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.

Historical Job Names in Newspapers: Old Careers & Occupations (Part II)

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides another fun quiz to test your knowledge of terms used in old newspapers to describe our ancestors’ occupations—and then provides illustrated definitions of those terms.

An earlier blog article of mine entitled “Job Names in Historical Newspapers: Researching Old Occupations” illustrated the origins and meanings of old occupational terms found in historical newspapers. Since then, I’ve found more of these historical job terms that you may stumble across in your family history research. Many of these old career terms are confusing, such as curriers—a term we might mistake for messengers, but actually meant one who cured hides.

Note that some of these old occupation terms are common last names, such as Smith or Wright. This can be a valuable clue to ancestral research. As populations grew, it became necessary to require surnames to distinguish residents for tax and other purposes, so many adopted their hometown or occupation as their surnames.

Test your knowledge with this handy “Early Genealogical Occupations” quiz by matching the occupational terms in the first column with the definitions in the second. If you missed any of the old job definitions, read on to see their definitions illustrated with historical newspaper articles.

early job terms quiz

Collier: Derived from the Middle English word “col” meaning coal, a collier was a quarry worker, coal miner, or a crewman on a ship that transported coal. In this 1770 newspaper article, John Bishop—who ran away from his bail—is described as a collier by trade.

John Bishop, collier, Maryland Gazette newspaper article 4 January 1770

Maryland Gazette (Annapolis, Maryland), 4 January 1770, page 3

Currier: Today we think of curriers as messengers or deliverymen, but originally the term designated a skill in hide curing. Curriers were often tanners (hide tanners) as well, as seen in this 1849 obituary for James Fleming who “was a tanner and currier by trade.”

James Fleming obituary, Trenton State Gazette newspaper article 7 March 1849

Trenton State Gazette (Trenton, New Jersey), 7 March 1849, page 3

Farrier: A farrier was a craftsman or metal worker, who often fitted and trimmed horseshoes. The term is still common today, and was derived from the French word “ferrier,” indicating a blacksmith. (See the definition of Smith below.) In this 1729 notice, the deceased Adam Tuck was a farrier “late of Boston.”

Adam Tuck, farrier, Boston Gazette newspaper article 8 December 1729

Boston Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts), 8 December 1729, page 2

Furrier: A furrier was someone who prepared or traded furs, also known as a skinner. In this 1773 newspaper ad, John Siemon, a furrier, advertised his wares—including muffs and tippets, gloves, and robes and riding dresses trimmed in fur.

John Siemon, furrier, New-York Journal newspaper ad 9 December 1773

New-York Journal (New York, New York), 9 December 1773, page supplement 1

Indentured Servant: Indentured servants were obliged by work contracts to repay their debt (typically for travel costs) over a number of years. Most did not receive wages, but learned a skill and were provided room, board, clothing and other basic needs. Many families signed agreements with ship captains, who—upon arrival in America—sold the indentures to persons looking for workers. This 1716 advertisement reports that Capt. Nicholas Oursell had transported a variety of persons of varying occupations, such as coopers (barrel makers), joiners, smiths and washer women.

ad offering indentured servants, Boston News-Letter newspaper advertisement 18-25 June 1716

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 18-25 June 1716, page 2

The life of an indentured servant was not easy and advertisements looking for run-aways were common, such as this 1776 reward offer for run-away Richard Trusted, who had learned the trade of gun-stocker (a weapon maker).

Ten Pounds Reward, Pennsylvania Ledger newspaper notice 9 March 1776

Pennsylvania Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 9 March 1776, page 4

Joiner or Joyner: A joiner worked in construction, particularly attaching wooden components to buildings such as doors, window frames and staircases. In this 1770 run-away notice, apprentice David Cox ran away from his employer. The old newspaper notice warns that Cox worked as a carpenter and joiner, but was likely to pass himself off as a mill-wright—one who built or maintained machinery at a mill.

Three Pounds Reward, New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy newspaper notice 29 January 1770

New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy (New York, New York), 29 January 1770, page 4

Marquis or Margrave: Based upon the term “mark,” which designated a British county or earldom, a marquis (or count of the mark or mark-count) was more of a title than an occupation, although they typically oversaw workers of lower rank. The term was later shortened to marquis, and came to indicate a nobleman with a rank above a duke. The German equivalent was “margrave” or “margravine” (male and female equivalents). This 1772 death notice was printed for Margrave Augustus George of Baden-Baden.

Margrave Augustus George obituary, Pennsylvania Chronicle newspaper death notice 3-10 February 1772

Pennsylvania Chronicle (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 3-10 February 1772, page 12

Sawyer: A sawyer earned his living by cutting (sawing) timber, as seen in this 1770 notice about John Wilmington, a sawyer by trade, running away from bail.

John Wilmington, sawyer, New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury newspaper notice 8 January 1770

New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury (New York, New York), 8 January 1770, page 4

Selectman: Chosen by townsmen, a selectman (similar to an alderman) was a member of a three- or five-member governing board of a New England town. In this 1810 news article about a ballot challenge, Nathan Prentiss of Petersham was accused of casting two votes for his choice of selectman.

Nathan Prentiss voting challenge, Berkshire Reporter newspaper article 9 May 1810

Berkshire Reporter (Pittsfield, Massachusetts), 9 May 1810, page 3

Smith: A smith was a metal forger or iron worker. One of the more common smith occupations is a blacksmith, who created and fit horseshoes. Some synonyms for smith are farrier, hammersmith and smithy. This 1786 obituary mentions that James Hays, by trade a cooper (barrel or cask maker/repairer) was the son of Thomas Hays, by trade a smith.

