers were women.

This is one source of information coming directly from women. As most records kept regarding land transfers, etc., were in the names of men, it is often difficult to find information about women’s lives. This is one exception.

Some journals simply recorded what had happened that day, as the space was insufficient to elaborate. Others were more open-ended, and allowed more of a journaling approach, in which the writer could express her emotions related to the events of the day.

The following is an example of a very terse, but quite poignant, journal of a young Russian girl:

Tanya Savicheva's Diary, circa 1942
Wikimedia Commons

Tanya Savicheva Diary

Translation from Russian:

Row 1, Left to Right:

  1. Jenya died on 28th Dec. at 12.30 PM 1941
  2. Grandma died on 25th Jan., 3 PM 1942
  3. Leka died on 17th March at 5 AM 1942
  4. Uncle Vasya died on 13th Apr. at 2 o'clock after midnight 1942
  5. Uncle Lesha on 10th May at 4 PM 1942

Row 2:

  1. Mother on 13th May at 7.30 AM 1942
  2. Savichevs died.
  3. All died.
  4. Only Tanya is left.

Traditional Diaries

I have my mother’s diaries, which she wrote over about a 50+-year period. She preferred a “five-year” format, which allowed three or four lines for a particular date in each of five different years. It is surprising how much information can be packed into those few lines! It makes for very interesting reading about my family as we were growing up.

A family historian is not likely to want to read an entire 50 years’ worth of journal entries. However, there may be events which occurred around a particular time period in the life of a person you are researching, which need clarification. A look into a family member’s diary from that particular time period may provide some little-known clues or facts which would not be available elsewhere.

I also have a copy of what amounts to a log of births, marriages and deaths in the area in Saskatchewan in which some cousins of my great-grandmother lived, again over a fairly lengthy period of time.

Surprisingly, many women’s diaries have been published. (Surprising, from a privacy point of view, that is!) However, it must be kept in mind that the published version has been subject to an editor’s scrutiny, and does not necessarily contain all of the writer's thoughts as written.

Trip Journals

Another form of daily log or journal is a trip journal. For instance, when my great-grandparents came to Canada from England with their five children in 1899, my great-grandmother kept a journal of that voyage. Her personality shines through in her writing, as do her Norfolk roots! It is a fascinating read, and provides glimpses into the lives of my great-grandparents and their children on that journey.

A Page from
my Great-Grandmother's Journal
Source: Sue Fenn
A page from my great-grandmother's journal

My grandfather, born in 1892, was on that trip, as were four of his six siblings. How I wish someone had interviewed him, or some of his siblings, before they died, to record their recollections of that journey, or interviewed them to obtain their life stories!

We do, however, have some stories written by various members of the family regarding what it was like carving out a home and a living in the thick bush in Northern Ontario, amid the blackflies and summer heat, and the snow and winter cold.

As previously noted, these sorts of diaries and journals can be “gold mines” of information about family history and what was happening on a day-to-day basis in a particular family grouping.

Circular “Round Robin” Letters

Australian Diary.
Wikimedia Commons
Australian Diary

Some families also kept in touch, after the siblings had grown up and moved to various parts of the country, by way of a circular letter.

The letter would go around the family in an agreed-upon order, and each person receiving the letter would remove his or her previous letter, read all of the other letters and enclosures, and then write a new letter in response.

My mother, who was one of 12 brothers and sisters, participated in this type of correspondence for about 40 years. The “Round Robin” letter was greatly anticipated, and read with great interest when it arrived. It helped to keep all of the family members up to date on what was happening, even though they were separated by distance.

Due to the number of participants, they were limited to a one-page letter, and perhaps a photograph or two. A number of the family members kept their contributions after they removed them from the letter. The more of those letters that survive, the clearer the information and references in them will be, and the greater will be the value of the family history contained in them.

Where do I find Diaries, Scrapbooks, and Circular Letters?

The first place to look is within the family. If the person was fairly close in the ancestral line (i.e., your mother or grandmother), it likely would not be too difficult to find out whether she kept any of such records, and if so, who might be likely to have them.

The farther back you go, however, the larger the number of possible family members who might have the documents, and the more likely it is that someone may have inherited them and donated them to a local archive of some description.

In my family, we were fortunate, in that whoever had my great-grandmother's trip diary provided photocopies to all family members. The chances of its contents being lost, therefore, are greatly diminished, with so many copies around.

I would start with any local archives in the area where the person lived, and then check any archives in the areas where her children lived, including those located at universities. You may find that, although they do not have the records of your particular ancestor, they may have similar items written by a neighbour in the same area.

While this might not be quite the same as having those of an ancestor, reading the neighbour's documentation could provide important clues as to what was happening in the area during the time period that your ancestors lived there.

In any event, all of these types of records are very valuable sources of information for making those ancestors' life stories "come alive"!

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