The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Diary of Ann Powell, 1789

The MHS has just acquired a manuscript copy of the fascinating 18th-century diary of a young woman named Ann Powell. In it, Ann describes a trip down the Saint Lawrence River, 11 May-June 1789, with her brother William Dummer Powell and his family. The Powells were United Empire Loyalists who had emigrated to Canada ten years earlier. Now William, newly appointed first judge of the Court of Common Pleas of the Hesse District, Province of Quebec, was relocating his entire household from Montreal to Detroit, Michigan.

Along the way, the party had the good fortune to witness a council of the Six Nations at which about 200 chiefs were assembled. Ann was impressed:

I was very much struck with the figures of these Indians as they approached us. They are remarkably tall and finely made and walk with a grace and dignity you can have no idea of. I declare our beaux looked quite insignificant by them – one man called to my mind some of Homer’s finest heroes.

She documented, in great detail, the dress and manners of the tribal people. She heaped praises on Mohawk Chief David Hill (Karonghyontye), and Seneca Chief Red Jacket (Sagoyewatha) amused her, but she was “by no means pleased” with Mohawk Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea). Another interesting passage relates to the social position of elderly Indian women in the Great Lakes region:

 In England, when a man grows infirm and his talents are obscured by age, the wits decide upon his character by calling him an old woman. On the banks of Lake Erie, a woman becomes respectable as she grows old, and I suppose the greatest compliment you can pay a young hero, is that he is as wise as an old woman, a good trait of savage understanding. These ladies preserve a modest silence in the debates (I fear they are not like women of other countries) but nothing is determined without their advice and approbation.

The diary is a 19th-century copy, written mostly in an unknown hand, but it was compiled and annotated between 1863 and 1870 by Boston’s own Eliza Susan Quincy. Eliza, a historian and writer in her own right, took an interest in the manuscript and the Powell family, to which she was distantly related through her grandmother Abigail Phillips Quincy. She researched Ann’s story and added footnotes to the manuscript, presumably in preparation for its publication.

As far as I can tell, the diary has been published just twice in the 224 years since it was written, but never in its complete form. The first printed version—Eliza’s—appeared in the July 1880 issue of The Magazine of American History, pp. 37-47. Not only were whole paragraphs and the names of some individuals redacted, but most of Eliza’s notes didn’t make the cut.

 This juicy story was among those excluded, probably for obvious reasons:

We spent one night at the house of a Captain Duncan, whose wife I had heard often mentioned by my sisters….She is now only nineteen, and has been five years married to a man who is old, disagreeable and vicious. But he was supposed to be rich and her friends absolutely forced her to marry him….I never heard of such a series of cruelties being practised on any poor creature in my life….I felt very much interested by this sweet young woman, and should feel great pleasure in hearing her tyrant was dead; the only means by which she can be released.

Forty years later, Ann’s diary was published again in William Renwick Riddell’s Old Province Tales: Upper Canada, pp. 64-95. Riddell’s version includes some of the previously redacted passages, but is still incomplete, and differs from the MHS copy in many ways.

Although Eliza Susan Quincy’s copy of the diary is only one of many, it does include a substantial section (about half of the volume) entitled “Letters and incidents relative to an accidental acquaintance with the family of Miss Powell. 1833, to 1844.” This section consists of transcripts of Eliza’s correspondence with descendants of Ann Powell. The letters were not printed in 1880 or 1920 and contain a good deal of contextual information about the diary and the Powell family.

Ann Powell married merchant and fellow Loyalist Isaac Winslow Clarke and died in 1792. Her original diary is probably still in private hands.

For more information on Eliza Susan Quincy, search at our website or in our online catalog ABIGAIL.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 6 February, 2013, 8:00 AM


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