The 1840s marked a period of unfettered expansion and exploration in America. Whether inspired by the romantic nationalism of John O'Sullivan's "Manifest Destiny," or by the more material goal of striking gold at Sutter's Mill, nearly half a million Americans pushed westward by land and by sea in search of new ground, new opportunities, and new lives. Within these larger historical currents, researchers can find the stories of individual travelers, many of whom recorded their experience of emigration in journals and diaries.
In America and western Europe, the keeping of diaries to record personal events and experiences grew out of the tradition of spiritual diaries meant to chronicle religious and spiritual development. By the early 19th century, the practice of diary keeping had become both more commonplace and more secularized. While diaries were not solely relegated to the feminine sphere, they were — and continue to be — quite popular with women, and can serve the researcher by providing the female voice, which was so often absent from public discourse at this time. But while diaries provide a personal context to the historical record, they must also be recognized as subjective — and selective, or even inaccurate — records: each diarist narrates their experiences through his or her own unique lens.
Below is a short list of diaries held by The New York Public Library's Manuscripts and Archives Division, exemplifying both the practice of diary keeping and the journeys undertaken during the largest migration in American history.
Lodisa Frizzell diary, 1852
Written in Cañon Creek, California, the diary of Lodisa Frizzell describes an overland journey from the Little Wabash River in Illinois, through Missouri, and on to the Oregon Trail to the Continental Divide. Seven months later, while snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas, Frizzell used memories of her journey and notes taken along the way to compile a journal of her travels. Her own sketches and watercolor illustrations provide a unique representation of westward migration. While the original resides in the Manuscripts and Archives Division, Frizzell's diary was reprinted in full in the April 1915 issue of the Bulletin of The New York Public Library, which is available without advance notice in the General Reference Division.
John Henry Cornelison diary kept aboard the "Hannah Sprague," 1849-1850
John Henry Cornelison of Jersey City was in his early twenties when he departed for California on the barque "Hannah Sprague" with the New York Mining Company. Beginning on April 11, 1849, Cornelison's diary contains detailed descriptions of his travels, the tedium of the long journey, and the ways in which he and fellow passengers entertained themselves. The "Hannah Sprague" stopped in Chile, where Cornelison received news regarding other California-bound vessels and accounts of the plentiful opportunities there. Cornelison and his shipmates arrived in San Francisco seven months after departing New York. Later entries describe the chaos of the overflowing city, and the rampant price-gouging for food and supplies he encountered there. The diary also includes a short list of vessels leaving from New York for California in 1849.
Charlotte Lambert Whipple diary and family correspondence
In 1852, Charlotte Lambert Whipple left Batavia, New York with her husband and daughter to venture west via the Oregon Trail. Letters sent to family members describe the tribulations of her journey, and later remark on her life in the Pacific Northwest. Her 1852 diary further tells of the difficulties of wagon travel — such as weather and road conditions, crossing dangerous rivers, and maintaining cattle — and frequently records the distance her party traveled each day. Notable entries include descriptions of the American prairies, her feelings on departing the relative civilization of Kanesville, Iowa (near Council Bluffs) to enter the wild land beyond, and her thoughts upon encountering the aftermath of a cholera outbreak. The last entry was written in the Bear River Valley of western Wyoming.
John W. Bell diary, 1849
John W. Bell of New York traveled on the schooner "Gager" to take part in the California gold rush. In July of 1849, the "Gager" met the "Talisman of Bremen," a barque carrying German immigrants bound for California. September and October entries follow Bell's progress through "the most romantic and richest scenes [he] ever beheld," and describe a brief encounter with Native Americans. The diary includes expense accounts and entries discussing the varying exchange rates of gold.
Samuel Locke diary, 1850-1851
Some items in the Manuscripts and Archives Division are more statistical in nature, such as Samuel Locke's diary, which helps illuminate the expenses the forty-niners incurred in the boomtowns of the California Gold Rush. Locke recorded few descriptive entries in this slim volume, but provides a "sick list" and "accounts against persons for medicine and attendance." Locke also recorded his personal expenditures, proving how many common goods were sold at a premium in San Francisco at the height of the Rush.
The Manuscripts and Archives Division has almost 300 singly catalogued diaries, and many more are present within larger collections. Singly catalogued diaries can be found most easily by consulting the card catalogue in the Manuscripts and Archives reading room; they are arranged chronologically. The Division has undertaken an extensive retrospective conversion project to add all of these items to NYPL's catalog, but at present, the card catalog remains the most comprehensive record of the Division's diary holdings.
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