Finding Isaac's Journal: A Treasured Family Heirloom

Reader Contribution by The Mother Earth News Editors
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This story is from Lyn Fenwick, submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear

When I learned that my deceased cousin had owned a homesteader’s journal, I began asking questions, starting at the museum to which my cousin, Lucille, had bequeathed many of her possessions. Unfortunately, no one seemed to know anything about the journal, but I was invited to look through the unsorted boxes of my cousin’s possessions stored in the basement of the museum. Like many small town museums, the Lucille M. Hall Museum depends on volunteers, and I felt selfish searching for the journal when it was obvious that they needed help sorting. I made a compromise with my conscience. As I began opening boxes, I sorted contents and identified pictures that I recognized, but I chose boxes that looked like they might contain the missing journal. When the last two volunteers came down into the basement where I was sorting to let me know they were leaving for the day, they told me I was welcome to stay and continue looking. I wasn’t too keen on staying alone in the basement of an old building whose creaking and dripping sounds were not familiar to me. I left with them.

The next day, a volunteer went into the storeroom where I had been working and opened the box next to the one I had been sorting. It was the last box on the shelf, and inside was Isaac’s journal. If I had stayed to work only a few minutes longer, I would have found it. The important thing, however, was that the journal had been found — and what a discovery it was!

Every day from August 1884 until June 1891, Isaac wrote in this large, leather-bound journal. Two inches thick with pages 10 inches wide by 15 and a half inches tall, containing 480 pages — it’s the kind of legal journal in which records at the courthouse are kept. In the front pages of the journal are entries from 1870 and 1871, when Isaac was a young druggist in Rossville, Ill. With no explanation for a 13-year interruption, the journal resumes during Isaac’s years as a homesteader in Stafford County, Kan. Knowing that I wanted to use the journal for research, the museum board allowed me to take it home to do the work.                                                                                                                  

In order to organize and index all of the information the journal contained, I quickly realized that I needed to transcribe it. Isaac’s penmanship is actually
quite good, but he filled the pages from edge to edge in a fairly small script, and at my best, I was able to type only about one page every 45 minutes. I wasn’t sure I could complete such a project. After two weeks, I called one of the board members and told her what I was trying to do. She said not to worry about how long it was taking, since without my inquiry, the journal might have gone undiscovered for months or even years. The task of transcribing took me 11 months, and involved one crashed laptop and a trip to my optometrist!                               

Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad: “At certain periods it becomes the dearest ambition of a man to keep a faithful record of his performances in a book; and he dashes at his work with an enthusiasm that imposes on him the notion that keeping a journal is the veriest pastime in the world, and the pleasantest.”  Twain goes on to say that such enthusiasm only lasts about 21 days; however, Isaac’s commitment lasted far longer, and it is a historical treasure. The front page identifies the journal as “Vol. 5th.”  Sadly, the whereabouts of Volumes 1 to 4 are unknown.

The writing done in 1870 to 1871 is that of a young man — full of ideas, opinions, and personal feelings. When the journal writing resumed in 1884, the entries are of a more practical nature — the weather, his crops, labor done and done for him by others, economic matters, community events, and political activities. Isaac seems to have been influenced in his changed style by a newspaper column authored by Henry Ward Beecher, which Isaac clipped and glued in the journal. Beecher disapproved of confessional journal keeping, offering instead the following advice: “One may trace from day to day the mere facts of personal history, the proceedings of the farm, or the books read, visits made or received, the events in society, the conversations with men of mark, the facts of the weather, the seasons, the aspects of nature, and, in short, a journal for knowledge, in distinction from feeling, might be kept with great profit.”  Isaac adhered to this advice for six years, preserving a record of prairie life and social struggles.

Isaac lived in an exciting time, but he kept his journal for himself, written in sentence fragments and containing names familiar to him but a mystery to today’s reader. I decided to bring this historical place and time, with Isaac at its center, alive for readers!  Even while I was transcribing and indexing the journal, further research began. 

Read more about Isaac’s life at Lyn Fenwick’s blog.

Photos by Lyn Fenwick

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