Remembering ‘Roots’ Author Alexander Murray Palmer Haley

Alex Haley (1921-1992) was a famous African American author who had more impact on genealogy than any other person in the past 50 years. He was born 11 August 1921. Haley would be almost 92 years old if he were alive today.

After the release of his book Roots: The Saga of an American Family (New York City, New York: Doubleday) 37 years ago—on 17 August 1976—and the launch of the eight-part television mini-series on ABC-TV in January 1977, the genealogy world was forever changed.

He was 55 years old when Roots was published.

Alex Haley Roots Book Cover

Image credit: Wikipedia.org

From that point on the number of genealogical societies in the U.S. skyrocketed from 400 societies to over 4,000. Public libraries and state archives across the country were flooded with family history researchers using their book and microfilm collections.

Some major milestones to keep in mind: the first laptop wasn’t invented until 1981 (Osborne); Google was launched in 1995; and GenealogyBank was born 19 October 2006.

One man can make a big difference.

Recently Alex Haley’s nephew Christopher Haley participated in a DNA study and was surprised to learn about his Scottish roots. Hosted by Megan Smolenyak, this episode of Roots Television shows the family reunion of the Haley and Baff families:

How to Spot and Avoid 9 Common Genealogy Mistakes & Errors

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary discusses 9 common mistakes made when doing family history research, and suggests ways to avoid them.

Family history researchers are often frustrated by the mistakes of others—particularly when there is an obvious error in identity, such as the mistake explained in this 1914 Virginia newspaper article. It points out that a member of the Gwathmey family was incorrectly identified as having been a maid of honor to Queen Elizabeth.

Rchmond Times Dispatch Newspaper Gwathmey Family Genealogy

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 17 May 1914, page 41.

This sounds like an obvious mistake, and one that could have been corrected with simple subtraction. Unfortunately, once a mistake is written in a book or newspaper article, the mistake is often carried into other research—forever frustrating the more serious genealogists.

Genealogical mistakes are not often easy to sort out, so let’s discuss some strategies.

1. Abbreviations Are Not Always What They Seem

Two of my favorites are “NA” and “NMI.”

In the case of the first abbreviation, “NA” might indicate non applicable, naturalized, Native American or even Navy, demonstrating the importance of finding the “key” explaining what an abbreviation actually means.

Another abbreviation that sometimes causes confusion is the use of “NMI” in place of a middle name. It is not an actual moniker, but rather used to indicate that a person has no middle initial—no middle name.

2. Age-Related Mistakes

  • Women who are too old to be mothers.

Although Mrs. Steve Pace, of Rose Hill, Virginia, reportedly gave birth to her 17th child in 1939 at the age of 73 (see the Wikipedia article “Pregnancy Over Age 50”), it is rare for women to give birth over the age of 50.

If a woman continued to give birth through her 40s, then it is possible that a report of her having a child as an older woman may be correct.

However, whenever you see such an older mother-child relationship claim, examine the possibility that the family may have been raising an orphan or a grandchild.

  • Persons who were born too young or old to have served during a military event.

If you are researching an ancestor for a lineage society, such as the Sons or Daughters of the American Revolution, start by figuring out the beginning and ending dates of the event.

For example, the American Civil War occurred between 1861 and 1865.

Although there are examples of very young veterans, most of the younger set did not serve in a military capacity—unless they were older. One exception was Civil War Missouri veteran George Huffman, who enrolled as a volunteer in the 13th Missouri Infantry on 4 November 1861 at the age of 14. He re-enlisted on 8 February 1864, and was considered to have been the youngest veteran to have re-enlisted that year—as explained in this 1864 Massachusetts newspaper article.

Lowell Daily Citizen & News Newspaper George Huffman Civil War

Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, Massachusetts), 2 September 1864, page 2.

For the most part, however, it is safe to assume that someone—other than a drummer or bugler—must have been at least 15 when he enlisted for combat service. Therefore, it is unlikely that a combat veteran actually served in the Civil War if he was born after the year 1850.

Now, if a child served in a non-military capacity, then you might find evidence of children as young as seven involved in a war—such as Nathan Futrell, a young boy who served in the American Revolutionary War.

Greensboro Daily News Newspaper Nathan Futrell Revolutionary War

Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 3 January 1971, page 24.

You can also apply an age factor to determine the likelihood of an older person serving in the military.

3. All Applicable Genealogy Records Have Not Been Found

Just because you can’t find a genealogical proof doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist. For example, many military records were burned, so look to other types of records for evidence.

