Today in 1758, the last word was written in one of the most important documents the people of Connecticut have to help them understand the realities of day-to-day life in our region during the colonial period. Ironically, that document was painstakingly created by a person who primarily intended it to be read by only one person — himself.
Born in New London in 1678, Joshua Hempstead lived a rather unremarkable life for a colonial freeman. He was one of nine children, and being the only son, he inherited his father’s house. After marrying in his early 20s, Joshua and his wife had nine children before she passed away in 1716. He never remarried and raised his family with the help of hired servants and three slaves who lived with him in his New London home. While Hempstead was far from being one of New London’s wealthiest or most notable citizens, he was active in town affairs, serving as a selectman, an officer in the local militia company, and as a delegate to the Connecticut General Assembly. Over his lifetime, he took a number of jobs to support his family, working as a carpenter, surveyor, lawyer, and farmer, among other sundry occupations.
While no one part of Joshua Hempstead’s life was exceptional, the fact that we know so much about him is, thanks to a detailed diary he kept faithfully for over 47 years, beginning on September 8, 1711. Filling over 700 pages, Hempstead’s diary is a treasure trove for historians of early America, providing a comprehensive account of everyday life in colonial Connecticut, with remarks on family issues, the weather, interactions with his slaves, business ventures, local politics, and more. He kept the diary into his 80th year, and on November 3, 1758, Joshua wrote his final diary entry, putting a period to one of the most historically significant documents in Connecticut history.
Hempsted was ill, and was clearly contemplating human mortality. In his final diary entry, he talked about his chronic pain and his daughter (or daughter-in-law) having sat with him through the night. And ever the chronicler of the events around him, he noted the passing of neighbors. His last sentence reads, “Old Samuel Chapman died the last night about 8 o’clock aged 93 last February, and old Mrs. Mehitabel Coit the widow of Mr. Jno Coit decd died this morning.” Six weeks later, Joshua Hempstead passed away at his New London home.
In 1901, thanks to the exhaustive work of local historian Frances Manwaring Caulkins, the New London Historical Society published the first full transcript of Joshua Hempstead’s diary, which has since been reprinted multiple times. In addition to his diary, Hempstead’s 17th century family homestead has also survived the ravages of time and is open to the public as a historic house museum in New London. The final entry in a remarkable chronicle of an ordinary life was written, with care, today in Connecticut history.
Patricia M. Schaefer, “The Joshua Hempstead Diary: A Window Into Colonial Connecticut,” connecticuthistory.org
“The Hempsted Houses,” Connecticut Landmarks