Keeping a Diary

Duration: Minimum 10 minutes daily
Recommended Ages: Anyone who can write without supervision.
Description: Diaries can help both the writer and later historians to understand the events of a particular time. Prompts in this activity will help you figure out what to write and guide you to think about how diaries can be used as historical sources.

Primary Sources: Diaries

On April 18, 1769, George Mason went to the home of his neighbor George Washington. Together, the men spent the next two days riding the boundary of their land, completing surveying work. After they agreed on the exact edge of their properties, George Mason sold some of his land to George Washington  In the afternoon Mason returned home to Gunston Hall.

How do we know what Mason and Washington were doing on those four days? Because Washington kept a diary.

People write journals and diaries for many reasons. Sometimes it is because of extraordinary events in the world. Some people find writing every day or two helps them organize their thoughts and memories. George Washington kept a diary most of his life.  He included details about unusual life events like his trip to Barbados and his time fighting in the French and Indian War. He also wrote about the day-to-day activities on his plantation. John Adams was another consistent diarist. Adams started his diary when he was a boy.  He mixed descriptions of his daily life with many other kinds of information. Adams used his diary to keep track of his expenses. Sometimes he copied down favorite poems.

Famous individuals are not the only ones who keep diaries. Philip Vickers Fithian was a tutor who kept a diary while working at a Virginia plantation in 1773-74. He wrote about the differences in daily life in Virginia versus his home in New Jersey.  Elizabeth Drinker recorded so many details of her life in Philadelphia that throughout her life, she filled 36 blank books.

All diaries are important to historians. The diaries of Washington, Adams, Fithian, and Drinker help us better understand life in the 18th century.

Since many of George Mason’s peers kept diaries, it is likely he did, too. Unfortunately, over time, lots of historical documents get lost.  No one has ever found Mason’s diary.

Today, many people who have never kept a diary are trying it out. Many new diarists think that it will be important to remember what life was like during the coronavirus pandemic. These documents will help the people who write them remember this time.  And, they may become important primary sources for historians of the future.

You too can write a diary or journal about your experiences.

Activity: Starting your Journal or Diary

What you need:
Pen or pencil
Notebook, bound journal, or lined paper


Computer or voice recorder

There is no wrong or right way to keep a diary. If you need help, try these prompts or hints.

1. If you’re having trouble getting started, try introducing who you are, where you live, what your family is like, or something similar.

2. Describe your day. How has your routine changed? What would you be doing normally, and why aren’t you?

3. Are there things that you miss? Are there things that you like more? Why?

4. Did something funny happen today?

5. Provide as much detail as you want. Washington’s diary entries are sometimes very short, while Adams frequently wrote several paragraphs describing everything he did. Don’t stress about including every detail however. It is impossible to write down every little thing that happened or affected your day.

After you’ve written your diary or journal entry, think about the following:

6. What were some of the details you included, and why were they important to you?

7. What were some of the details you did not write down? Does it matter that you did not include them?

8. Imagine you are a historian in the future using your journal or diary as a primary source. What questions might that historian have about your life?

More about using diaries and journals as sources

Diaries and journals are some of the most important sources historians have for learning about colonial life.. These documents give us details about everyday activities and feelings that do not usually appear in other kinds of sources such as letters, newspapers, paintings, official documents, and objects from the past.

Not everyone was able to keep a diary. Paper was very expensive, and many people did not have enough for a diary. Plus, many people who lived during the colonial period could not write. Even some people who knew how to read never learned how to form letters themselves. In Virginia, most white men knew how to write their names, and about half of white women could do the same. We do not know how many white people could read. Historians estimate that fewer than 10 percent of people who were enslaved could read or write. A few more free black Virginians had those skills.

Because most diaries that have survived from the colonial period are from wealthy people, we know more details about their lives than we do the lives of other people.