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Image: Idaho Mountain Express.

How does our history get made? More often than not through stories. When we get information showing that the stories are not quite accurate, we learn to tell new stories. One of my most squeamish story narrations occurred when I had visitors from China at Thanksgiving and they were asking a lot of questions about what we call the First Thanksgiving. That happened to me nearly 20 years ago. It was a kind of turning point, when I knew I had to start cleaning up my stories.

Today’s article is about finding original documentation that confirms details learned about Betsy Ross years after the flag legend took flight.

Natalie Pompilio writes at the Washington Post, “It began with an unmarked, unremarkable box tucked in a corner of a garage in California. Inside, under miscellaneous letters and old high school yearbooks, was a smaller shoe box. Inside that, under old coins and a numismatist pamphlet, lay the 240-year-old diary of sailor John Claypoole, a Revolutionary War prisoner of war and later the third husband of the flagmaker known as Betsy Ross.

“ ‘It was wrapped in a piece of paper that said, “John Claypoole diary to be handled with great care,” which was sort of funny as we found it in a paper shoe box in a box in this garage,’ recalled Aileen Edge, who with her husband uncovered the priceless item in her mother’s Marin County home in June 2020.

“In the journal, Claypoole describes his capture by the British while a privateer at sea, being charged with high treason for ‘being found in arms and in open rebellion’ against the king, and his time at Old Mill Prison near Plymouth. He wrote about the hardships of life in captivity; about another inmate’s escape attempt that ended with the man being shot; about watching, in March 1782, as ‘M. Joseph Ashburn departed this life after an illness of about a week which he bore with amazing fortitude & resignation.’

“At the time of his death, Joseph Ashburn was married to Betsy Ross. Her first husband, John Ross, had also died during the war.

“The diary predates Claypoole’s relationship with Ross, so she is not mentioned in it. But the document, and a Claypoole family Bible found around the same time, gives perspective to Ross’s place in the nation’s founding, said Philip Mead, chief historian and curator at Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution, which put both items on exhibit during the July Fourth weekend. While a transcription of Claypoole’s diary has existed for years, this is proof that what it contained is correct.

“ ‘This really taps into the profound sacrifices she and her family made to create the United States. Whether she created the first flag or not, she certainly helped create the country,’ Mead said.

‘It’s crucial to have the original documents because they are the only unimpeachable sources. It wasn’t that we didn’t know about these great sacrifices, but this confirms it.’

“Two entries in the Claypoole Bible, which has never been documented before, further emphasize the family’s commitment to the American experiment. The first notes the Ross-Claypoole union: ‘John Claypoole and Elizabeth were married the 8th day of May in the year of our Lord 1783 and in the 8th year of Independence of the United States of America.’

“The second entry records the birth of a son to John Claypoole’s sister: ‘Alexander Trimble son of James and Clarissa Sidney Trimble Born the 20th of March 1783, 12 minutes before ten o’clock PM (being the day that Hostilities ceased between the United States of America and Great Britain, after a long and cruel war.)’

“ ‘The fact that they give Christian year and the years since independence shows how sacred the country had become to them through their many sacrifices,’ Mead said. ‘Betsy Ross herself didn’t leave much in the way of personal testimony so we have to get at her thinking by reading the words of people close to her or learning about her business from the surviving invoices or accounts.’ …

“Edge’s mother, Claire Canby Keleher, was the famous flagmaker’s great-great-great-granddaughter and fiercely proud of her family’s role in the nation’s birth. … Donating the book to the Museum of the American Revolution in the names of Keleher and her late brother, Wilbur Wood Canby, seemed like the natural thing to do. …

“ ‘My brother and I talked about if one of us kept it, we’d just wrap it up and keep it safe and what’s really gained by that?’ Edge asked. …

“Some important details of who Betsy Ross was and what she did during the American Revolution remain murky. The story that appears in elementary school books holds that in 1776, Gen. George Washington, then commander of the Continental Army, went to Ross’s shop in Philadelphia with a sketch for a new flag. …

“Those who doubt the first flag story note there are no diaries, newspaper accounts or letters showing that Washington sought out Ross’s skills or that the pair knew each other. There’s no mention of Ross in founding documents. Her connection to the flag was unknown until her grandson wrote a book about the family’s story in the 1870s.

