Diaries are personal and confidential works of our own creation. They can be our mini biographies which we may or may not wish for others to see. About 9 years ago when I started my career in public history I began seriously keeping a diary. I have written stories of encounters with visitors, research projects, successes and failures. But it was the words of a dairy keeper who had been dead for well over a century that inspired me to express my feelings in such a primitive media. The inspiring documents are the dairies of Nathaniel Booth. Booth was a transplanted Englishman who kept detailed dairies on the happenings of his life, political beliefs, and events around the Hudson River Valley. He was diligent and very opinionated about all of the things he witnessed or had heard about. He wrote down his interests, his desires, the good times, and the bad. All of these images flowed elegantly onto the pages of his books no matter where he traveled or what the circumstances.
Nathaniel Booth fascinated myself and a few eager historians at Senate House State Historic site as we transcribed and typed out the words this man never imagined anyone would read. We all seemed to have feelings of love and frustration for this character, who until fairly recently had been all but forgotten. Now his name has made it into the press thanks to his crumbling home on the edge of Wilbur Avenue in downtown Kingston. Efforts are being made to save the home of a man that time would have forgotten. What makes him so special? What makes his journals so significant? What do we really know about this man that makes his home so worth the efforts to save?
Nathaniel was born in Manchester England in 1819. His parents brought him and his two brothers to America in the 1830′s. Like so many immigrants to these shores, they wanted to succeed and live the American dream. He spent some time living near Washington D.C. where he married his first wife Mary Ellen Lipscomb of Richmond Virginia on October 24th 1844. He neglected to write about the excitement leading up to his big day and apologized to his diary for the lapse in action.
January 1st 1845
“My poor old journal – the companion of what would otherwise have been many a lonesome hour – a record of thoughts and incidents that would otherwise have been forgotten – how you have been neglected – three months have passed in which to me events great & momentous have transpired yet not one line in evidence appears upon your pages – you have been laid aside at a time when you should have been most used – at a time when your pages would have presented events more interesting than have hereto occurred in the annals of my life – But you have not been entirely forgotten no though suffered to lie neglected – laid aside thoughts fond and affectionate have reverted to you and now when leisure enables me to darken your fair face once more we —- Ha! What’s that? We? yes, we – but “hereby hangs a tale” – we I say have reproduced you to chronicle the second grand era in a man’s life ‘Marriage’”
Not long after his marriage to Ellen the couple gave birth to a girl. Booth wrote for what seemed like pages and pages of the excitement of becoming of father. He was quite pleased with his new family life but longed for something more profitable than the work his was doing in D.C. The idea of heading out west for work both tempted and scared him. He continued to write about the events around him while he pondered following his friends west for fortune. He talked about those involved in the temperance movement who couldn’t seem to stay the course and were found drunk. He wrote about his disgust for women who were interested in doing the work of men. “I cannot bear a woman in a public capacity like this. Fairs I detest, female preachers, female lecturers and the whole tribe women who seek notoriety away from their proper sphere.” Booth even managed to find time to write about his hatred for his neighborhood’s cat problem and how he intended to take care of it.
September 8th 1845
“The Gentlemen and Lady cats of the neighborhood have lately made our garden a place of assignation – an Elysian fields – Vaux Hall garden or Point Comfort – and many of them hold choir meetings in the kitchen where they sing solos – duets – trios – quartettes – and concertos with original accompaniments while a jubilees swain or two will curse, swear, and spit at and fight each other on the roof – or perhaps two or three of meandering dispositions will make a voyage of discovery through the house in search of cream jugs &c. – Set a noose for them and rejoice in anticipation of a deep revenge – how glorious it will be to see one or two of them next morning swinging between the floor and ceiling – with its music silenced forever”
After having enough of the D.C. area (and its cats) Booth decided to pack up his family and head out west. He intended to work hard and make good money but instead he lost out on the love of his life. Ellen took ill within a year of their settling in Missouri and died on August 21st 1846. Booth was heartbroken and wrote tenderly of his beloved wife including poems of his love and lost. It didn’t take long before he decided to come back to where his parents had settled here in the Hudson River Valley. Here is where he seemed to find at least some form of fortune and happiness again.
He got into the business of trade and running a store in Wilbur or downtown Kingston. He wrote a long passage on the area and his store and he didn’t seem to have much confidence in either. Concerning his store he wondered about the plans behind whoever had originally built it when he sarcastically remarked “by whom it was designed or after what order is lost in obscurity. I do not think it was after any model or Michael Angelo or Sir Christopher Wren.” He went on to say, “It must be original. The master mind that conceived the original plan could never stop to borrow any of the details.” Within the surrounding area he referred to the Twaalfskill brook which lies directly across from his store and home as a beautiful sight but of the village around him he thought “an imaginative mind would suppose a wagon load of houses had been “dumped” from above which stuck fast where they struck and consider it miraculous that they did not fall bottom upwards.”
From this area he could watch all aspects of life and today what we consider to be historic events were quite regular and mundane to him. The moving of bluestone towards the creek where it was loaded onto ships. The harvesting of ice from the creek in the winter where it was then stored in ice houses nearby. One of the great concerns of the 19th century which is no longer a threat in our time was the surge of Cholera that managed to make its way into the Kingston and Rondout area by 1849. He wrote of the fear that spread through his community.
June 25th 1849
“The Cholera had made its appearance in Rondout – four deaths occurring last night – Morning cooler than usual – a man found dead in the Creek and a woman found dead on the road near Kingston last night – People look very grave and thoughtful – the terrible disease is now amongst us and no one knows how soon his time may come – Many are so alarmed that they are throwing their garden stuff over the fence fearing its very growth will bring the epidemic to their house”
When he came to the end of his first of many books he felt the need to thank his diary as if it were a trusted friend who kept all of his memories and secrets.
“My book is now full – for five years it has been my companion – my friend – I feel an affection for it I could not have conceived possible – With all its faults I love it and when years have given it their charm it will be one of the dearest treasures I possess – Like good wine it will improve by age and I look forward with pleasure to the time when reopened I will peruse its contents and revive old scenes – that were otherwise forgotten”
Booth would go on to write more diaries and make more memories including marrying again and continuing to pursue his business ventures along the Hudson. Like so many of us living in this valley he worked and enjoyed the pursuit of a happy, prosperous, and true American life. His writings remain a wealth of information on what that journey looked like for those living here over 100 years ago. Booth’s words, life, and home should not be forgotten.