Research Historical Women Through Their Letters and Diaries

Her story - uncovering women's lives

Old diaries and journals written by our female ancestors are one of the best ways to learn firsthand what their life was like.
Getty / Jeffrey Coolidge

Every woman in your family tree led a life worth researching and recording and there is no better place to start than by going to the source – records created by the woman herself.

Letters and Diaries 

Judith Sargent Murray, a nearly-forgotten figure of American history active just after the American Revolution, wrote in letters to family details about her daily life, including occasional trips to stay with friends and acquaintances such as John and Abigail Adams and George and Martha Washington. But when she died in Mississippi in 1820, her letters were lost -- or so historians believed -- until Gordon Gibson, a Unitarian Universalist minister, managed to locate them in 1984. Now captured on microfilm and available to researchers, these copy books are a source of fascinating details about life in post-Revolutionary America, and are especially insightful about the ordinary lives of women of the time.

Letters - Your female ancestors may have written letters to relatives about events at home, to husbands off at war or even to other female friends. The letters may contain news about births, deaths and marriages in the family, gossip about events and people in the community and snippets of information about daily life.
Diaries - The terms diary and journal are often used interchangeably to describe a written, personal record of events, experiences and observations. They may include a record of daily events, attitudes about social issues and personal feelings about family and friends. If you are lucky enough to possess such a treasure, then read it carefully – it will tell you more about your ancestor than perhaps any other source.

Most people think to ask relatives for items like photos, but have you ever thought to ask your relatives for any letters or a diary they may have tucked away? I learned many pieces of my husband’s Powell family history when a distant cousin and I tracked down a relative with a box full of letters his grandmother had received from her family in England after she moved to America. If that doesn’t yield any results, then try placing a query in a genealogical society newsletter or on the Internet. This may reach a distant relative who you have yet to discover. Writing to or visiting historical societies, archives, and libraries in the area in which your ancestor lived may also yield a "find."

When Your Ancestor Didn't Leave a Diary or Journal...

If you aren’t lucky enough to locate a diary, journal or letter from your ancestor, perhaps one exists for a friend or relative of your ancestor (which may include entries concerning your ancestor). Diaries or journals kept by contemporaries are also very useful—we can't know for sure that our ancestors lived through exactly those experiences, but there are likely to be many parallels. If you have ancestors who lived in New England in the late 18th century, reading Judith Sargent Murray's recollections of life may give you some insight into their lives. (Bonnie Hurd Smith has collected the letters from one trip Murray took with her husband, early Universalist minister John Murray, in From Gloucester to Philadelphia in 1790, available from several online sources, as well as in many libraries). Many journals, diaries and letters were written by women, both well known and obscure, have been preserved in manuscript collections by local historical societies, universities, and other institutions where they may be available to researchers.

Some have been published as books and may be found online through historical book sources such as Internet Archive, HathiTrust or Google Books. You can also find a surprising number of historical diaries and journals online.​

© Kimberly Powell and Jone Johnson Lewis. Licensed to
A version of this article originally appeared in Everton's Family History Magazine, March 2002.