Diseases, Disasters & Distress: Bad For Your Ancestors, Good For Your Genealogical Research

by Lisa Alzo | Feb 3, 2011

Lisa Alzo

Wouldn't it be nice if all the branches on our family trees were filled with bright shiny leaves that reflected only good kin and happy times? The truth is, most of our pasts are dotted with blemishes, and bad things did happen, often to good people. History is blanketed with disheartening tales of devastation and loss, and at one time or another we may discover a family story of a great aunt who perished in some horrible epidemic, or some other relative who died as a result of a flood, fire, transportation mishap, or other accident. Certainly, it may be difficult for us today to comprehend the everyday adversity that befell our ancestors, or the lasting hardships they endured as a result. But as genealogists, we can often find important clues among the rubble. This article will discuss five ways to learn how diseases, disasters, and distress may have impacted your family's history.

Track Family Stories

Often, you'll learn about a tragedy by talking to your relatives. But, you'll need to prove what happened by locating official records and historical documents. Many years ago, my mother told me the story of how my great-uncle, Sam Figler, was found dead after passing out from drinking too much alcohol, and subsequently buried in a pauper's grave. For more than 15 years, the tragic event remained just that--a story--until I was able to find proof of this unfortunate accident by tracking down an obituary, death record, and burial information. Sometimes the most difficult part is separating the fact from the fiction. It often helps to create a timeline for the ancestor to help place his or her life in historical context. Many genealogical software programs have built-in timeline features. Once you create your timeline, cross-reference the personal dates with the dates for major historical events to narrow down the time frame you want to investigate.


Scour the Internet

Work the Web to learn more about natural disasters, fires, explosions, diseases and epidemics, occupational, transportation, or freak accidents, or other unusual mishaps. Try a Google search for data, books, photographic collections, videos, and more about a specific catastrophic event (e.g. the "Great Chicago Fire", or "1918 Flu Pandemic"). Consult sites such as Cyndi's List, USGenWeb, and GenDisasters for locality-based searches.

Read All About It

alzo-disasters-02.jpgIf something bad happened to your ancestor, chances are good that he or she made the local, or national news. You may even discover a few "narrow escapes" as well. Those who were lucky enough to avoided tragedy or disaster may have documented their survival stories in diaries, journals, books, audio or video. Start by looking for articles in the daily or weekly paper published where your ancestor resided. If the newspaper is still in business, contact them about the availability of back issues, or check with the local library, historical or genealogical society for archival or microfilmed copies. A great go-to source for news is The Google News Archive and Timeline (it includes content and archival materials from various, publishers, repositories, and other sources that Google has indexed--some content is free other is pay-per-view). Another free searchable resource is the Chronicling America newspaper directory. If you find titles covering the date and place of the disaster, you might be able to find some of the listed newspapers online. If not, try subscription sites such as Newspaper Archive or GenealogyBank. I ordered a copy of Sam's obituary from the Stark County Library.

Go To The Source

Aunt Sally's convincing account of your great-great-grandfather's heroic demise in World War I, or the coal mining accident that killed cousin Mike is not enough. You'll want to do a thorough search of all available records for the deceased ancestor. Start with death certificates. Use Joe Beine's Online Searchable Death Indexes to find out how to get them. If the civil record is unavailable (every state differs as to year they were required by law to keep vital records), try church burial records and local cemeteries, as well as the listings at FindaGrave and Interment.net. Funeral home records may also be available. If the funeral home responsible for your ancestor's burial preparation is no longer in business, call around to see if another local funeral home, or historical society inherited the records. If your ancestor died young or suspiciously, or experienced an accidental or violent demise, then you'll want to check coroner's records, which may point you to the next of kin, provide testimony from relatives, or list an ancestor's residence or occupation. Sometimes a coroner's statement is attached with the death certificate. This was the case with Sam--there was a special page from the coroner stating that the cause of death was "Exposure and suffocation; probably the cause of intoxication." If not, check with the county clerk's office, where coroner's files may be included among probate records, justice of the peace records, or in the local court system records. Some coroner's records may have been transferred to state libraries or archives, or other repository, or available on microfilm through the Family History Library. Also, don't forget to look at U.S. Census Mortality schedules and military service/pension record, town and local histories.


Ask Others

Disasters frequently affected more than just one person or family. You may find others looking for information on the same event. Scour genealogy blogs, or build one of your own about the event. You can find more than 1,500 blogs listed at Geneabloggers.com. Post queries to message boards, such as: Yahoo!, and GenDisasters. Utilize Facebook and Twitter to network with fellow researchers. If your ancestor died in another state and you can't get there in person to view key records, connecting with someone who is willing to assist can save you time and money. I used Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness to find a researcher who helped me to connect with the caretaker of the cemetery in Uhrichsville, OH and sent me a photograph of the unmarked "pauper's" grave where my great-uncle Sam is buried.


As humans we can't avoid bad news, but as genealogists we can learn from it. By discovering the darker moments in our ancestors' lives, perhaps we can eventually answer some of those "Whatever happened to?" questions that often plague our research progress.

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