In 1998, Jack Rudy toured the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence and noticed some displays included diaries and diary excerpts from some who traveled the trails west in the middle of the 19th century.
Rudy's family owned such a diary, handed down by their great-grandfather Manilus Stone Rudy, who journeyed to California in 1849.
“It was a treasure. I’m kind of the genealogist of the family, and it drifted into my hands,” Jack's brother David said. “(Jack) went all the way through that and saw other diaries and thought that would be a good place for it. He and (Jack's twin brother) Jim followed the trail.”
Several weeks ago, David Rudy made his own trip to Independence to donate his great-grandfather's diary, along with a picture of Manilus, to the Trails Museum.
“I jealously hung onto it for another 10 years, but I knew I wanted to take it there,” said David, who lives with his wife in Delaware, Ohio, where he is nearing retirement as a physician.
Lindsay Robbins, collections manager at the museum, said Jack Rudy had told the staff when he visited 21 years ago that the family might donate the diary, but the staff had completely changed since then. As a result, David Rudy's visit and donation came by complete – and pleasant – surprise.
Not only had the family preserved the diary well through generations – there's no water damage or aging out of the ordinary – they had also transcribed it themselves, and the Rudys donated a copy of a book they wrote about their family ancestry.
“A lot of people don't take that kind of time (to transcribe),” Robbins said.
“It hasn't suffered from a lot of damage,” Robbins said. “The thing that's unique is having all the background, as well.”
“This is wonderful; we usually don't get this complete of a package.”
Robbins said the museum received a number of trail diaries when it first opened in the 1990s, but now most diaries from that time still intact are held by families or in private collections.
“We have some original diaries, and several transcriptions held in the library,” Robbins said. “We're working on digitizing them all.”
Ideally, Robbins said, the Manilus Stone Rudy diary will be on display in some way, or excerpts from it will be used for exhibits.
“A lot of people, myself included, think that's a really good way to bring something to life (in a display),” Robbins said, adding that sometimes a museum exhibit can dehumanize the people displayed or discussed.
With this diary, Manilus Stone Rudy was not the original writer. A man named Daniel Bungert, who was in the same wagon company as Rudy, started keeping the diary. Bungert noted that he landed in Independence on April 7, 1849 and was outfitted for the trek to California. Rudy, 34 and a bachelor, had arrived in Independence from the tiny town of Navarre in eastern Ohio.
Bungert wrote about using buffalo skins as bedding for the first time and “felt it was quite luxurious,” Robbins said.
Unfortunately, Bungert died early – drowning when the party tried to cross the Platte River. He apparently didn't have his diary on him at the time, though, as Rudy was able to take it and continue the logs.
“There was a change in the handwriting, and that was my great-grandfather,” David Rudy said. “He wasn't quite as flowery as the other guy. He was more business-like in his writing.”
The diary stops a bit while the party was in Idaho, as Rudy contracted scurvy.
“We know he made it to California,” Robbins said.
“I'm surprised they made it to the coast,” David Rudy said.
Manilus Stone Rudy didn't prospect for gold too long. He soon opened a mercantile store in Sacramento with a business partner. He made a tidy profit from that and returned Ohio in 1854, then soon married and ultimately had four children with wife Nancy. By the time he died in 1894 at age 79, he was able to leave each child a $7,000 inheritance.
More than a month after he surprised the Trails Museum, David Rudy's enthusiasm for his family's donation hasn't waned.
“I'm so glad we did it,” he said. “It was quite a trip.”