Witness to History: Diary of a Revolution

In simple prose, a young colonial woman documented the Revolution.

For the Ages: Jemima Condict's gravestone in the Old Burying Ground in Orange. The diarist died in 1779 at age 25. Left: A yellowed page from her diary.
Photos: Gravestone, James Worrell; Diary page, from the Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society.

News traveled slowly in 1774. In October of that year, 10 months after the Boston Tea Party, word of it reached 20-year-old Jemima Condict. “…troublesome times a Coming,” she wrote in her diary, “for there is a great Disturbance a Broad in the earth & they say it is tea that caused it.”

It was one of many entries in which the New Jersey woman recorded the talk of war she overheard in kitchens and church halls. Condict began her diary in 1772 in a discarded math notebook covered in marble paper and handmade linen. The imported English paper is watermarked with King George’s initials. She titled it—using one of her varied name spellings—Jemima Cundict her Book and Pen.

Condict was born on August 24, 1754, one of Daniel and Ruth Condit’s nine children. The family, devout Presbyterians, lived in the Pleasantdale section of West Orange. Daniel Condit was a deacon and a soldier in the Colonial army.

Condict entered in her diary the texts of sermons she heard, as many as three in one day. Sometimes her attention waned. On July 18, 1773, referring to her church’s leader, the Rev. Jedediah Chapman, she wrote, “Did Mr. Chapman preach from these words, Well I have forgot.”

But Condict could also be prescient. After documenting the “great Disturbance” in Boston, she added, “What must we expect But war & I think or at least fear it will be so.”

Six months later, in April 1775, Condict witnessed “Training Day,” when troops gathered for military exercises, probably around the city of Elizabeth. “I thought It Would Be a mournful Sight to see if they had been fighting in earnest & how soon they will be Calld forth to the field of war we Cannot tell,” she wrote. “I have just Now heard Say that All hopes of Conciliation Between Briten and her Colonies are at an end for Both the king & his Parliment have announced our Destruction. Fleet and armies are Prepareing with utmost diligence for that Purpose.”

War news soon displaced sermon titles in the diary. “They began to fight at Boston, the regulars We hear Shot first there; they killed 30 of our men,” she wrote on April 23.

By May, she described a “day of Mourning,” when the British fleet was expected in New York Harbor. The men of the community were gathering to “Conclude upon measures Which may Be most Proper to be taken.” While her family supported the rebellion against the king, the community included many loyalists. West Orange’s Tory Corner neighborhood was named for the loyalists who gathered there.

As the war dragged on, Condict listed casualties of fighting and of an illness she called “Camp Disorder.” In 1777, she recorded the names of local men taken prisoner by Loyalist troops in Elizabeth.

Condict’s entries ended in 1779 with her marriage to cousin Aaron Harrison. After giving birth to a son, who died before turning 12, Condict died that same year of unknown causes. She was 25. A family descendant donated the diary to the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark in 1922.

Condict was buried in the Old Burying Ground in Orange. A slate marker and a memorial rock mark her grave. The more significant memorial is her diary. Writing in it apparently helped her weather those turbulent times. “Sometimes after our people is gone to Bed,” she wrote in 1774, “I get my Pen for I don’t know how to Content myself without writeing Something.”

Marcia Worth-Baker is a freelance writer in South Orange.

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