The Diary of John Osborne (1800-1803)
by Scott Farb
Those of you who have read this column from its inception will recognize the name John Osborne. The young Mr. Osborne was quite an adventurer, who lived in what was then Mecklenburg County, near Waxhaw. John Osborne demonstrated an above-average talent for spelling in his time, considering his formal education was almost non-existent. I will provide a few passages from his 1800 diary, complete with original spelling and punctuation (or lack thereof): “(tues, warm) in the even I Sot off from uncles again & went to Wm Rogers to a shooting Match from that Some Quantity of us went up to Peter Rapes there we took a stout drop of Dram. From that I went on to my fathers & staid till morning & that was not long (wen, cloudy) Early I walked up to brother Alexrs & Back to my fathers. In the evening I went to Jas Beckets Hugh McCrorsy & to old Mr. John Rodgers for to husk corn when we got Done went to Hugh McCrorys Beckets & home (thir, cloudy morning)I went from fathers to Frederick Fishers for a shooting match we froliced til late in the Night Than I went home with Wm McCains people & Staid till morning (fri, warm till even then rain) I sot off from Wm McCains & called in at Jno McCain by made a short tarry till I went to the Widow Coalmans from that to Jno Hueys Esqr There I tarry a while (discoursing of her daughter jeny) from there to where SamuelWardon lives from that to Hugh McCains Senier from that to Jno McCains for to help him to Husk corn but the Rain Disappointed him but we frolicked”.
From passages such as this we can learn many things: First, young Mr. Osborne hardly ever worked. He spent much time traveling and visiting with folks, but little time was actually dedicated to labor. Next, he mentions seasonal occupations throughout his diary, which gives us a picture of the labor families engaged in from one season to the next. He rarely mentions slaves or indentured servants; almost all of the work he describes is performed by free whites. We also get a sense that the local inhabitants liked to entertain themselves, based on the fact that there were two “frolics” within one week. Our young Mr. Osborne also continues in this latest passage his habit of “discoursing” with a particular young lady. He also mentions taking a “stout drop of dram”, something he regularly engaged in when I last wrote about him. Finally, he mentions two shooting matches in one week, which proves how important firearms knowledge and marksmanship were in the early days of the Piedmont’s settling.
Pieces such as this can be challenging for novice researchers because the lack of punctuation and absence of standardized spelling can be maddening. To a veteran researcher, however, these words are worth their weight in gold, because they allow us to get a glimpse of an otherwise unknown life, buried for centuries in books, almost lost to the ages.