An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman

The Journal of Phebe Orvis, 1820-1830

By Susan M. Ouellette

Subjects: American History, Autobiography, Biography And Memoir, Women's Studies
Series: Excelsior Editions
Imprint: Excelsior Editions
Paperback : 9781438464961, 386 pages, June 2017

Alternative formats available from:

Table of contents


Part I. “The sweet, single life”

1. “A delightful prospect of my Nativity”

2. “I conclude there are some strange intentions”

3. “rendered . . . more ignorant than others”

Part II. “New modes of living among strangers”

4. “perhaps the partner of his joys”

5. “Retired, much fatigued”

6. “He cumbers the ground no more”

Conclusion. “beneath the spreading Oak and Hickory”

The Journal

A rare nineteenth-century journal of an everyday woman richly infused with the minutiae of antebellum daily life and work.


In 1820, Phebe Orvis began a journal that she faithfully kept for a decade. Richly detailed, her diary captures not only the everyday life of an ordinary woman in early nineteenth-century Vermont and New York, but also the unusual happenings of her family, neighborhood, and beyond. The journal entries trace Orvis's transition from single life to marriage and motherhood, including her time at the Middlebury Female Seminary and her observations about the changing social and economic environment of the period. A Quaker, Orvis also recorded the details of the waxing passion of the Second Great Awakening in the people around her, as well as the conflict the fervor caused within her own family.

In the first section of the book, Susan M. Ouellette includes a series of essays that illuminate Orvis's diary entries and broaden the social landscape she inhabited. These essays focus on Orvis and, more importantly, the experience of ordinary people as they navigated the new nation, the new century, and the emerging American society and culture. The second section is a transcript of the original journal. This combination of analytical essays and primary source material offers readers a unique perspective of domestic life in northern New England as well as upstate New York in the early nineteenth century.

Susan M. Ouellette is Professor of History and American Studies at Saint Michael's College and the author of US Textile Production in Historical Perspective: A Case Study from Massachusetts.


"Taken as a whole, this book is an enjoyable and informative read. It would be especially useful for scholars or historical sites who are looking for guidance on ways to tie local history into broader themes, and for use in undergraduate classrooms as a teaching aid in local and women's history … Ouellette presents a clear and insightful case for turning to ordinary sources to better understand the extraordinary ways in which individuals experienced the past." — New York History

"It is truly exciting … to come upon a document written by a regular American citizen about the details of her own life. Enlivened by such a discovery, Susan Ouellette has worked carefully to make sense of one young woman's private journal and to connect her experiences to larger social and economic forces shaping early America … Ouellette has produced a valuable contribution and introduced an important new voice to American history." — Vermont History

"The book combines insightful interpretive material by Ouellette with a diary kept by Phebe Orvis, a bright and challenging woman not about to accept all the mores of her time." — Lake Champlain Weekly

"…both informative and satisfying … Anyone whose personal notes survive beyond his/her lifetime should hope they're handled as expertly." — Adirondack Daily Enterprise

"Ouellette's chronicle offers the reader a beautifully crafted and richly textured account of ten years in the life of a young woman as she transitions from unmarried to married life on the New York and Vermont frontier. In the hands of Ouellette, the diary of Phebe Orvis is interpreted with skill and grace, and her life experiences are firmly grounded in the vibrant world of post-revolutionary America. This engaging work will be liked by those readers seeking a deeper understanding of the lives of women and family in the Early Republic as well as those interested in the history of New York, Vermont, and the American frontier." — Jacqueline Barbara Carr, author of After the Siege: A Social History of Boston, 1775–1800

"Unraveling intricate threads from a young woman's nineteenth-century diary, Ouellette deftly weaves them into a picture of life in northern Vermont and New York during the Early Republic. Themes of life, death, courting, marriage, travels, fears, and yearnings jump off the pages as Ouellette works her magic not only bringing Phebe Orvis to life but also using the diary and other primary sources to place Phebe's life within the larger context of her times, gender, and social class. A wonderful read." — Elise A. Guyette, author of Discovering Black Vermont: African American Farmers in Hinesburgh, 1790–1890