In other words, if an original record is missing you might be able to find alternate records. In the case of a missing military record, look for a petition for a pension, or a list of enlistments, reprinted in an old newspaper article. Other possible genealogical sources: a family diary or letter, or church bulletin, that references military service.

4. Children Listed without Parents May Not Be Orphans

Just because a child is not recorded with a parent on a census record doesn’t necessarily indicate that both parents are deceased.

On one of the 1850 U.S. Federal Census records, I noted that the children of my ancestor Permelia Ann (Davis) Drake were living in different households.

Not finding their mother, I at first assumed that she had died. It turned out that she was very much alive, and recorded in the census with her second husband, Samuel Bassett. It’s not clear why the children were with the neighbors in 1850, but perhaps they were mother’s helpers or farm helpers working to support the family.

5. Informants Are Not Always Correct

A primary record is one that was recorded at the time of the event. A secondary record is one that is recorded later, generally from an informant. In the case of a death certificate, the date and place of death is primary evidence, but the birth date of the decedent, along with the stated parents, is not necessarily correct.

In my family, my great-grandfather’s parents were recorded on his death certificate as his natural parents, when in fact court records and other records establish that he had been adopted.

6. Just Because Two People with the Same Name Reside in the Same Area Does Not Necessarily Mean They Are Related (Coincidences Happen)

In the case of my ancestor William Harrell of Virginia (and Indiana) of the late 1700s and early 1800s, it turns out there are three men by the same name. Now that descendants have submitted results from DNA studies, it is clear that they were not closely related.

7. Spelling Errors

Alternate spellings are the norm, rather than the exception.

For example, my Ebling ancestors can be found with the surname spelling Ebeling, Hebling and even Heblinger. As a result, I always browse a book’s index to see if there are similar spellings. When searching online or in a search box, such as at GenealogyBank, I frequently use a wildcard such as a question mark (?) or asterisk (*) when searching for ancestor names.

  • The ? is used to take the place of one letter
  • The * is used to take the place of several letters

For example:

  • Eb*ing* would find Ebling, Ebeling and Eblinger
  • ?Eb*ing* would find all of the above, and include Hebling or Heblinger
  • Cath?rine would find both Catherine and Catharine

8. Transpositions (Reversing or Mixing Up Letters and Numbers)

Many people, including myself, are prone to transpositions. The year 1787, for example, might be unintentionally entered as 1778, or even 1877.

To overcome this tendency, be sure to closely examine recorded figures, such as the reported age at death. Several genealogy programs calculate this figure, and may even note it during an error check.

9. Widows and Widowers May Not Necessarily Be Widowed

In the event of a divorce, separation or bigamy, a spouse might be recorded as widowed on an official record. This may be to handle a delicate issue, or simply to accommodate a census form that didn’t have other options.

These are just a few common genealogical errors. If you have some that you have observed, please share them with us on Facebook or our blog page in the comments section!

The Marketing Finesse of Mrs. Lydia E. Pinkham

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena researches old newspaper articles and advertisements to show how, more than a century ago, Lydia Estes Pinkham used marketing techniques to promote her medicinal “vegetable compound” that may inspire today’s businesses.

Looking for marketing ideas for your business? You may want to take a look at old newspapers for inspiration.

Consider the work of Lydia Estes Pinkham.

Mrs Lydia E. Pinkham of Lynn Mass. Medical Vegtable Compound - Watertown Daily Times

Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, New York), 12 August 1880, page 4.

Who Is Lydia Pinkham?

Who is Lydia Pinkham you ask? She was a wife and mother living in Lynn, Massachusetts, when the Depression of 1873 threatened to ruin her family financially. Lydia had a recipe for a medicinal elixir that she had previously shared with family and friends. She started manufacturing and bottling this “medicine” in an effort to better her family’s financial position.

Faces Sell

Lydia Pinkham was a master marketer. Her marketing plan included placing an image of herself on her product’s bottles. By putting her face on the label she established a credibility with her target audience, women. She had several medicines; her vegetable compound was likely the most popular and had an alcohol content that was as high as 20%.[ii] At a time where visiting a physician was expensive and women suffered in silence through a variety of ailments—or ingested medicines that had deadly ingredients—Pinkham’s medicine provided some hope.

