“I believe I will write a journal, said sister A. a few days ago,” Celestia Lee wrote in the first entry of her diary on July 5th, 1863. “It will be so novel like, and good to refer to, when I get old. That’s just it; I want to begin now; I will too said I; it will be so nice.”
The diary is part of the Celestia Lee Barker Papers (MS-246). Celestia Lee was born April 23, 1846, in Springwater, Livingston County, New York. In April 1855, when she was nine years old, her family moved to Macksburg, Madison County, Iowa. She began writing her diary when she was 17, and so perhaps it is not surprising that within the first few pages, we hear a description of a “beau” of hers:
Wm [William] accompanied me home from church yesterday. He did not come in but said if it was agreeable he would call in the evening. I consented and he went off. …Towards dark I was fixing up a little of course, and E. began about his coming. She had her own fun about it, and said she intended to sit up as long as I did. I told her I did not care, and perhaps C. would come too. She did not think he would; but time proved quite to the contrary, for soon there appeared to [sic] young men who took a beeline for our house….E. and C. were quite bashfull [sic] and did not have much to say, but Wm. and I had a real time.
By September, she writes about an unexpected change in her life. She has left home to attend a school (“seminary,” as she calls it) in Indianola. “A., H & [?] had been talking of coming here but I did not think as I could come till ma said I could if I wanted to. At first I thought it was impossible for there was so much to do at home but she argued it all away & the consequence was that I am here ready to begin studies,” she writes in her entry for Sept. 15, 1863.
She continues to keep in touch with William. On Sept. 18 she writes, “Rec’d a letter from Wm. this morning. He is most well & will start for the Reg’t before long.” As you might have noticed, she began keeping her diary during the Civil War.
She writes about school… “I like the Teacher very well & the scholars too, & had several new ones this week. One young man named Shepherd. Mattie calls him brother. He is real good looking.” (Sept. 22, 1863)
…and social life… “Mat & I called on the other ‘old maids’ the other eve. O we had a splendid time pulling candy.” (Oct. 10, 1863)
…and loneliness… “O why do I feel so lonely & forsaken today as if I was alone from home & among strangers who cared nothing for me nor I for them. My thoughts turn to the past like a troubled dream & then to the future with appears so dark.
“I was out to the [?] last night & that accounts for it. It is the way with me generally after I have been so gay & they had music & dancing there. Farewell to fashionable society. I think I have witnessed you for the last time as a participator. I am sick of it. It is nothing but deceit adorned with gaudy trappings.” (Oct. 21, 1863)
Celestia kept her diary for about four years. In 1866, she got married to her beau William Barker. Her entry of May 10, 1866, begins, “Dear Journal how you are neglected of late & you have been such a faithful friend of my girlhood & these days will soon be over then this volume will be done & another begun then what will be the record.” Further on she continues, “We are to be married the 6th of Sept. & so much to do before that I intend to get the house plastered & things comfortable for ma before I leave her. That is my only grief & fear nothing in the future for myself. Wm. is as devoted as I could wish when we are alone but in public he hardly notices me & I hardly like such a marked difference but it is his way I supposed. He says he can’t understand me yet I am so different from others & I surely don’t understand him but I do not doubt his love.”
There follows several blank pages before there are some poems.
She took up her diary again with an entry from April 23, 1881, that begins, “Well well here I am 35 ys. old today. What an old lady I am to be sure but don’t know as I feel any older than I did at 20 & people do say I have not changed much in looks. I do believe a great deal depends on keeping the heart young to keep our looks young & my life seems such a happy one with such a good man & 4 good smart children.”
Further pages include pasted clippings of poems and periodic diary entries. Her final entry is dated Apr 23d 1904, and begins, “Dear old journal it has been long long since I have written & now this is my 58 birthday & how busy I have been.” She writes that they now live in Denver, Colorado, “& have a beautiful home far nicer than I ever dreamed of having.” She reflects back on her life, noting,
How much I have to be thankful for & how often I have proved the old song I have always loved, ‘Ever down to old age all my people shall prove my sovereign eternal unchangeable love And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn Like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.’ Blessed promise blessed hope but it seems as if I am getting only as I look in the glass for I am most always so old.”
A bittersweet reflection for one who was only (at least from a modern perspective) 41 years old. But all-in-all this diary presents a remarkable look at the life and reflections of a 19th century Iowa woman from youth through adulthood.
This diary can be viewed online in Digital Collections.