First person singular

Henry Coffin (1807-1900)

Well, for what looked like it was going to be an awesome year … even in Roman numerals (MMXX) … 2020 is set to go down in history as one of the most trying ever! When so much of what we typically learn about history is painted by textbooks in wide, sweeping gestures, it can be illuminating to read the granular experiences of individuals. I’ve seen several small museums publishing requests for their patrons to keep diaries now, and sharing items online from their collections illustrating the importance of first-person history. In this spirit, I thought I would share a few accounts written by my own ancestors who lived through momentous events.

This first example is from an undated letter (by context it’s from October 1857) sent by my great-great-great-grandfather James Frederick Athearn (1810-c.1870) in Boston to business associates/relatives on Nantucket. It is excerpted from one of eighty-two letters held in the collections of the Nantucket Historical Association, and through several of them, I learned about the first global financial crisis in modern history. (I also learned that correct capitalization and punctuation were not a priority for my ancestor, so I’ve added some help in brackets!)                                                                            

Mrss Chs G & H Coffin[1]


… I like to act promptly lest some unfavourable change should occur in New York[. We] doe not know yet how the Banks will fare in that city[;] they may yet be driven into liquidation[. If] so it will be deplorable then and no help for the merchants can be expected[.]

[The] fashionable way here is not to fail but advertise to meet your payments six months from maturity[. You] will see an article in the Transcript in the form of burlesque…

Yrs      James

Can you use any other money to pay debts with except Massachusetts money[?][2] [If] so R[hode] Island money can be got at a discount here[;] it will answer for every thing except to pay notes here[.]      


Fred Athearn

This next first-person account comes from my great-grandfather, Fred Goodrich Athearn (1874-1956), and recounts his experience of the San Francisco Earthquake:

On the morning of April 18, 1906, I was in a private business car running special, east, on the Tucson Division of the Southern Pacific Railroad, bound for El Paso. Upon reaching Lordsburg, New Mexico, we were handed a telegram that told us of the great earthquake and fire that had occurred in San Francisco in the morning. The message was most lurid and startling. Subsequent dispatches told of the thousands of persons that had been killed by the earthquake, and that a fire was sweeping the city, rendering other thousands homeless.

I was filled with apprehension lest something should have happened to my beloved wife,[3] for we were expecting a baby in August of that year. I immediately turned back and went to Tucson, at which point I boarded a special train to San Francisco.

Upon our arrival at Los Angeles, the depot was crowded with people either waiting to meet friends and relatives who were fleeing San Francisco, or trying to get passage to San Francisco. I telephoned to my wife’s sister who lived in Los Angeles, and she came to the depot to see me. Everyone was trying to dissuade us from going on to San Francisco. We were told that so many people had perished in the earthquake and fire that health authorities were loading the bodies onto boats and burying them at sea; that there was no food; that the banks were all destroyed and no money was to be had. It was truly a frightening picture. My wife’s sister gave me twenty dollars, a ham, two loaves of bread, and other foodstuffs.

Finally my train started and in the afternoon of April 21, I arrived at the Sixteenth Street Station of the Southern Pacific Company in Oakland, just across the bay from San Francisco. My train was boarded there by some soldiers and everyone was told to detrain at once, as passengers would not be allowed to go to the pier, the usual terminal for trains. We were informed that no one would be permitted to cross the bay to San Francisco. I refused to get off the train and showed the soldiers my credentials and told them I was an officer of the Southern Pacific Company.

I forthwith secured a military pass and proceeded to San Francisco. As we got off the ferryboat on the San Francisco side, we were halted by the military police. One of the soldiers threateningly held a bayonet rather close to another man’s middle and ordered him to halt.

In those days there were very few automobiles. How to get to where my wife was staying was a problem. I figured out that she was probably not in the house but in a vacant lot about two or three lots away from where the house stood. Fortunately, her mother[4] was visiting her. I finally succeeded in getting a one-horse express wagon, for a fee of twenty dollars, to take me to Hugo Street. I went directly to the vacant lot and, sure enough, there were Evelyn and her mother, camping out.

I was determined to get my wife and her mother out of San Francisco; slight earthquakes were occurring about every 15 or 20 minutes, the whole town was still ablaze, and buildings were being blown up with dynamite to stop the progress of the fire. I finally got Evelyn and her mother down to the ferryboat and went over to Oakland. There was no place to get anything to eat, but I was told people were being fed on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. So we went on to Berkeley and, with the many others, lined up and got beans and coffee for dinner.

This final excerpt comes from the five-year diary that my grandmother, Rachel Louise (Kortge) Christy (1916-2004), received from her husband on their first anniversary. I apologize that, like many historic records, it reflects previous norms that are offensive to modern readers. The day after my grandmother mentioned plans for her mother’s upcoming surprise sixtieth birthday party, she wrote about her new temporary job at a Portland, Oregon, department store:

December 6, 1941: Started work at Olds & Kings. Like it fine. Get to work until Xmas.

December 7, 1941: Japs attacked Pearl Harbor. Surprise and shock to everyone.

December 8, 1941: War has certainly hurt business.

