Being a history lover, I subscribe to a whole lot of paper and online newsletters and magazines. A few weeks back, an item in the Wisconsin Historical Society weekly email caught my eye – reservations were being taken for old-fashioned horse-drawn sleigh rides. How fun would it be to feel, hear, and see what our grandparents did before sights and sounds like snow blowers and snowplows took over? I love modern conveniences, but the idea of a romantic sleigh ride in the quiet countryside sounds wonderful.
The description of the sleigh ride reminded me of a letter that my grandfather saved. In the letter, dated February 7, 1895, the writer is trying to organize a sleigh ride for a group of friends that included my grandfather and the girl he would marry later that year—my grandmother. From the letter and penciled math on the back of it, apparently they needed ten couples to make it economically feasible.
Letters, journals, and mementos that our ancestors saved may not yield hard evidence of births, marriages, and deaths that we can pin to our family trees, but they can provide personality insights that can’t be found elsewhere. Why did my grandfather save this letter? Was there special sentiment attachment to it? Might he have proposed to my grandmother on that sleigh ride? I’ll never know, but these things serve to tickle our curiosity about our people, prompting us to scratch around until we learn more about their lives and the times and places where they lived.
I’ve done a lot of scratching around in my efforts to learn more about Brooklyn, New York, where almost all of my American ancestors lived and died. As I was thinking about the snowy conditions challenging so many of us lately, it seemed like a good time to look at one of my favorite books on Ancestry.com: The civil, political, professional and ecclesiastical history and commercial and industrial record of the county of Kings and the city of Brooklyn, N.Y.: from 1683 to 1884, by Henry Reed Stiles. This time, I thought I’d see how our ancestors handled winter’s wrath—and even made the best of it. For example, Stiles describes the winter of 1757–58, when the court house in Flatbush was saved from a fire “by the energetic efforts of the people, who extinguished the fire by throwing snow-balls upon it.”
By the time my ancestors had arrived in 1820, Brooklyn had trained firemen who presumably had more than snowballs to fight fires with.
Stiles also included a reproduction of a snow scene painted by Francis Guy. I especially love that he provided a key to the image so we can see who was who, who owned the buildings, and what each one was.
The reproduction below is a rare pre-camera view of Brooklyn that gives us a sense of what a snow-covered Brooklyn was like. For more colorful views of paintings by Francis Guy, see this exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum website.
Anyone who has been stranded in a snowstorm might feel special empathy for 600 people who were “forced to remain all night in the street cars” in Brooklyn on February 6, 1882, because of a “great fall of snow,” also noted by Stiles.
All of these insights came from a search of Stiles’ book using the keyword “snow.” There are thousands of local histories on Ancestry.com that could contain insights on your ancestors that are just waiting to be discovered. The trick to uncovering them is to navigate to the collection and search it directly. Here’s how:
- Click on the Search tab and scroll down to the map at the bottom of the page.
- Select the state where your ancestors lived.
- Scroll down the list of collections by category to the last one: Stories, Memories, & Histories.
- Browse through the titles on the state level, or select a county from the box on the right side of the page.
- Search for a topic of interest by entering a term in the keyword field (e.g., drought, winter, epidemic, flood, market, etc.). You could also search for a year that was significant to your ancestors, perhaps the year the family arrived, the year a child was born, or the year a couple married.
Sometimes we get so caught up in the names and dates that we forget to do a little digging for the stories. And those stories can make for some darned interesting reading on a snowy evening.