Manuscript Diaries Tell Tales of a Growing America

A West Point graduate blazes a trail from San Antonio to El Paso. A guard in one of the country’s most notorious prisons notes the silence of the inmates. A sailing master’s wife records her voyage on a whaling vessel bound for Connecticut from Honolulu in 1853. While these could be the most epic and unexpected narrative threads in a new TV series about time travel, each of these are manuscript diaries kept in the mid-nineteenth century that tell the tale of a growing America and can be found in our latest Americana auction catalogue.


The Whiting-Smith Expedition


Two page spread from a manuscript diary.
Lot 200: William Farrar Smith, manuscript diary of an expedition to form a trail from San Antonio to El Paso, 1849. Estimate $30,000 to $40,000.


A manuscript diary by William Farrar Smith documents his time in Texas on the 1849 Whiting-Smith Expedition. Smith embarked on the journey with William H.C. Whiting in order to blaze a trail from San Antonio to El Paso. The route established by Whiting and Smith would come to be extensively used by the United States army, mail stages, cattle drivers and settlers looking to migrate.

After supper three of us crossed over to see the famed El Paso del Norte. The town was prettily laid out & the trees & gardens shamed the mud houses & walls. We visited the house of Mr. [Rufus?] Doane, who treated us as well as possible. Dick & myself, after drinking enough of the Paso wine to acquire a taste for it, slept three in a bed in the house of a namesake of his. . . . Went to the ball at Lyle’s, I bettering my appearance only by a borrowed white shirt. Danced once with the woman I fell in love with & helped to drink up all the wine & then slept in the groom’s house.


Two page spread from a manuscript diary with a doodle of a landscape.
Lot 200: William Farrar Smith, manuscript diary of an expedition to form a trail from San Antonio to El Paso, 1849. Sold for $47,500.


In addition to commentary on hospitality in El Paso and the arduous terrain they found on their route, the diary records various dramatic encounters with Apaches, including the widely feared Chief G√≥mez. While Whiting’s diary from the trek was published in the early twentieth century, Smith’s unpublished record is a true Wild West saga that forms a more comprehensive narrative of the expedition.

More excerpts from the diary can be found in the full catalogue entry.


Rhode Island State Prison


Two page spread of a manuscript diary.
Lot 177: Robert C. Dickey, manuscript diary of a guard at the Rhode Island State Prison in Providence, 1867. Sold for $2,250.


Robert C. Dickey kept a diary during his time as a prison guard at the Rhode Island State Prison in Providence in 1867, in which he writes about his charges, noting that the prison was an unusually austere place, explaining, “A man committed for debt . . . seemed very talkative, but was told we did not have much talking here, and he was much surprised, as many others are and have been before,” and the new warden, General Nelson Viall.

The prison had been a state-of-the-art facility when constructed in 1838, but its tiny cells, smaller isolation cells, and lack of recreation space literally drove prisoners insane, and by the time Dickey kept his diary the state was looking for new quarters. The prison was abandoned in 1878, demolished for a state college satellite campus, and then used as a rubble-strewn parking lot in the shadow of the state capitol building. An archaeological dig in 1997 brought a flurry of renewed interest to the possibly haunted site; it is now occupied by the north end of the massive Providence Place Mall, rarely contemplated by the diners at the Cheesecake Factory.


Whaling Expeditions


Two page spread of a manuscript diary with whale stamps on the pages.
Lot 229: Alida Taber, manuscript diary kept by the wife of whaling captain, 1853-61. Sold for $15,000.


Marie R. A. “Alida” Lehongre was born on the British island colony of Mauritius to French parents. Her diary recounts her life married to whaling master George Taber of Acushnet, MA, and includes her time on two expeditions, the first from Honolulu to Connecticut in 1853. The diary is divided into three sections, with the middle section kept like a ships log, but recording days in New England while her husband was at sea. The third and last section records her time on a whaling mission in 1860 off Rodrigues Island, near Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, with 25 inked whale stamps noting their success.


Photograph image of Alida Taber in her manuscript diary.
Lot 229: Alida Taber, manuscript diary kept by the wife of a whaling captain, 1853-61. Estimate $4,000 to $6,000.


Read More: What Makes an Old Diary Valuable?

For more manuscript diaries, our Printed & Manuscript Americana auction catalogues.