Customer Testimonials

Lydia also produced pamphlets, which were really thinly disguised recipe books, which not only gave suggestions of what products a woman should use but provided women’s own stories of being cured. In the pamphlet titled Food and Health, there are numerous testimonials that include women’s names and addresses. The pamphlet says of these testimonials: “…you will find letters from many classes of women, young and old, mother and daughter. They are genuine expressions of gratitude from one woman to another.”[iii]

Lydia Pinkham Obituary - Western Recorder Newspaper

Western Recorder (Lawrence, Kansas), 24 May 1883, page 4.

Establish Expertise

Pinkham encouraged her customers to write to her with their health questions. This service became so popular that these letters were being answered years after Pinkham’s death and signed by “Mrs. Pinkham.” When a photo of the gravestone of Lydia Pinkham was published in a 1905 issue of the magazine Ladies’ Home Journal it caused some to question the validity of these letters. Even though Lydia’s 1883 obituary had run in newspapers all around the country, it seems some people believed that Lydia was still answering these letters long after her death. At the end of this 1907 California newspaper article “Mrs. Pinkham” clarifies that she is actually the daughter-in-law of the real Mrs. Lydia Pinkham.

Tumors Conquered - Lydia Pinkham's Vegtable Compound Newspaper Article

Evening News (San Jose, California), 1 May 1907, page 6.

Advertise!

Newspapers ran all kinds of advertisements for Pinkham’s products including those with images and names of women customers singing the product’s praises. Were these women real or just figments of the company’s marketing machine? It appears that they were real women and although they may seem quite personal to us today, these testimonies are really not that different from postings online on medical support group boards, mailing lists, or review websites.

For Older Women - Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 27 June 1930, section 2 page 22.

Enjoy Enduring Business Success

Did Lydia’s marketing work? The evidence of her company’s success is that you can still purchase her reformulated products, manufactured by a different company, today. Marketing techniques that Lydia used in the 19th century, including customer testimonials, are still an effective way to spread the news about products in today’s market.


[i] From Food and Health, page 2. Testimonial by Mrs. Mary Dipietro of Canton, Ohio. < http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/4089243?n=4&imagesize=1200&jp2Res=.25&printThumbnails=no> Available online in the Lydia Estes Pinkham Collection http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/4089243 on the Harvard University Library’s Open Collections Program Women Working, 1800-1930 at http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/ww/pinkham.html.

[ii] The Name that Launched a Million Bottles. The Annette & Irwin Eskind Biomedical Library, http://www.mc.vanderbilt.edu/biolib/hc/nostrums/pinkham.html.

[iii] From Food and Health. Available online in the Lydia Estes Pinkham Collection http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/4089243 on the Harvard University Library’s Open Collections Program Women Working, 1800-1930 at http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/ww/pinkham.html.

Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 2: Google Books & Internet Archive

Here are the top two websites that will save you time and get you 24/7 access to online genealogical libraries with more than one million books: Google Books and Internet Archive. These are digital books that you will rely on to document your family tree, such as published family histories, local histories and historical periodicals.

Google Books: http://books.google.com

collage of images from Google Books about George Kemp

Credit: Google Books

Internet Archive: www.Archive.org

collage of images from Internet Archive

Credit: Internet Archive

Libraries have been aggressively digitizing and putting the world’s published genealogies, local histories and historical periodicals online. This makes it easy for genealogists to refer to these on their schedule—24/7—rain or shine.

Google Books has more than 1 million online genealogy books.

Internet Archive has more than 600,000 genealogy-specific books online.

By contrast, the typical genealogical collection in a public library might have 3,000 books. A state library might have a collection of 40,000 items of genealogy-specific books and materials.

The search engines for Google Books and Internet Archive let you search on every word in each book in their collections—so if your ancestor is mentioned, you will find him.

Both websites let you download and keep any page of these books, or a digital copy of the complete book. Tucking that in your research footnotes lets you show not only the citation, but also the actual pages where you got your information.

Since each digital book title has a permanent URL, you might choose instead to keep only the hyperlinked URL pointing to your source online instead of a fuller mention in your notes. Either way it will be easy for others to see how you reached your conclusions and retrace your steps.

If you will be using these genealogy books often you can download and keep complete copies of each one, forming your own on-call personal genealogical library.

Genealogical societies, public libraries, etc., should catalog these online book titles directly into their library online catalog or on a genealogy book list on their websites. This makes it easy for family history researchers in their area to quickly find the online local histories and genealogies that focus on their town or county.

