The diary in question

The Rev. Thomas Cary posed for this portrait by John Singleton Copley around 1770, shortly after he came into his inheritance. He is wearing a blue silk banyan, an “at home” garment popular with eighteenth-century gentlemen. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

When I attended a workshop in Seattle put on by NEHGS, Lindsay Fulton told attendees that one can often find useful genealogical tidbits in old diaries, especially those written by public figures in a community. She recommended searching for diaries of anyone who lived in locations your ancestors did, even if they’re apparently unrelated to your family. You might get lucky and read about births, weddings, and deaths – and perhaps even some juicy gossip – that can flesh out your family history.

If diaries belonging to total strangers can be useful, imagine the thrill I felt when I read in the “Weekly Genealogist” of 28 March that the diary of my (half) first cousin six times removed is now available online – digitally and in transcription – through![1] Of course I had to dive right in, even though I had taxes to do and a belated birthday present to sew for my husband.

The diary in question is actually many volumes stretching from 1762 to 1806, excepting the year 1777. The Rev. Thomas Cary (1745–1808) kept daily notations, accounts of wages received and board paid, and periodic comments on notable events throughout New England. These were all written on the blank pages of astronomical almanacs, which by themselves provide valuable insights into the diarist’s world.

The very first volume, from 1762, is a genealogical gold mine, but before I dig into the nitty gritty, first a bit of background about the diarist. Thomas Cary was the second of three sons born to Capt. Samuel Cary Jr. (1713–1769) and Margaret Graves (1719–1762) of Charlestown, Massachusetts. His parents – and subsequently his older brother, Samuel – inherited the Bellingham-Cary House in Chelsea, Massachusetts, which stands today as the only eighteenth-century house in the city – a part of it even dates to the mid-seventeenth century.

Thomas was something of a prodigy…

Thomas was something of a prodigy, beginning his studies at Harvard at the tender age of eleven and three-quarters, and weighing only eighty pounds, according to the diary of the college’s president, Edward Holyoke. See how useful seemingly-unrelated people’s diaries can be?

After graduating from Harvard at fifteen, he began teaching school at Weston, Massachusetts, on 26 April 1762, which is the first date in his diary. In only the third entry he wrote that Mr. Phineas Whitney had married Mrs. Merriam Willard, which may be useful information to someone out there, since the only “official” record I could find for that marriage was an intention registered the preceding day in Harvard, Massachusetts.

Thomas Cary’s aunt, Katherine (Graves) Russell, also painted by John Singleton Copley. Courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh

The sixteen-year-old schoolmaster recorded the weather, people who came to visit him, sermons preached by various ministers, and trips home to visit his family. On 23 June, he recorded that “Dr. Russell came up,” perhaps referring to Chambers Russell (1713–1766), an uncle by marriage twice over. One brother, Capt. Richard Russell (1723–1781), married Mary Cary (1725–1786), the half-sister of Thomas’s father; another brother, the Hon. James Russell (1715–1798), married Katherine Graves (1717–1778), the sister of Thomas’s mother.

The identity of Thomas’s next visitor seems quite clear: two days later he wrote “Samuel stopt at School.” Due to the informality of this entry (no “Mr.”), this could only have been his older brother. Thomas also mentioned dining with his uncle in Boston, and multiple visits from his cousin Richard Cary during the summer and again in December.

Thomas traveled home in early October to see his family, and spent his seventeenth birthday with them; however, celebrating his birthday was not the purpose of his trip. Important details surrounding this journey, and a related event recorded in the first volume of Thomas Cary’s diary, will have to wait for another installment. In the meantime, I need to finish the blue banyan that I promised my husband back in February!

Continued here.


[1] A bonus connection to Thomas Cary came in the same “Weekly Genealogist” through its reference to “New England’s Hidden Histories,” the Congregational Library’s church preservation project. The account book of the Rev. Edward Barnard, his uncle and mentor, is a part of this initiative.

About Pamela Athearn Filbert

Pamela Athearn Filbert was born in Berkeley, California, but considers herself a “native Oregonian born in exile,” since her maternal great-great-grandparents arrived via the Oregon Trail, and she herself moved to Oregon well before her second birthday. She met her husband (an actual native Oregonian whose parents lived two blocks from hers in Berkeley) in London, England. She holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon, and has worked as a newsletter and book editor in New York City and Salem, Oregon; she was most recently the college and career program coordinator at her local high school.

20 thoughts on “The diary in question

  1. Those diaries hold amazing detail, don’t they? I found some startling details in the Joshua Hempstead diary (1711-1758, New London) about the suicide of my 6th great-grandfather Benjamin Beebe. Through the diary entries about it, I was able to identify some of his children, including the married name of one of his daughters.

    Skimming through the rest of the book, I was surprised by how often people took their own life back then. We know them as survivors (because we’re all here to talk about it), but life became too hard and depressing for a lot of them.

    1. I have my long-gone mother-in-law’s diary, which she started as a teenager and continued entering events off and on through dating and marrying. I enjoyed reading her emotional entries on the day she married and on days she was venting. She died just a few months after I married her son, so her diary offers me an insight to who she was. Her father, a gold miner, suffered with “miner’s consumption,” and after moving from Colorado to California for his health, committed suicide. She did not enter anything for a long period surrounding that. Her silence speaks volumes, too.

  2. One of the best known diaries is that of Augustine Hayden, of Windsor, CT., which I was able to see ( and hold momentarily, after scrubbing my hands) at the Windsor Museum some 18 years ago. Two volumes, little paperbacks, holding his accounts of his time in service in the French & Indian War. Most amusing was to see that the second had a brother’s name written in the front, scratched out…so fun to guess how that happened: was it a gift or did brother ( which one I now can’t remember) later said, “ Has anyone seen my accounts book??” Hmmmmm.

