The John Peterkin journal contains approximately 200 pages of entries, including letters written by Peterkin to family and friends in Scotland and Pennsylvania, lists, copies of letters, and writings by William Russell, a later owner of the journal, which are scattered throughout.
The majority of the journal resembles a letterbook and contains correspondence that Peterkin wrote to his family and his sweetheart, Harriet, between 1817 and 1819. In his letters, he described his journey from Scotland, including smuggling a companion onboard the ship (August 14, 1817); his first impressions of the United States; his negative feelings toward slavery and the displacement of Native Americans; and his ideas about democracy and the War of 1812.
On July 5, 1818, he wrote a letter to Harriet describing a visit to Powhatan, Virginia, and for several pages discussed the story of Pocahontas and the treatment of the Powhatan by settlers, which he found reprehensible. He also opined that whites "have no right to this country." In an additional letter of the same date, written to James Ross in Scotland, Peterkin described the brutality of slavery, particularly in the Deep South. He further explored this topic in his last letter in the book, dated August 4, 1819, in which he called Georgia "semibarborous" and stated, "I read in the declaration of the independence of this Country that all men are born free and equal, but I cannot look out door or window that I do not see the directest lie given to the assertion… it certainly appears to any reflecting mind a strange view of contradiction, and were it not that it involves consequences of so tragick a nature, it would be truly laughable." Peterkin also discussed signs of western expansion (July 5, 1818), the aftermath of the War of 1812 (March 27, 1818), and compared his experiences in Virginia and Georgia (March 25, 1819).
The journal also includes writings during the 1830s by a later owner, William Russell, of Augusta, Georgia, who wrote poems, lists, and a few letters in the volume. Several of his poems concern the beauty of nature and his longing to return to Scotland, and his writings describe his travels in New York City (January 24, 1838) and Philadelphia (January 25, 1838). His entries are scattered throughout the volume, but the two hands are easily distinguishable.