Link to These Online Books

Search these online books looking for your ancestor.

collage of images from Internet Archive about William Sawyer

Credit: Internet Archive

When you find information that you want to source to your ancestor, footnote the citation with the hyperlink to the online page.

In this example we have an article about William Sawyer (1679-1759) in a book by William Sumner Appleton: Some Descendants of William Sawyer of Newbury, Mass. Boston, MA: Clapp, 1891. Page 3.

screenshot from FamilySearch: search for descendants of William Sawyer

Credit: FamilySearch.org

Add the bibliographic citation and the hyperlink URL to your online family tree.

genealogical information about William Sawyer

Credit: FamilySearch.org and Internet Archive

For example, with the hyperlink embedded in William Sawyer’s page on FamilySearch’s Family Tree all genealogists will be able to click on the source link and immediately open up this page in the online digital book.

Google Books and Internet Archive are two of the finest examples of 21st Century genealogical tools online.

These two online book collections make it easy for genealogists to research and link their research findings to their online family trees.

It is a great day for genealogy.

History of Trains & Railroads: Locomotives, Steam Engines & More

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers for articles and ads about trains and locomotives, and discusses how important railroads were in the lives of our ancestors.

Trains & Railroads Shaped Early America

The importance of train travel cannot be overstated in the development of America, and its effect on how and why our ancestors traveled on land. Stagecoaches were an early transportation option, but once locomotives and steam engines proved their worth, travel by stagecoach became less frequent.

picture of a locomotive, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper illustration 15 February 1892

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 15 February 1892, page 5

Our nation’s great westward expansion took off, and trains became the favored mode of transportation until automobiles and air travel took over. Reading old newspaper articles to explore the history of train travel is a good way to better understand our ancestors’ lives and the times they lived in.

Steam Powers the Way

Early trains were powered by steam, but it may surprise you to learn that steam power was not a 19th Century invention. English inventor Thomas Savery (c.1650-1715) is given the credit for inventing steam power for transportation. He didn’t work on steam-powered trains, but this 1848 Connecticut newspaper article notes he did develop a steam engine for a rowing ship.

Thomas Savery the Engineer, Connecticut Courant newspaper article 28 October 1848

Connecticut Courant (Hartford, Connecticut), 28 October 1848, page 165

Although Savery received his steam engine patent in 1698, the first steam-powered engine didn’t arrive in the American Colonies until 1752 or 1753. Evidence of such a machine can be found in this 1753 Massachusetts newspaper article reporting that the Town of Charlestown was:

“so kind as to bring over their fine Water-Engine, which was of great Service in suppressing and preventing the Progress of the Fire.”

notice about a Charlestown, Massachusetts, fire engine, Boston Gazette newspaper article 13 February 1753

Boston Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 February 1753, page 3

A screw-driven steamboat was invented around 1802 by John Stevens. A Wikipedia article mentions he created a steam carriage around 1826 that ran on a track, but he was not the only one working on the concept.

There are several early newspaper reports of inventors working on steam carriages, including this 1822 New Jersey newspaper article about a petition for a steam carriage being presented on behalf of Isaac Baker, of Ohio.

notice about a patent petition from Isaac Baker for a steam-carriage, New Brunswick Fredonian newspaper article 14 February 1822

New Brunswick Fredonian (New Brunswick, New Jersey), 14 February 1822, page 2

The illustration below, from an 1826 Massachusetts newspaper, shows a 12-horsepower “loco-motive engine” used by the Helton Railroad in England.

picture of a locomotive, Boston Traveler newspaper illustration 7 March 1826

Boston Traveler (Boston, Massachusetts), 7 March 1826, page 4

Early Train & Railroad Companies

If you’ve played that famous board game “Monopoly,” you can surely guess the first railroad thought to have provided regularly-scheduled service.

Yes, it was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O), chartered on 28 February 1827, to provide service from Baltimore, Maryland, to the Ohio River. It was capitalized with 15,000 shares at $100 each ($1,500,000), what must have seemed like a tremendous fortune at that time.

Perhaps your ancestors traveled on the great B&O, credited to have been the first U.S. company to offer scheduled passenger and freight service?

