“…it shall be Eliza …”; or, Attributing a Diary

By Susan Martin

Among the many personal diaries in MHS collections are the remarkable 200-year-old travel journals of Eliza Cheever Davis (later Shattuck), recently discovered in the Caleb Davis papers (Ms. N-1096). These two thin volumes, kept from 1809 to 1811 on outings to various New England towns, differ from many other historical diaries in their rich detail and literary quality. Originally misattributed to another family member and therefore lost among the family’s other papers, the diaries, written when Eliza was about 20 years old, are an exciting find.

The story of this discovery began during a recent preservation rehousing project on the Caleb Davis papers. This collection contains not only the correspondence and financial papers of Boston merchant and Massachusetts state legislator Caleb Davis (1738-1797), but also some papers of other family members, including his wife, his brothers, his son, and his father-in-law William Downes Cheever. While rehousing the collection, a staff member found an error in the catalog record. These two diaries, attributed to William Downes Cheever, couldn’t possibly have been kept by him because, at the time they were written, he’d been dead for 20 years!

Although diaries often come to the MHS as part of a larger collection of family papers, they are individually cataloged in ABIGAIL, our online catalog. Misattributions can easily occur. Personal diaries, not intended for publication, are usually unsigned, and the handwriting may be similar to that of another family member. Clues are buried within routine entries, and careful and time-consuming investigation may be necessary to discover the author.

At first, these diaries offered up only a few tantalizing clues. Both volumes contain references to someone named Eliza. Could the diaries have been kept by George C. Shattuck, who in 1811 married Caleb Davis’s daughter Eliza? No, it’s clear they were written by a woman. The author uses phrases such as “we three women,” self-deprecatingly calls herself “a giddy girl,” and describes afternoons spent sewing with her female friends. Other internal evidence included an allusion to a brother’s recent death; John Derby Davis died in 1809 while still a teenager. Therefore, of all the Davis women living between 1809 and 1811, the most likely candidate for author was John’s sister, Eliza Cheever Davis herself.

But what about those references to an Eliza? This mystery was cleared up by a parenthetical comment near the end of the first volume: “(I declare I do not know what to call Eliza C Davis when obliged to mention her so often as I am here. I do not like my nor myself, or my ladyship or I, or madam. Well what shall I do, a name I must have but it shall not be I or me, it shall be Eliza and Eliza D M shall be Elizabeth so this important affair is settled.)” It seems the author, Eliza Cheever Davis, had a friend with the same name, “Eliza D M,” and she jokes about the confusion in this passage.

As a diarist, Eliza was creative, exuberant, and introspective. Instead of the usual perfunctory entries, these volumes contain substantial and beautifully written descriptions of towns and people she met during travels in Massachusetts and on trips to Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont. She was clearly a well-read woman and peppered her writing with quotations from Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, Hannah More, and others. She skillfully set scenes to build dramatic tension. In one passage, when returning to an earlier part of a story, she spoke directly to her reader: “But now you must accompany me back to Hanover where you left me at Miss Fullers…” Eliza also wrote about her religious feelings, her love of nature and of adventure, and her joy in physical activity, such as horseback riding. Her witty descriptions of social life and her observations on the characters and manners of acquaintances are reminiscent of that great contemporary of hers, Jane Austen.

My favorite passages are those in which Eliza shows off her gift for hyperbole. For example, on September 12, 1810, Eliza wrote:

“Descend ye nine Muses, all ye powers of description aid me to describe Miss Phebe Tracy, with all her airs and graces thick about her. She is a young lady of thirty, with the manner of fifteen. She is very very sensible, this she well knows herself, and is only anxious that her hearers should know it also. Her thoughts and ideas are so astonishingly large and great, that there is [sic] very few words in the english language fit to clothe them in, and these not being in general use. It is highly necessary when Miss Phebe converses that her hearers should have an interpreter or a dictionary to bring them down to the ordinary capacity of poor mortals. To hold conversation with her would be almost impossible, this she is sensible of, and therefore spares you, by doing it all herself.”

And on September 25, 1810, Eliza met:

“A Capt Charles Perkins, a young man of seven or 8 feet high, dark complexioned. As to his eyes I never saw the colour of them as they darted all their beams into the Carpet. He set [sic] in a chair, walked, eat [sic] & drank. This was all that denoted life in him. There was no expression of it in his countenance, which I should judge was carved out of wood, or cut out of a potatoe [sic]. I should not know him again by his voice as I only heard the sound of it once & that very faintly. Such was this valiant entertaining Captain. Next to him sat a Mr Bishop who looked as though he could converse, but unfortunately he was seated most of the time by that lifeless lump of Clay the Captain, whose very look was enough to congeal all social intercourse.”

Secondary sources tell us that Eliza – shortly after keeping these diaries, in fact – went on to marry Dr. George C. Shattuck of Boston. The MHS holds a collection of George C. Shattuck papers (Ms. N-909) that provides a final confirmation of the diaries’ author. Among the papers in that collection are a few affectionate letters from Eliza to her brother John Derby Davis, written in 1808. Her handwriting, which is distinctive, matches the diaries perfectly. Other papers in that collection include correspondence from Dr. Nathan Smith of Hanover, N.H. (about whom Eliza wrote in her diary) encouraging George to court Eliza, and a letter from George to his friend Roswell Shurtleff describing her as “a very interesting acquaintance…among the worthiest of her sex.”

For additional diaries by women in MHS collections, search in ABIGAIL by subject for “Women’s diaries.”