Thoughts from the Road, by Juliana Smith

This past weekend an aunt and uncle of mine celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. When we woke early Saturday to make the trip, my handy-dandy rain gauge told me we had already received somewhere around five to six inches of rain. (OK. it’s not really a rain gauge, more of an empty bucket, but the weatherman backed me up on the numbers.) With all that rain, it was decided that my husband would stay home on sump-pump duty while my daughter and I made the trek to Cleveland. While I was on the road, several parallels came to mind and I tucked them away to share with you this week.

One of the first things that occurred to me during the long drive was that our ancestors didn’t always travel together either. Don’t dismiss that passenger list entry, simply because you don’t see the entire family on the manifest. It may have been a case of chain migration, with one or both parents immigrating alone, and the children following later—perhaps all at once, or maybe a few at a time. The family may have wanted to get established in their new home, or perhaps they had to wait until they could afford to send for the remainder of the family.

Geographical and Natural Barriers
So back to my travels. We left in the pouring rain, hoping to pass it by, but in the end we drove for five and a half hours in a non-stop monsoon. So the ride home had to be better, right? Nope. It started out nicely enough, but Hurricane Ike met me at the Indiana state line and let’s just say that my fingerprints are now firmly embedded in my steering wheel! Then to top it off, as we were nearing home, my husband called to inform me that 1-80/94, which was the main route home, was closed due to flooding. So I had to take a roundabout detour, which landed me in one of the many construction zones that sprout up in the summer months.

As I sat in traffic in the land of orange cones, I was reminded that our ancestors were also forced to take detours. While the nearest town to your great-grandparents’ farm may have only been a mile away, rough terrain, or steep mountains may have made it more convenient for your ancestor to travel ten or twenty miles in the other direction to do business or attend church. Perhaps that’s where you’ll find records of the family in church records, court records, probates, land records, naturalizations, and other locally created records.

Sometimes the obstacles were seasonal. Rivers may have become too hazardous during the spring thaw or during the winter when ice floes posed dangers. Seasonal flooding may have cut your ancestor off from neighbors and towns. Learning about the environment in which your ancestor lived will enrich your family history with detail and give you a unique insight into their lives.

Forces of Nature
While it took me longer than normal to get home, I am still counting my blessings. I had watched television holding my breath and praying with the rest of the country as Ike came ashore in Galveston. With the sophisticated weather predictions that are available now, it’s hard to imagine not knowing when bad weather might strike. Certainly, our ancestors learned to keep their eyes on the skies and noted certain weather indicators, but they couldn’t just flip on the Weather Channel and be informed as to when and where they should evacuate. The 1900 Galveston Hurricane is a tragic example of the catastrophic results that often came when unexpected weather events struck populated areas.

If your ancestors inexplicably picked up and moved, turn to local histories to see if you can determine the reason. Drought, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, pestilence, a brutally cold and snowy winter, or an unusually hot summer may have convinced your ancestor that this was not the place he wanted to raise his family and he may have moved on to greener pastures.

Check local histories and familiarize yourself with major events in the areas in which they lived. You may find it helpful to create a local history timeline that you can compare against the timelines of your ancestors.

Consider this–a spouse dies and in the next census you find that several young children are also missing. An epidemic, natural disaster, or perhaps some other family tragedy? Perhaps. But maybe they were sent to live with other family members because the single parent was unable to care for them while they were working to support the rest of the family. Check with other family members and see if you find them living with siblings, grandparents, or cousins. Be sure to conduct “whole family” research, gathering census records for even extended family and keep track of the addresses you find on records. You may find that the address your ancestor gave on his marriage record was the same as that of his aunt and uncle.

By being thorough and researching all possibilities, you can build a case to support your theory.

Are You Prepared?
Even now, sometimes Mother Nature catches us off guard. The Little Calumet River here in Northwest Indiana, which to me always seemed like a large creek rather than a river, is now more like a lake. Long-time residents tell me they’ve never seen anything like it. The residents of neighborhoods near my home had little warning before they had to evacuate with just the clothes on their backs. As I walked back from a bridge that overlooked the flooding, I couldn’t help but think of all the family history that was lost. It reminded me that I am overdue for a backup of my family history data, and that I really need to get moving on digitizing and sharing the old–and new–family photographs that I still have not preserved.

Weather events like these are powerful reminders that what we have is fragile. Let’s take the hint and make sure our family history is safe by sharing it and storing it in offsite backups.

