Guide to the Robert McKnight Diaries, 1842-1843, 1846-1847 DAR.1949.01

ULS Archives & Special Collections

Summary Information

ULS Archives & Special Collections
Robert McKnight Diaries
McKnight, Robert, 1820-1885
Collection Number
Date [inclusive]
1842-1843, 1846-1847
0.25 linear feet (2 volumes)
A graduate of Princeton University and prominent Pittsburgh lawyer, Robert McKnight was a city councilman from 1847 to 1849 and a United States congressman representing Pennsylvania from 1859 to 1863. The Robert McKnight Diaries consist of two volumes of bound personal diaries, written while in his mid- to late-twenties. Events of local, national and personal importance are noted in the diaries. Both volumes contain details of McKnight's social and business life in Pittsburgh, offering a glimpse of nineteenth century activities. McKnight describes his daily routines, as well as social functions and other events of special note to him, including his engagement and wedding. Volume I contains entries from January 1, 1842 to December 31, 1843. The second volume begins February 18, 1846 and continues until Saturday, May 29, 1847. Digital reproductions of the collection are available electronically by following the respective "Digitized Folder Contents" links within the finding aid.

Preferred Citation

Robert McKnight Diaries, 1842-1843, 1846-1847, DAR.1949.01, Darlington Collection, Archives & Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh Library System

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Born the fourth of seven children to a prominent family, Robert McKnight attended private school in Xenia, Ohio, before attending the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. Upon his graduation in 1839, McKnight returned to Pittsburgh where he worked in the law offices of Biddle and Bradford. Following his admittance to the bar in 1842, he entered into partnership with Henry S. Magraw and went on to become solicitor for the Bank of Pittsburgh in 1846. He later served as a Pittsburgh city councilman from 1847 to 1849 and as a United States congressman representing Pennsylvania from 1859 to 1863. When his time spent in public service concluded, McKnight returned to his law practice.

McKnight was born on January 27, 1820, to William (1775-1848) and Catherine (McClurg b. 1791) McKnight. He married Elizabeth O'Hara Denny (1824-1896) on May 27, 1847, with whom he had ten children. McKnight died in Pittsburgh on October 25, 1885, and was buried in Allegheny Cemetery.

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Scope and Content Notes

McKnight's personal diaries are in the form of two bound volumes. The first volume of the diary begins on January 1, 1842 and ends on December 31, 1843, while the second volume begins on February 18, 1846, and ends on May 29, 1847. The diaries give detailed glimpses into the daily life of a rising lawyer from a well-to-do family in the nineteenth century. McKnight is diligent about recording his activities and reactions to events that garner local and national attention, also commenting on personal matters, such as births, deaths, parties, social calls, and marriages of family and friends.

In both volumes McKnight details the routines of daily life, discussing his work habits, mealtimes, naps, bathing and grooming habits, books he read, hours spent riding his horse, Tip, and other details. Simple tasks are recorded, as are descriptions of illnesses, particularly his father's, whom he writes of caring for, home remedies, and trips to the dentist. McKnight also makes references to prominent families in the Pittsburgh area. Names such as Biddle, Darlington, Denny, Bakewell, Bayard, Herron, Wilkins, Phillips, Knox, Ormsby, McCandless, O'Hara, Scully, Acheson, and so on, make regular appearances in his entries.

McKnight regularly speaks of working for Richard Biddle and preparing to take the bar. He describes the transcription of depositions, General O'Hara's will, and watching courtroom proceedings. Descriptions of his studies, with topics such as "Payment of Debt," and of new laws, such as the Bankrupt Law, are included in the diary. He marks important events, noting when he passes the bar, his first appearance in court, and his unanimous election as solicitor for the Bank of Pittsburgh.

Observations are made on the state of the country, such as remarking about the distress facing banks at the time as evidenced by the closure of some banks in Philadelphia. At one point McKnight remarks, "Our legislative assemblies are filled with bullies, blacklegs, & assassins," after reading of numerous arguments between members of the House of Representatives. Comments are also made on the war between the United States and Mexico in 1846.

