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!

The Polygamist’s Wife: The Story of My Favorite Ancestor Mary Ann

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about her favorite ancestor Mary Ann, a Mormon who married a polygamist when she was 15 years old, in 1868.

Do you have a favorite ancestor? Maybe it’s that one ancestor you love to research because of all the great documents you find about his or her life. Or perhaps it’s a more recent ancestor that was alive when you were a child.

old photographs from the author's collection

Old photographs from the author’s collection

When someone asks me about my favorite ancestor it’s hard for me to choose just one. But there is one ancestor that is responsible for me loving family history as a child and my eventual career as a genealogist.

My maternal grandmother’s paternal grandmother, Mary Ann Smith McNeil, has always been important to me. My grandmother told me stories of her grandmother’s life, a life story that rivals any Hollywood movie. Maybe that’s why my grandmother spent time telling me about Mary Ann. Perhaps my grandmother knew that it would ultimately plant a seed that would continue to grow within me and lead me on a genealogical journey.

Let me tell you a little about Mary Ann’s life. She was born on 2 July 1853 in Newton Heath, England, to William Smith and Mary Hibbert Smith. At the age of two years she sailed to America along with her family and other English Mormon converts. When Mary Ann was nine years old they migrated across the United States to Utah. She was married at age 15 years to a polygamist who was 45 years old. At the age of 16 she became a mother.

Polygamy is a controversial subject. My grandmother would tell me about Mary Ann’s life as a polygamist’s wife and suffice it to say it was difficult. The stories of this life (please remember that the Mormon Church ceased practicing polygamy in 1890) captivated me as I thought about what it must have been like to have been so young and married.

But this isn’t a story about polygamy. That’s an article for another time. This is the story of a woman who was just an everyday ancestor. Just like most of your female ancestors, Mary Ann was an everyday person; some would label her “just a housewife.” But she left a great paper trail.

That paper trail starts with the obvious records: marriage records, a death certificate, and birth certificates for children. Like many women, Mary Ann’s work for her church was important, and so her name is found in church histories and records of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ female auxiliary, the Relief Society.

But here’s the great thing about living in the modern age of Genealogy 2.0. Digitized genealogy records are always being added online. This means continued, reasonably exhaustive Internet searching is crucial in order to find the latest information available about your ancestor.

One of the family stories I had heard was that during World War II, Mary Ann appeared in newspaper articles touting the large number of descendants she had serving in the war. A biography compiled by her great-grandson Herbert A. Hancock describes newspaper articles that appeared nationwide reporting on her 5 grandsons and 17 great-grandsons serving in the war (later the number of her descendants serving in the military would grow to a total of 25). These newspaper articles about her family’s patriotism started appearing around the celebration of her 90th birthday and were picked up by a number of newspapers nationwide proclaiming her family’s “great contribution to the cause of freedom.”(Legacy of Faith, compiled by Herbert A. Hancock, pg. 364.)

I was always curious about these old newspaper articles. Prior to digitized newspapers being made available online, it was very difficult to find them. However, a search today on GenealogyBank shows some of these articles, one of which appeared in a newspaper not too far from where I, her great-great granddaughter, live.

Nonagenarian 'Ancestor," San Diego Union newspaper article 4 June 1944

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 4 June 1944, page 31

Sometimes it’s the human interest stories that get our seemingly everyday ancestor written up in the newspaper. GenealogyBank’s search engine allows us to search for ancestors whether they are mentioned in a hometown newspaper or in several papers around the country. These articles are something I would miss if I limited my search to where Mary Ann lived in Arizona. Her life is a great reminder that ordinary people, including housewives, had stories written about them and that these stories can provide us wonderfully rich information about our families.

Not too bad for a woman who was “just a housewife.”