Saturday, October 3, 2009

A Visit 200 Years in the Making

Sylvia Lewis Tyler's First Diary
Inside Cover: Sylvia Lewis of Bristol her journal beginning the first of March 1801 in the 16th year of her age to continue


Five months ago, I was living in Las Vegas and didn't know anything beyond a couple generations on my Tyler family line. In an amazing twist of fate I would find out that my 5th Great-Grandmother, Sylvia Lewis Tyler, had written a diary 200 years ago and that it was in the archives at a national museum in Washington D.C., my new residence.

On a brisk early September day, my husband and I left our DC area apartment and boarded the Metro to downtown. After weeks of moving, scheduling and rescheduling we were finally going to see the diary of my 5th Great-Grandmother, Sylvia Lewis Tyler.

As we arrived outside the museum and my anticipation was killing me. We walked into the administrative entrance of the museum and put on our visitor stickers. The bellman rang the curator and I paced nervously as we waited for her to arrive. The two minutes felt like an eternity! The curator arrived and we hugged. We had been emailing and exchanging documents for the past five months. We had even determined that we were very distantly related, and today, we finally got to meet!

As we got in the elevator to go to the archives, a sense of calm overcame me. We walked into the cold archival room and my eyes immediately focused on two non-descript gray boxes sitting in the middle of a table on the far end of the room. They were the boxes that held Sylvia's Diary. We sat down at the table and the curator opened the first box. She pulled out folder after folder, each containing a single year of the hand-made diary.

When the curator opened the first one, my breath caught. My Sylvia, my dear Sylvia, had sat next to the fire writing in that diary over 200 years ago. It has survived all these years and Sylvia didn't have a clue. I was giddy, and yet, on the verge of tears.

The curator pulled one of her favorite years and began to read to us. I reached for my husband's hand and allowed myself to be transported back to frontier Ohio. Her words were those of a hard working woman. She detailed daily frontier life, the bartering, the chores, the hardships. Sylvia talked about sewing frocks and making her own fur tippets. On and on she read, filling in the diary with the background knowledge she knew. I had read the diary transcripts, but seeing Sylvia's quill strokes and hand-mixed ink brought me to a whole new level of admiration. Towards the end of our time together I asked if I could touch the diaries, thinking it was a long shot, but wanting this amazing opportunity. The curator smiled and said "of course".

I opened one of the folders and stared at the diary laying inside. I honestly wasn't this nervous on my wedding day. I ever-so-lightly brushed two fingers across the cover that simple stated "1808". I felt as if my dear Sylvia was standing over my shoulder telling me to turn the page. I did and a flood of tears poured down my face. With each page I turned they continued to pour. My husband and the curator each placed a gentle hand on my back and said nothing. They knew how much Sylvia meant to me and let me have my time with her.

The emotions I felt were nothing I can truly explain in words. It was as if after all that reading I could feel her joy, suffer her pains. I felt like was there, struggling in frontier Ohio with her. I felt even more connected to her. As if, those fragile diaries survived the last 200 years so that I could touch them for those 30 seconds. So, I could know her story.

Note: For background information on Sylvia Lewis Tyler you can click here (I am related through her son Abel Royce Tyler). If you missed the post on how I found about about the diary's existence you can  read more by clicking here. You can also read about my visit to her grave in Trumbull County, Ohio by clicking here.


  1. Wow that is amazing!!! Great story thanks so much for sharing.

  2. What a fascinating story! Thanks....Louise

  3. Sara

    You did a great job of expressing the emotions you felt while you were able to touch the diary - I felt like I was right there as another spectator in the room! Good job.

  4. Sara, your words brought tears to my eyes! Thank you for sharing this special moment with us.

  5. How wonderful to be able to see and touch the diaries!

  6. Thank you for sharing your heartfelt experience with us. She would be proud.

  7. Very beautifully written. An experience likely never to be forgotten. I'm very happy for you!

  8. Wow! What a wonderful experience for you!

  9. Thank you all for you kind comments! I hope you find something just as meaningful in your genealogy quests. -SB

  10. Just had to add my comment. You did such a wonderful job of describing your experience. You let us all have a tiny part in your special time. Thanks to you and to Sylvia.

  11. I just found your blog and I'm so touched! I had several very similar experiences like this, where some very kind curators let me hold or touch objects created by ancestors. One person read something I wrote on a genealogy bulletin board and sent me a diary from the same time period as your Sylvia's book. Another time I had the chance to sleep in an ancestor's house. These are experiences you'll cherish for the rest of your life. Thanks so much for sharing this with everyone, I couldn't have written it better!

  12. Fascinating, Sara Beth - I feel privileged when allowed to handle such old documents, but when you find a series of diaries written by a relative... it must be mind-blowing! Off to read further about how you found the diaries... Jo