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!

Top Genealogy Websites: Utah Genealogy Resources for Records

Are you researching your family roots in Utah? Here are two good sources of Utah genealogy information online—GenealogyBank and vital records put up by the state itself—to help with your family history research in the “Beehive State.”

collage of genealogy records from the Utah Division of Archives & Records Service

Credit: Utah Division of Archives & Records Service

Utah county and state genealogical records are going online. The state’s Division of Archives & Records Service is putting up indexes and digital copies of original records ranging from birth certificates to probate records, and all types of records in between.

Utah has put up a wider variety of records than perhaps any other state in the U.S.

Utah Death Records

Utah has digitized and is in the process of putting online their death records from 1904-1961. These are Series 20842 (Index to Series 81448).

According to its website there are also these records. (Note: the series without links are not available online, but can be searched in person at the Utah Division of Archives & Records Service office.)

  • Reports from Summit County (Utah). County Coroner, Series 3716, contains the death certificates that are associated with the individual deaths investigated in this coroner record.
  • Military death certificates from the Department of Administrative Services. Division of Archives and Records Service, Series 3769, includes death certificates for military personnel killed in World War II and the Korean War, whose bodies were transported back to Utah for burial.
  • Death certificates electronic index from the Department of Health. Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Series 20842, is a computerized index for the death certificates.
  • Burial record from Vernal (Utah)Series 25360, contains death certificates from Uintah County beginning in 1905.

Utah Birth Records

Utah has an index to Birth Certificates 1905-1906 and has additional Birth Certificates 1907-1912 that are not indexed but can be browsed.

According to its website there are also these related birth records online:

  • Birth certificates from Weber County (Utah). County Clerk, Series 20896, includes all live births occurring in the state of Utah as recorded by the Office of Vital Records and Statistics.
  • Birth certificate indexes from the Department of Health. Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Series 81437, indexes the birth certificates (1904-1934) by Soundex code number.
  • Out-of-state births from the Department of Health. Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Series 81442, are birth certificates from other states sent to the Utah Office of Vital Records and Statistics for statistical compilation of Utah residents that were born in other states.
  • Native American birth certificates from the Department of Health. Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Series 81444, are a separate file of birth certificates issued for Indians.
  • Delayed certificates of birth from the Department of Health. Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Series 81445, are birth certificates that are registered with Vital Records a year or more after the date of birth.
  • Amendments to birth records from the Department of Health. Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Series 81446, are forms used to change information on birth certificates, either through error, name change, or subsequent sex change.
  • Birth registers from Emery County (Utah). County Clerk, Series 84038, contains birth certificates filed with the Bureau of Vital Statistics beginning in 1904—but do not become public until 100 years after birth. The researcher should contact the agency.
  • Birth and death records from Weber County (Utah). Vital Statistics Registrar, Series 85146, contains the official copy of birth certificates.

More Utah Records for Genealogy

Utah has also put an extensive collection of records online ranging from cattle brand registration books to naturalization records to probate records. See its complete list of records here.

Utah Newspapers for Genealogy

GenealogyBank has an extensive collection of Utah newspapers online dating from 1851 to 1922 & 1988 to Today.

Search Utah Newspaper Archives (1851 – 1922)

Search Utah Recent Obituaries (1988 – Current)

Discover a variety of genealogy records and news stories in these 8 Utah newspapers:

Search recent obituary records for your relatives in these 15 Utah newspapers:

Click on the image below to download a printable list of the Utah newspapers in GenealogyBank for your future reference. You can save to your desktop and click the titles to go directly to your newspaper of interest.

Utah Newspaper Archives at GenealogyBank

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