“Supporters say that Ross’s grandson had no reason to lie and that he presented sworn affidavits from family members testifying they’d grown up hearing the family tale.

“In 2014, curators at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate found a receipt for bed furnishings paid to a Mr. Ross of Philadelphia dated 1774, proving Washington and Ross were acquainted. …

“Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who originated the phrase ‘well-behaved women seldom make history,’ has long dismissed the first flag story, but she’s excited by the information found in the Claypoole Bible and diary.

“ ‘I love the fact that the emphasis now is not on a piece of needlework or an artifact but on the person and the larger context that the American Revolution required sacrifices,’ she said.“

More at the Post, here.

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Photo: Marcos Paulo Prado/unsplash.
A diary version of the chain letter, begun by Kyra Peralte
, comforted participants during the pandemic.

As things are gradually getting back to something resembling normal, people are taking stock of the past 14-plus months and recording how they got through them. A new kind of chain letter, first begun by Kyra Peralte, provided support to 115 strangers around the world.

Sydney Page writes at the Washington Post, “Kyra Peralte thought keeping a diary during the pandemic might help her sort out her tangled feelings. Then she decided to drop her journal in the mail and share it with a stranger.

“Peralte — a mother of two in Montclair, N.J. — started writing candidly last April about the challenges of juggling work, marriage and motherhood during a global crisis. Writing was cathartic, but Peralte, 44, wanted to know how other women were doing. Was she alone in her feelings or were other women experiencing the same overwhelming stress? She craved connection.

“So she made an unusual offer. She invited other women from near and far to fill the remaining lined pages of her black-and-white marbled composition notebook with their own pandemic tales.

‘I wanted an interaction that felt human, and it feels very human to read someone else’s writing,’ said Peralte, a children’s game designer.

“She dreamed up ‘The Traveling Diary’ — a simple notebook that would traverse the globe via snail mail, collecting handwritten stories and, ultimately, creating a community.

“A year later, seven marbled notebooks have circulated in various locations — from the United States to Australia, Canada to South Africa — and a growing group of strangers have formed an unexpected friendship as a result. So far, 115 women have signed up to participate.

“Peralte found her first contributor on a Zoom conference for entrepreneurs, during which she mentioned her diary idea. A woman from North Carolina immediately reached out and said she would like to write in the book.

“From there, Peralte wrote a Medium article, in an effort to recruit more women to get involved. Word spread, and she created a website so participants could easily add their names to the queue. Each person is allowed to keep the diary for up to three days and fill as many pages as they wish, with whatever writing or artwork they choose. Then, they are responsible for mailing it to the next person, whose address Peralte provides. …

“Amy Tingle, 52, sat down with the diary last September, in the wake of civil unrest and ongoing protests, and she decided to focus her entry on America’s racial reckoning.

“ ‘I couldn’t escape the sadness,’ said Tingle, who lives in Maine. ‘I remember being really disappointed in humanity.’ Writing in the communal diary, ‘was definitely a therapeutic thing during that time,’ she said. As an artist, she also included a collage of women, symbolizing the sense of friendship she felt with other participants. While writing her own thoughts was healing, she said, it was equally meaningful to read the words of other women who held the book before her. …

“Kirsty Nicol, 29, who lives in London, heard about the Traveling Diary through a friend. She received the journal two months ago, after it was shipped from New York City.

“ ‘It came to me at a challenging time during lockdown,’ she said. …

“Reading the entries allowed her to escape, transporting her into the lives of others and finding bits of wisdom they left. One woman from Australia had written: ‘Working with the setbacks. Not against them. Patience and gratitude. It’s a dance. Life is moving and we can stomp our feet in rejection, or we can gracefully embrace the mess, tidying as we go.’ …

“When Colleen Martin, 44, received the diary on her doorstep in Florham Park, N.J., last November, ‘I had just recently lost my brother,’ she said. … It helped her look for meaning and ‘the growth and development that occurs in terrible times.’ …

“ ‘It has really evolved into a community,’ Peralte said. She often hosts Zoom events so the women get the chance to get to know one another more, share stories they might have missed and connect more intimately. Some of the women, she said, have actually become close friends.”

