Martha Willson’s Diary

January 25- April 21, 2017

Martha Willson’s Diary Exhibit was created as a youth-curated project in collaboration with Keene High School’s advanced placement U.S. history class.

In May 2017, students transcribed the 1850 diary of teenager Martha Willson of Keene to create interactive exhibit panels for the general public. The exhibit included the real diary of this 18-year-old girl alongside the students’ historical interpretation of the text.

As a warm-up for the project, teacher Elizabeth Watson used lesson plans to introduce students to primary sources, 19th century cursive handwriting, and the notion of personal bias. Jennifer Carroll, education director for the historical society, taught students about historical transcription techniques, and provided students with some background on the diarist.

Working in pairs, students transcribed pages from the diary. They analyzed a series of historic documents, photographs and historical maps related to Willson’s personal life. Students learned that, in 1850, Willson was a graduating student and a first-year teacher in the local school system. She enjoyed time with her family and friends, attending lectures, and her minister’s weekly sermons. She was fascinated with trains, a mode of transportation that was only two years old in Keene at the time she was writing. And students came to understand that Martha was a young adult with feeling, someone who, in 1850, had to overcome the death of someone close to her as well as her detachment from her brother after he moved away from home.

A transcribed version of the diary, created by the students, is now available as an educational resource for teachers on the Historical Society of Cheshire County’s website– Education section.