Note: As part of Women's History Month, this blog post honors Mary Ann Shrock Burns as one of America's many women settlers who lived in adverse conditions and during difficult times that included dangerous cross country moves, illness, death, and war.
As many family history researchers will attest, any document created by an ancestor and preserved over time, is a valuable find. This fact is especially true when the document is a handwritten diary that contains very personal family history that spans over fifty years. The subject of this blog post today, the “Religious Diary of Mrs. Mary Ann (Shrock) Burns,” is all that and more. For at least two Attala and Madison County families, Burns and Shrock, it is indeed, a priceless family treasure.
I first became aware of the diary when a Burns family descendant, searching online for family information in Attala County, Mississippi, stumbled upon this blog and contacted me. After we had exchanged several emails and various bits of family history information, my contact, an Oklahoma resident, told me about the diary and offered to send me a copy of its transcription. Based on conversations with my contact, the original diary was found among Mary Ann's possessions. Later, the diary was transcribed and was donated by one of Mary Ann's granddaughters to a museum near where her grandmother died. Although I am not related to the Shrock family or to the Burns family, at least as far as I know, some of my own ancestors lived for decades in Attala County, Mississippi, in close proximity to members of the Schrock family. And it was for that reason, as well as the fact that I write about Mississippi genealogy, that I was pleased when my contact offered to mail a copy of the transcription to me. Our agreement was that I would read the diary, write a blog post about its contents, and donate it to the Attala County Library in Kosciusko, Mississippi. My contact asked only that I honor the museum's request that the transcription itself would not be scanned and made available on the internet. The copy in my temporary possession is a reproduction of the diary’s transcription, part of the Hildegard & Richard Wheeler Collection, contained within the holdings of the E. A. Arnim Archives & Museum in Flatonia, Texas. It was there, in Fayette County, Texas, that Mary Ann Shrock Burns, her husband, William Dennis Burns, and other family members would later settle, where they died, and where they are also buried.
Since I am one of "those people" who often look first through the index of a book, and on occasion, read a few pages near the end, I thumbed through the transcription of the diary to see what I could find. And in this case, I was pleased to find vital information about the Shrock family recorded at the end of the diary. Dates and places of births, as well as dates of marriages and dates and locations of deaths, helped me to better understand names and events contained within the diary's contents. I found that Mary Ann Schrock was born on December 28, 1812, the daughter of Henry and Mary Shrock, and the third oldest of seven daughters and one son born to that couple. Her oldest sister, Elizabeth, was born on March 3, 1809, and Catherine Houseman Shrock, the next oldest of her sisters, was born on March 13, 1811. Grace Shrock, almost two years younger than Mary Ann, was born on November 26, 1814. Two younger sisters, Sarah Shrock, born on May 6, 1817, and Nancy Shrock, who was born on August 17, 1819, completed the list of Shrock daughters. Mary Ann's only brother was Joseph Kilpatrick Shrock, born about 1821.
When Mary Ann Shrock began to keep her diary on March 22, 1837, she did so with the intention that she had that day “covenanted afresh to the Lord’s” and desired to “be more devoted to his service.” According to information recorded at the back of the diary, by early 1837, Miss Mary Ann Shrock was an unmarried 25 year old woman who had already experienced enough grief for several lifetimes. On July 4, 1824, she had lost her mother to "bilious fever," and shortly after her mother's death, her sister, Martha Jane Shrock, died in October of 1827. Tragedy soon struck the Shrock family three more times, when her sister Gracie died, also from bilious fever, when she was only 17 years old, Catherine H. Shrock died at age 18, and her youngest sister, Sarah, died at age 19. Mary Ann's diary states her father remained a widower for eight years before he married for a second time. According to details included in a diary entry dated November 4, 1852, Henry Shrock "sold out" in South Carolina and in the spring of 1834, moved to an area of Madison County, Mississippi, known as Camden. Other former residents of Camden, South Carolina would call Camden, Mississippi "home," including an early Mississippi Governor, William McWillie, and Chapman Levy, the latter of whom would later serve in Mississippi's legislature.
In an early diary entry dated August 18, 1838, Mary Ann Shrock's words convey homesickness and sadness as she wrote of being “deprived of some precious friends by death, being removed several hundred miles from the place of my nativity......cast among strangers where there appears to be but little religious.” Almost a year later, in an entry written from Mount Olive and dated July 12, 1839, she seemed joyful in spirit when she wrote that she had “entered into a matrimonial conversion..,” and was now filling “the important station of wife and mother, my dear companion having five children before our marriage.” She added that her step-children “appear fond of me and I love them dearly, and am well pleased with my new home, (and) think I have one of the best of husbands.” According to information that appears on the last pages of the transcription, Mary Ann Shrock married William Dennis Burns on May 15, 1839. At the time of their marriage, Mary would have been 26 years old and Dennis, 45.
