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. itâ€™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 didnâ€™t always travel together either. Donâ€™t dismiss that passenger list entry, simply because you donâ€™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 laterâ€”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 letâ€™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-grandparentsâ€™ 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 thatâ€™s where youâ€™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, itâ€™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 couldnâ€™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 â€œwhole familyâ€ 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 theyâ€™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 couldnâ€™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. Letâ€™s take the hint and make sure our family history is safe by sharing it and storing it in offsite backups.
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 Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.