Death, Horses & Meteors: My McNeil Family History Discoveries

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena searches old newspapers to find some details about the daily life of her ancestor John C. McNeil.

Some of my favorite things about researching family history in old newspapers are the surprises you can find about an ancestor’s daily life. Take for example my McNeil ancestors, John C. McNeil (1823-1909) and his wife Mary Ann Smith McNeil (1853-1944) (actually his 3rd wife; he was a polygamist and had two other wives simultaneously). I’m always interested in researching their lives and learning more about how history impacted them as they separately immigrated to the United States and lived in various states and countries, including Utah, Arizona and Mexico.

The McNeils are a family that I actually know quite a bit about, not just because of my own searching but from the research I inherited from my maternal grandmother (John and Mary Ann were her grandparents), my aunts, and my cousins. One of the future family history projects I’ve planned is to take the family history narratives that have been compiled about this McNeil family and add much-needed source citations. Obviously historical newspaper research can help with this.

James Hibbert McNeil’s Death Notice

For example, one family history narrative I inherited mentions their infant son James Hibbert McNeil dying during a scarlet fever epidemic in 1886. I found a short mortuary notice in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives that confirmed that he died of scarlet fever. Although the family was living in Arizona at the time, I found the death notice in a Utah newspaper.

death notice for James Hibbert McNeil, Deseret News newspaper article 1 September 1886

Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 1 September 1886, page 528

Horse Thievery at the McNeil Farm

I’ve written previously on the GenealogyBank Blog about Mary Ann and how her name was published in newspapers across the United States due to her numerous descendants fighting in World War II. (For my previous article, please see The Polygamist’s Wife: The Story of My Favorite Ancestor Mary Ann.) I started to wonder what other newspapers articles I could find for this family. Were there surprises yet to be uncovered?

So I started on my research quest. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that you can find family history information in any part of a newspaper: letters to the editor, advertisements, even weather bulletins. Newspaper advertisements, for example, can contain much more information than simply marketing a product to consumers—they can include the names of our ancestors. In this case I made a marvelous discovery: I found a newspaper advertisement that included where John was living at the time. This ad describes three horses “taken up” (stolen) from the McNeil’s farm in Bountiful, Utah.

ad for stolen horses, Deseret News newspaper advertisement 13 October 1869

Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 13 October 1869, page 432

Old Weather Reports Include Meteors!

Continuing on with my family search in Utah and Arizona newspapers (places where I know they lived), I was surprised to find some articles that provided John’s weather reports for Show Low, Arizona. These weather reports were very brief mentions of how the local weather was, included in a larger state weather report published in the newspaper. Several men in various parts of Arizona worked as weather reporters for their area and provided these reports—and my ancestor John McNeil was one of them.

weather report for Show Low, Arizona, Weekly Phoenix Herald newspaper article 24 February 1898

Weekly Phoenix Herald (Phoenix, Arizona), 24 February 1898, page 4

But amidst a few seemingly common weather reports from John, I found this old one from February 1897 in which he reports seeing a meteor. Other witnesses in this report also provided a description of this anomaly.

report of a meteor from Show Low, Arizona, Weekly Phoenix Herald newspaper article 25 February 1897

Weekly Phoenix Herald (Phoenix, Arizona), 25 February 1897, page 2

I imagine reporting on the weather every month may not have been very exciting, but a meteor! That would have added a little excitement to John’s routine.

I was curious about this meteor and continued my search in GenealogyBank’s Arizona newspapers. I soon found other descriptions of that meteor, including this one from a Prescott, Arizona, newspaper. The article reports about the meteor: “It was very near the earth and lighted up the entire heavens. It was accompanied by a roaring noise.”

report of a meteor from Arizona, Weekly Journal Miner newspaper article 27 January 1897

Weekly Journal Miner (Prescott, Arizona), 27 January 1897, page 3

Unexpected Finds in Newspapers

There’s no doubt that newspapers provide us a glimpse of our ancestors that we won’t find in other records. What do I like best about newspapers? You can find the unexpected. You come face to face with the everyday lives of your ancestors and this only keeps getting better as more newspapers are digitized. Can’t find anything about your ancestor’s story? Keep looking; one day you will be surprised at what you find out about your family’s past.

Genealogy Search Tip: Don’t always go into newspaper research expecting to find a certain type of article. Instead, search on a time period. If you only look for obituaries, most likely that’s all you will find. As I searched for John McNeil I searched in the states where he lived and for the years he was alive, not expecting to find just one type of article.

And sure enough, I was not disappointed. In a newspaper obituary, an advertisement, and some weather reports, I got some of those precious glimpses into John’s life that help us get to know the names on our family tree as real people with real lives.

Start searching GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives today, and see what small details about your own ancestors’ lives you can find!

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Written by Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega holds a Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and a Master’s degree in Religion. Presenting on various subjects involving genealogy, women’s studies and social history, Gena has spoken to groups throughout the United States and virtually to audiences worldwide.

Gena is the author of hundreds of articles published in genealogy newsletters and magazines including Internet Genealogy, Family Chronicle, GenWeekly, FGS Forum, APG Quarterly and the WorldVitalRecords newsletter. She is the author of the books, Putting the Pieces Together, Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra (Arcadia Publishing, 2007) and From the Family Kitchen (F + W Media, 2012).

Gena is the editor of the Utah Genealogical Association’s journal Crossroads. An instructor for the National Institute for Genealogical Studies, Gena has written courses about social media and Google. She serves as Vice-President for the So. California Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists, board member of the Utah Genealogical Association and is a Director for the California State Genealogical Alliance.

Her current research interests include social history, community, social history, community cookbooks, signature quilts and researching women’s lives.

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