Where History Meets Family History, by Juliana Smith

This morning as I was digging our minivan out of the snow following a storm that struck yesterday, my mind wandered through memories of snowstorms past. Like many Chicago-area natives, I have vivid memories of the Blizzard of 1967. As a young child I could remember walking down the driveway staring up in awe at the towers of snow my dad had created as he shoveled our driveway. I recall not being able to use the side door for weeks as it remained covered with a huge snow drift. Upstate New Yorkers weathering the recent storms there will doubtless recall this winter for decades to come, with more than ten feet of snow on the ground in some places. That’s unimaginable!

We often hear weather events like these called “character builders,” and I guess that’s a good assessment. As we adapt to the environment we live in, it helps to shape who we are. In some cases, it may also alter the course our lives take.

An 1876 article in The Constitution of Atlanta, Georgia, after reporting on a particularly violent storm in Iowa in July of that year and the fatal floods that followed, reported,

“The terrific storm in Iowa, of which, the telegraph brings us an account, carried death and destruction to all in its pathway. If such storms are frequent in Iowa it is one of the best states in the Union to emigrate from. Come down to Georgia where we keep all our water in the Augusta canal.”

While the reporter who penned that blurb may have done it with “tongue in cheek,” the truth is events like this may have indeed caused our ancestors to move on to greener pastures–temporarily, or perhaps permanently.

Mention of the flood is included in Dubuque County History, Iowa, which I found in the Ancestry Local History Collection.  It says, “Rockdale also was established in the early 1830s . . . In 1876, a flood destroyed nearly the entire town. All but two of the town buildings were washed away and 41 persons were drowned.”

This storm devastated the town. Another article on the same page of “The Constitution” in describing the storm’s wrath mentions that, “Rockdale was a small place of about 200 inhabitants, built upon a creek, and containing a postoffice [sic], hotel, stores and other structures.” With nearly a quarter of its residents killed in the storm and most of the town washed away, half of the original inhabitants moved on, leaving only fifty-nine residents to be enumerated in the 1880 census.

Weather events like these may take some digging to uncover; they’re not events you’ll learn about in your history class. However, if your ancestors were among the displaced or those who lost loved ones in the flood, knowledge of this event is huge in terms of your family’s history.

In addition to natural disasters, you should seek out information on epidemics, pestilence, economics (e.g., factory openings and closings, canals railroad lines coming and going, etc.), crop yields, wars or battles fought in the area, and any other changes that would have impacted their lifestyle–positively or negatively.

Local Histories
Local histories are an ideal place to begin your search for information on local events. A growing number are available online. Ancestry has a very large collection, and you may find histories posted on the websites of libraries, historical and genealogical societies, municipalities, and USGenWeb sites.

To locate a relevant history on Ancestry.com, search the Card Catalog for the location of interest by entering the name into the keyword search. Remember this is a card catalog, similar to the catalogs you find at the local library. The keyword search will only turn up hits for items that are included in the title or descriptive materials. If you can’t find a city or town name, try searching for a county history. You may also want to check out histories of adjoining counties as they may provide additional information.

Once you locate a history of interest, use the navigation on the database main page to browse through the table of contents and familiarize yourself with the book. You may find entire sections that you’ll want to read for information relevant to the time in which your ancestor lived in the area.

Of course, you’ll want to search for your ancestor’s surname, but even if they are not mentioned by name, there will likely be information of value included in the book about the area and your ancestor’s contemporaries.

As the Iowa storm example suggests, even though local newspapers may not be available for areas relevant to your research, try searches for the location name in the Historical Newspaper Collection at Ancestry.  The Iowa article ran in a Georgia newspaper and included the following:

Late dispatches from Dubuque, Iowa, give the following as a list of the lost in a storm at Rockdale: Joe Becker, Ellen his wife, and two children; Jas Pearce, Emma his wife, and two children; Peter Becker and five children, also his housekeeper and her two children; Mrs. Carey and two children; John Klassen, wife and five children; “Thos. Blenkern, M.M. Bradbury, and Richard Burke.

General Tips
If you see many family members dying in a short period, try searching for the location and year, adding the term epidemic and you may find a clue as to why so many died in a short period.

If your ancestor left an area in which he had resided, search for the location he left and the year. Also, try a search for his destination and the year. Perhaps an opportunity drew him to the area.

Create a file with what you learn, even if you’re not sure of its significance at the time. You can create a timeline for the area that, when used as a backdrop for your family history, will give you a deeper understanding of your family, turning them into more than just a page full of names and dates.

When history meets your family history, you’ll have a whole new appreciation of the people in your past.

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Juliana Smith has been the editor of Ancestry.com newsletters for more than eight years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.


One thought on “Where History Meets Family History, by Juliana Smith

  1. I sincerely send my gratitude to Juliana for accessing this prime example of what can be learned from our Histories. Dubuque is my ‘home town’ and the Rockdale area, where my great grandparent(s)spent most of their lives. It is an area rich in history and appreciated by the townspeople & natives who have developed an interest in preserving our history.

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