Thursday, August 23, 2012

121st COGs Great Discoveries; Discovering J.P. McPherson's Diary

Diary of James Peter McPherson,
Dates back to 1850
Courtesy of the Margaret B. McPherson Burmeister Family

Back in the 1990s, when I was a child, genealogically speaking, the first indication of the existence of the diary of James Peter McPherson emerged. A cousin of my McPherson aunties - and my dad, of course -- was interested in updating a variety of family trees. My mother dutifully gathered our family information and  sent the family group sheets to cousin Shirley.

A few months later, family members received a copy of the information that she had put together. Although I was moderately interested, I was also in the process of winding down the business I had started nearly two decades before. I remembered reading the hand-scrawled letter with information about my great-great grandparents, James Peter and Mary Burns McPherson. Yes, and I even remembered being slightly annoyed that there was no signature or date on the document. The letter and the time-consuming family tree constructed by cousin Shirley found its place in the bookshelf, where it lived, untouched for several years.

Later, during a trip to visit the last three of my McPherson aunties, two of the aunties brought out a box of letters that their brother Ralph had written to them. The letters, written in the 1980s, were a treasure trove of family history, old and new, as well as a wonderful commentary of an everyday-sort-of-man about his current life, southern California and the country as a whole. From that time on, my genealogy focus moved more towards the McPherson line of my father.

And so it was, one day I pulled out that notebook to peruse the family tree, and I came across the old, hand-scrawled letter. For the first time, I read not only the words, but examined the handwriting, and took in the essence. I realized that this was not really a letter, but hand written notes, four pages of memories about my great-great grandparents, their travel to America from Scotland and their life in America. As I read, it was obvious that the author of these words, was a child of James P. and Mary B. McPherson, and from the wording, most likely a daughter. Then the book along with the hand-written pages moved to the forefront of my genealogy library.

Even then, I missed the crucial words which would later send me on a nearly five-year search. I had been reading for content, you know, what they did and when they did it. Then one day, these words finally edged their way into my working brain -- Notes from Father's Diary was the heading for a list of marriages performed by J. P. McPherson, a Justice of the Peace. I had read and re-read the list of names and marriage dates, committing them to memory. Then one day, this fuzzy little brain of mine kept nudging me until I internalizing the fact that there was a DIARY.  Then the search was on!

Because I thought the pages appeared to be written by a daughter, it seemed that Margaret Burns McPherson, the youngest daughter of James and Mary was the most likely author. (This proved to be true because a few years later, I found the notes, authored by Margaret Burmeister, included in The Centennial History of the Town of Springdale, Dane County, Wisconsin, 1848-1948.) She died in 1959 at the age of 92 and was until then the last surviving child of the family. Maggie, as she was called in the family, married Carl Burmeister, but I dinna have much any current information about their children or grandchildren, other than they seemed to be settled in Wisconsin.

Not to be deterred. From the computer, I searched and made a list of likely sounding names of Burmeister folks living around Madison. I had some very nice conversations with a few unrelated Burmeisters before I hit pay dirt. Sadly, it was the recently bereaved widow of a grandson of Maggie Burmeister, who directed me to her husband's sisters. I called the first sister, who said to call the next sister, and then onto the third sister. Great contacts I made with these cousins, whom I treasure to this day. I remember when I called cousin L. I introduced myself as a McPherson relative. She hesitated. Then she said, “I don't know that we are related, my family was McFearson” with a strong accent on FEARson. I laughed and said I thought it was just that living in the west had softened the sounds as surely as the wind softened the harsh edges of our mountains. She wasn't too sure, but we talked of family, and sure enough her grandmother was my great-grandfather's baby sister.

Then we started talking about the diary. She said that she thought that years ago her older sister had donated it to the Wisconsin Historical Museum and Library. That was enough for me.  I then contacted the State Historical Library. Talked to many very nice people who searched and searched for the diary of James Peter McPherson. They found a number of articles about him, as well as a couple of articles and pieces written by him, but no diary. "Check again," I said, "I'm sure it's there.” Being nice folk, they checked again, but still no diary.

Then back to cousin L. "No diary at the State Historical Library," I say to her. So L begins her own search. A few weeks letter, she writes to tell me that she has found the diary in her sister's collection of family artifacts. She even sends a copy of a couple of pages to me and tells me that the diary is too fragile to copy more and this is all there is.

I am thrilled and devastated at the same time.  Reading J.P.'s words was thrilling, but devastating that there wasn't more. L and I talked often over the next few weeks and months. She told me that the diary is a fairly large book, but is very faded at the beginning and some pages are falling out --- too fragile to copy.

My dad taught me that there was always more than one way to skin a cat, which in our terms meant if you can't do something one way, you try another ---and another -- and another --- and another, until you find a way that worked. A trait I had adhered to all through my life, but was not always appreciated by others. In this case, back to the historical library. Yes, they worked with very old and fragile manuscripts all the time, and they would be delighted to copy the diary, and provide a free copy to the family (L's) and make copies at nominal price for other family members. That dinna happen. Then I checked with a local historical library closer to L, but that dinna happen either.

I cogitated on the diary and it became an obsession. During this period, a blogger that I follow had written about photographing boxes of old family letters in a library. WOW! If I couldn't get the diary to come to me, then I would go to the diary – camera in hand. About this time, I had come into closer contact with another McPherson cousin, B, who also lived in Wisconsin. He and I talked about the Diary as though it was the Holy Grail and we were the Searchers. I told him about my idea to come to Wisconsin and photograph the Diary. A plan, we agreed. We tentatively scheduled the trip for October or November, 2010. 