Although Mary Ann's entries were somewhat infrequent after her marriage, at least for the first several years, she continued to write about her family and her strong faith in God. That faith would be severely tested shortly after her marriage, when, on December 2, 1839, Mary Ann's oldest step-son “killed himself accidentally with a gun.....in the 21st year of his age." Mary’s quiet observation in the diary entry was “Mysterious are the ways of providence," and the impact of the incident apparently caused her to write of her concern to “to live every day as if it were her last.” According to her diary entry dated July 31, 1842, Mary Ann had given birth to two sons since her marriage in 1839 to Dennis Burns, and according to the account, their youngest son was just twelve months old. In the same entry, Mary Ann notes that she and Dennis have four older daughters who also live at home.
Over the next forty-plus years, Mary Ann Shrock Burns made time to include details in her diary that would chronicle the birth of more children, tell about the death of a baby girl, describe family illnesses, including information about her own “various trials and afflictions,” and would tell about several family moves. In an entry dated November 30, 1856, Mary Ann describes the loss of her baby daughter, sadly writing "Gave birth to an infant, a daughter, that never opened its eyes to behold the sad earth made its early escape to the paradise of God." Various diary entries provided brief insights into the family's moves from Madison County to Forest Hill, to two separate places in Mount Olive, and to Steam Mill, in Attala County, Mississippi, the latter in early 1855. During the time she lived near Steam Mill, Mary Ann expressed feelings of concern when she wrote in her diary of being "shut out from society" and "deprived of church privileges." She wrote of her longing to "see the work of God received in this neighborhood," and the wish that "the time (would) soon come when we shall see the wilderness rejoice and the desert blossom as a rose." In an entry dated April 20, 1858, Mary prays for strength as she writes that her "dear father (Henry Shrock) has closed his eyes in death. He passed away the 11th, .......after suffering for some months, both bodily and mentally."
The next year, on November 2, 1859, Mary Ann writes that she has "left my home in Attala County, Mississippi, Oct. 25th. Have been on the road eight days, am now on the west bank of the great Miss. river, have had a pleasant time, excepting the dust. Passed Oakland College this morning. visited the burying ground before sun rise saw the tombs of some who had come from the far east to seek their fortunes in the south. We go to the far west." Mary Ann's next diary entry is dated May 11, 1861, when she writes "We have again changed our home, are now living in Fayette Co. (TX)."
Over the next several years, according to her diary entries, Mary Ann would see three sons go off to fight in the Civil War. On August 8, 1863, she writes that one of the sons, Billie "....reached home two days ago in tottering health, after being shut up in Vicksburg 48 days living on half rations and then walking one hundred miles home. Nothing short of the power and goodness of God could have brought him safe through." A subsequent entry on November 8, 1863, states "My dear Billie, after remaining with us two months has again been called out in defense of his country, to be again exposed to the evils of camp life." The entry includes a prayer that he will be preserved from harm. On May 8, 1864, Mary Ann states she is "now called to give up my Joseph to go in defense of our country, which is a hard trial as he is feeble in health." And she again prays for the well-being of yet another son gone off to war.
Mary Ann's prayers would be answered, according to a diary entry on May 28, 1865, when she fervently wrote "My three sons have returned home in safety....."
Although three of Mary Ann's sons lived through the Civil War, another son died on June 4, 1862. According to a diary entry made on June 4, 1878, Mary Ann lamented the sixteenth anniversary of the death of her son, Henry, who "was buried in a distant land, in a soldier's burying ground.....O, who will take care of mother now."
Almost three years later, on May 6, 1868, Mary Ann writes "Oh, what scenes of sorrow and affliction have I passed through since my last entry. My dear husband after twelve days of great suffering closed his eyes in death on.....3rd of May.....O, how dreary does the world appear to me now." On January 3, 1869, Mary would write "He (Dennis) was a good man, and a kind husband and father." And during the next decade, she would continue to mourn the loss of her beloved husband in diary entries written on anniversaries of his birth and of his death. According to information contained in one of those entries, William Dennis Burns had been born in 1794.
Mary Ann Shrock Burns, a woman of intense courage, great faith, and a sincere belief in an eternal future, continued to live in Fayette County, Texas, near living loved ones, until her death on September 10, 1887. She is buried near her husband in Pine Springs Cemetery, near Flatonia, Texas.