Diaries and journals (the terms are interchangeable, both denoting a daily record) are fundamental reflections of American identity from colonial times to the present. America’s first diary writers often began their accounts on the ships that brought colonists to the New World and continued to record their experiences and reactions once they arrived. The early diaries often reflect the writers’ perceptions of themselves as religious and political pioneers in a land blessed by Providence and destined for greatness. The religious element continues in many diaries that record America’s development through revolution, industrialization, the westward movement, and wars. While for a few the diary becomes a record of spiritual development, for others the diary records the writers’ reactions to momentous experiences, such as a long journey through strange terrain, or participation in a war. Another common motivation for diaries is primarily literary, with writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, H. L. Mencken, and May Sarton recording the daily observations that might later be included in literary works.
Journals motivated to some degree by travel include that of Sarah Kemble Knight, whose round trip in 1704 from Boston to New York reveals the primitive conditions for travel. Washington Irving’s travel diaries provide substance for his literary tales. John Early, a circuit-riding minister in the early 1800’s, wrote an important diary. William Clark and Meriwether Lewis’ journals of an expedition (1804-1806) to the mouth of the Columbia River reveal new flora and fauna, the vast expanses of the continent, and a view of western native people. John C. Frémont, whose explorations and mapping of the American west prepared the way for further westward expansion, also kept a journal. Caroline Seabury, whose travels from Brooklyn, New York, to Columbus, Mississippi, where she taught the daughters of plantation owners prior to and during the Civil War, writes with a Northern bias about Southern social, political, and military conditions.
Numerous diaries record travel to gold fields in the 1850’s and after. The westward migration to Oregon and California, beginning in the 1840’s, inspired many diaries, and Lillian Schlissel has excerpted from over one hundred of them in Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey (1982).