Fifty years ago a series of volcanic eruptions in the Azores, a group of Atlantic Ocean islands, caused a mass migration of people to Rhode Island. You can read about the changes in the lives of these immigrants in a recent story in a local newspaper, East Bay).
In the case of these immigrants, natural disaster prodded them to leave home. The story reminded me of all the different ways in which our families become fractured and how these events affect our family history.
People from all over the world began streaming into the land we call the United States almost since the first explorer set foot on its shores. Some individuals came alone and others in family groups in a process that continues today. Often these folks left relatives behind in their homeland. Proof exists in family collections of letters and photos offering reassurance that loved ones arrived safely in their new land. Yet, unless communication was easy and frequent (and even when it was), new generations of Americans lost touch with their family back home. It happens.
Finding those â€œmissingâ€ relatives requires persistence, patience, and proof. Start by looking for tangible information (e.g., passports, naturalizations, diaries, correspondence, and photographs). Ask relatives about oral traditions relating to your immigrant ancestorâ€™s arrival. Then search the Immigration Collection on AncestryÂ and the passenger lists on EllisIsland.org. Read the educational information on both sites to see if your ancestors fit the time period covered by these digital databases. If not, you might want to look at the Immigration & Naturalization category on Cyndislist.comÂ for tips and resources.
Genealogies of New England families are full of simple references to those that â€œwent West.â€ Those two words leave a blank in the family record. Got someone in your pedigree that disappeared into the American frontier? Study the time period in which these adventurous folks left to discover whether they sought wealth in an America Gold Rush, followed a religious leader, built a canal, or drove stakes for a railroad. Examine all the records they created in their lifetime and search for clues to their whereabouts. The census record collection on Ancestry.com is a good way to search nationally for individuals living far from their original hometown. Use the advanced search features to specify a place of birth and a year to narrow down hits.
Illness and Disease
The evidence of illness and disease is apparent in cemeteries and in clusters of deaths in family records. Do you know if your family lost anyone in the flu pandemic of 1918 or the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793?
Estimates show that 50 million to 100 million people died from the 1918 flu and thousands died from the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century. Smallpox, diphtheria, and cholera were common in many areas of the country, and in the twentieth century these were joined by newer diseases like polio.
When a whole branch of your family disappears from genealogical notes, search for a reason. Read the newspapers available on Ancestry to see what was happening in the area when they dropped from view, and look at local histories and death records for health clues. My great-grandfather died in his early forties due to pneumonia. He contracted it working outside transporting goods in the middle of a blizzard. His death certificate provided a cause of death and the newspapers provided the reason for his demise.
War–Political and Familial
My dad and one of his brothers (now deceased) had a long-standing feud. The reasons for the disagreement have never been divulged. This familial gulf separated my cousins from the rest of the family. To reconnect I scoured old address books and searched Switchboard.com. While one of my cousinâ€™s home telephone number and address changed, her husband had retained their old phone number for work. Bingo!
Having tracked down these â€œforgottenâ€ folks, I found that theyâ€™re interested in learning more about their heritage. Now weâ€™re trying to repair the gap and restore a sense of family. I know Iâ€™m not alone. Iâ€™ve met a lot of people whoâ€™ve experienced similar schisms in their families. The tools to reunite the past and present are at your fingertips online and in the hands of relatives.
The American Revolution and all the wars in the history of this country divide families and change the course of their destiny. Brothers fought brothers during the Civil War and world wars transported our loved ones to other lands. While my momâ€™s family returned home after World War II, my fatherâ€™s siblings scattered around the country. His sisters married servicemen and one of his brothers moved to California. Iâ€™m proof positive that these national events create unintentional rifts in families. Searching the military collection on Ancestry is an easy first step towards finding the service men and women amongst your ancestors.
This is a short list of major occurrences that change the course of family history. What events divided your family? Share your own experiences and how you overcame them in your research in the Comments section here on the blog.
Maureen Taylor is the “The Photo Detective.” She writes about family history and photography on her blog at PhotoDetective.com.