James Hays obituary, Norwich Packet newspaper death notice 13 July 1786

Norwich Packet (Norwich, Connecticut), 13 July 1786, page 3

Tanner: A tanner tanned or processed animal hides, and is similar to a currier or one who cured hides. The following anecdote occurred in 1826, when James Brown, a tanner by trade, disappeared and was assumed to be drowned. He turned out to be a prankster wishing to gain publicity.

James Brown, tanner, National Advocate newspaper article 28 February 1826

National Advocate (New York, New York), 28 February 1826, page 2

Wright: A wright was a skilled worker, and a repairer or manufacturer of wooden objects. (See also Joiner.) This 1872 obituary reports that Mr. Frederick Friend learned the trade of wheelwright beginning at the age of twelve.

Frederick Friend obituary, New York Herald newspaper death notice 31 January 1872

New York Herald (New York, New York), 31 January 1872, page 5

Yeoman (yeman, yoman, yoeman, yonge man or young man): Over time, the title yeoman had varying connotations, from a non-commissioned military officer or soldier who rendered specific duties to the crown, to a freeman who owned his own farm, or one who farmed but also provided military protection. As an adjective, it indicates a duty requiring great effort, as in this 1915 news photo of firemen rendering “yeoman service.”

Boston firemen, Boston Journal newspaper photo 23 September 1915

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 23 September 1915, page 6

Firsthand Stories of the Civil War’s 1864 Battle of Nashville

This decisive battle of the Civil War was fought in and around Nashville, Tennessee, 148 years ago, on 15-16 December 1864. Union General George H. Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga,” commanded the Federal troops who soundly defeated the Confederate army under the command of General John Bell Hood.

The Battle of Nashville was the last major clash in the Western Theater of the Civil War. After suffering more than 6,000 casualties the Confederate Army of Tennessee was badly weakened, no longer strong enough to threaten the much-larger Union forces in the area.

photo of the Battle of Nashville, 16 December 1864. Credit: Library of Congress.

Battle of Nashville, 16 December 1864. Credit: Library of Congress.

GenealogyBank gives you the news as your ancestors lived it, providing more context to your family story than is available from other genealogy sources. Newspaper coverage of the Civil War was extensive and vivid, with many reporters giving first-hand accounts of battles they witnessed from up close. Newspapers also published actual Civil War battle reports from the officers, and letters from the soldiers in addition to their own personal war stories.

For example, here are three first-hand accounts of the Battle of Nashville directly from the battle field.

This historical newspaper article featured General Thomas’s official report of the battle.

Battle at Nashville, Washington Reporter newspaper article 21 December 1864

Washington Reporter (Washington, Pennsylvania), 21 December 1864, page 2

“I attacked the enemy’s left this morning, the 15th, and drove it from the river below the city, very near to the Franklin pike, a distance of about eight miles. I have captured Chalmer’s headquarters and train, and a second train of about twenty wagons, with between eight hundred and one thousand prisoners, and sixteen pieces of artillery. Our troops behaved splendidly, all taking their share in assaulting and charging the enemy’s breastworks.”

Read the entire news article: Battle At Nashville Official Dispatch from General Thomas–The Enemy to be Again Attacked.

This old newspaper article included further stories from the battlefield.

Great Battle at Nashville, New York Herald-Tribune newspaper article 17 December 1864

New York Herald-Tribune (New York City, New York), 17 December 1864, page 1

“The western telegraph lines are working very badly, on account of the snowstorms prevailing. Just returned from the battle field. Battle severe and terrific. Our forces victorious…

“Hood has fallen back, and is apparently doing his best to get away, while Thomas is pressing him with great vigor, frequently capturing guns and men. Everything so far is perfectly successful, and the prospect is fair to crush Hood’s army.”

Read the entire historical newspaper article: Great Battle at Nashville. Decisive Union Victory. Rebel Army Defeated, He is Trying to Escape.

This old news article about the Civil War presented a reporter’s exciting description of the fighting.

Battle before Nashville, Plain Dealer newspaper article 19 December 1864

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 19 December 1864, page 3

“Our own troops were disposed in the following order: Wilson’s cavalry on the extreme right; Schofield’s 23d corps consisting of Couch’s and Cox’s divisions, at first held in reserve, but before the main battle opened had taken position on the left of the cavalry thus forming the right of our infantry line; A. J. Smith’s 16th corps, consisting of the divisions of McArthur, Garrard and Moore, came next on the left of Schofield. On the left of Smith the magnificent 4th corps of T. J. Wood, consisting of the divisions of Kimball, Elliott and Sam Beatty was formed in close order of battle and partially massed. Steedman with Cruft’s division and two brigades of colored troops held the extreme left…

“Longer, perhaps, than any troops ever remained in such a position, they stood and fired fast and furiously at the enemy, but they could not remain there and live, and a few gave way and fled in disorder. The whole line staggered, and had the rebels done nothing more than keep up their deadly fire we should have been driven back, but they made a movement to shift their artillery, which our men received as an indication that they were about to abandon their line and retire. Raising a loud shout, the division, with fixed bayonets, rushed impetuously forward and, swarming over the works, captured such rebels as hadn’t fled. They had time to get away two guns, but the rest fell into our hands.”

Read the entire old newspaper article: Battle Before Nashville. Interesting Particulars. 5,000 Prisoners and 37 Cannon. Complete Route of the Enemy.

Dig into GenealogyBank’s online historical newspaper archives of more than 6,400 titles to find out more about your Civil War-era ancestors.