However, B&O was not the first charted train company. A search of GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives finds mention of other train companies. This 1825 Pennsylvania newspaper article reports a petition to incorporate and provide service from Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania, “to the nearest point on the Delaware.”

petition to construct a Pennsylvania railroad, National Gazette newspaper article 15 December 1825

National Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 15 December 1825, page 1

This advertisement was published in an 1856 South Carolina newspaper, showing the Virginia Springs Central Railroad’s announcement that its opening line will travel 56 miles. Until the rail line is completed, the company’s stage coaches will continue to operate at fares ranging from $10 to $13.

railroad ad, Charleston Courier newspaper advertisement 11 September 1856

Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 11 September 1856, page 3

We can all imagine the excitement generated by the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on 10 May 1869 at Promontory Summit, in Utah Territory!

To commemorate the final joining, the railroad placed a golden spike and a silver railroad tie. This article from an 1869 New York newspaper reports that that the last spike would be engraved as follows:

“The last spike. The Pacific Railroad—ground broke January 8, 1863, completed May–, 1869. May God continue the unity of our country as this railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”

The Silver Tie and Golden Spike, Evening Post newspaper article

Evening Post (New York, New York), 15 May 1869, page 4

There were many other train “firsts,” such as this article from an 1898 Minnesota newspaper commemorating the first Minneapolis Locomotive crossing the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River “at this point.”

The First Minneapolis Locomotive, Minneapolis Journal newspaper article 12 February 1898

Minneapolis Journal (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 12 February 1898, page 14

Railroad Family History for Kids (and Adults)

The children of today may never know the joy of train travel, except as a novelty. To connect your children with this important part of American history, search the newspaper archives to see if any of their ancestors were connected with the railroad industry—that may spark their interest.

In addition to their surname, be sure to search for your railroad ancestors by their job title, such as conductor or switchman. Also search for railway pension records (which are in a separate system from Social Security).

Here is an example of an old newspaper article that may show your ancestors in the context of railroad travel. This 1857 Pennsylvania newspaper wedding announcement notes that the marriage of William C. Pitman and Miss F.A. Fuller occurred on a moving train that exceeded 40 miles per hour!

Pitman-Fuller wedding announcement, Public Ledger newspaper article 10 January 1857

Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 10 January 1857, page 5

This is just the tip of the iceberg for conducting research on how our ancestors were connected to trains, either by occupation or their desire to travel.

Websites and Documents of Interest

Cyndi’s List: Railroads >> Records: Administrative, Employment and Pensions

U.S. Railroad Retirement Board

“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”

The original title of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” was “The Levee Song,” published in 1894 in a book of songs published by Princeton University titled Carmina Princetonia. If you search GenealogyBank you can locate several references to this famous song, including this one.

"I've Been Working on the Railroad" song, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 30 August 1920

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 30 August 1920, page 2

Have fun filling in the lives of your ancestors and the times they lived in with railroad and train stories. You never know what you’ll discover about your family history!

Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 1: Google

I have been working on my family history for 50 years now. So much has changed—family researchers today have a much different task then we had decades ago.

Looking at the online genealogy tools available today, I would like to focus on the top 13 websites that will save you time and money so that your family research is preserved, well documented and readily available to the rising generation of your extended family tree.

Over the next several blog posts in our ongoing content series I will show which genealogy websites are the best and why you need to be using them to trace and document your family tree. All of these genealogy websites are world-class, the crème de la crème.

a Google logo

Credit: Google.com

Top Genealogy Website #1 – Google

Yes, there are millions of genealogy-relevant items on the open Internet. Beginners and advanced researchers can quickly find valuable records about their target ancestors online—and doing a search on Google’s search engine is an excellent way to find these ancestry records.

screenshot of a Google search for Willard Henry Kemp

Credit: Google.com

A Google search for my grandfather, Willard Henry Kemp, pulls up 22.3 million search results.

I can see that the first few results have accurately pointed me to online records that I can use. But—there are 22.3 million of these suggested matches! There must be a way to cut through this huge amount and get to the family records I really want to use.

Let’s try that Google search for my grandfather again.

Helpful Genealogy Search Tool: the Phrase “~genealogy”

Use this handy tool ~genealogy to fine-tune your Google searches.

This tool tells the Google search engine that you want to focus on genealogy records and resources, narrowing your search results to those records. Use it in your Google searches to save time and get the most useful records for your family tree research.

This time I will search for information about my grandfather in Google by putting his name in quotation marks (to exactly match his name) and I will add: ~genealogy.

screenshot of Google search for Willard Henry Kemp adding phrase "~genealogy"

Credit: Google.com

This time the Google search engine returned 35 targeted search results. That is a lot easier to review than 22.3 million.