It was several days before Grammy got around to writing further entries. Not only are there no details about the big party planned for December 13 (if that ever happened), she even omitted recording her sister’s sudden marriage on December 20 … but these things happen when you are living through historic events.


[1] Charles Gardner Coffin (1801-1882) and Henry Coffin (1807-1900) were brothers and co-owners of a whale oil shipping firm. Henry’s wife, Eliza Starbuck (1811-1903), was the older sister of James F. Athearn’s wife, Lydia Ramsdell Starbuck (1813-1889). By coincidence, Henry’s great-great-grandson is married to Brenda Williams, the NEHGS Counselor featured on page 8 of the Spring 2020 issue of American Ancestors.

[2] It was not until 1862 that the Federal government of the United States began to print banknotes, and individual banks continued to issue their own banknotes until the 1930s.

[3] Purle Evelyn (Bottom[e]s) Athearn (1878-1941), whose century-old book club is still going strong.

[4] Aurelia Jane (Hargrave) (Bottom[e]s) Corker (1847-1925), whose revolutionary sentiments were featured six months ago.

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.

9 thoughts on “First person singular

  1. I think Henry is also the ancestor of William Sloane Coffin–New York City, wealthy. His son William Sloane Coffin Jr. became the minister of Yale College and in the 60s was a famous leader, nationally, the anti-Vietnam movement and Civil Rights movement.

    1. That is a very logical conclusion! However, William Sloane Coffin, Jr. and his uncle, Henry Sloane Coffin (both prominent Presbyterian clergymen) descend from Tristram Coffin, Jr. of Newbury, Essex, Massachusetts, instead of the Nantucket branches of the family. I had to do a bit of sleuthing to figure out exactly how they fit into the family. As it happens, while most of my Coffin ancestors were on Nantucket (through my paternal grandfather) I am also descended from Tristram Coffin, Jr. through my paternal grandmother.

  2. Interesting entry about the earthquake. My grandmother was a freshman at Stanford and I have a recording of her describing her experience of the quake and the destruction and fires. I’ve transcribed it, of course. They were allowed to go back into the dorm to gather a few items. She was put on a train to go home to Idaho. At towns along the way people gave them food. She finished her schooling at U. Of Idaho at Moscow.

  3. Your keepsake letter regarding the 1906 San Francisco earthquake is especially poignant to me. I just yesterday sent a box of “everyday dishes” (that had survived the earthquake) to a cousin in Carson City, Nevada which had belonged to a more direct ancestor of hers in our Cummins family tree. These dishes seem to be a rather rare “flow-blue” pattern and quite valuable nowadays. How they ended up in Minnesota is a long story, however, they are now headed back to the West Coast where they belong !

  4. Hi Pamela, I really enjoyed these diary entries. I hope you will share more of them. Your great grandfather’s entry re: San Francisco after the earthquake – it was so bittersweet, and a true account for us Californians. But please, no apologies for your grandmother’s adherence to norms or customs of the times! – She sounds like a remarkable and very patriotic lady – it was indeed after all, 1941!!

    ~ Looking forward to learning more…

  5. In reading your article today and seeing the mention of John Coffin, I went back to some of my old records of Nantucket. I am a direct descendant of the following:

    Tristram Coffin ((9th gg)
    Thomas Macy (9th gg)
    Edward Starbuck (10th gg)
    Peter Folger (9th gg)
    John Gardner (9th gg)
    John Coleman (9th gg)
    Christopher Hussey (9th gg)
    William Bunker (8th gg)

    I really enjoy all of your articles, and many of them send me off onto new genealogical trails. I am an NEHGS member, also a member of Mayflower Society, DAR and Colonial Dames of the 17th C and The Haskell International Family Association. My maternal aunt was the person in our family who started my interest. She left many wonderful records. Because I worked for the British Government for several years, I was fortunate to have been able to visit some of our ancestral sites. My husband and I were planning to go to England for one last time this year, but the Pandemic has made that not possible.

    I so appreciate all of the research and work that you do. Thank you.

    1. Ah, all familiar names and all (save for Thomas Macy) ancestors of mine as well. My first cousins are descended from Thomas Macy, however, because their father is ALSO descended from several Nantucket families.

  6. I believe the first letter that your ancestor wrote in October 1857 references the sinking of the SS Central America in September 1857. I learned about it in law school – the NY banks, facing unrest from investors wanting to “see” the gold backing their investments, sent to California for enough gold to show them. The ship sank on its way back to NY.

    Its a fascinating story. I couldn’t find a really good description of it that included the information about the looming stock market crash I referenced above, so I include the link to the Wiki if anyone is interested in reading more.

    Thanks for sharing these accounts – they are a treasure.

  7. I love reading diaries. Even the spare ones have details you wouldn’t find anywhere else, and give a sense of a lived experience. I am the only diary keeper I know of in my family, but an aunt, in her elder years, wrote down quite a few memories of her youth and brought some of the people and places alive for me. I suspect that there may well be diaries by other people that would mirror the circumstances of the my family at various places and times. One of my goals would be to go the repositories likely to have such diaries and luxuriate in reading them.

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