Scandals that shocked society do not go without mention. Many references are made to one of the biggest scandals of the day: Mary Croghan's elopement to Captain Edward Schenley and their subsequent flight from the United States to England. The elopement was so well known and scandalous that Mary, whose social status allowed her to request an audience with the Queen, was denied presentation at court due to her actions. McKnight writes that Mary was a student at the school of Mrs. McLeod, on Staten Island, and the "man who took Mary away" was her nephew. McKnight remarks that Mrs. McLeod must have "countenanced & abetted the whole affair as Miss Croghan was worth in her own right over $1.000.000, and such a sweet morsel was not to be caught everyday." He notes that lawmakers eventually passed legislation, prepared by Biddle, giving Mr. Croghan the ability to pass his daughter's estate directly on to her children, cutting Captain Schenley out of any inheritance.

McKnight frequently writes of well-known figures that capture his interest, remarking on the activities of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. He reports meeting Dickens at the Exchange Hotel in Pittsburgh, includes observations of Dickens and his wife, and his conversations with them. McKnight was a member of the Henry Clay Club and frequently remarks about his admiration for the statesman.

McKnight describes his marriage proposal to Elizabeth Denny, and one of the final entries details the day of their May 27th wedding. In this entry McKnight provides a detailed diagram of the wedding party's positions during the ceremony.

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Administrative Information

Publication Information

ULS Archives & Special Collections, July 2007

University of Pittsburgh Library System
Archives & Special Collections
412-648-3232 (ASC) | 412-648-8190 (Hillman)
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Revision Description

 COntrolled access terms revised (dar) November 2009

Access Restrictions

No restrictions.


No copyright restrictions.

Custodial History

This collection was located in the Darlington Memorial Library in the University’s Cathedral of Learning until 2007 when it was moved to the ULS Archives Service Center for processing, storage, preservation and service. However, it remains in the custodianship of the ULS Special Collections Department.

Acquisition Information

This collection was purchased in 1949 through gifts of Col. Robert W. McKnight, Rachel Simmons McKnight, and the Foster Hall collection.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Kristin Justham in December 2006 and January 2007.

Existence and Location of Copies

Digital reproductions of the collection are available electronically by following the respective "Digitized Folder Contents" links within the finding aid.

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Related Materials

Related Material

The Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center and Princeton University both maintain collections of Robert McKnight documents.

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Controlled Access Headings

Corporate Name(s)

  • Athenaeum (Pittsburgh, Pa.).
  • Exchange Hotel (Pittsburgh, Pa.).
  • Monongahela House (Pittsburgh, Pa.).


  • Diaries

Geographic Name(s)

  • Deer Creek (Pa. : Township) -- History
  • Pittsburgh (Pa.) -- Economic conditions
  • Pittsburgh (Pa.) -- History
  • Pittsburgh (Pa.) -- Social life and customs
  • South Side (Pittsburgh, Pa.) -- History

Personal Name(s)

  • Biddle, Richard, 1796-1847
  • Clay, Henry, 1777-1852
  • Denny, Elizabeth O'Hara, 1824-1896
  • Dickens, Charles, 1812-1870
  • Irving, Washington, 1783-1859
  • McKnight, Robert, 1820-1885 -- Diaries
  • Schenley, Edward
  • Schenley, Mary Croghan, 1826-1903


  • City council members -- Pennsylvania -- Pittsburgh -- Diaries
  • Lawyers -- Pennsylvania -- Pittsburgh -- Diaries
  • Legislators -- United States -- Diaries

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Previous Citation

Robert McKnight Diaries, 1842-1843, 1846-1847, DAR.1949.01, Darlington Collection, Special Collections Department, University of Pittsburgh

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Collection Inventory

Diary, 1842-1843 11

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Diary, 1846-1847 2

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