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Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten 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, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts from the Road, by Juliana Smith

  1. When my great grandfather left his young family in NC after an affair which destroyed his marriage, he planned to go to Chicago to start over. His train stopped in Little Rock where he met a man and they apparently started talking. The man persuaded my ggrandfather to stay in Little Rock. He did, remarried, and started another family who didn’t know the NC existed until my mother happen to call one of them during her research on the family back in the early 1980’s.
    What would have happened had he gone on to Chicago? Would he have made a life there and settled his differences with his NC wife? Could he have moved back to NC? Would my grandfather have been able to complete his schooling and law school rather than becoming a tenant farmer to support his younger sisters, brothers and mother? History can’t be changed of course. But look at the routes your family took and if you can’t find someone look down the side roads too.

  2. Julianna, even though the subject is serious and a good reminder to backup and keep things in perspective…I laughed so hard I nearly fell off my chair! Your description of rain, traffic and detours…”land of orange cones”…was just priceless! I’ve been in that same land just this past summer!

  3. Our home was totally blown away May 25th, 2008 by an EF5 tornado that was one-half mile wide and stayed on the ground for about 43 miles in central Iowa. We had maybe 10 minutes warning to hide in a basement closet. I had 5 minutes to grab my hard drive, genealogy and photo back-up CD’s and my purse before it hit.

    I can attest that a person SHOULD make digital copies of photos and documents and contribute and publish their family tree on-line and I did partially do such (about 5 years ago). However, the back-up CD’s I had made faithfully all spring of 2008 were blank when I tried to access them later. The computer tech I had help me later suggests a virus or a setting had been changed without my knowledge. (That was a lesson learned – don’t just assume the screen “successfully backed up” is true without opening the CD you just made to check that it has data on it.)

    The family history I had submitted to Rootsweb years ago is incomplete now as I had constantly found new information and updated my research. I spent last spring “tweaking” my family tree and was just about ready to submit it to on-line last May. I wish I had.

    I had notebooks for each family branch, hundreds, perhaps thousands of very old photos, land deeds, old books, county Atlases, copies of church records, letters and addresses, correspondence and on and on and it is 99% gone. We found bits of paper but most of that was in poor shape. I wonder each day where it all landed and if it is still out there somewhere in a woods or fenceline.

    We all know when a computer is gone, you’ve lost your email addresses or any other documents, photos, etc. I realize now that that information and those photo CD’s should have been stored in our bank lock box. Yet there is another sad fact…those lock box keys (and all keys) also blow away.

    I am glad now that I took the time over the years to transcribe some of my old books and information to genealogy websites, I can access those again. I am proud that I searched for and returned old photos that Grandma had to strangers who were related to those people in those photos.

    I can once again post notices and queries at genealogy sites to search for others whom I corresponded with to get their names or email address. I can contact various relatives and ask to borrow their books of family history that I had made for them to copy the photos within. But the originals are gone, it is a very sobering realization.

    If only I had had an hour to grab what was dear to me, I did not. You cannot dwell on that thought as clearly we have to be thankful to have lived through the disaster, eight neighbors did not. Almost 400 homes were destroyed that day and that was just one tragedy in a summer that seems to be plagued with tornadoes, floods and hurricanes.

    I try to compare our dilemma with my ancestors who left their home countries to emigrate to the U.S. with very little. They had to start over, build a home and gather possessions and I know it was much harder then. I’ve learned that you can exist with no clothes, home, shoes, cars and each day with baby steps you rebuild. We will move forward with lessons learned and sad memories. 2008 has been a tough year for many!

  4. Deidre,
    Thanks so much for your post. It is a poignant reminder for all of us to get moving when it comes to safeguarding our family history.
    We wish you all the best as you work to rebuild!

  5. Speaking of weather-our family has ancestors from South Dakota where it gets below zero/freezing for months in the winter time. I have found some of the younger family members of school age listed as lodgers in other homes-they were sent to live in “town” homes during the winter so they could go to school when travel to the school from the home farm was too treacherous. If you can’t find a child, check the date of the census enumeration-it may give you a clue you hadn’t considered before.

  6. Same thing goes for when you can’t find a death record. My great grandfather remarried after great grandma died. My grandmother moved to WA St, leaving him and his new family in MO. When he was in his late 80’s, he decided to visit his two kids who’d come to WA. While here visiting, he had a heart attack on Thanksgiving Day, and died out here in Seattle. Probably no one researching his family in MO would think to look here for a death record for him, or burial place.

  7. At age 43, just after having her 11th child (1860’s and 70’s) in California, my great-great grandmother died. After finding her husband “alone” in the 1880 CA census, just as Juliana wrote suggesting, the children were found with other family members in Arkansas. Later, I found a book which published family letters, explaining how an older daughter cared for this great-great grandfather of mine, while he was bedridden. Other research seems to point to both his physical problems and depression. I doubt that he would ever imagine that a descendent would feel such compassion as I do, learning what he and his family must have experienced through my research done mostly by a computer through on-line services. Thank you Juliana and for being such a big part of this fascinating “journey.”

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