I have on the bookshelves in my den (and on other bookshelves and closets throughout the house) dozens of volumes of my own personal journals. They start with the two volumes I kept during my mission and continue almost interrupted for the last 45 years. This record consists of ring binders, bound journals, day planners, and appointment books cataloging my life on a frequency ranging from daily to bi-weekly.
I am in disbelief of my own industry. I often wonder what is going to become of all these. I would hate to be the editor of my own profuse record keeping. But I’m addicted. I cannot not write. After establishing a 45-year trend, how can one just break it off? But who will be interested in all this? Just as I ask the question, I think I have an answer.
I am reminded of a person who once remarked, “Who would be interested in anything I’ve done or have to say?” He regarded his life as being ordinary. Like most of us, he went to school, got married, got a job, had kids, got up everyday and went to work. He had not risen to high position in the Church, but he was a good and faithful member.
Boring, right? But he forgot to mention that he was an engineer in the early days of the American space program and was one of the foot soldiers in the effort that took mankind to the moon. What he regarded as ordinary, most would regard as extraordinary. Maybe there are no such things as ordinary lives. Everyone has a story to tell, the full significance of which may not be known until life is over. Sometimes ordinary people are witness to extraordinary events, which at the time do not seem special to them. In part, I write because something in my ordinary, everyday life may turn out to be of significance to someone, somewhere, someday as turned out to be the case with the following diarists:
I suspect that most people have never heard of John Jones. He truly was an ordinary man. He even had an ordinary name. He was just a clerk, but it was when and where he was a clerk that is interesting. John Jones was a clerk in the Confederate war department in Richmond, Virginia, during the closing days of the Civil War. He was an inside observer who witnessed the collapse of the Confederacy as the Union slowly tightened its siege around Richmond. He kept a journal and what he wrote everyday makes for dramatic reading. He records the rampant inflation that plagued the city as foodstuffs were choked off as well as the rumors propagated by people whose lives were about to change forever. As Confederate money declined in value, he records,
I saw selling at auction, today, second-hand shirts at $40 each, and blankets at $75. A bedstead, such as I bought for $10, brought $700. But $50 in Confederate States paper are really worth only $1 in specie.”
On January 9th, 1865, he notes that a barrel of flour sold for $700. On January 14th, it was up to $1000 and by January 18th it was $1250.
Almost daily he records hearing the thunder of Union guns down river. War rumors were flying. “A great panic still prevails in the city, arising from rumors of contemplated evacuation.” In April of 1865 Jones switches to hourly updates as Richmond falls to Union forces. He records how the town burns as warehouses are destroyed to prevent stores from falling into the hands of the Yankees. Someone breaks open whiskey barrels from the warehouses and the liquid runs down the gutters where it is scooped up by deserting soldiers and beggars, further adding to the chaos.
He writes of the first Yankee soldiers to appear in town and how President Lincoln rides through the streets of the fallen city. On April 10th he writes, “It is true. Yesterday Gen Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia. . . I never supposed it would end this way.”
Of more interest to Mormon readers may be the diary of Hosea Stout who recorded on an almost daily basis the events of his life from 1844 to 1861. While not at the top of Church leadership, he did serve as chief of police in Nauvoo and Winter Quarters and in a variety of political offices in early Utah. His diary provides a small window into the events of this tumultuous period, particularly the small personal drama of everyday life. His record opens after the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith as life in Nauvoo was spinning out of control.
Hosea was busy patrolling the city looking for infiltrators who would do harm to Church leaders. In an interesting insight into the times, Hosea records how he found time to marry into polygamy and part of his patrolling included visits to his wives. His diary mentions these middle-of-the-night visits and then with a touch of humor euphemistically notes that he “stood guard all night.”
