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John Montgomery Roberts Diaries

Identifier: VAULT-Ayer-MS-3157

Scope and Content of the Collection

The collection contains seven farm diaries documenting the Roberts’ lives from the time they moved to Illinois in 1830 until 1858.

The first diary, written in 1830 by John Roberts, includes extensive notes relating to lithography. Before moving to Illinois, Roberts trained as a lithographer’s apprentice. In this notebook, he wrote instructions on how to create prints, crayons, various types of ink, paper, and varnish. Additionally, Roberts included notes pertaining to his new occupation, farming. He documented fertilizing techniques, prices of crops and tools, and prayers for good harvests. The remainder of the diary is dedicated to Roberts's travels from New York to New Orleans in 1830. This includes detailed descriptions of the geography of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, in addition to accounts of the wildlife in these areas. Roberts also noted the slave boats along the Mississippi River, headed toward New Orleans. During his travels through the Midwest he took notes on the Seneca language, and described conflicts between settlers and the original inhabitants of southern Illinois. The diary includes one drawing of the Mississippi River.

The collection includes two diaries from 1831, one written by John Roberts and the other by his first wife, Mary W. Roberts. In 1831, 18-year-old Mary Roberts married John Roberts, then 24, and left upstate New York for the first time. Her diary contains deeply personal musings on her feelings of isolation, trepidation about marriage, and her failing health. She returned many times to her sadness about leaving her siblings behind. Additionally, Mary described views from various places during her travels from New York to Illinois, and the location of the Roberts family settlement 30 miles from Bloomington, Illinois, along the Mackinaw River. Like her husband, Mary also noted the violent tensions mounting between European American settlers and their American Indian neighbors.

In John Roberts’s diary from the same year, he included the coordinates of international and domestic cities and home remedies for illnesses, wounds, allergies, and animal attacks. Like in 1830, he recorded the crop prices, but he also added geometry formulae and conversion charts for international units of distance. Roberts continues his travel diary of the Midwest in this volume.

The fourth diary in this collection, documenting from 1832 to 1848, includes more personal aspects of John Roberts’s life. While he still focused his writings on weather and agricultural aspects of his daily life, he also described the precautions being taken by his neighbors to prevent Indian attacks and his sadness over the death of his wife, Mary, after only seven years of marriage. This volume also includes a chronicle of every presidential election before 1832 and the number of votes each candidate received. The diary contains a single piece of music written on the last page of the text.

In John Roberts’s diary from 1848 to 1858, he continued to write experimental home remedies for bleeding, vomiting, and dysentery. He included a quotation about how to be a good woman, apparently copied by his second wife, Ann Waters Roberts. Roberts occasionally listed his property values during this time period, and these records indicate that his farm was both increasing in size and value. In this diary, Roberts practiced his former skills as an artisan, including detailed drawings of Knoxville, Kickapoo, Jubilee College (1839-1862) and Galesburg. The remainder of the diary is devoted to a daily account of farm activities and community news, especially deaths and Indian conflicts.

John Roberts and Ann Waters Roberts shared one diary from 1859 until 1886, the year of John’s death. Ann’s portion of the diary chronicles births and deaths of family and community members, travels through the Midwest, and home remedies, and ends in 1883, the year of her death. In the latter half of the diary, John Roberts wrote a daily, one-sentence account of community events, agricultural changes, and weather. A note on the final page explains that Roberts died a day after his final entry, October 23, 1886.

Simultaneously, Roberts kept his own diary from 1871 to 1884. This volume solely chronicles daily community and agricultural news, with very few home remedies and poems.


  • Creation: 1831-1886



Materials are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

The John Montgomery Roberts Diaries are open for research in the Special Collections Reading Room; 5 folders at a time maximum (Priority II).

Ownership and Literary Rights

The John Montgomery Roberts Diaries are the physical property of the Newberry Library. Copyright may belong to the authors or their legal heirs or assigns. For permission to publish or reproduce any materials from this collection, contact the Roger and Julie Baskes Department of Special Collections.

Biography of John Montgomery Roberts

Early Illinois rural Illinois emigrant.

John Montgomery Roberts was born in 1807 in upstate New York. Upon marrying 18-year-old Mary W. Burhans in 1831, Roberts left his lithography apprenticeship and immediately moved to Southern Illinois, where he became a farmer. When moving from New York to the Midwest, Roberts and his wife kept detailed descriptions of their travels through Pennsylvania, Missouri and Ohio, particularly the scenery and their encounters with American Indians. The Roberts family settled 30 miles outside of Bloomington, where John and his father constructed a home and farm. Mary was both unhappy and unhealthy after the move to Illinois, although she found comfort from her husband during their seven short years together before her death on July 30, 1838. Roberts mourned his wife’s passing deeply, including accounts of his sadness in his primarily farming-, weather- and health-related notebooks. He married Ann Waters in the years following his first wife’s death, and the two continued to run the farm for over fifty years. Ann Waters Roberts died in1883, followed shortly by her husband in1886.


0.2 Linear Feet (1 box)


Descriptions of farm life in Tazewell County, Illinois, including discussions of routine farm activities, farming expenses and property valuations, illnesses and medicinal cures, family births and deaths, local events, and weather conditions. Also trip accounts by Roberts and his wives, descriptions of the technical aspects of making lithographic plates and miscellaneous sketches of Robert's home and towns he visited in Illinois.


Materials arranged chronologically.

Collection Stack Location

VAULT 26 1


Gift, Elizabeth G. Henry, 1939.

Processed by

Emma Martin, 2011.


This inventory was created with the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this inventory do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Inventory of the John Montgomery Roberts Diaries, 1831-1886
Emma Martin
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the The Newberry Library - Modern Manuscripts and Archives Repository

60 West Walton Street
Chicago Illinois 60610 United States