Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Sumner Burnham Diaries, 1853-1868

Finding aid created by
Philip Heslip, September 2009

Summary Information
Title: Sumner Burnham diaries
Creator: Burnham, Sumner, 1805-1878
Inclusive dates: 1853-1868
Extent: 4 volumes
This collection holds the diaries of Sumner Burnham, a Maine resident, sympathetic to the anti-slavery movement, who recorded his personal experiences, often with religious commentary, from the antebellum period through the Civil War.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site:

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1985. M-2236.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.


Copyright status is unknown

Processing Information:

Cataloging funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the "We the People" project.

Preferred Citation:

Sumner Burnham Diaries, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


Four volumes with entries in chronological order.


Sumner Burnham (1805-1878) was a resident of Harrison, Maine, a town just outside of Portland. He was a devout Baptist and was sympathetic to the anti-slavery movement. According to the 1860 and 1870 censuses, he worked as a farmer. We know from his diaries that he began work in 1864, as a customs inspector and detective in Portland, Maine, where he looked for contraband coming into the ports.

Burnham was born in Otisfield, Maine, to Nathaniel Burnham II and Abigail Scribner. He married Christina Washburn in 1833, and together they had nine children, all born in Harrison, Maine. Of his sons, Otto was rejected for military service for poor health, while Sumner Jr. was accepted and made his way safely through the war.

Collection Scope and Content Note

This collection holds four of Sumner Burnham's diaries from 1853 through 1868. The diaries consist of brief daily entries with some sizable gaps between volumes. Before the war (volumes 1, 2, and part of 3), the majority of entries describe daily life around Portland, concentrating on the personal, rather than the public or political, spheres: he included news of friends and family, deaths and illnesses in the community, happenings in the local Baptist church, and local events. Burnham often interjected religious passages (references to or about scripture) into his diaries. Occasionally he discussed local crimes that had recently taken place. In a few entries, Burnham mentioned speaking with prisoners and being called to talk with the sheriff.

While in Boston in late May and early June 1854, Burnham witnessed a trial deciding the fate of a runaway slave, caught and tried under the Fugitive Slave Law. His entries for this period are somewhat longer than average and record the reaction of the anti-slavery "mob" to the trial. Burnham himself was deeply sympathetic to the anti-slavery movement.

Beginning with the election of 1860, and particularly after the outbreak of war (p. 137 in volume 3), Burnham began to include political commentary in his daily entries. He recorded the occurrence of major battles and major political events of the Civil War.

In the fourth volume, he continued to report news on the war and described his job as customs inspector and general detective in Portland. The longest entry in the diary -- more than 2 pages -- is an entry on Lincoln's assassination (page 39). Entries after the war are very similar to those written before the war.

Thirty five pages have been ripped from the back of the first volume and the first two pages are missing from the third volume.

Subject Terms

    • Bull Run, 1st Battle of, Va., 1861.
    • Customs administration--Officials and employees.
    • United States. Fugitive slave law (1850)
    • Boston (Mass.) -- History -- Anti-slavery movement, 1830-1863.
    • Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865--Assassination.
    • Presidents--United States--Election--1860.
    • Slavery--United States.
    • United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.
    Genre Terms:
    • Diaries.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Sumner Burnham diaries,  1853-1868 [series]
    Volume   1  
     June 11, 1853-June 4, 1854
    Volume   2  
     August 17, 1856-February 8, 1859
    Volume   3  
     February 18, 1859-June 22, 1862
    Volume   4  
     September 15, 1864-June 19, 1868
    Additional Descriptive Data

    The Children of Sumner Burnham and Christina Washburn:

    • Burnham, Moses Greenleaf, b. 1834.
    • Burnham, Frances A., b. 1836.
    • Burnham, Otto Willard, b. 1838.
    • Burnham, Mary Caroline, b. 1839.
    • Burnham, Sumner W., b. 1842.
    • Burnham, Sumner W., b. 1845.
    • Burnham, Silas Henry, b. 1848.
    • Burnham, Alice S., b. 1850.
    • Burnham, Horace A., b.1852.