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.

The Story of Pioneer Joseph Babington Found in an Old Obituary

How many stories can a family remember and pass down? Some of the great family stories from the past were not recorded and have been forgotten. Time after time genealogists have found amazing stories in their ancestry research that they never knew about their family.

Look at what we learn from the obituary of Joseph Babington (1837-1922), an early Idaho pioneer.

picture of Joseph Babington from his obituary, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 30 April 1922

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 30 April 1922, page 2

In the spring of 1862 Babington crossed the Great Plains by ox train in a caravan of 80 wagons. The trip included many Indian fights, and he had his horse shot out from under him multiple times. One time the American Indians stole the pioneers’ oxen “and he tracked the animals and while the enemy slept brought them back again.”

Babington’s story reads like so many of my favorite Westerns!

“Crossing the Snake River in Idaho, the wagons had to be taken apart three times and rafted over the treacherous stream.”

Think about that: three times the pioneers had to take apart the wagons just to get them across the river. Now—look at this detail about their journey across America provided in the old newspaper: “Cattle accompanied the train and in the morning after milking a certain quantity was suspended in strong holders over the rear wheels, the jolting of which manufactured all the butter required.”

Funny. What great family stories. We need to find these stories, document them and make sure they get preserved in the family so that they are not lost.

Babington’s obituary has all of the usual genealogical facts—but the details it provides about the tough life of an American pioneer give us the rest of his story, and will be treasured by the family forever. We might think we’re living in tough times today—but look at what our ancestors had to do just to survive!

Joseph Babington, Pioneer, Is Dead, Idaho Statesman newspaper obituary 30 April 1922

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 30 April 1922, page 2