I can quickly open and evaluate these records and then try alternate Google searches to expand my search results, such as:

  • “Willard Kemp” ~genealogy
  • Kemp and Stamford ~genealogy
  • etc.

I highly recommend you try a Google search to get an idea of what information might be out there on the web about your target ancestor—and then use the phrase ~genealogy to make the search results more manageable. Using Google is a great way to start exploring your family history.

Next article: #2 The Online Digital Book Sites

The History of the Great 1918 Flu Pandemic: We All Wore Masks

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena researches old newspaper articles to learn about the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, a three-year disaster that killed approximately 50 million people worldwide and unquestionably affected the lives of any of your ancestors living in the years 1918-1920.

Influenza is a disease, makes you weak all in your knees;
‘Tis a fever ev’ybody sure does dread;
Puts a pain in ev’y bone, a few days an’ you are gone
To a place in de groun’ called de grave.

—“Influenza,” lyrics found on American Memory: the John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip. Song sung by Ace Johnson, Clemens State Farm, Brazoria, Texas, April 16, 1939.

Earlier this year, despite having had a flu shot, I ended up catching the flu. Anyone who has had the flu knows how truly miserable it is. When you are suffering from it, you can easily understand how someone could die from its symptoms. Although still deadly, the flu does not strike the terror in people’s minds that it once did. In fact many people take a wait and see approach, frequently opting not to get the yearly influenza vaccination shot.

When many people think of our ancestors and the flu, they automatically think of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic—and with good reason. This was one of the deadliest flu pandemics in history.

What Is Spanish Influenza? Dr. Rupert Blue Tells about It, Times-Picayune newspaper article 6 October 1918

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 6 October 1918, page 1

From January 1918 to December 1920, this flu pandemic killed approximately 50 million people worldwide, nearly 675,000 in the United States alone.[i] By contrast, 16 million lives were lost during World War I, which was still ongoing during the Spanish flu pandemic’s first year. Why was this flu different from previous forms of influenza? One significant difference in this deadly strain was that young adults were affected just as much as the usual at-risk groups: young children and the elderly.[ii]

This influenza pandemic touched everyone’s lives whether they came down with the virus or not. Efforts to curb the spread of the flu disaster included requiring people to wear facemasks, and discouraging public meetings. The committee of the American Public Health Association decreed that non-essential meetings and gatherings in crowded rooms were dangerous. Some of the APHA recommendations included the closing of “saloons, dance halls, and cinemas.”[iii]

Influenza Mask Wearing Compulsory: Health Board, San Jose Mercury News newspaper article 11 December 1918

San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California), 11 December 1918, page 1

The implementation of these public safety health precautions shows how seriously the influenza pandemic was taken. A startling example of this is described in the following article from a 1918 Washington newspaper, reporting that a public health officer shot a person on the street who refused to don a mask.

Refuses to Don Influenza Mask; Shot by Officer, Bellingham Herald newspaper article 28 October 1918

Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington), 28 October 1918, page 2

The vast movement of troops caused by World War I meant that an illness that would normally be quickly contained instead had worldwide consequences. While the 1918 pandemic is the one that often gets remembered, there have been other epidemics including those of a more recent nature, like the recent Swine Flu. There is no doubt that the 1918 pandemic wasn’t the only one that may have affected your family. According to the website flu.gov there have been four flu pandemics since 1918.[i]

Do you have an ancestor who had the flu during the Spanish flu pandemic? Want to learn more about the history of that outbreak? Good sources for researching historical epidemics are the books Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Times to the Present by George Childs Kohn, and America’s Forgotten Epidemic: The Influenza of 1918 by Alfred W. Crosby.

Don’t forget to search for old newspaper articles about the flu on GenealogyBank. By searching on the word “influenza” and narrowing your search by date and place you will be able to find articles of how the pandemics affected your ancestor’s community and other parts of the United States.


[i] Pandemic Flu History. Available at http://www.flu.gov/pandemic/history/index.html.

[ii] The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918. National Archives and Records Administration. Available at http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/.

[iii] The Influenza Pandemic of 1918. Available at http://virus.stanford.edu/uda/.

Civil War Music Makers: Finding Drummer Boys in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena researches old newspaper articles to find stories about the young boys that served a crucial role in the American Civil War: drummer boys.