More here.

Kyra Peralte, below, had the original idea to send a composition notebook with a diary entry to a stranger in April 2020, during the pandemic. “A year later,” says the Washington Post, “seven diaries have circulated, and 115 women have been part of the traveling diary.”

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Photo: The Guardian
“You can be blown away,” a diary hunter tells the Guardian. Bundles of old diaries are often picked up at garage sales and rummage sales.

People throw out very private things, usually without realizing it. When I was volunteering for my college’s used bookstore years ago, a piece of writing fell out of a book my neighbor had donated. I wish I hadn’t seen it. It was a very sad poem about a son that cried for his father after a divorce. It wasn’t for my eyes.

Amelia Tait writes at the Guardian book feature the Observer about things like that — diaries that people write for themselves but that may end up years later in the hands of a stranger. According to the article, very few people consciously give their diaries away.

“Sally MacNamara,” Tait reports, “has long told her four children that if there’s a fire in her Seattle home, they should rescue Olga first. … The ‘Olga’ that is so precious to the 63-year-old online seller is a 118-year-old diary written by a woman of the same name. Beginning in 1902, the diary chronicles the experiences of a young immigrant who was raised in a strict religious environment in America. [MacNamara] purchased the diary online in 2005 – it is now one of her most prized possessions.

“Over the past 35 years, MacNamara has read more than 8,000 strangers’ diaries. As a child, her mother would take her ‘dump diving’ to salvage objects – when she discovered an old, handwritten piece of paper in the trash one day, she was immediately intrigued. …

“At first, MacNamara bought diaries in antique shops, but when a friend introduced her to eBay in 1998, she began using the auction site to buy and sell. …

“While MacNamara has more than two decades’ experience trading strangers’ secrets, her hobby has recently become more widespread. On YouTube, videos entitled ‘I bought a stranger’s diary’ are incredibly popular – an October 2019 video racked up 300,000 views, while the video that started the trend in December 2017 has been watched by over 6.4 million people.

“Clearly the mystery and intrigue of reading someone’s personal history can be compelling. But should we be troubled by the inherent voyeurism? Or – as Observer literary critic Kate Kellaway once said on the subject – ‘do people who keep diaries secretly hope someone will read them?’

Joanna Borns, 35, is a writer from New York with 10,000 YouTube subscribers. Borns first started the YouTube trend for reading strangers’ diaries three years ago – since then, she’s purchased five diaries, which cost between [$26 and $52] each. ‘It’s interesting to see how you’re similar to a totally random stranger,’ Borns says. …

“Borns thinks ‘a lot’ about the ‘moral aspects’ of her videos. … ‘I certainly don’t want to broadcast anyone’s personal information – I do change the names,’ she says; she also avoids sharing ‘dark’ thoughts that diarists recorded. …

“Victoria is a 58-year-old from Cheltenham who has been selling love letters and diaries online since 2004 (she has asked to be identified by her first name only). She procures diaries in flea markets and car boot sales for up to [$26]. … ‘You go to one of these car boot sales and you find a box and it’s scruffy and insignificant and it’s wet, and you open it up and it’s a bundle of wonderful yellowing letters tied up with a ribbon,’ she says, ‘You’re just blown away.’ …

“Although the trend is undeniably voyeuristic, many collectors have a grander purpose. Polly North is the 41-year-old director of the Great Diary Project. …

“She believes historians can learn about marginalised people via journals. Yet North also receives a huge number of donations from modern diarists, who can opt to make their journals immediately available or can seal them for decades (amazingly, most people are happy to have their diaries read and shared straight away).

“North’s favourite is from a ‘virtually illiterate’ woman who was brought up in a trailer park in California and is still alive. ‘There’s no capital letters, there’s no punctuation… It’s stripped down, it’s raw, it doesn’t tick any conventional literary boxes, but it still achieves something that’s magical.’ ”

More at the Observer, here.

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