Using Journals to Learn About the Past

Posted by Lois Ann Mast on

Journals are an amazing source of information. I was recently amazed to read an old journal written in the 1860s by Christian K. Nissley who lived in East Donegal Twp., Lancaster Co., Pa.
Christian was a single man who was only 14 years old when his mother died, and then he died at the young age of 28. His journal is an amazing window into the Civil War time period. In reading his journal, one can easily describe him as self-educated as he wrote in beautiful German Script, but also could write in English.
Christian chose to join his parent’s Mennonite church, but he also admired neighboring Anabaptist groups, especially the closely-related Reformed Mennonites who believed in higher education. He was very dedicated in helping his father on the farm and it was apparent that he worked hard.
The original diary included unique hand-sketched illustrations scattered throughout. In order to share this “window” into Christian’s life, Editor Gerald Kraybill recently published this journal in a hardcover book of 254 pages. It is available for $20 plus $4 shipping from Masthof Bookstore, 219 Mill Road, Morgantown, PA 19543.
Let me share a few extracts that attracted me as I read through this journal.
Jan. 17, 1860 – “Cloudy. Four Sen searchers here.” [Editor: This suggests that this could mean a delegation who had a certain complaint. Probably Sehn Sucher was meant: fugitive hunters or slave hunters. Sehn Sucher could well be a code name of runaway slave hunters. Its literal meaning is one who searches with a passion. The Nissley family was very active in providing meals and lodging for tramps and runaway slaves.]
Apr. 16, 1860 – “Cloudy, rained. I and Christian B. Reist ready to travel to the West and Canada. $100.00. Father took us to Mt. Joy. We went to Jacob Schneiders. (1 ticket to Greensburg $7.25).” [Editor: This day begins an eight-week journey of 2,752 miles by train, carriage, on foot, and by steamboat. The main purpose of the trip was to visit friends and relatives in all the major Mennonite Church settlements in Pa., Ohio, Ind., Ill., Mich., Ont., and N.Y. Christian wrote a detailed account of this trip, traveling 2,030 miles by train, 302 miles by carriage, 120 miles on foot, and 300 miles by steamship, and attended church ten times.]
Dec. 19, 1860 – “Threshed wheat. Abraham Jackson and Isaac Jackson and John helped. Harriet here.” [Editor: Abraham Jackson’s wife was Harriet. Interestingly, Christian’s fathers’ diary says for this day that “Abraham Jackson, his wife, and son, were there that day, plus 2 Negroes.” So is this reference to “Harriet” possibly Harriet Tubman, an African American woman who became famous for her leading runaway slaves to freedom? On May 10, 1860, and October 23, 1860, Peter Nissley’s diary says that “Black Harriet” was there. Peter kept a daily record of how many people were at their farm, including Darkeys (African Americans), 213, and Loafers (Tramps), 225, in 1860. Tally for the year, including many other people whom he mentioned by name, is 1,600. It is astounding what this family did for the poor people who came to their door.]
June 28, 1863 – “In evening, we saw burning of Columbia bridge.”
-Lois Ann Mast, Editor of Mennonite Family History. This was excerpted from a book review published in the Oct. 2016 Mennonite Family History, 219 Mill Road, Morgantown, PA 19543.

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