With the recent commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, your family history research time may be focused on learning more about your Civil War ancestry. Reading history sources and American Civil War period newspapers online, you can immerse yourself in the battles, the politics surrounding the war, and even the movement of the troops. While most soldiers in the Civil War were adult men, some women, disguised as men, were involved in the combat as well. We also know that young boys suited up for battle, often filling the crucial role of drummer boy.

photo of Civil War drummer boy John Clem

Photo: Civil War drummer boy John Clem. Credit: Morris Gallery of the Cumberland, Nashville, Tennessee; Library of Congress; Wikipedia.

Whether they added years to their age in order to enlist or recruiters looked the other way, teenagers and even boys served and died for their respective sides during the Civil War.

Boys the Backbone of the Civil War, Oregonian newspaper article 30 May 1915

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 30 May 1915, page 3

Yes, boys served and died in battle in the Civil War. According to the PBS American Experience webpage “Kids in the Civil War,” as many as 20% of Civil War soldiers were under the age of 18 years. This is an amazing number of children participating in battle considering that over 3.2 million soldiers fought in the conflict, according to the Civil War Trust.

Many of these young boys played the battlefield music during the Civil War that stirred the troops and relayed important messages from the commanding officers. These young musicians bravely played their instruments as the opposing sides charged into battle. Looking through historical newspapers online in GenealogyBank, one can read various claims long after the Civil War ended about men said to be the youngest drummer boy during the war.

Youngest Drummer Boy in Union Army during the Civil War Is 62, Evening News newspaper article 9 November 1915

Evening News (San Jose, California), 9 November 1915, page 5

While some of the youngest Civil War drummer boys were 11 years old, there are even accounts of boys as young as 8 years of age joining on both sides of the conflict.

Youngest Civil War Drummer Boy Dies, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 6 February 1930

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 6 February 1930, page 14

What did these boys do during the Civil War? Some served as musicians for their respective companies. While it was thought this would have been the “safest” place for them, I don’t know of anyone who would want to go into battle with only a drum to defend yourself!

Civil War drummer boys like Johnny Clem, who went on to be the youngest non-commissioned officer in army history, sometimes dropped their drums and grabbed a gun during a battle to defend themselves and those around them. In an 1879 newspaper article Clem reportedly replied “Because I did not like to stand and be shot at without shooting back!” when asked about his shooting a Confederate colonel during the Battle of Shiloh.* According to his military service file index card, Clem was a musician in Company C of the 22nd Michigan Infantry.**

These boys, sometimes adopted by soldiers as “mascots,” played an important role on the battlefield during the Civil War. When the roar of fighting was too loud to hear a commanding officer’s orders, the drummer boys relayed those order via their drums. And just like their adult counterparts they suffered sickness, injury and even death during their military service.

Pvt. Clarence McKenzie was a 12-year-old drummer boy for the Brooklyn 13th Regiment when he was killed in June 1861 by friendly fire from a soldier in his own company. A statue of a drummer boy sits upon his final resting place at Green-Wood Cemetery. It is said that 3,000 people attended his funeral. You can read more about Pvt. McKenzie on the webpage “Brooklyn in the Civil War” found on the Brooklyn Public Library website.

Do you have any Civil War ancestors on your family tree? Dig into GenealogyBank’s online historical newspaper archives and see what stories you can find about their military service during that great and terrible American conflict. And please share your Civil War genealogy discoveries with us in the comments. We love to hear your personal family stories!

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*Johnny Clem, “the Drummer-Boy of Chickamauga.” Grand Forks Weekly Herald (Grand Forks, ND). Thursday, October 16, 1879 .Volume: I . Issue: 17 Page: 2 . Available on GenealogyBank.

**Available at Fold 3, http://www.fold3.com/image/295053556/

Where to Put That Old Family Journal Online?

Do you have an old family journal or diary from your ancestor? What are you doing with it?

Curt Balmer transcribed his great-grandfather’s journal.

The old journal is a record of John Balmer (1819-1898) and Margaret Ann (Carey) Balmer (1831-1890). The Balmers were born in Ireland and moved to Ontario, Canada. John’s journal recorded how he worked to earn the money he needed to pay for the cross-Atlantic voyage, as well as details of the couple’s life together and experiences in Canada.

Curt Balmer asked how he could post his ancestor’s journal on the Internet. He wanted to get it preserved and made available online so that family members for generations could read it and know their ancestors’ stories. He asked for suggestions on where and how he could post the journal online.

Here are just two of the suggestions I made about where to post the transcript of the family journal online.

