Everyday mysteries of the archives

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Part of the fun of looking through archival material is solving mysteries. When we don’t know much about the provenance of the collection –when there’s only the material itself to go on –that mystery is even more challenging, but potentially more fun.

What we know about Archibald McLauchlin: he was from North Carolina, he settled in Wilcox County, Alabama, and he wrote at least two diaries. One ran January 1854 to March 1856; the other picks up where the previous left off, continues through the middle of 1857, and then makes a leap to January 1870.


Based on the entries themselves, we learn that McLauchlin was educated at a university, had in fact been in school a couple of semesters already when he began writing. From that first diary, we get sense of what day-to-day life was like at an American university in the middle of the 19th century.

Feb. 10, 1854 – Calculus and Demonsthenes


Feb. 26, 1854 – A sermon at chapel (on Ephesians 5:14)


March 22, 1855 – History, Rhetoric, French…and snow!


Feb. 2, 1856 – Studies interrupted by friends on a slushy day


March 6, 1856 – Recovering from an illness (begun Feb. 27)



We also know that in 1870, he started recording his first six months as a full-time farmer. The second diary gives us a glimpse of the life of a planter in post-Civil War Alabama.

Jan. 1, 1870 – “First efforts at farming for a living”


April 12, 1870 – Planting corn and cotton



But what did he do in the dozen or so years in between?

Luckily for us history detectives, the collection also contains several letters to and from friends and family, some of them written by Archie himself. This letter to his sister in 1861 provides some clues. From page one:

I am now at home, have been here nearly two weeks, our Regt was disbanded owing to the thinning of our ranks by the conscript. I did not stay quite a month. Spent about twenty dollars got no joy, and don’t know whether I will or not. When I came home it was time my crop had been worked over, but it was not, the man that I expected to work it the first time was about to get our of it by saying, he could not, do it for he was not done planting himself. The war is making people very selfish here, every one is looking after their own interest…

Of course, this letter muddies the waters as much as it clears things up. Why was his regiment disbanded? What was he doing during the war if not fighting?

Check out the rest of the collection to do some further sleuthing. Maybe you can find out he thought about transitioning from university life, with its Greek orators and calculus, to life as a cotton farmer.

This entry was posted in Agriculture, Diaries and Journals, Letters, Small Collections, Southern History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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