This was a big trip for me. What to do with my dog! Can I still get around in airports or even railway stations with my cane and gimpy leg? It was rather expensive and no one really wanted to go with me, so I'd have to make the trip alone. I blew hot and I blew cold, but all the while I checked train and plane schedules. The day that I almost threw in the towel – just too much to think about, cousin B wrote that he would pick me up from where ever, by train or by plane, and tote me around Wisconsin. It was meant to be. Wisconsin and Diary, here I come. I called cousin L with the news and a date. She would bring the Diary as well as boxes of pictures and letters so that we could photograph these treasures.  A party in the making.

Reservations were made at an Inn near Madison. On November, 4th, cousin B plucked me from the airport and we met cousin L, her daughter D, and L' s older sister E who also had boxes of pictures and treasures. I counted my blessings for cousin B because he really is a good photographer and his skills at the computer are those of a professional whereas I can do it, but it's not pretty or fast. On Friday morning, we met at the Inn's continental breakfastroom to plan out our attack for the day. Then as soon as the other Inn guests departed the area, we turned the meeting room into our work room. Computers set up, boxes of pictures and letters sorted, we told stories, scanned pictures, and finally we turned our attention to the Holy Grail, the Diary. The camera and book mount that I made dinna work so cousin B photographed each page free hand, while L and I carefully and reverently turned the pages. B photographed the original book which had over 300 pages, and then the surviving parts of two other ledger-type diaries. All day Friday and Saturday morning, our little cadre of cousins worked – and bonded – over stories, pictures and the Diary.

Just before noon on Saturday, B and I helped L and daughter D load their boxes of pictures, letters and the precious Diary. We waved a fond good-bye to them as they headed to their homes up north. B and I then headed out to view the land where our great-great grandparents had lived, and finally the Verona Cemetery where they now rest, along with three of their children.
Gravestone for 
James P. & Mary B. McPherson,
Verona Cemetery, Verona, Wisconsin
Courtesy of B Mansur and JGH Roots'n'Leaves Publications

 I thanked B profusely for agreeing to tote me around Wisconsin and most of all, for being there because I dinna think I could have done it -- at least not completed the project -- without him. He laughed and told me that there would not have been a "project" if I had not come to Wisconsin from Oregon to photograph the Diary. O yeah, we had (and still have) a mutual admiration society going on between the two of us.

B took all of the scans and photographs home to organize. He really is very much a professional at this sort of thing. A couple of months later, B sent each of us a very nice cd which had a copy of the Diary and all the letters and pictures we had scanned. Since that time, whenever I have a few extra minutes, I have been transcribing J.P.'s Diary – which only was a possibility because one day those words edged into my conscious brain,  
 Notes from Father's Diary.

~ ~ ~
 © Joan Hill, Roots'n'Leaves Publications


  1. Oh, Joan, reading your description of your working meeting with cousins brings back memories. Such a wonderful feeling to know you are productively pursuing preserving family memories--snatched from the clutches of "too fragile" to be shared with future generations!

    1. Thanks, Jacqui. It did indeed feel like we snatched the diary (as well as some wonderful letters and pictures) from oblivion, to rot away in some dusty attic or something. I felt like we should have been wearing white cotton gloves, but then it seemed rather silly as we dug around in old dusty cardboard boxes.

  2. What an amazing story! So glad you pulled off the great diary photographing trip!

    1. Carol, I have often moaned, groaned and laughed over this story, but never thought about writing it down. Good old COG gave me the push.

  3. What a great story, Joan. I'm so pleased that you didn't give up, and now everyone can have digital copies of the diary and letters. Good for you :-) Jo

  4. Thanks, Jo. Writing about this search and discovery has given me renewed impetus to get back to seriously transcribing this treasure of ours. Thanks again for reading.

  5. What a wonderful story! The amount of effort that it took to get it makes the diary even more special. It's awesome how you were able to find a way to "skin the cat", and it's cool how you got to know relatives you hadn't known before.

  6. yeah, when I am on the search I just keep on going until I find what I am looking for ---- sometimes it takes longer, much longer, than I had hoped for. The diary took nearly 5 years from the time I actually realized that there was a diary until I had it in my hands. What a joy that was!

  7. This is a great post Joan, and shows the benefits of perseverance. How wonderful to have a partner in crime to help you on the way and share the discoveries. You must have been beside yourself with excitement!

  8. Everyone should be so lucky to have a cousin like B. I am not sure that I could have pulled it off without him --- he is really quite a good photographer, and his computer skills are way more than mine. A great guy. Thanks for noticing my buddy.

  9. Wow! Great story Joan, what won't we do for our genealogies? You should be proud to have preserved the diary for future generations.

  10. So glad you stuck with it, Joan!! It is a gem!!

  11. I'm so glad, Joan, that you shared this story of your persistence in searching for this treasured family diary! I loved reading about your adventures and can SO RELATE to the emotional ups and downs in the process, and the wondering - is this worth all this time and effort and bothering of distant relatives?

    Of course it is, we always see in the end. Yet, the struggle can be so time-consuming, energy-consuming and emotionally draining. How wonderful that your efforts paid off and now J.P. MacPhearson's diary can be shared with many generations and become part of the historical record instead of potentially being lost in spite of the care of a well-meaning descendant.

    I'm glad that Jasia's carnival inspired you to write out your story. I think it will inspire many other researchers (including myself) to persist in our efforts to preserve those precious documents that make up our family history.

    1. Lisa, thank your for your kind and thoughtful (and thought provoking) words. You are right, the trip back to Wisconsin was full of emotional ups and downs, but I am so glad that I made the effort. Thanks again for reading and commenting.