Personal Journal Writing as Living History

Personal Journal Writing as Living History

March 17, 2017

Writing in a personal journal isn’t new or unusual.  Keeping a journal may be one of the oldest forms of writing in the world.  In early America, most journals or diaries were kept by men, many as almanacs or logs of their experience in public life.  However, far fewer women in the past had the privilege of knowing how to write or the time to record their thoughts, feelings and wishes.

Women’s journals and diaries were generally more personal than men’s.  During the mid-1800’s, more than 800 women kept diaries of their wagon train journeys West.  Although many have been lost over time, important personal journals and diaries exist today thanks to families who cherish the recorded family history and libraries that collect and preserve these documents.

A quick internet search uncovers important collections in which women recount their experiences in amazing detail.  I quickly found journals and diaries available online from Harvard, Duke, UNC’s project “Documenting the American South,” and the University of South Carolina’s Caroliniana Library right here in Columbia.

Digitization makes it convenient for anyone to read women’s hand-written accounts.  One unique journal now housed at the Maine State Library includes the 10,000 handwritten entries kept daily by an 18th century New England midwife, Martha Ballard.

“By far the most colorful diary is A Diary from Dixie, as Written by Mary Boykin Chestnut, 1859-1861. Here is a must-see,” this comment from the website –

Mary Boykin Chestnut began her daily journal in February 1861 and within a month was collecting photographs of family and others to go with her written accounts.  Her first-person perspectives included watching the shelling of Fort Sumter from the top of a Charleston home as well as at the end of the war, Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox from her perspective in Chester, SC.

In addition to her formal education, Mary Chestnut read widely – earlier memoirists, historians, any current books she could find – while clipping articles from the latest local and international magazines and newspapers and collecting photographs.

She filled an album with portraits of family and friends, as well as dignitaries and acquaintances in Washington, the North, England and around Europe while writing detailed descriptions of most of these people in her diary.  According to Harvey S. Teal, one of the first to see the newly rediscovered photographs, “She transformed some of these characters into ‘word portraits’.…Her colorful pen portraits equaled and often surpassed the images made with a camera.”

The portraits, known as cartes de viste, were popular during the mid-1800’s.  Local photographers captured images, then printed multiple copies of each on card stock for friends to exchange with each other.

This photo album was thought to have been lost for nearly 100 years.  When the family learned that private collectors planned to sell it at auction, they feared the collection would be ruined or the images sold separately.  Fortunately, they were successful buying the portrait album, thankfully still in-tact.

At the dedication of Mary Chestnut’s Civil War Photographic Album and Mary Chestnut’s Diary from Dixie, a two-volume edition published in 2011, Teal told those gathered that Mary Chestnut “conscientiously collected images of many of the people described in her diary, a farsighted activity which further separates her from other literary writers or historians.”  You can read proceedings from the dedication online at

Over time, as well as today, the reasons women and men keep journals and diaries vary.  They may want to:

— Process and find meaning in experiences
— Record feelings
— Seek catharsis and deal with pain in privacy
— Unleash creativity
— Discover what is already known but not yet recognized
— Produce something lasting for immortality

Thomas Mallon in, A book of His Own: People and their Diaries, describes journal keepers as “travelers, pilgrims, creators, apologists, confessors and prisoners.”  Others suggest the need for spiritual development, to spark or explore their art, to confess their sins, or to create imaginary lives.

Regardless of the reason, keeping a journal has many benefits – some that could last far beyond your own lifetime – possibly 100’s of years in the future.


Susan Hendricks leads guided journal writing groups in Columbia as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Certified Journal Therapist and Certified Dream Group Leader.  To contact Susan and learn more, go to or

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