Identifying the Unidentified

Kathleen Major has been volunteering in the Manuscripts Department at AAS for several years. She worked at AAS from 1976 to 1984 and was Keeper of Manuscripts for a portion of that time. After leaving the Society to care for her children, Kathy worked at the Gale Free Library in Holden, most recently as head of technical services, until her retirement in 2014.

A large number of unidentified diaries have been purchased by or donated to AAS in the last several years, and it’s been a fun challenge for those of us cataloging manuscripts to attempt to identify the diarists by searching for any clues that might spoil the anonymity of the writers. We can then move the diaries to the identified category, thus making them more accessible to researchers.

Two such diarists were recently exposed through evidence offered to us in the journals via references to the given names of siblings and cousins, possible locations, and occupations. These clues were then fed into and other websites. A gift of the Uxbridge Free Public Library has now been identified as the diary of Frederick Taft (1759-1846), covering the period 1837 to 1843. A Revolutionary War veteran, Taft was a prominent member of the Uxbridge community and was a prosperous farmer and cranberry grower. He was a distant ancestor of President William Howard Taft.

A greater challenge was an unidentified diary from 1817, given to AAS by member Ross W. Beales Jr. (elected 1982). After quite a bit of digging and using the process of elimination concerning references to nearby towns, siblings’ first names, and, finally, a reference to “cousin Wheeler,” I determined that the diarist was Claudius Wheeler (1790-1863). Wheeler was the son of a prosperous merchant and farmer who had also served in the Revolutionary Army. What is especially interesting about the diary is Wheeler’s reference to Conradt Burghardt, who owned the mill that processed Wheeler’s wood in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Knowing that the sociologist, historian, and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) was from Great Barrington and that the “B” in his name stands for Burghardt, we were able to determine, following additional research, that Conradt Burghardt’s Dutch colonial ancestors, also named Conradt, had been the owners of a slave named Thomas, who assumed the Burghardt surname and settled in Great Barrington as a freeman after serving in the Continental Army. He was the great-great grandfather of W.E.B. DuBois, although the diary does not appear to have any references to the “black Burghardts” of Great Barrington (DuBois’s grandfather, Othello Burghardt, was living in the town in 1817).

It is always very rewarding to find the key that will unlock the anonymity of these diarists, especially when the result becomes a piece in the puzzle of another story.

4 thoughts on “Identifying the Unidentified”

  1. Indeed information about Coonradt Burghardt is interesting, in no small part because of the connection to W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois’s ancestry has been a source of speculation since Du Bois applied to be a Son of the Revolution. So thanks for bringing this diary to light. And I am curious about the sources used to relate the story of Thomas. Would you mind passing them along?

    1. The Burghardt-DuBois connection is fascinating, I agree! To answer your question, Kathy used David Levering Lewis’s W. E. B. Du Bois, 1868-1919: Biography of a Race as a source for the story about Thomas.

      1. Thanks. You can’t get a better biography on Du Bois. Nancy Muller’s dissertation at UMass anthropology department notes that Du Bois canvased his relatives and there was disagreement among them. She was working with the Du Bois Papers that are now online at UMass Amherst Special Collections

        Bob Paynter

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