One interesting insight he provides is into the character of Brigham Young whose photographs often show a stern visage but who apparently had a soft side. During the arduous journey from Nauvoo to Winter Quarters, Hosea and his family ran out of provisions. When Brigham Young learned of it he gave him half of what he had. On another occasion when Hosea lay delirious with chills and fever he later recorded,
“Towards evening and before I had fairly come to myself President Young came in & laid hands on me and said that I should get well & that he would let me have anything which I needed either in food or clothing and that he was my friend and would be to all eternity and particularly enjoined it on me to let him know what my wants were. When he first came I was still about half cradled & he said I should recover to which I replied that I knew all the time if he came I would get well.”
Hosea also records Brigham Young telling of a vision he had of Joseph Smith where Joseph told him to counsel the Saints “to keep the quiet spirit of Jesus.” This is an event I have read no where else.
Hosea’s record is replete with human drama. Many entries record the death of loved ones, wives and children, who succumbed to the rigors of the trail. They are heart-rending accounts. He describes his feelings while standing beside yet another open grave. Perhaps the most poignant is his account in 1853 after he returned home to Salt Lake City after serving a mission in China. He arrived to find strangers living in his house. His wife had died and his children had been farmed out among relatives. Recently arrived English converts has been assigned to live in the unoccupied house. On a cold winter’s day he visits her grave.
“This morning early I visited Louisa’s grave by the side of which rest my son who I never saw and my brother’s Charles Heber. Here I must not indulge my feelings in attempting to describe them. How calmly, sadly, happily, seemed to rest her ashes. How quiet seemed that heart which once beat for me so warmly.
Her smiling countenance, but all now rests in death’s embrace while I remain as a blank on earth, a monument of disappointed hopes.”
Of course many early saints kept journals and most recorded similar events. Still, these words of Hosea Stout leap across the years and stab at my heart as if I were there. Hosea was an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary time, but since other Saints were experiencing similar things he probably didn’t regard his life as being worthy of note at the time.
Perhaps the most unique circumstance of diary keeping in my experience were the on-line diarists on the reenactment of the sesquicentennial observation of the 1847 Mormon trek to the West. Margaret Clark of Cedar City, Utah, was one of these. She hiked the trail all the way from Winter Quarters to Utah in the summer of 1997, and at the end of each day she recorded the events of the day and her impressions on a laptop computer. Then, via phone (either landline or cell phone) she uploaded her account to an Internet site. And there I was less than 24 hours later sharing her experience on my office computer. It was a magical summer. She was reliving the experiences of those who had gone that way 150 years before, and because of her diary skills and the wonders of technology I was sharing both hers and theirs vicariously. Her diary served to connect the generations. Consider this poignant diary entry in the form of a poem.
They Are Here
I feel their presence.
I hear their laughing voices in the rustling leaves,
as the South breeze swirls the Nebraska sands.
The slow, lazied Platte River drifts by and
Memories of long ago footsteps remind me that
They are here.
The warm afternoon sun filters through the trees, as
Whispers of long ago travelers proclaim,
“We are here.”
They are here.
I am not alone in my claim.
Others speak softly to me,
“Can you feel they are here?!”
“They are watching us and walking beside us and
impressing us with their thoughts,”
‘Yes, my foot stepped where your foot steps.’
‘You rest your weary legs near where I stopped
to rest…many years ago.’
My friends and I look at each other and we know.
They are here. They are here.
Margaret Clark May 20,1997.
We have to be grateful that Margaret Clark took the time to capture this moment of reverie in her online journal and preserve it so that others might be enriched. Likewise, we all must think about what moments there are in our everyday lives that are worth being preserved for the benefit of others in future generations. We are all tempted to say, “When something extraordinary happens in my life, I’ll write it down.” So we say, but my experience has been that unless we have already established a habit of regular journal entries, we are not likely to take the time when the big event is upon us or even afterward. In a follow-on article I will share my recommendations for keeping a diary, my version of diary writing 101.
John B. Jones, A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary at the Confederate States Capital, Collector’s Library of the Civil War, Time-Life Books, 1983.
Juanita Brooks, ed., On the Mormon Frontier; The Diary of Hosea Stout, 2 Vols, University of Utah Press, 1964.