My Treasure Hunt: A Search for Lost History

I’ve been on a treasure hunt. No. Not for a treasure chest overflowing with gold and jewels. Something far more precious. A lost piece of history.

I’ve known for years that my great-great-aunt, Elsie Caroline Duncan Hurt, wrote a book about her experiences growing up during the civil war. Elsie had an interesting perspective on the war. It landed on her front door step. Literally. She awoke early one April morning to the sound of rifles popping, cannons booming and horses shrieking as the Battle of Shiloh exploded across the little farming community where she lived. For two days, more than 100,000 soldiers clashed back and forth across her father’s cotton field. I always expected her story to be a fascinating look into history, but I never thought I’d ever get to read it.

There was a problem with Aunt Elsie’s book. She never published it. So, you can’t just order it from Amazon. Or find a copy it in a second-hand bookstore. Or, read it at Google Books. If a copy of her manuscript still existed, I reasoned, it must be in the possession of one of her descendants. That raised another problem. I don’t know any of her descendants. Elsie and I are separated by three generations and 100 years.

So, I did the only thing I could think to do: go to a search engine and type in her name. Year after year, I tried. Sometimes I typed her name in quotes. Sometimes I just typed the words. Nothing of value ever turned up. Search engines showed me census records and copies of her obituary. Those items seemed to demonstrate that she was a real person. Her obituary even mentioned that she’d written a book. But, that’s where the story seemed to end.  With Aunt Elsie’s death in 1943.

Then last spring, while working on research for a memorial I was writing in honor of my recently deceased beloved cousin, Carolyn Bingham, I tried the search one more time. Yahoo took me to a page where someone else had been looking for the book. That page led to another that told me still another person had a copy. A man named W.J. Michael Cody had bought Elsie’s old house in Memphis, took an interest in her and searched harder than I did. He tracked down a copy of the manuscript and gave a copy to the Memphis Public Library. When I asked, he sent one to me, too.

I can only wonder if there is some connection between that one successful search and the subject of my work that afternoon. Could it be that Carolyn was watching out for me? Could it be that she had a hand in my success? I wonder because I’ve never been able to duplicate those search results again. Pages usually don’t just mysteriously appear and disappear from search engines. They often hang around as cached files or in various archives long after they’ve been deleted from their original location. Yet, I”ve never been able to find that page again. 

No matter how it came into my possession, Aunt Elsie’s diary has been more of a treasure than I ever imagined. Not only has it opened a new window into the history of my family, it has also created opportunities to build new relationships with people who share my interest in the writings of Elsie Caroline Duncan Hurt. I’ve reconnected with relatives I’ve known all my life and discovered new friends and even found a cousin I’d never met before. Perhaps most intriguing is that the diary led me to back to my ancestors’ next door neighbors. 

Here’s that story. I met C.D. Rickman when I joined the Shiloh Discussion Group (www.shilohdiscussiongroup.com) online to ask if anyone had ever seen Aunt Elsie’s diary. C.D.’s cousin, Richard Wood (a.k.a. “Grandpa”), stopped by the Memphis Library to read the diary, copy part of it and tell me what he’d found in it. As we began to study the diary, we began to realize that one of the key people in the story, “Brother Peter,” was C.D.’s great-great-grandfather, Peter Wood. Brother Peter and my great-great-grandfather, Joseph Duncan, had a lot in common in the 1860s. They owned adjoining properties. They were both Primitive Baptist Preachers. So, I looked up one muggy July day to find myself walking with my new friend, C.D., over the same ground our great-great-grandfathers walked almost 150 years ago.

Please read the diary. I invite you to read the opening sections of the diary. You’ll find them on the main “Contents of the Diary” page. More will be posted over time. There will be about ten sections total, give or take one or two. As you read, please comment. I’ve included some questions as notes to the original text. If you know an answer–or have an opinion–I’d like to hear from you. The main question I’d like to answer is: Did Elsie write a memoir or a novel? That is, did she intend this manuscript as historical fact or historical fiction? Almost all of the characters can be traced to real people who lived at the times and places Elsie describes.

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Published on September 14, 2009 at 8:34 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I am very intrigued by the thought that Carolyn’s spirit led you to the diary. That’s amazing stuff.

    Your site looks great. I am very proud of you.

  2. Your story is so interesting. I am just ready to start reading and can’t wait to see what a 9 year old has to say about the war. Thank you for making this available.

  3. Hello All,
    Just discovered this blog. I’m B. Graham Wells, descendent of Elsie and Maj Branch T Hurt, their daughter Ada married a Wells and the rest is history. I know a good bit more of family history, feel free to email me.


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