    1. Very interesting blog post. I am wondering how one locates diaries of a specific place and period without knowing the name of the diarist?

    2. Ha! That reminds me of when my husband found a book he’d been missing for years his younger sister’s room…with her book plate in it! We’ve never let her forget that.

  3. The “Merriam Willard” mentioned in the diary was Miriam Willard, sister to Susannah Willard Johnson whose family and others, originally from Groton and Lunenburg, MA,
    were taken captive by Indians at Fort No. 4/Charlestown, New Hampshire, in 1754 during the Seven Years War. Susannah wrote a captivity narrative which became very famous. When Miriam returned from Canada, she married the Rev. Mr. Phineas Whitney, later minister at Shirley, Massachusetts. She died shortly thereafter.

    1. Thanks for that back story…which is completely fascinating. I’m sorry to hear that she died shortly thereafter.

  4. I have two interesting diaries, neither of important people, but important to me. One is that of my grandmother, Elba McGrew, written during the year (1910-1911) of her engagement to my grandfather Virgil Waggoner. It was one of those printed diaries with a few lines per day, but she packed in a lot of information. Both lived in Walla Walla, Washington, but he was a civil engineer who was out of town a great deal. She wrote about her family life, how much she missed “the boy,” and the social life of the town. From her point of view, the McGrews were the hub of that social life, members of the Methodist church, where Elba, a music major at Whitman College, played the organ. Sunday evenings were devoted to music with friends around the piano in the parlor. This diary is a window for me on the early life of a grandmother I never knew, as she died long before my birth. It’s even more precious, as my father transcribed it, putting in additional information he knew about events or people he knew or knew of.

    The other covers a shorter time period. My father’s g grandfather, N.S. Bastion, spent a few months in 1849-1850 as a Methodist missionary to Monrovia, Liberia with his first wife and their toddler son, who died a few weeks after their arrival of “African fever,” probably malaria or yellow fever. In January, Bastion left for New York to report to the Mission Board about his plans to build a stone school rather than the usual wood. On his departure, he began a journal in a tiny pocket notebook. This journal gives personal details that nothing else could have. He waited in Freetown, Sierra Leone for weeks, for a ship to London, finally settling for one to France. Storms sent them far off course; they ran out of provisions and the crew had to fish for food. He heartily disliked “a big fish called a tuna.” He was so impressed with the cliffs around Gibraltar that he sketched them over and over. He grieved the death of his son, and greatly missed his wife, who, unbeknownst to him, had died, also of African fever, in March. Unfortunately, he ran out of paper within sight of Barcelona. I also have some of his letters, but they are not nearly as personal as this snippet of a journal.

    1. What treasures, indeed! By the way, I attended Whitman College before transferring to the University of Oregon. Walla Walla has changed a lot since then.

  5. I often wondered how to get non-family information to others who might like it. Not so much in diaries but my information has been found in small notebooks that often have grocery lists, notes to do something or has jotted down sizes of furniture or clothes.

    Don’t forget to check the local library for these handwritten manuscripts in the ares of your ancestor.

    1. There was a cool story in my morning paper about a social studies teacher who had his class track down the family of a soldier who died in WWII. The dead soldier’s mother had sent the teacher’s father a letter, which he wanted to pass on to family members …

      A World War II mystery and a letter helped a Minnesota class learn history firsthand

  6. Would love to see that little diary by Augustine Hayden. Many of my early ancestors were in Windsor, and some are said to have been involved in the Indian Wars. I am interested in finding more about how that affected their lives (especially the women!). I am planning a trip to the area soon, and will certainly note that one down!

    I have also downloaded the Joshua Hempstead volume, as I have a Beebe line that I believe goes back to the Benjamins, though I have not yet completed researching the line. It would be interesting, regardless, to read about the conditions of the people of the time. This one sounds like a treasure trove. Thanks, LuanaBee, for alerting me to it. I have soooo much to do to grasp the lives of these early ancestors of mine!

  7. I have a limited printing copy of a neighbor’s of my great grandmother who I never knew. They lived in outstate Kansas on the plains. This neighbor lived a mile away but was the closest neighbor. She kept a nearly daily journal during the 1885-1895 era. It is a goldmine of everyday life at that time. She and my grandmother taught each other new skills, went to market together, shared the lives and deaths of their families. I learned of a divorce, new marriage, divorce and remarriage through court records but could add the day to day thoughts, and actions that led up to each. It bares out an uncle’s thoughts on human nature… “not much has changed, just different people doing it.”

  8. Not a diary per se, but I have a box of letters that my great-great-grandmother (Kate Merwin White (1851-1915) wrote before and after her marriage in 1875 to (William Wurtz White (1841-1911). There are many details of her everyday life in Boston and then Providence.
    What is so fascinating (and frustrating) about them is that she would write her words across the page and then turn the page sideways and write across her previously penned words. In the 1970s, my mother and I transcribed them all the best we could – a true labor of love!!

  9. My second great grandparents, William L Post and Dotha E Catlin Post each wrote a diary in the 1830s. William’s entries gave weather info, business info, and mentioned many of the inhabitants of Montrose, Pennsylvania in Susquehanna County. He wrote about the activities of the young set and eventually about his courtship (rather subtle in its telling) and finally “myself married …”. His bride only wrote hers for a period of a year and a half but it is chock full of social activities, calls, occasional housekeeping, and mentions so many of the inhabitants. I transcribed both journals and the journals themselves are now preserved in the collections of NEHGS!

  10. I’m curious about Reverend Cary’s maternal line, who were his Graves grandparents? And did the Reverend marry?

    1. Thomas’s maternal grandparents were the Hon. Thomas Graves (for whom he may very well have been named) and Sibel/Sybil Avery.

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