First, upload a copy of your family journal transcript to a free website like Scribd.com.

screenshot of John Balmer's journal on Scribd.com

Credit: Scribd.com

You can see John Balmer’s journal on Scribd.com here: http://bit.ly/135xACz

Scribd lets you upload any book you create and want to share online.

This is a good website for sharing the documents you create with others.

With just one or two clicks you can upload a transcript like this one of John Balmer’s journal.

My second suggestion is to post the journal onto an online family tree website like FamilySearch.

screenshot of John Balmer's journal on FamilySearch.org

Credit: FamilySearch.org

This is easy to do.

Simply find your ancestor on the FamilySearch family tree. If he is not there, add him.

Then click on the “stories” button and copy & paste your journal transcript, pasting it to his story box on that site.

With just a few clicks John Balmer’s autobiography has been easily preserved for your family online on Scribd and on FamilySearch.

What other websites or apps would you suggest for preserving the transcription of this old family autobiography/journal online? Please share them with us in the comments.

Extreme Weather in History: Stories That Affected Our Ancestors

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena researches old newspaper articles to show how severe weather deeply affected our ancestors’ lives.

Last week I went to pick up my son from a pool party and the outside temperature was 100 degrees at 9:00 p.m. While I expect it to be hot in the summer during the daytime, when it’s 100 degrees at night I know we’re in store for a heat wave.

There can be no doubt that the weather significantly affected our ancestors’ lives, even that of more recent generations. In my own family, my grandparents moved from the Los Angeles area to Indio, California, a desert community near Palm Springs, in the 1950s. The average daily high in the summer months is well over 100 degrees. Because my grandfather worked for the railroad, when he wasn’t sitting in a train in the heat he was working outside. Having traveled to that area many times I can’t imagine living there without air conditioning.

How did the weather affect your ancestors? Did they or a family member suffer an injury or die due to extreme cold or heat? Do you ever consider how the weather affected your ancestors’ everyday lives?

collage of scenes from the Blizzard of 1888 in Keene, New Hampshire

Collage: scenes of the Blizzard of 1888 in Keene, New Hampshire. Credit: Keene Public Library and the Historical Society of Cheshire County.

The Children’s Blizzard of 1888

Stories of the deadly consequences of severe weather filled our ancestors’ hometown newspapers. For those with Great Plains ancestors, the 12 January 1888 blizzard known as “The Children’s Blizzard” has great historical significance. This tremendously strong storm, which spread all the way to New England, caught everyone by surprise—including children at school, some of whom died because they couldn’t get home and the schools lacked provisions. This blizzard is chronicled in the book The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin. Those who have read the “Little House on the Prairie” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder are familiar with this extreme blizzard because it’s depicted in the book The Long Winter.

This 1888 Missouri newspaper article reported the “awful list” of victims from the severe blizzard.

An Awful List: Victims of the Deadly Blizzard, Kansas City Times newspaper article 17 January 1888

Kansas City Times (Kansas City, Missouri), 17 January 1888, page 1

Newspapers are filled with articles reporting severe blizzards in history.

Extreme Heat Wave Hit New England

Sudden weather anomalies like blizzards weren’t the only type of weather that had dire consequences for our ancestors. Extreme heat—especially the inability to escape it—was also something that took its toll on our ancestors. This article from a 1911 Massachusetts newspaper reports on those who died from a heat wave blasting New England, including a man who was run over by his horse-drawn cart when the horses went crazy from the heat.

Second Heat Wave Calls Toll of Ten, Boston Journal newspaper article 11 July 1911

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 11 July 1911, page 1

Newspapers provide information on the day-to-day weather in your ancestors’ communities. Explore them to find stories of extreme storms and severe weather throughout history. Newspapers also printed old daily almanac weather reports and bulletins that can give you insight into the weather conditions that affected your ancestors’ lives.

Once you’ve researched these articles to identify extreme weather stories and weather records, consider searching a manuscript collection for a diary or journal in which someone describes how the weather on a particular day affected the city or town.

Another good source of historical weather information is Google Books. Titles such as The Weather and Climate of Chicago by Henry Joseph Cox and John Howard Armington, and Maryland Weather Service by Maryland Weather Service, Forrest Shreve and Oliver Lanard Fassig, provide weather data back to the beginning of the 19th century.

The weather affected all aspects of our ancestors’ lives from their work to their everyday living circumstances. Take a look at their area’s newspapers for the story behind the weather—one more way historical newspapers help you flesh out the names and dates on your family tree to get to know your ancestors better, the lives they led, and the times they lived in.